Tuesday, November 15, 2022
by Dr. Gai Ferdon and Zane Richer
Every article should have at least one idea in it. The one idea in this article is simply that a Christian view of the state is possible. And it is a wondrous development in the history of Western thought that this idea presently wants for proof not among the Marxists, who have always believed it, nor among the Nihilists, who have never doubted it, but among the narrow circle of the baptized, who once believed it unto the shedding of blood and are now quite pleased to give it up.
Liberty Within Limits
Indeed, it is common enough to hear genuine believers say that there can be no authentically Christian view of government because the Bible does not tell us exactly what sort of government to have. And yet the curious thing is that, on the same evidence, we should never assume this for the other institutions of life.
Consider, for instance, the family. The Bible tells us simply that there is such thing as families, that God has made them, and a particular authority is placed at their head. The rest is rather conspicuously left open. There is no telling from reading Scripture who precisely should control the money, or the number of children to have, or how the daily chores are to get done. There is tremendous liberty here in how family life can manifest itself. Every family is a unique creation because every combination of two individuals will create an entirely unique dynamic, have at its disposal unique talents, and wrestle against unique weaknesses. There is almost untold diversity available to the human race when it comes to the free development of family life. No two are the same; yet, we would never say there is no such thing as a Christian view of the family.
Moreover, because it is God’s design and delight to bring this familial diversity into richer and deeper development across the generations, there is a correspondingly vast terrain of liberty in which it may blossom. And yet, this liberty must always remain tied to God’s particular framework for the family. We may choose who to marry; we may not choose to marry three people instead of one. We have freedom to determine how family decisions are made; we have no freedom to decide that the wife or the child is now the head of the household. We may choose how our family worships God; we may not choose for our family to worship Baal.
There is astonishing freedom for fruitful relationships within God’s ordinances. There is no freedom outside His ordinances.
Thus, we say, there is a Christian view of the family, not because every Christian family is the same, but precisely because each is different, yet bound together naturally, united in their diversity, through one divinely created relational framework.
The Divine Authority of Government
It is in this sense also that we speak of a Christian view of government. Not only do we recognize that there may be a genuine variety of possible political arrangements, arising from the unique history, geography, culture, and genius of a people—as a fact, we insist upon it. Any view which denies this essential liberty to the free development of a nation in their civic life is not only un-Christian, it is positively anti-Christian.
We do not claim, for instance, that the precise constitutional configuration of the United States is the only conceivable way to organize public affairs. The American constitutional order and system represents the unique genius of the American people, suited to their particular disposition and character, and tied to their common heritage of chartered liberties and covenantal self-rule. There is no reason to suppose that it should fit with the French, or the Russians, or the Sudanese, who share none of America’s formative history (see the works of Donald Lutz and John Witte Jr.), and in many cases, reject their basic creeds.
Yet even in the midst of this legitimate liberty of structures, there is still a framework designed by God—just as in the family—in which the state must operate if it wishes to meet with the approbation of Christianity. This much we insist on, even in the face of the most disintegrative postmodern relativism. Just as with families, the legitimate liberty of expression for civil organization arises organically from the particular people, history, talents, and virtues being covenantally joined into one nation. But this should never lead us to suspect that governments can be (or can do) anything under the sun.
God Himself has set the parameters in which government is to operate and the great ends it is to serve—mankind has no authority to alter or to modify these arbitrarily. And despite an admittedly very good, if somewhat laborious, campaign on the part of the Enlightenment Rationalists and their modernistic intellectual offspring to convince us that the mysticized “public square” has, in a very bad parody of our Lord’s own kenosis, emptied itself of all allegiance to God, we nonetheless meet this innovation with the historic confession of the Church: that the royal scepter of Christ extends over the whole domain of our human existence, and that the state—just as the family—holds its office and its authority by the Grace of God.
Defining Government Relationally
But what is its authority? For what purpose did God create civil government?
Here we must know something about the biblical view of man himself. It is the unique property of the Christian religion to assert that man, as male and female, is formed in God’s image. We do not presently inquire into the depths of all this could mean but simply draw out of its richness one particular feature: relationality. Because of this Imago Dei, man is intimately able to relate with God and others. We were created to walk in blessed fellowship with God, characterized by total devotion and obeisance, and with one another in mutual, reciprocal love.
