The following article is a follow-up to “Are Lobbying, Rallying Voters, Organizing Protests, and Harnessing the Evangelical Movement UnChristian?,” a response to Phil Johnson’s “Salt of the Earth” article that was published in the January 2012 issue of Tabletalk magazine.
Our duty as citizens is to see that civil government stays within its jurisdictional boundaries. This is exactly what Paul did when he questioned the authority of a Roman civil official regarding his rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 22:23–30).
“But when [the Roman soldiers] stretched him out with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, ‘Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?’”
If it was right for Paul to “protest” this single violation of his rights as a Roman citizen, why is it wrong to protest constitutional violations given the fact that Constitution itself gives us the right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances”?
Phil Johnson is mismanaging the comprehensiveness of the Bible’s message to speak to all of life by limiting the meaning of holy living to personal holiness. Holy living is not a narrow enterprise. It encompasses all of life. The British poet and literary critic T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) makes the point better than I can:
[T]here is an aspect in which we can see a religion as the whole way of life of a people, from birth to the grave, from morning to night and even in sleep, and that way of life is also its culture. . . . The dominant force in creating a common culture between peoples each of which has its distinct culture, is religion. . . . I am not so much concerned with the communion of Christian believers today; I am talking about the common tradition of Christianity which has made Europe what it is, and about the common cultural elements which this common Christianity has brought with it. . . .
It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe have — until recently — been rooted. It is against a background of Christianity that all our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe that the Christian Faith is true, and yet what he says, and makes, and does, will all spring out of his heritage of Christian culture and depend upon that culture for its meaning. . . . If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes.”1
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There’s no single verse that addresses politics or anything else. The entire Bible speaks to the subject of politics just like it speaks to everything else. Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), Prime Minister of the Netherlands and Professor of Theology at the Free University of Amsterdam, summarized this truth with these words: “[N]o single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: “Mine!’”2
If holiness means “Thou Shalt not steal” for you and me, then it also means the same thing for you and me if we decide to become a civil official – a “minister of God” – as Paul puts it. Politics, actually “civil government,” is not morally neutral territory just like self-government, family government, and church government are not morally neutral. If we follow Johnson’s reasoning, we can’t speak out against a civil minister when he violates his oath to uphold the Constitution. Would we do the same with a husband who violates his marriage oath or a minister of the gospel who violates his ordination vows? Of course we wouldn’t. There are procedures to deal with these violations. The same is true in the civil realm. In includes organizing people to oppose civil oath violators to remove them from office.
Jesus blessed people who were willing to be oppressed and disenfranchised for righteousness’ sake — peacemakers, not protesters; poor in spirit, not proud; people who are persecuted, not the pompous and power-mongers.
So if thugs break into Johnson’s home and burn it down, what should he do? What if they beat and rape his wife and steal all his stuff? If the chief of police and the mayor don’t do anything about it, is Johnson telling Christians that they should not protest but just take the persecution “for righteousness’ sake”? Would he be considered “proud,” “pompous” and a “power monger” to rally his neighbors to vote the mayor out of office in the next election? The civil magistrate has the power of the sword. Without limits on the civil minister’s authority and power, that sword can do a lot of harm to a lot of people.
The civil magistrate is a “minister of God” — a civil deacon (diakonos) — for our good (Rom. 13:4). The Jews in Jesus’ day did not have access to the avenues of governmental change. They could not operate in terms of their law (e.g., John 18:31). They lost their governing authority a long time ago and were under God’s judgment. They lost that authority because they remained silent when their religious and civil rulers rejected the ordinances of God.
I suppose as Christians like Corrie ten Boom (1893–1983) and her family were being dragged off to the concentration camp for helping Jews escape from the Nazis, their fellow-Christians should have told them, “This is what you get for not being willing to be oppressed and disenfranchised for righteousness’ sake. You should have made peace with the Nazis not protest against them. Persecution is the Christian’s lot in life.”
