Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. –Colossians 4:5
When better to examine one’s fundamental beliefs concerning government than during a Presidential campaign year? With current debates centering on the economy, the housing market, health care, national security, and immigration, we have the perfect opportunity to reflect on each of these issues and to ask ourselves the biblical question: Have we pursued, insofar as it depends upon us, peace with others, justice for the oppressed, and the honor of our King, Jesus Christ?
What is Government?
Our divergent understandings of government are expressed in our expectations of it. There seem to be two prevalent views. First, that government is inevitably and irreversibly the lesser of two evils (i.e., irredeemably corrupt but better than total anarchy); or, second, that government is the primary vehicle for cultural and human redemption (from corruption). Both views are problematic. The first demonizes the political realm; the second idolizes it—and both views distort governmental structure as intended by God.
Humankind is not headed into a post-redemption eternity defined by some kind of non-governmental existence that feels like a democratic-communalism. Neither is redeemed humanity headed toward total anarchy or enlightened individualism. Rather—and this is significant—Jesus Christ is a King, and “of the increase of his government there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:7). He reigns over all creation, powers, nationalities, and principalities (Romans 8:20ff). Power, authority, wisdom, grace, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth mark His Kingdom (Revelation 5). And as such, human governments are intended to reflect these traits.
Westerners—especially Americans—perhaps have the most problem with this idea because we believe that by vote the righteous rule of the majority is upheld. Yet, Christ is not just a King in some analogical sense—as if to say that He is only a king “figuratively.” Rather, Christ is a King—the King—and all will one day bow the knee before Him. All creation is subject to Him (Hebrews 2:8), and redeemed believers will live their lives expanding and maintaining His righteous rule throughout the world, both now and in the new heavens and new earth.
Since Christ’s realm is a kingdom, how ought we to pursue the coming of that Kingdom in our earthly political realms? First of all, it will not be with swords or guns or Crusades. Christ commanded Peter to put away his sword. The physical peace (Shalom) of Christ’s Kingdom grows out of a spiritual transformation brought about by the Spirit of God (John 3). Our weapons are God’s weapons—His armor and His sword, which is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:10–18).
Second, we need to recognize that the law—whether one means the Ten Commandments or the Constitution—does not exist merely to “prevent injustice from reigning,” as Fredric Bastiat best noted. Capturing a common view, Bastiat writes, “It is injustice, instead of justice, that has an existence of its own” (The Law). We cannot agree with him on this point, for we hold that the creational order is a reflection of the Creator. Sin does not have the power to create, only to corrupt.
There was law before there was sin. Before sin, God commanded Adam—that is, He gave law—defining the nature of their relationship: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (Genesis 2:16–17). Christ came not to dismiss the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17) and summarized the whole law as this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37–40). The pronouns used here are all singular—you, the individual.
Will not total and complete love for God and love for neighbor perpetuate into the realm of the new heavens and new earth? Indeed, these will be the defining marks of the new creation—and so long as Christ reigns this law will also reign.
This immediately begins to reshape our understanding of and relationship to political bodies. Love, expressed to God and for others, begins with the individual. No human institution, government included, can ever replace individual responsibility and obligation to God and neighbor. This is particularly challenging for believers in social welfare states. We as individuals are not free to ignore the command to show mercy, justice, and humility (Micah 6:8), though that is often the assumption in such states. Having a welfare system means I don’t personally have to give for the needs of the poor and oppressed. Having a Social Security system means I don’t have to care for the elderly or the widow. And having a family services system means I don’t have to care for the fatherless. This is all counter to the call of the Gospel.
Nothing New Under the Sun
Part of our working assumption is that modern issues are more profoundly complex and indefinable than in generations past. This view wrongly places undue emphasis on the present—which in turn diminishes both the severity of past challenges and the immensity of God’s intervening power and grace in the present. We are afraid—uncertain of the power of God—as we ask, “Can God really save us from this!” A more honest assessment of the current issues reminds us, in the words of King Solomon, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Here are a few:
Taxes. The Herodians asked Jesus about taxes in an attempt to trap him (Matthew 22:17). Still, the issue was relevant—to what extent are the people of God required to honor laws about taxation? Taxation remains at the heart of political debate today.
Care for the Aged. For us, care for the aged has been lumped into the modern constructs of Social Security and Medicare. Nevertheless, caring for the elderly has always been a financial and time burden, one that some have sought to shift to other institutions. Jesus accused the Pharisees of setting aside the commands of God for tradition (Mark 19:10) by their creation of a legal means (Corban) by which a son could become free of his obligation to care for his aging parents. By devoting his wealth to the temple, the son was free to make use of it while alive—and thus free from having to use that wealth to care for his elderly parents.
