Thursday, 8 May 2014

Engaging a secular state

After the legalization of same-sex “marriage” it is easy to feel it a waste of effort to continue seeking to influence government for good. Moreover, the recent debates about whether we are a “Christian” country have revealed just how far much establishment Christianity is from the Christianity of Christ. There is therefore a real danger that just as evangelicals withdrew from theological engagement when faced with the advance of liberalism in the early part of the twentieth century, so they might now withdraw from political engagement in the face of advancing secularism.

Two kingdoms under Christ
Ephesians 1v22-23 tells us that at his ascension Christ was made “head” over “everything” yet “for the church.” Reformed theology has therefore taught that this one headship or rule, is expressed in two forms of government: the kingdoms of the earth which he rules providentially, and which are governed by law and “the sword” through the ministers of the state (Rom 13v1-5), and the kingdom of heaven which he rules not just providentially, but spiritually, and which is therefore governed by word and Spirit through the ministers of the church (Matt 16v16-19). The focus of the former is on this world and the things that are transient, whereas the latter is focused on the next, and the things that endure (2 Cor 4v16-18, 1 Cor 15v50).

The Christian, however, is a citizen of both, with responsibility to engage with the former in submission to the Lordship of Christ who is over all, just as he does with respect to his work or any other earthly matter. This is profoundly important, for in doing so he is doing “good deeds” that preserve society like salt and shine like light to attract those God is at work in to the Christ the Christian serves (Matt 5v13-16, Is 60). Although those opposed to Christ may express hostility when Christians speak of his will in the public square, we should not therefore assume doing so hinders evangelism. Rather, we should trust God to sovereignly use what is heard to convict and draw people to consider the gospel (Jn 3v20-21). Where he doesn’t, the truth spoken will only vindicate his justice on the last day.

Having said this, because the Christian hope is focused on the kingdom of heaven, the Christian is aware that the degree to which he might influence government for good is limited. Indeed, many of its ministers will be unbelieving and so handed over to sin, foolish in their thinking, and following “the ruler of the kingdom of the air” (Rom 1v18-32, Eph 2v2). It should therefore be no surprise when they call good evil and evil good, or oppose God’s people (Is 5v20).

Moreover, because the kingdom of heaven is “not of this world” and its transient things (Jn 18v36), any positive influence should not be regarded as building that kingdom. Under Christian influence a nation may certainly conform more to the will of Christ in its legislation, institutions and population. It may even be called to live up to that heritage if falling from it. However to call it a “Christian nation” seems both arbitrary (as the influence of the church will always fluctuate, and confusing (suggesting that belonging to the nation is to belong to the kingdom of heaven). It is only when Christ returns that the “kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ,” not only being brought under his spiritual rule but comprising the things that endure (Rev 11v15-18). In terms of the kingdom of heaven, Christ therefore reigns now, but his realm is yet to come (Matt 7v21-23).

True religion and virtue
Nevertheless, none of this excuses government, even if secular, from its responsibilities to Christ. Because it is under Christ and so God, even the oppressive Roman government was God’s servant or “minister,” and so to shape its activity according to the Bible’s definitions of “good” and “evil” (1 Pet 2v13-17, Rom 13v3-4). Because government flows from the creation mandate to serve God by subduing the creation in a way that images him, that activity is intended to reflect the order of creation and character God, and in acknowledgement of him. Here legislation built on natural law has its place. However, the impact of sin on human thinking means that greater conformity to God’s will can only be found through consideration of how these things are taught and applied to differing contexts throughout scripture, and supremely in Christ.

Although Christians have to accept the moral relativism our government affirms, they cannot therefore regard it as an acceptable policy. Indeed, it the very antithesis of what God intends for government (Jud 21v25). No one has a right to sin, and it is a failure in government to promote it. Rather, legislation should reflect the principles outlined above, for good governance is to make laws that reflect God’s wisdom (Prov 8v15).

It is here that the church has responsibility. The Bible records examples of leaders from amongst God’s people rebuking rulers who are not (Ps 2v10-12, Is 34, Jonah 3v3-10, Dan 2v4, Jam 5v1-6), and individuals petitioning them too (Est 7v1-8v8, Acts 25v10-12). Moreover, as God has providentially established a form of government in the UK in which the electorate and lobby groups play a part, Romans 13v1 implies he has to some degree appointed us to government! This suggests not only that specific Christians should aspire to politics, but that all should be actively engaged in petitioning their MPs. With the support and oversight of the church, Christian leaders and organisations should also give time to instructing and influencing government policy on the basis of a wholly Christian worldview. According to the opportunity God providentially gives in terms of the makeup, willingness and administration of the nation at any given time, our responsibility is to help the form, organisation and activity of its government better conform to the wisdom of Christ as carefully gleaned from scripture.