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If Christians had been involved in government decades before, Germany would never have had an Adolf Hitler. In 19th-century Germany, a distinction was made between the realm of public policy managed by the State and the domain of private morality under the province of the gospel. Religion was the sphere of the inner personal life, while things public came under the jurisdiction of the “worldly powers.” Redemption was fully the province of the church while the civil sphere was solely the province of the State. “Religion was a private matter that concerned itself with the personal and moral development of the individual. The external order — nature, scientific knowledge, statecraft — operated on the basis of its own internal logic and discernable laws.”3 Christians were told that the church’s sole concern was the spiritual life of the believer. “The Erlangen church historian Hermann Jorda declared in 1917 that the state, the natural order of God, followed its own autonomous laws while the kingdom of God was concerned with the soul and operated separately on the basis of the morality of the gospel.”4 Sound familiar? Here’s a sample of some German theological thinking that shaped the mind‑set of the nation and brought Hitler to power:
- Christian Ernst Luthard wrote in 1867: “The Gospel has absolutely nothing to do with outward existence but only with eternal life, not with external orders and institutions which could come in conflict with the secular orders but only with the heart and its relationship with God. . . . It is not the vocation of Jesus Christ or of the Gospel to change the orders of secular life and establish them anew. . . . Christianity wants to change man’s heart, not his external situation.”5
- Rudolf Sohm (1841–1917), speaking to a convention on the main Christian social action group, the Inner Mission, asserted: “The Gospel frees us from this world, frees us from all questions of this world, frees us inwardly, also from the questions of public life, also from the social question. Christianity has no answer to these questions.” The issues of public life, he wrote, “should remain untouched by the proclamation of the Gospel, completely untouched.”6)
- Wilhelm Hermann declared in the 1913 edition of his book on ethics that the state was a product of nature and that it could not be love but only self‑assertion, coercion, and law. . . . Once the Christian understood the moral significance of the state, then “he will consider obedience to the government to be the highest vocation within the state. For the authority of the state on the whole, resting as it does upon authority of the government, is more important than the elimination of any shortcomings which it might have.”
America had its own affair with a hands-off approach. Congressman Wilson Lumpkin (1783–1870) argued that Christians should stay out of the controversy regarding removing the Cherokee Indians from Georgia in what has become known as the “Trail of Tears”:
“[Lumpkin] decried those Christians who left their proper realm and sought to involve themselves in politics as ‘canting fanatics.’ He said he had no trouble with ‘pure religion’ (that is, religion that steered clear of politics), ‘but the undefiled religion of the Cross is a separate and distinct thing in its nature from the noisy cant of the pretenders who have cost this Government, since the commencement of the present session of Congress, considerably upwards of $100,000 by their various intermeddlings with the political concerns of the country.’”7
Liberals and conservatives alike would be horrified at Lumpkin’s claim of religious and moral neutrality if it had been used to overlook the horrors of slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and ethnic cleansing. But the argument is still being used.
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I’ve gone on long enough. There’s a book about this subject somewhere. Actually, I already wrote it: Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths: How Misreading the Bible Neutralizes Christians.
- T.S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948). [↩]
- Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty” (1880) in James D. Bratt, ed., Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488. [↩]
- Richard V. Pierard, “Why Did Protestants Welcome Hitler?,” Fides et Historia (North Newton, KS: The Conference on Faith and History), X:2 (Spring 1978), 13. [↩]
- Pierard, “Why Did Protestants Welcome Hitler?,” 14. [↩]
- Quoted in Carl E. Braaten, Principles of Lutheran Theology, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 152. [↩]
- Quoted in Carl E. Braaten, Principles of Lutheran Theology, 152. Robert Benne makes the following good points on the effects of this type of thinking: “There are two serious theological problems here. For one, the affirmation of the Sovereign God as Creator, Sustainer, and Judge of all is forgotten. The God whose will is revealed in the commandments and in his involvement in history is somehow expunged from the political world. Along with this denial of God’s involvement in history is the elevation of the gospel to such a height that it has no relevance to ordinary life. The gospel addresses only the inner man about eternal life, not the whole man who is embedded in God’s history.” (Good and Bad Ways to Think about Religion and Politics [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010], 22. [↩]
- Quoted in John Wilson, “Why Evangelicals Can’t Opt Out of Political Engagement,” Books & Culture (July 15, 2002), www.christianitytoday.com/books/features/bccorner/020715.html. See John G. West, Jr, The Politics of Revelation and Reason: Religion and Civic Life in the New (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1996). [↩]