Inequality. Inequality is most subversive as it hides under the coverings of entitlement—namely, that which one cannot afford but claims to deserve as a right (e.g., an affordable mortgage, educational loans, unemployment benefits, national health insurance, etc.). To demand something for nothing is not new, as with the brother who told Jesus, “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me” (Luke 12:13).
Even the issues of marriage and marital fidelity (Matthew 19:10), national identity (Acts 1:6), and immigration (Leviticus 19:24) are not new. The expressions are different perhaps, but the issues we face are common and universal.
Personal Reformation, Worldwide Transformation
The 2008 Presidential candidates are all talking about how they will bring change to the federal government. If, as Christians, we put the hope of our votes to this end, we will be disappointed. True change is first individual and communal, then national and global. Instead of asking, “How will our next President bring change for the better?” we should be asking, “Where is God calling me to change?” Thispersonal reformation occurs in the context of the means of grace: prayer, the preached Word, and fellowship with the people of God. Only as there is personal reformation can worldwide transformation—that universal Shalom foretold in Jeremiah 31:31-37—come about.
Early in Israel’s national history, godly kings led the people in godliness. But later on, not even the godliness of the king (when there was such a king) was sufficient to bring national revival from widespread individual sin (cf. 2 Kings 14:1-4). The dictates of the Law, their Judges, Kings, and Prophets altogether were insufficient. The people of Israel needed what we need today—a new heart, a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 11:19).
Personal reformation means being changed by the voices of believers outside our context—on financial and material realities, on theological topics, and on every other aspect of life. Personal reformation involves an examination of what we pursue (e.g., fame, power, material comfort, affluence, sex, peaceful retirement), whom we pursue (e.g., our children, spouse, neighbors, friends, enemies), and why we pursue them (e.g., our glory and security, or God’s glory and praise). We become free to let God change us as we recognize the extent of His great love: For those in Christ Jesus, God loves us completely even if we never change. In that assurance there exists the power of change.
As the indwelling Spirit of God transforms us personally, we become participants in worldwide transformation—a transformation that is communal, local, national, and global. To suppose that this transformation can come about initially through a ballot is to elevate government to a level it was never meant to occupy. Our “weapon” in this cause of transformation is no more a ballot than a gun—it is, rather, the full armor of God. Our chief weapon is the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Armed with that, we are called to this perpetual action—stand fast and pray (Ephesians 6:13, 17-19). Prayer is the primary means by which personal reformation begins to have a global effect. Prayer in the Spirit is the means by which we participate in the cultural renewal of this and every nation. Too often our pens, our checkbooks, and our ballots play substitute to our greatest weapons. It is time to live as though Christ is our King, and ask that His kingdom would come.
God commanded His people, en route to a life of captivity, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you … and pray to the Lord on its behalf” (Jeremiah 29:7). That command remains for us today—regardless of whether our next President is Obama or McCain. Where there is evidence of genuine faith, we pray for sanctification and wisdom. Where there is evidence of unbelief, we pray for mercy and conversion.
As we pray, our awareness of the opportunities to pursue mercy and justice in our own communities becomes clearer. We become aware of the neighbors we never see, what their needs may be, and how we can serve them in pursuit of Shalom.
One way in which all believers are called to participate in the pursuit of mercy and justice is through hospitality. Hospitality is at the heart of Micah 6:8—an act that provides a meal, fellowship, friendship, care, and love for another. To what extent are distant family and religious pressures driving a neighbor toward acts of terrorism—a pressure alleviated as we open up our homes to strangers? To what extent are some wives living under the perceived shame of a cluttered house, and what encouragement do they receive by coming in to our own less-than-perfect homes? How many of the “problem children” of our neighborhoods have never eaten a meal with a father and mother—and what might it do to their view of family and marriage to enjoy such a time with us? Hospitality is not less than—nor limited to—a meal in your home. Nor is hospitality tax deductible, but it is the much-needed touch of love and practical provision for the cash-strapped, debt-laden “poor” and “rich” in our own neighborhoods.
The Gospel demonstrated in actions becomes real in proclamation, and as the Spirit moves, lives are changed. This pursuit of local change goes hand in hand with prayer for global change, because our ultimate desire is to see God’s Kingdom come (Matthew 6:10) and spread “as far as the curse is found” (Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World,” stanza 3). Confident in the grace of God to love us as He reforms us personally, and participating in the mission of God as we seek worldwide transformation—only then does our vote on November 4 gain any meaning.
Joel Hathaway is the Director of Alumni and Placement Services at Covenant Theological Seminary. He holds a BA in English Literature from the University of Alabama, and a Master of Divinity from Covenant Seminary. He semi-regularly blogs about Economics, Finance, and Politics at www.newinklings.com.