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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Only The Gospel Can Convert The Emperor

It's been a while since I wrote something.  The last blog I posted lay dormant until a passer-by started a discussion on the validity of my position regarding my politic and my theology.  It was at times a heated discussion, but it shook me from apathy to not only write, but also work through a bit of the ramifications of my theology.  That being said, it verified the importance of two kingdom theology and the emphasis of the spirituality of the church for the believer over the moral climate of the society they find themselves.

One observation that I made was that there is a view that some have of Christian libertarians that we are moral anarchists.  This is the idea that we want anyone to be able to do anything they want.  This is simply not true.  Simply put, we want freedom to make bad choices and good choices for the individual.  Sometimes those choices negatively effect others, and then there must be consequences for action.  This is not anarchy, this is liberty.  Another observation I had is the view that a refusal to pass legislation outlawing a moral trespass is the same as a twisted affirmation of it's goodness and virtue.  That is simply not true.  Just because I won't advocate for a legal prohibition of a moral trespass does not mean I endorse the act, necessarily.  It means that I do not believe that the prohibition would be practical, useful, or beneficial to society at large OR I believe that the cost of enforcement is impractical and that there are better solutions to the problem.  I'll get into some practicals later.  Another observation is that a refusal to impose biblical moral law in the public sphere necessarily means one advocates evil and sinful men to legislate evil.  I do not believe that is fair either.

(Assumption: That biblical law is clearly divided into ceremonial, judicial, and moral law.  Whether you agree with that division or not in scripture is the subject of another dialogue.  For this topic I will be operating on the assumption it is accurate, and that the moral law is summed up by the 10 commandments, or "Decalogue", which was further summed up in both the old and new testaments under "Love the Lord God...Love your neighbor as yourself".)

That being said, let me get to the spirit of where I think both sides can agree.  The moral law of God is good.  Society that follows the moral precepts of the law will, as a whole, be a virtuous and noble society (at least externally).  I also agree that there is a pull in society to throw out morality in the name of freedom and hedonism.  That has always, and will always, be the case.  So what does that mean for the church?  How is the church supposed to engage the culture?  Should Christians spend large amounts of time and effort trying to fight evil using political and governmental means?  These questions, not the questions of what is moral and good for people, are the central issue between "radical" two kingdom thought and other variations of two kingdom thinking and one kingdom thought to the best of my understanding.

Let me start with this.  If you want to apply moral law into society, the only consistent way to do so without some "man-made" or "relativistic" law is to be a theonomist.  As soon as you say that the first table of the Decalogue is to be left out for religious freedom, but the second table is to be implemented for the good of society, you have already begun to undermine the holistic and organic nature of moral law.  You cannot consistently harp on forbidding adultery and murder primarily as violations of moral law without also arguing for the sabbath and idolatry as societal moral violations.  They are either all moral violations or none of them are.  You cannot say "I want this this and that but not those" when it comes to the moral law and be consistent.  The function of the moral law is. in its totality. a reflection of the character and nature of God, not in part but in whole.

Rejecting the theonomic principle of application, one must come up with a system of law in order to implement into society by which to govern society.  Whatever that system is, if it is not totally governed by the scriptures in their revelation of moral law, then it is by definition parsed and implemented by another standard.  Whether that standard is the the toleration of (not endorsement of) diversity and protecting of the rights and freedoms of the individual (ie the libertarian approach) or a return to the "good ol' days" when everyone looked like a Christian, or whatever goal is in mind, the moral law must be parsed into something by which we govern society at large, which includes both Christians and non-Christians.

Let's move into some practicals issues, the ills of a moral society.  I spawned the discussion with my refusal to ban same sex marriage and same sex adoption.  Other issues that can be taken into consideration are teen pregnancy, divorce, abortion, pornography. drug use, gang violence, oppression of women/domestic violence etc etc.  There is a long list of things that many people, both Christian and non-Christian, can be concerned with.  I'll even agree that the bible says something about these social ills as well.  The question is whether we should or should not legislate and prohibit by law all of the social ills that we find in a society populated by sinners (both Christian and non-Christian).

