Wednesday, August 05, 2015

New Daniels, New Nebuchadnezzars

Below is the continuation of the previous email to "Malcolm," my Lutheran pastor correspondent, and our discussion on Church and Politics.


You say, “Find me some words from Jesus that indicate that the church is supposed to transform government.” Your point being, I take it, that there are none. But then, in your very next sentence, you write, “Christians certainly should serve in government and allow their world view to influence the work they do…” Which is it? If we allow our world view to influence the work we do in government, this will “transform government” eventually. We know this for a fact: the faithfulness of the first, second, and third century Christians led to the transformation of the Roman government in the fourth. Further, it was that same faithful witness, even unto death, that led to the glorious (though of course imperfect) civilizations of Christian Europe and Byzantium. Those civilizations lasted more than a millennium, and gave the world some of the greatest cultural advancements in history: the university, modern science and medicine, the abolition of slavery, the glories of illuminated manuscripts and Gothic cathedrals, the literature of the Beowulf poet, Chaucer, Dante, and many more. Included in the blessings of Christendom are also the English Common Law, which, beginning with Alfred the Great, was inspired by the Mosaic Law (his code begins with the Ten Commandments), and which in turn provided the foundations of American liberty.
All this (and, as they say on TV, much more!) from the Church’s very first attempt at discipling the nations! I can’t wait to see what Christendom II has in store!

To more directly answer your question about “Find me some words of Jesus…” concerning how the church is to transform government, how about “you are the light of the world…you are the salt of the earth”? Oh, except in politics, of course. Right?

But as I said, I realize that you may only be saying, “The Church as the Church is not to transform politics, but individual Christians can.” That’s pretty fair, if so, but I still say (with Luther) that the Church, as the Church, has a role in this work, both in terms of being a prophetic voice to the secular authorities, and in teaching those individual Christians how a Christian ought to govern and make laws. After all, if these Christians, working in their political vocations, are allowed, as you said, to use their worldview to make a difference, that’s no different from saying they are bringing the Scriptures, including the Law, to bear on political systems, like Alfred, the Christian king, did. But if they do that faithfully, over the course of generations, we will see the nations discipled, including their politics. Would that be a problem, in your view?

You make an unnecessary assumption when you say the Church is “not given the sword.” I’m not arguing for an ecclesiocracy, and I accept the Christian distinction between Church and State (which came to America by way of Calvin and the Puritans, by the way). But this in no way implies a separation of God from the State, which I would argue is, not so much wrong (though it is that), as impossible: there is no neutral, secular ground where God has no claims of kingship. And Psalm 2 (and, again, Matthew 28), make it clear that the nations, as nations, have a duty to God, just as much as individuals.

You make a distinction between “baptizing and teaching” on the one hand and involvement in government on the other. But again, Jesus said we are to baptize and teach the nations (ethnicities, if you prefer, though that changes nothing). In time this must surely lead (as indeed history tells us it did) to the conversion of entire nations and their rulers. Surely such converted political leaders among the world’s ethnicities will have questions about how they ought to govern? Are we not to answer them? Historically, the Church, acting as the Church, did answer them, playing the role of wise Daniels to various converted Nebuchadnezzars. The Bible has a lot to say on the subject: should we muzzle the Word in order to keep clear of politics?

As Dorothy L. Sayers once said (appropriately enough, in the introduction to her play on Constantine), “If the Gospel was to be ‘preached unto every creature’, then Christianity must some day cease to be the cult of a minority, and the power of purse and sword must eventually come into Christian hands….” Again, this is Christians acting as individuals: neither I nor Sayers are saying the Church itself wields the sword. But we need to think Biblically (beforehand!) about how to handle being in power when it happens. Now it may be quite some time away, but it is folly to refuse to think about such a possibility, or to prepare for it, especially in light of the fact that it has happened before.

And it seems to me that you are saying just that: that we have no business thinking about, or preparing for, such a thing, for “There is no such thing as Christian politics” you say. Then the whole history of Christian reflection on politics is wrongheaded? The book of Esther is all about politics. Is it not part of God’s Word? I agree with you that our confessional standards are important: I would never want to walk away from the victories our forefathers gained for us in the Reformation. But I have in my library a publication of The Augsburg Confession that runs about thirty pages, and is about a tenth of an inch thick. Even if you take the Book of Concord itself (much of which is really a defense or exposition of Augsburg), the doctrinal matters contained therein cover probably about 1% of what is in the Bible. Unless we wish to follow Marcion in rejecting the Old Testament (and, really, much of the New), we have to admit that there is quite a lot in the Bible about politics, and many other matters that our confessional symbols don’t cover. Are we to reject all of this, or simply ignore it?

So as I said, I believe your theology is somewhat schizophrenic: there is no Christian politics, you say, yet Christians who work in that arena are to allow their world view to influence the work they do. How can they, if there is no such thing as Christian politics? Surely “Christian politics” is that politics that seeks to honor Christ, and obey His Word, pursuing justice (Biblically defined) and righteousness according to God’s Law. Would it really be wrong for Christian politicians, in a society of Christians (I realize we’re not there yet) to pursue such Christian politics?

In conclusion, I agree that we need “very open and kind discussions of these issues,” and I hope our small discussion here is an example of that. But I do want to close by asking you about your statement that “we are being co-opted by political ideology and in danger of exalting that ideology to the status of ‘Christian’.” 

If indeed this is the case, it’s worth asking: what if it is Christian?

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