The sad fact is that most Christians don’t have a biblical or principled view of government worked out in their minds. There are a variety of reasons for that lack. One reason is pragmatism. Most simply want a government and vote for candidates who they perceive will be the best for them, usually in an economic sense. Another reason is the disagreement among theologians as to what the bible teaches about government. And yet another reason is that the bible doesn’t give a theology of government per se, let alone in one all-encompassing text. Further, people tend to think at a surface level. It seems like a good thing to give money to the poor, so government aid or welfare is a good thing, most will say, at least to one degree or another. But is it right to tax people in order to do such? That question and many more are answered in the Scriptures but not in a readily apparent way. Confusion abounds.
A Key Question
Prior to the New Testament, all societies were sacral. The State and religion were tied together in some way. No one was exempt from the State and the State’s religion. The New Testament conceives of society in a very different way. The Church, the people of God, is a people within a people. The Church and the State are not the same thing, and the Church is not co-extensive with society. The gospel is not coercive but persuasive, and thus Christianity can’t be imposed through government. Every human being has a liberty of conscience, and that conscience must not be violated. Christians call all men everywhere to repent and come to Christ, but they don’t force Christ upon anyone. This reality raises a key question then: should the Church and State be connected? The answer is no, and biblical Christianity is the only worldview that teaches, demands, and sustains the separation of Church and State. Hang on to that indispensable truth.
Four major views of government and the Christian’s relation to it have fought for supremacy over the centuries. Though different names have been attached to each of them, we’ll call them Theonomy, Divine Right of Kings, Pacifism, and Liberty of Conscience.
Theonomy rejects the separation of Church and State and asserts that the civil and moral law, given in the Old Covenant, is binding on all people today. Therefore, government today should implement Old Covenant civil law, or Christian law. This position is a merger of Church and State. Such a view is not compatible with the New Testament vision for civil society.
Divine Right of Kings
The Divine Right of Kings view holds that the government is a special sphere of authority along with the family and the church, though it is imperfect, being comprised of sinful men. Therefore, Christians must submit to the government ordinarily unless it demands something immoral. God has ordained the State to look after society for Him, and therefore, God implements His laws through government for the good of the citizens, though not the civil code of the Old Covenant. However, not only does the bible nowhere teach the government as a special sphere of authority, but this view is a hybrid view that seeks to impose certain Christian moral values on non-Christians, and is therefore at odds with the New Testament.
Pacifism asserts that Christians should not have anything to do with the government because it is evil by nature. Pacifists are also anti-war. While they regard the government as evil, they affirm that it is ordained by God to restrain evil, a position that is inconsistent. They hold a strict separationist view and don’t want government involved in their lives. They would also reject a doctrine of self-defense, something the New Testament allows as well as defense of others. One may enlist the help of others in self-defense including that of government. While Pacifism takes seriously the separation of Church and State, it does not fully comport with the New Testament.
Liberty of Conscience
The Liberty of Conscience view embraces the separation of Church and State, affirms that government is essentially evil, but asserts that people can work in government for the cause of liberty. Those who hold this view would limit government in order to preserve liberty. The idea is to preserve the God-given rights of all people. This view also holds that some laws are morally binding while others are not, depending upon the nature of the laws. Christians should generally submit to government to avoid its wrath.
Taking into account the New Testament conception of a composite society, the separation of Church and State, as well as the inconsistencies inherent in three of the four views cited, the Liberty of Conscience View seems to be the most biblically consistent. It does justice to the non-coercive nature of the gospel, preserves the God-given rights of all people, allows for Christians to be salt and light even in government for the preservation of liberty, and encourages Christians to do so because it is indeed the evil nature of human government that needs a restraining influence. It’s not that government restrains evil, but that Christians seek to restrain evil government if and when possible. Such an understanding is what prompted Thomas Jefferson to declare, “I hope . . . a bill of rights will be formed to guard the people against the federal government.” As numerous Christian thinkers have said therefore, the role of government, from a Christian perspective, is to protect individuals in their God-given rights.
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