Lets just agree that a Utopian society is complete obedience and enjoyment of the moral law.  There are no violators of the law, and everyone's duty is a delight. Such a place would be perfect freedom, a Utopia indeed.  It is not remotely possible to get there.  You cannot legislate people enough to make them change.  You might conform external actions temporarily, but if scripture be true then men are bent on sin, their hearts are desperately wicked, and they will continue as in the days of Noah.  External shackles will not conform sinners to saints.  In addition to the nature of man, it is not the churches place.  Trying to sit at the right hand of God, to be the strong arm of God is a position for Christ and not the church.  Sure there is a mandate for governments, and they are alone responsible to God for their rule.  However, where is the church given the authority of the state, or the state given the role of the church?  Did Christ commission his church to public policy and government?  Are those in power over us the shepherds of our souls?  When Christ ascended had he left the keys to the kingdom with Pilate?  You cannot change the internal dispositions of men by putting the shackles of the moral law of God upon them.  If it were possible to do so, then Christ died in vain.  Thankfully not many Christians (I hope) believe in such blasphemy, but it must be said.

What do I believe the role of government should be?  Scripture describes the government as an avenger of God's wrath to punish the evildoer.  The Westminster Confession sums it up nicely as well:
God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates, to be, under him, over the people, for his own glory, and the public good: and, to this end, hath armed them with the power of the sword, for the defense and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evildoers. - XXIII.1
Of course this is to some a crystal clear endorsement of the state to enforce the moral law, whichever sections of the law that they choose of course.  This position is as clear as mud to others.  What is "the public good"?  Who are the "evildoers"?  All men being sinners, all men are therefor evildoers, or ones who do evil.  A quick survey of Romans also reminds us that the servant of God at around the time Paul addressed the Roman church was Nero, a man almost universally accepted as an evil man.  Should he have punished himself?

When dealing with public good and virtue, we are necessarily dealing with something external.  I may be your best friend and a perfect gentleman welcomed by your family on the most private of events, but I could also have lustful thoughts about your wife, covet your house, despise you for some perceived wrong done years ago and on and on.  The government cannot regulate thoughts.  That shaves away a good chunk of the moral law right there just due to ability to enforce.  Some of the more clear cut issues, take murder, rape and theft, almost everyone universally will agree with (with the exception of some particular examples of each perhaps).  When you get to things like fornication (or consensual adultery/spouse swapping), homosexuality, divination, paganism or whatever violation you want to use that is a consensual or voluntary violation of the law, what shall we do then?  No one was violated in any sense they did not choose to be.  How would you enforce such a set of laws?  Prison?  Monetary fine?  Death (as theocratic judicial law dictates)?  What is the standard of justice by which the government ought to regulate these cases of evil?  If you just limited it to only sexual deviants, morally you must punish the vast majority of the population.  If you dare add the first table of the Decalogue into the list of laws, you have every citizen in the world to punish for explicitly and openly breaking some law.  That of course is impractical.  So you cannot regulate sexual misconduct by legislation, but perhaps prohibition of some of the peripheral issues like pornography and sexual conduct in movies would be of use.  Are you also going to outlaw use of the internet?  Pornography is free and abundant on the internet, so removing every porn site in America would not solve that situation.  What about teen pregnancy?  Are you going to throw unwed teenagers in jail?  Are you going to force them to get married to the father?  How do you practically enforce certain issues?  These are all nothing but band-aids over a gaping wound (at best).  It is because of this complexity that I am thankful for both Libertarian politics as well as the spirituality of the church.

No one disagrees on the need for government to regulate society, reward good and punish evil, but the question lies in what evils do we regulate, what evils do we try and cure in other ways and what evils shall we tolerate.  You cannot create a moral society by legislation.  You might successfully curb evil for a time, but the more that men are shackled by an imposed, alien morality, the more prone they are to outright rebellion.  The tighter the hold, the more violent the rebellion will probably be.  A virtuous government might have the greatest of intentions, but you cannot maintain virtue and morality by force for the long run.  In short, the more legislation that is put into place, the more short term its benefit will likely be.  However, there is another way to create a virtuous society.

