Garry Wills has caused quite a stir with his article “Christ Among the Partisans,” published in the New York Times (April 9, 2006). I won’t rehearse the arguments presented by Eric Rauch in yesterday’s article.[1] What I will do is describe, briefly, why it’s necessary that civil government and its governors to acknowledge the sovereign government of God (Isa. 9:6–7). While more Christians are steadily being convinced that the Bible has something to say about some social issues, like family and education where an immediate and personal moral impact is felt, there are others who still have trouble with a biblical view of economics, law, morality, and civil government. Like oil and water, religion and civil government are said not to mix. When the Bible does address civil issues, the argument is made that it only does so in the context of a necessary and unavoidable evil. In this view, civil government is more than dirty, it’s downright diabolic.

The claim is not being made that civil government (the political or legislative process) should be used to change or reform men and women (though the fear of punishment has an effect on people who might consider committing a crime). The purpose of God’s law as it relates to the civil magistrate is to restrain evil actions, to protect human life and property, and to provide justice for all people as it relates to its civil jurisdiction. Only God can regenerate the heart. An individual cannot be made good by keeping the law or being threatened with civil reprisals. The law is a tutor to lead us to Christ (Gal. 3:24) and a standard by which we know if we are conforming to the moral will of God (1 Tim. 1:8–11). People who follow the law make good citizens. Those who despise the law are a terror to others. Thomas Hobbes asks, “For what reason do men armed, and have locks and keys to fasten their doors, if they be not naturally in a state of war?”[2]

When the Bible speaks to civil affairs, civil rulers have a duty to heed its commands. How will rulers determine what is good or evil unless there is a transcendent law to consult? (Rom. 13:4). Where God’s law is not the standard, there can be no objective gauge for civil officials to follow. Law becomes arbitrary, and in the hands of tyrants, it becomes oppressive. In a dictatorship or monarchy, laws are implemented that benefit the one in power. Political favors are discharged to keep competitors at bay. In a democracy, rulers are governed by the demands of the majority with political favors dispensed to special interest groups to insure a large enough voting block to maintain power.

While it’s true that the Bible’s primary concern is not politics, the same could be said about the family and church. And yet, there are few Christians who would maintain that Christians should not be involved in developing biblical models for the family and church even though the redemptive work of Jesus Christ is the focal point of the Bible.

Because there is sin in the world, God has created temporal ways of dealing with it. In family government, God has designated mothers and fathers as rulers (governors) to admonish and discipline their children because children tend to disobey their parents (Eph. 6:1–3). The “rod of correction” is one instrument of discipline (Prov. 13:24). The reason for church government, including its laws and discipline, is the reality of sin even among Christians (e.g., 1 Cor. 5–6). Paul outlines ways for churches, as ecclesiastical governments with real and necessary authority, to handle disputes (1 Cor. 6:1-11).[3]

Civil government has been given authority to maintain order in society, to punish evildoers and to promote the good (Gen. 9:5–6; Rom. 13:1–6; 1 Pet. 2:13–14). Essentially, civil governments have jurisdiction over what people do. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “the legislative powers of government reach actions only.”[4] But what actions deserve punishment? Left to itself, history has shown that civil governments can be notoriously unjust and tyrannical. Genocide has been committed against racial and ethnic groups with the full approval of civil governments. With no moral reference point outside the State, civil governments are not bound by ethical constraints. For example, “In 1933, it was officially declared in Germany that the final authority as to the principles of the State and the law is the National Socialistic German Workers’ Party; that no other political party could be formed; and that the Fuehrer should make its laws.”[5]

The civil realm is not a necessary evil; it’s necessary because of evil (Gen. 4:4–15, 23–24; 9:5–7). The sword is the State’s God-ordained instrument of “wrath.” This is why the “law is not made for a righteous man, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers. . .” (1 Tim. 1:9–10). Since civil government has the power of the sword, it is incumbent upon Christians to get involved in politics to ensure that political officials use it wisely and with restraint.

Secularism has become the official state religion in many nations. Social theorist Herbert Schlossberg observes: “Western society, in turning away from the Christian faith, has turned to other things. This process is commonly called secularization, but that conveys only the negative aspect. The word connotes the turning away from the worship of God while ignoring the fact that something is being turned to in its place.”[6] Some ideology, always religious in nature, will fill the vacuum left by the exodus of the Christian faith.


[1] Eric Rauch, “Garry Wills’ America”
[2] Quoted in Baron De Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, trans. Thomas Nugent, 2 vols. (London: G. Bell and Sons, Ltd., 1914), 1:4
[3] Horace L. Fenton, Jr., When Christians Clash: How to Prevent and Resolve the Pain of Conflict (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987); Lynn R. Buzzard and Thomas S. Brandon, Jr., Church Discipline and the Courts (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1987); Lynn R. Buzzard and Laurence Eck, Tell It to the Church: Reconciling Out of Court (Elgin, IL: David C. Cook, 1982).
[4] Thomas Jefferson, Letter to the Danbury Baptists, 1802. [5] William L. Burdick, The Bench and Bar of Other Lands (Brooklyn: Metropolitan Law Book Co., 1939), 422. [6] Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction: The Conflict of Christian Faith and American Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, [1983] 1993), 6.