At this point Proverbs 14.34 is usually invoked to contradict what I’ve said….
Righteousness exalts a nation,
But sin is a reproach to any people.
But sin is a reproach to any people.
We see this everywhere, on billboards and certainly on Church signs[i] around election time.
Is righteousness something that can be attained through civil legislation and the establishment of a political order?
What is government for? From Genesis 9 and Romans 13 I would argue government is about punitive violence, forced outward conformity. It has nothing to do with righteousness.
Proverbs 14.34 applied to a nation today has nothing to do with voting Republican. It’s about the ‘hearts’ of the citizenry. Look at the categories…righteousness and sin.
How is it that Christians have somehow turned this into something political? The righteousness of a nation’s people comes from the heart not the legislature or the judicial bench.[ii]
Sacralism tends to do that to everything. Everything becomes a political question.
Sometimes the Bible does use terms like Righteous and Blameless in what we might call a horizontal or an outward sense. These terms are used not in relation to man’s standing with God, but in terms of an outward conformity….action, not the heart.
In that sense, a nation full of redeemed hearts seeking Righteousness will be exalted vis-à-vis the world. But isn’t it interesting that exalted is almost always read in terms of power and success?… Sacralism’s latent prosperity gospel.
According to Sacralist wisdom, an obedient/righteous culture means civilizational progress. If you’re culture is in a downgrade, then the Church is failing in its mission. This is highly problematic both in terms of theology and history. There have been numerous occasions when the Church I would argue was quite strong, but the civilization it inhabited was in the midst of dissolution and chaos.[iii]
What if exalted means…praised for kindness and altruism? What if it implies respect, not because it imposes the death penalty, but because it exhibits wisdom and kindness, cares for its weak and needy?
Considering the fact that the Bible speaks of ‘riches’ and ‘treasures’ in spiritual terms, being laid up in heaven, how do we know the Proverb isn’t refer to eschatological exaltation? Perhaps that’s not its scope. I’m not sure, but it seems to me that much is read into such passages, that if pondered for a moment isn’t quite there.
No one ever talks this way. And the Righteousness the Sacralist looks for seems to always be in terms of culture war. But if that whole way of thinking is wrong, then perhaps we should approach Proverbs 14 in a different way. Perhaps I have not properly grasped its profundity, but I guarantee the Sacralists have not either and are reading in their own presuppositions. Even taking the verse in a standalone sense does not imply what they think it implies.[iv]
What about Romans 13? In closing I wish to look briefly at the pertinent passage.
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. 5 Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
I’m not going to launch into a full commentary at this point. But I wish to point out that American Sacralists have a big problem with verses 1 and 2 and could certainly be charged with ignoring the Apostle’s exhortation and rejecting the dictates of Providence. Why is Obama the president? They seem to have forgotten, that whether he’s right or wrong, good or evil….God has placed him there.
Verse 3 is a simple statement, a general principle regarding the political structure of the government. What I mean is Paul is not saying that government is to be structured by Christians to delineate what is ‘good’, legislate it, and enforce it with violence.
No, he wrote this while Nero was the Emperor of Rome. He’s talking in general terms, not specifics.[v]
How is the government a ‘servant’ a ‘minister’ to us for good?
By promoting faith-based programs? No. Read the verse. He’s a minister in the context of one thing….
The threat of violence which keeps fallen man from turning into animals and destroying each other.
That’s about it. How the magistrate does this…how it keeps the peace, whether it be through Feudalism, Dictatorship, Democracy, or a Republic is not the issue. Whether the state exercises economic power though socialism, free market capitalism, collectivism, or central planning has nothing to do with what Paul is talking about.
We have things to say about all these systems, but that’s not the essence of what Romans 13 is all about. In fact as Christians I would argue we would recognize all of them as flawed attempts by sinful man to re-create the peace of the Garden. They’re all doomed to fail. Some are better than others. Some will work in certain contexts and in a different setting fail.
If we’re looking for the state to somehow provide for us a proto-garden or proto-heaven….then we’ve embarked on a very dangerous path.[vi]
We’re told to on one level appreciate government, and to pay our taxes. There’s nothing here about lesser magistrates, taxation without representation, democratic rights, constitutional law, and social contract… again all worthwhile things to discuss but beyond the scope of the passage.
When people try to force and read these ideas into this text (eisegesis) they are committing an exegetical error.
Or when they try to draw out or interpret (exegesis) the text in terms of a social foundation or blueprint they likewise have embraced a fallacy.
The Bible teaches us how we as Christians are to view the state. It does not teach us how to craft a state, nor does it mandate us to attempt this.
Sacralists get mad if you suggest Government is a necessary evil. That can be meant wrongly, in an anti-authoritarian sense. But in another sense, government is essentially the threat of violence.
That’s something I can be thankful for and yet still in some sense refer to as evil.