The age of Christendom was born at the conversion of Constantine.  After the conversion of the emperor, Christians went from persecution to privilege.  No doubt, the age of Christendom, for all of it's shortcomings, did make accomplish a lot for the development of western civilization and the spread of the gospel freely throughout the empire.  The question for us is not do we grab and strain to maintain the dead age of Christendom, the privilege of the church among society, or do we let society go to hell in a hand basket?  No, the question for us is do we understand what the purpose of the church is and what are we called to be?  This is one of the simple beauties of two kingdom theology in my understanding.  The church's role is not to rule over the world nor create a Christian society.  The purity of the church is understood by the Westminster Confession as follows:
This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them. - XXV.4
Word, sacrament and worship.  These are the life of the church.  This is the means by which God matures and grows his church.  The church was also commissioned by Christ to evangelism.  Christ went into great length about what the Kingdom of Heaven was like, what the church should be like.  Christ promised that we were no greater than he, we would be hated and persecuted, and that the Christian life would be defined by denying oneself and more.  All of that to say the focus of the church in scripture is not one of political dominance or governmental authority, it is one of service to each other, worship to God and evangelism to the world, and it is received with persecution and suffering.  This was a very real understanding for the early church.  The church spread throughout the empire because of persecution.  Here is why I believe the emphasis of the church on it's spiritual nature and it's spiritual purposes is of the utmost of importance for both the health of the church and also the benefit of society.  Christendom was born through the spirituality of the church.  If the church let go of it's emphasis in holding onto the remnant of the age of Christendom and started to focus once again on the spirituality of the church then it is possible that the influence of the church within society for the moral improvement of that society might return.  The truth and power of the gospel is the only thing that can effect a meaningful change.

So while we may not have the privileged positions in society any longer, I believe when the churches emphasis turns from the polls to the pews, from a horizontal site to a vertical and inward one, and when the focus is less on trying to legislate the ills of society and more on the administration of word, sacrament, and public worship for the maturing and vitality of the church then we might see real progress.  The best way to impact society for the better is not through legislation that is little more than tyranny of the minority over the majority, the best way to impact society is to purge the ranks of the church from immaturity, vanity, hypocrisy, sin and to exalt and extol Christ and the gospel of Christ as the power of God unto salvation.  It is through the moral integrity of the church and evangelism that society's ills will be shaken, not through legislation.

In closing I should say this.  Another great beauty of two kingdom theology is that not being political by nature, there is flexibility behind each individuals approach to government and politics.  We live in a representative society which means that the common man has a voice in the politic of the land.  We can have diversity in how we approach topics and what policies would best meet our needs and goals within the common kingdom.  It is not necessary to become apolitical in order to live out the spirituality of the church, but it is also not necessary to restrain every social ill through the strong arm of the law.  Let us be wise, let us prayerfully consider the public policies we should advocate.  Most importantly, lets us love one another as fellow Christians and encourage each other to love God and love our neighbor.  We can use politics but let us be sure to keep it secondary to our emphasis on the spirituality of the church.  The former might work for a time, the latter effects real and lasting change.  Law and gospel both have their place, but only the gospel can convert the Emperor.


  1. Good stuff; reminds me of Paul's "Therefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith." The more one looks at what it would take to try to bring everybody in line with the Law (or even just the one person called "me"!), the more one sees that our focus must be on Jesus and his expression of God's love and compassion for the world.

  2. Romans 13 doesn't define what government is, it defines what our role in response to government is. It's saying God granted governments rights over man was certainly not an exhaustive list of the government's role.

    Proverbs 31 says a ruler's duty is to "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy."

    The idea of government has changed over time, even within the Scripture. The original Hebrew nation out of exile was an anarchist nation with judges to arbitrate the theonomic and cultural law between each other. But they rebelled against God and asked for a king.

    Yet we've thrown off the shackles of the royalist system for one of democratic governance - government by consent.

    So if we are the government, don't these government rules then apply to all of us, even in our interactions between each other as we develop a consent?

    Augustine's and Luther's two kingdoms ideas don't work so well in the post-enlightenment world where the authority we submit to includes ourselves as we are the government.

  3. Of course Romans 13 is not exhaustive, this was not an exhaustive study on so much as a response to the idea that biblical moral law is to be the standard of the government.

    You are very right that the design of government has changed with a representative form of government. However I think two kingdom thinking still very much applies to the church who might have a different standard of morals than an environment where they may make up the minority view. Basically I'm against the tyranny of the minority, especially in this instance.