Now, God in His sovereignty and creative goodness has fashioned numerous venues of relational activity through which we are to love Him supremely and serve others as ourselves. We may think, for instance, of such relational spheres as the family, the church, the market, the academy, the arts, and the individual’s personal relationship with God. Each of these domains of human life has a unique and highly relational structure, which supports and channels our productive service towards God and others.
While undoubtedly our ability to navigate these moral relationships has been diminished by the Fall, our Lord has nonetheless reaffirmed through the Greatest Commandments that the underlying relational structures of human life have not totally dissipated under the assaults of sin but hold together still—no doubt by His common grace—awaiting redemption through His Atonement. The Fall has not altered God’s relational priorities; we are still to follow the light of truth in all of our relationships and spheres.
The result is that, even in a fallen world, we are constantly walking in profound relationships, whether familial, social, corporate, ecclesiastical, intellectual, or political. The question we face across all these venues is whether we will walk righteously after God’s own pattern for each sphere, or whether we will participate in their degradation and corruption through sin. In such an atmosphere, the rationalist attempt to fragment life into separate, walled-off chambers for “Sacred” and “Secular” withers on the vine. Upon touching the ark of God—which is His sovereignty—the attempt explodes altogether.
To the Christian, there can be no meaningful distinction between these two words. All of life is sacred to God, who has set the world upon the pillars of the earth. There is, therefore, only righteousness and unrighteousness, truth and falsehood, submission and rebellion to God in the whole of life.
It is in this sense that Christians speak of self-government; that we are to “walk in the light, as He is in the light.” And it was to preserve the self-governing integrity of man within these relational spheres from the more ravaging effects of sin that God first created civil government. Its purpose was to restrain lawlessness with force so an environment of ordered liberty—necessary to the practice of virtue—could be maintained, even in a fallen world. Through it, God prevented the total dissipation of humanity into chaos by forcibly and mechanically holding together the pieces of society, which had lost the ability to cohere naturally and organically among themselves.
Yet, as they are organs of immense power, care must be taken to ensure governments do not degenerate, becoming themselves the lawlessness and destruction they were designed to prevent.
Limitation is thus a necessary ingredient for any Christian view of the state. Government, which owes its existence exclusively to God and is dependent on Him for its authority, cannot transgress His patterns for its existence. Man must abide in an environment of ordered liberty—not lawlessness—to walk in obedience and blessed fellowship with God, and each other, and to fulfill his moral obligations and duties. Such relational priorities and obligations are impossible under centralized, totalitarian systems which demand total obeisance and devotion to the state.
Gene Edward Veith warns what happens when governments consider themselves unbound by God’s moral law:
Excluding transcendent values places societies beyond the constraint of moral limits. Society is not subject to the moral law; it makes the moral law … All such issues are only matters of power. Without moral absolutes, power becomes arbitrary … Government becomes nothing more than the sheer exercise of unlimited power, restrained neither by law nor by reason.
To comprehend all of life under the authority of the state serves practically to stifle man in his desire to obey God supremely and to walk rightly in all of his necessary spheres of relationship. While the precise limiting mechanisms may differ, no government may claim to be Christian which is not wholly consonant with this principle of constraint.
A division of authority in some balanced form must necessarily result from this approach, as well as unambiguous opposition to any attempt by the state to collapse the various other spheres into itself, rendering them dependent on its power alone and destroying their natural ability to govern themselves in liberty and righteousness. Unlawful coercion will destroy the nature of a duty. For Christians, tyranny is chiefly problematic not because it tends to produce violence and poverty but because it dams up the relational channels that God Himself has dug in the human heart, through which the love and the service of His people were to flow freely.
“God,” writes Herbert Titus, “has created man to be self-governing, that is, to diffuse authority among men, to maximize the extent of man’s volitional allegiance to Him in the performance of his duties.” A separation of power “preserves the national identity of a people in harmony with the institutions of family, ecclesiastical, and self government.” When this fails, tyranny and persecution are the natural consequence. And despite recent romanticizing on the subject, we were most certainly not made to be persecuted, and we should not desire it—or should we hope for sin that grace may abound? God can use persecution. But it is a terrible suppression of His creational design and a horrific affront to His glory.
Much more could be said. Our idea was that a uniquely Christian view of government emerges not in the organizational forms of one historical empire or another but from the basic relational principles of man and life which God Himself has planted in this world and revealed in Scripture. He is the great End of all Being, and it is to His glory, and the good and present use of His Church, that we offer our observations here.
This article was taken from the sixth volume of Faith and the Academy, a journal published by the Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement. Read more at this link.