One of the “constants” in American society has been the role of religion in the sphere of social activism. From abolition to prohibition to civil rights and now abortion, much of the impetus to change societal views, attitudes, and standards has come from the voices of many of the religious persons of the day.
As we enter the twenty-first century, however, we are in the midst of a vast and rapid secularization of society, the origins of which were sown in the founding of our country. When this reality is paired with the “Christian nation” revisionism inherent in the Evangelical “Religious Right,” we see the presence of a “culture war,” where “god fearing Americans” are pitted against “godless secularists”. The rhetoric in these conflicts is extremely heated, passion for the issues involved consume many of those involved, and not a few “life and death” struggles regarding serious issues are being waged. How should we, as Christians seeking to follow the New Testament, approach such matters?
It is in this arena where the contrast between the “Christian America” theology of Evangelicalism and Biblical views of church and state could not be clearer. While the presence and even preeminence of Christianity and its values in America is assumed in such Evangelical theology, the Bible itself never assumes it. Furthermore, it is assumed that it should be the ideal that the government reflect Christian values.
Such concepts, in reality, represent a misplaced idealism. As it is written:
Ye adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore would be a friend of the world maketh himself an enemy of God (James 4:4).
Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the vain glory of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever (1 John 2:15-17).
The reality, for many, is likely to be uncomfortable, yet undeniable: the United States of America is a worldly country. It is of the world. It will pass away with the world (if it does not do so beforehand). While we can certainly have fealty toward the country in some ways, to embrace it without any consideration of the difficulties present would be amiss.
For our citizenship is in heaven; whence also we wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:20).
The “secularization” of America represents less of a “loss of godliness” and more of a removal of the false mask and the ugly reality which has always existed. America has never been God’s chosen nation, nor ever will be.
An unfortunate consequence of the primary Evangelical view is the expectation that Christians should work to make this country more godly through the political/legislative process, or through protest, complaint, and declaration of offense. Indeed, it would seem that the only people more “offended” in the world than “Christians” are Muslims! Any time some kind of immorality is advanced, or some anti-Christian sentiment expressed, Christians get “offended” and go and complain. Does this really sound like what we see in the New Testament?
Concerning the relationship between a Christian and his government, we are told the following:
Tell us therefore, “What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?”
But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why make ye trial of me, ye hypocrites? Show me the tribute money.”
And they brought unto him a denarius.
And he saith unto them, “Whose is this image and superscription?” They say unto him, “Caesar’s.”
Then saith he unto them, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:17-21).
Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers: for there is no power but of God; and the powers that be are ordained of God. Therefore he that resisteth the power, withstandeth the ordinance of God: and they that withstand shall receive to themselves judgment. For rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. And wouldest thou have no fear of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise from the same: for he is a minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is a minister of God, an avenger for wrath to him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be in subjection, not only because of the wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For this cause ye pay tribute also; for they are ministers of God’s service, attending continually upon this very thing. Render to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor (Romans 13:1-7).
I exhort therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings, be made for all men; for kings and all that are in high place; that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and gravity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; who would have all men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
Be subject to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as sent by him for vengeance on evil-doers and for praise to them that do well. For so is the will of God, that by well-doing ye should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: as free, and not using your freedom for a cloak of wickedness, but as bondservants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king (1 Peter 2:13-17).
In the whole of the New Testament, these represent God’s message to the Christian in regards to the government: obey them when they do not transgress God’s commands. Pay them the taxes due and the honor due them. Pray for them, that we may have tranquil and quiet lives.
Concerning salvation, it is written,
For I am not ashamed of the gospel: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is revealed a righteousness of God from faith unto faith: as it is written, But the righteous shall live by faith (Romans 1:16-17).
Concerning God and the world, it is written,
For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And the discernment of the discerning will I bring to nought.”
Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom knew not God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save them that believe. Seeing that Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto Jews a stumblingblock, and unto Gentiles foolishness; but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:19-25).
From these Scriptures, the message is plain: America is not going to become godly because Christians spent their days striving to legislate Christian values. If America is to become godly, it is because the Gospel is preached in America and souls are obedient to Christ Jesus. America will become “God’s country” when its constituents humble themselves before the Almighty and serve Him first; even then, the United States of America would not be “God’s country” as much as Americans have become God’s people (1 Peter 2:9)!
The moral authority of the Christian has little to do with himself and everything to do with the Gospel he is charged to promote (Matthew 28:18-20). As it is written,
But when the kindness of God our Saviour, and his love toward man, appeared, not by works done in righteousness, which we did ourselves, but according to his mercy he saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly, through Jesus Christ our Saviour; that, being justified by his grace, we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:4-7).
Sadly, the way that many in “Christendom” react to anything that is offensive to their faith is not to suffer the wrong but to complain and act as if the government should do something about it. The New Testament makes it crystal clear that no Christian is owed anything by secular governments. Yes, Christians in many ways are blessed to live in America, since there are many freedoms present not granted in other lands and the ability is theoretically present to participate in the government of the land.
But how are all of these freedoms being used today? They are far too often being used toward negative directions: protest, condemnation, chastisement, and so forth. That is not what we see in the New Testament!
Although Paul lived in the Roman Empire, ruled by a dictator clothed as an emperor, he had many freedoms as a Roman citizen. One such freedom was the right to appeal to Caesar and a trial in Rome (cf. Acts 25:11). Paul was given the opportunity to speak to many of the rulers of the land: Felix, Festus, Agrippa, and Nero. When he spoke to them, did he bring up the “rights” of Christians, how badly the Jews were persecuting them, and how idolatry should be made illegal in the Roman Empire? No. He preached the Gospel (Acts 24:1-26:32). He utilized the freedoms and opportunities granted to him under Rome to further the progress of the Gospel.