That said, not every task government engages is specifically evil. It’s not evil to build roads. Road can promote social stability and facilitate stability by aiding commerce and thus increasing the standard of living. Content people are less likely to agitate.
It’s not evil to build roads, but the reason government builds roads hearkens back to these fundamental principles concerning order…and order that is enforced by the threat of violence.
So while I do not wish to be an agent of violence in any capacity, whether or not a Christian can work for the government is a matter of conscience and Christian liberty.
I would not want to be a police officer. To be honest I have a hard time ‘liking’ police officers. I admit we need them and yet I want their powers restricted. I would rather have ‘bad guys’ get away sometimes than to have police wielding too much power and thus too much violence. Remember locking up an innocent person for twenty years is also an act of violence. It’s forced restraint.
Could I build roads? Could I work for the FAA? These seem to be a bit different. What about being a social worker? A District Attorney? A Park Ranger? A soldier?
These questions aren’t easy and the answers are not always clear cut. What disturbs me most is that most Christians I meet who are in these professions….have not thought about the issues.
While it may seem I’ve strayed from the issue of Gay Marriage, I hope you will see that to wrestle with an issue like that….beyond just simply saying…it’s wrong, so there!....we have to work back to some more fundamental questions concerning marriage, the state, our relation to fallen humanity, and the Kingdom of God. Unless we do this, we’re wasting our time.
More to come….
[i] For the record I am completely opposed to Church Billboards/Signs and even more opposed to the often sacrilegious, sometimes blasphemous messages the American Church puts on them.
[ii] We might also ask what is meant by nation? Did Solomon (presumably) mean ‘nation’ in the sense of a Republic bound together by social contract? I doubt it very much. Nation throughout much of history referred to what we might call a tribe or race. Certainly the Jewish Kingdom was cast in these terms. They were the Holy People…a title today applied to the Church…not to any body politic. Today there’s only one Righteous Nation, and it’s not the United States.
[iii] The Persecuted Church was strong during the 3rd century when the Roman Empire was in a state of crisis and near collapse. The Church was flourishing in North Africa when the Muslims arrived in the 7th century. The Underground Church was flourishing during the periods of chaos in the Middle Ages. And depending on what you think of the ancient Church of the East, it expanded and grew in an Asiatic context though it never brought about any measurable cultural or civilizational success.
Of course it depends on how you would wish to define ‘strong’ and ‘healthy’. Sacralists would differ with someone like me in defining those terms. I do not equate a strong church with numerical strength, though I must say even in the examples given above, the numbers were significant.
By even the lowest estimates, there were tens of thousands of underground Christians during the Middle Ages, ironically probably more Bible believing Christians then…operating to some extent outside of Rome…then there are in Europe today.
[iv] In terms of hermeneutical precedent, the New Testament interprets the Old. If we want to rightly understand the prophets or wisdom literature we have to read them in light of the New Testament. In this case the Analogy of Scripture is apropos. Where it is not is when it comes to doctrinal and didactic passages within the New Testament itself, especially the Epistles which in terms of teaching (doctrine) are the capstones of the Bible.
At that point I am unwilling to cancel out a verse in Hebrews because it seems to contradict a verse in Ephesians. Neither has precedent so rather than synthesize and (often eliminate) I will submit and accept both to be true.
At some point I hope to elaborate on what I believe to be key hermeneutical guidelines defined not by external system commitments, but by the text itself.
[v] I don’t agree with Riddlebarger who suggests that the New Testament has a fairly positive view of the state in Romans 13 and that this is transformed into a negative view by the time John wrote the Revelation about 30 or 40 years later. This basically implies that to some extent Romans 13 is cancelled out by the later imagery. I don’t wish to put words into his mouth, but I think he’s suggesting that the state today can go either way. If that’s what he’s saying I don’t think we can divide our view of the state into Romans 13 versus Beast categories.
I think in terms of a general principle, Romans 13 applies even under a Bestial power. It’s not going to prove the case in every instance, that the state will reward the good, meaning be kind to Christians. I think that’s beyond the scope of what Paul is saying. He’s just trying to say that in general if we’re not engaged in destructive behaviour the state is most likely going to leave us alone.
I would argue the American Sacralist Church is involved in destructive and agitating behaviour. I think the use of ‘busybody’ or troublesome ‘meddler’ applies to them as used in 1 Peter 4.15. They pry into realms that don’t belong to them and seek to govern, direct, control others….and they’re hated for it. It’s interesting that this equated with evildoing, theft, and murder.
And those who would try to use Romans 13 as a blueprint for limited government (in the modern post-Enlightenment sense) are completely misunderstanding not only this passage but the New Testament.
[vi] This is exactly what most Christians have done, however they’re not honest with themselves and if presented to them in this manner, they will quickly deny possessing any such hopes, aspirations, or feelings.
Nevertheless, the desperation they express and in other cases the adulation the exhibit, not to mention the Messianic language often applied to the agenda and the state demonstrate otherwise.