The two kingdoms are not therefore to be entirely separate. The church is to serve the state. And the state is also to serve the church. As Christ rules the kingdoms of the earth “for the church,” secular government still has a particular responsibility to protect and promote the church and its activity, but without impinging on the particular authority Christ has given the church and its leaders. This is not only because this benefits society, but because within scripture, the “good” which government is to promote, includes honouring the true God. Calvin therefore affirmed the responsibility of government for “both tables of the law,” and the prayer book for maintaining “true religion” as well as “virtue.”

How this is even done in a secular society obviously needs particularly careful thought. However, throughout scripture rulers from outside Israel are portrayed positively for acting to protect, promote, fund and privilege Israel’s religion, even providing faithful leaders when they were lacking (Ps 2v10-12, Is 49v22-23, Ezr 6v1-12, 7v11-28, Neh 2v1-9, Est 8v7-9v17, Dan 6v25-28). This reflects God’s commendation of those who “bless” his people (Gen 12v2-3). And it actually benefits those of other religions by increasing their opportunity to hear of Christ.

It is for this reason that it is also entirely appropriate to appeal to the state to protect the freedom of Christians to publicly practice or proclaim their faith as both Esther and Paul did (Est 7v3-4, Acts 25v1-12). Indeed, we shouldn’t underestimate how these cases can set a precedent for the future, when the church may face even greater hostility. Strikingly, Paul’s teaching on government seems to actually have the protection of persecuted Christians in mind (Rom 12v17-21 as context to 13v1-5). There is a sense in which this is at the very heart of the state’s responsibility, being the key prayer Paul urges us to pray for our rulers (1 Tim 2v1-2).

Living in Babylon
It has been said that the church should not engage in these things because the Christian is not to “judge those outside the church” (1 Cor 5v12). However in context Paul’s point is about Christians not withdrawing from unbelievers as a way of condemning them for their sin like they would a believer under church discipline. It is hard to see how this has any more bearing on speaking Christian truth in influencing society than it does when it is spoken in evangelism.

The sentiment of Christians not withdrawing from those in the world is however a right one. Here we should consider the paradigm of Israel within Babylon that scripture uses for the church in the world (1 Pet 1v1, Rev 18). In Babylon, God rebuked the desire to resent the government and wait for redemption (Jer 27v8-11). Instead he called his people to engage in the structures of society and “seek the prosperity of the city” because that would ultimately benefit them (Jer 29v4-9). Whether by promoting good laws or preventing bad ones, Christian engagement in the political process is therefore not only an act of love to our neighbour, but to our children and their children too. We feel this acutely when we consider the moral climate our grandchildren might have to grow up in.

How to engage
This needs constant discussion within the church. But scripture gives some principles to help:

1)   Be prayerful: This is Paul’s call to the church (1 Tim 2v1-2). It is exemplified by Nehemiah and Esther when engaging the governments of their day. Because they prayed, opportunity to petition their rulers arose, and success followed (Neh 1, Est 4-8).

2)   Be watchful: We do not have the resource to engage on everything and must carefully balance our responsibilities in this area with our other responsibilities before God as individuals and churches. However just as Christ rules over government providentially, so we can act where we see him leading. So Nehemiah had a concern on his heart, prayed, and when God gave opportunity with the king, he asked him to act. Esther was helped to see God’s hand in her position, and she therefore created an opportunity to petition the king. Likewise, we might consider what particular issues God is raising or giving us opportunity to influence.

3)   Be shrewd: This is seen particularly in Esther. She doesn’t demand, but shrewdly holds back until the time is right to speak. Jesus himself gives a precedent for this, sometimes remaining silent because speaking would only increase hostility in a way that would hinder his wider purpose. In all that has been said, Christian individuals, leaders and organisations need to discern not just what should be said to government, but when and how. It is noteworthy here that when Esther appeals to Xerxes and Paul to Caesar before Festus (Acts 25), they don’t point out that these rulers are accountable to God. They just seek their help, judging this most conducive to success.

4)   Be submissive: This is critical (Rom 13v1, 1 Pet 2v13) and exemplified by the deeply respectful manner in which Nehemiah, Esther, Daniel and Paul address the rulers they engage with. There is no place for triumphalism or gracelessness in letters or lobbying. Government ministers exercise a hard, noble, and God-given task.

5)   Be wise: Not only is much thought needed about how the activities of our government can be shaped by God’s word, but also about the particular dilemmas Christians might face. Already some are being required to act in a way they feel explicitly disobeys Christ or promotes or approves of sin. At such times the Christian, church or organisation will need to seek the counsel of church leaders and even theologians, ethicists and lawyers, to ensure they understand the subtleties of situation properly. Indeed, there would be wisdom in forming work groups to pre-empt these situations.

6)   Be courageous: If, however, the individual is being asked to act against Christ’s will, they will need to obey God not man (4v18-20), respectfully refusing to do what is asked of them and quietly submitting to whatever penalty must come. It is this that often gained favour and interest from others in scripture, and that has historically brought about positive change. We should pray it would do today too.