Sadly, however, I fear that this is not the case in America. As opposed to taking the opportunity to teach the world about the seriousness of sexual sin of any stripe, God’s plan for marriage, and salvation from sin in Christ Jesus, many seek legislation to condemn certain sins, particularly surrounding homosexuality and now transgenderism, so that the coercive power of the nation-state is to be used to chastise sinners. Such things are indeed sinful, and God will judge; yet why should we necessarily expect the government of a theoretically free society to care? The opportunity is presented to teach the truth; instead Christians are manipulated for political ends and endlessly mocked and derided as intolerant bigots. The Gentiles are given reason to blaspheme (Romans 2:24). The foolish are able to keep spouting off their ignorance (1 Peter 2:15).
But perhaps the most lamentable tragedy has been in the case of the contest regarding abortion. Since 1973, a life-or-death contest has ensued in this country over whether abortion should be legal or illegal. Untold millions (likely billions) of dollars have been spent to organize protests, contacting of elected officials, material distribution, campaign contributions, etc., attempting to keep it legal or to make it illegal. Many have resorted to picketing abortion clinics and verbally condemning those who use its services.
Is abortion wrong and a moral evil? Absolutely. On the other hand, a majority of the citizens of the USA believe that a woman should have the option available to her. So much time and so many resources are being expended, therefore, in what looks to be an interminable battle.
Meanwhile, how many pregnancy crisis centers are forced to reduce its services and programs by half because of lack of funding? If only a fraction of the dollars spent to ensure that pictures of aborted fetuses are placed in front of abortion clinics had been redirected, perhaps many other abortions would not have taken place.
Many feel as if any form of “compromise” is a moral evil, and we should not be satisfied with anything less than complete and absolute bans on abortion, enforced by the coercive power of the state.
What did Jesus say?
“But go ye and learn what this meaneth, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).
And Jesus lifted up himself, and said unto her, “Woman, where are they? did no man condemn thee?”
And she said, “No man, Lord.”
And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn thee: go thy way; from henceforth sin no more” (John 8:10-11).
The very people in the middle of the abortion issue, women in situations contemplating abortion, are being lost in the midst of the fight. How sad! After all, the power to end abortion is not in government. Women sought abortions before Roe vs. Wade; even if the case were overthrown and a blanket ban were enacted, abortions would still happen, and babies would still die. Homosexuals engaged in committed relationships even when there was general agreement that marriage should be defined as involving a man and a woman.
The following is said about spiritual things, but is no less true about laws governing political entities:
But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully, as knowing this, that law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and unruly, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for abusers of themselves with men, for menstealers, for liars, for false swearers, and if there be any other thing contrary to the sound doctrine; according to the gospel of the glory of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust (1 Timothy 1:8-11).
Depraved people who do not honor the Creator cannot be expected to follow earthly authorities, either (Romans 1:18-32). Sinners sin! Where is our energy best directed?
Let none be deceived: we must stand firm and speak out against the moral evils of our society. In so doing, however, we ought not speak as sanctimonious hypocrites, as many allege and too many have actually been; we must point to the Gospel of Christ. To seek the government’s aid is to put trust in men; the government is not God’s intended vehicle for moral reformation, for such is entrusted to the Gospel of His Son (Romans 1:16). The Gospel will save, not the laws of America. There is not one person who will obtain the resurrection solely because he or she observed the laws of the United States of America. The only way that we are going to make it is by being obedient servants of God, promoting His Gospel.
Part of the promotion of that Gospel is the recognition of our own sinful past and the humble recognition that we are no better than those “nasty sinners” who do the things we condemn. As Jesus indicated to the adulterous woman, she should go and sin no more; but we have no right to condemn her. We are, however, charged to show mercy (Luke 6:30-31). In terms of abortion, how many women go through with the practice because they have been coerced? Not a few are forced into it, either by her family, the father and/or his family, or other factors. If but a portion of the funds being used to fight the contest in regards to the law were redirected to crisis centers and other venues, abortion rates would decline even further. If we worked to show mercy to women in difficult circumstances, we may not just save her from committing terrible sin but might even save her soul. What is our true purpose?
Would it be wrong for the state to use its coercive power to protect the unborn? Absolutely not. Is political action entirely worthless? Not at all. Nevertheless, as we can ascertain from Scripture, the moral authority of the Christian rests in the promotion of the Gospel in word and deed. Time is short; our resources are limited; we must make sure that we do all that we can to promote God’s message while we still have the time and so does our fellow man. We must make sure that our priorities are properly centered on Jesus Christ, His Kingdom, and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33, Philippians 3:20, Colossians 1:13), and that our energies are expended in His service first and foremost. We must recognize that the government is fallible, of the earth, going to pass away, and invariably will not be pleasing to God because it represents, on the whole, people who are not pleasing to Him.
If we are doing what is right, society will see us as people who do their best to love their fellow man, showing mercy to them as we have received mercy. Even though society may be against us, we have the moral imperative to conduct ourselves so as to give them no opportunity to blaspheme; instead we must speak and act so as to silence their ignorance, as it is written:
But even if ye should suffer for righteousness’ sake, blessed are ye: and fear not their fear, neither be troubled; but sanctify in your hearts Christ as Lord: being ready always to give answer to every man that asketh you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, yet with meekness and fear: having a good conscience; that, wherein ye are spoken against, they may be put to shame who revile your good manner of life in Christ. For it is better, if the will of God should so will, that ye suffer for well-doing than for evil-doing (1 Peter 3:14-17).
Let us live according to this standard: when we speak and act, people see Jesus speaking and acting in us, and that we are humble and faithful servants, representatives, and ambassadors of Him and His Kingdom.
Ethan R. Longhenry