March 31, 2015

The relationship between the State and Christianity is a three-pronged issue

By In Articles, Philosophy

I am currently reading Wayne Grudem’s massive Politics book in preparation for a review.  Something dawned on me as I was reading it, something that has come to my attention several times before.  One deficiency I have observed among Christian comments on political theory, especially from the Reformed perspective (because the Reformed tradition is 85% of the Christian material I read), is that there are basically two categories of questions that are addressed in seeking answers regarding the relationship between Christianity and the State.  The nature of Grudem’s work allows him to go beyond the two categories, but, as I will expand on in my review, he blurs the categories in an unhelpful matter and doesn’t recognize the significance of a clear cut “three pronged” approach to Christian analysis of the State.

What I am saying is that there are three categories that need to be addressed by the Christian political theorist, but many Christian thinkers only address two.  Not only does this render the analysis greatly incomplete, but it also contributes to the lack of understanding regarding the proper position on a variety of so-called “policy” issues.

The first category that needs to be addressed is whether God has ordained the State in history.  That is to say, the question is, is the existence of the State contrary to God’s ordaining will?  The answer is that God has surely ordained the State to exist in history.  Nebuchadnezzar was referred to as God’s servant (Jer 43:10, 27:6) and since God ordains the existence of every atom and the life and death of every person, so he also ordains the States that exist around the world –yes, even Nero, Hitler, Bush, and Obama.  God is the grand controller of the universe and nothing is unless he has determined it to be.

The second category that needs to be addressed is whether God commands the Christian to subject himself to the StateAgain, the answer is very clearly yes (Romans 13, 1 Peter 2).  The reason that the Bible gives this command to Christians, I am convinced, is because the early Christians were to live at peace with everybody and not stir up trouble so as to attract unwarranted attention from an imperial state that was systematically opposed to the small Christian church during the first century.  Of course, this command is still applicable today, as we must be reminded that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world and it is in vain that we seek to overthrow and take over earthly thrones.  A general admonition to be subject to the State does not mean that we ought to obey the State when it commands us to do what God prohibits (subsidize abortions), nor should we obey the State when it prohibits us from doing that which God has commanded (preaching the Gospel).

Now, here is where the common deficiency exists among Christian thinkers. They stop here and then confuse the second category with the third and final one.  They assume that because we ought to be generally subject to the State, this means that there is no moral (or economic) problem with the State’s activities whenever it doesn’t prohibit that which God commands or command that which God prohibits.  In this way, things like Social Security (a retirement scheme which exists by government coercion), because saving for retirement in itself is not contradictory to God’s precepts, are far too often completely ignored by the Christian political thinker.  But what they don’t realize is that there is a third category that we must consider; namely whether the individuals who run the State have the moral authority to act contrary to God’s transcendent and binding moral law.

It is in this category, that we find the intellectual ammunition to oppose the whole of the modern state, kit and caboodle.  For just because one is a member of the government does not give him moral permission to take money out of the citizen’s paycheck and call it the income tax, take men from their families and call it conscription, enact a special round of taxes and say it is for “Medicare,” force businesses to comply with absurd regulations for “health and safety reasons,” take control over the education system, monopolize the money and banking sector by banning market competition, engage in fraud and currency devaluation by allowing fractional reserve banking, ban the use of alcohol and certain drugs (while subsidizing others), determine by law where certain prices should be (such as wages, gasoline, interest rates, and housing rents), and a whole plethora of other things.  In short, the individuals in the government itself are bound to obey the Ten Commandments as is every other individual in the nation. No person may steal and none may murder.  No person shall order by threat of violence the actions of peaceful men.  No person may initiate aggression against thy neighbor and governments too will be held to account for the deeds that they do.

Beyond the second category, which addresses whether Christians should obey the State that reigns over them, there exists the oft-ignored third category, which is political theory proper (as distinct from practical political theory —see here).  It is here that we must ask ourselves: is a given action of this agency consistent or inconsistent with the ethical stipulations of God?  Yes, we will subject ourselves to its deeds and turn the other cheek when it wrongs us. For in this we portray to the world that Christ, not the world, is our treasure.  But if we ignore this third category altogether, we are failing to apply the law of God to every institution that arises.  As Murray Rothbard once stated, our chief motivation for being libertarians is because we care about justice (see my comments on Rothbard’s statement here). But where the Christian has an advantage over Rothbard is we have a divine lawgiver who provides for us in clear terms the moral standard by which to compare the State.

1.  Know where the State acts wrongly.

2. Subject yourself to it, for Christ will have his vengeance in due time.

3. All things exist for the praise of this glorious name.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to
  • Brian K. Jacobson

    Very true, most take premise 1 and premise 2 and think the whole is greater than the sum of its parts–ergo the legitimization of the state, taxation, monopoly of government services. I don’t think I have ever (outside of Christian Libertarian circles) seen serious intellectual attempts at political philosophy proper, which is odd to me because I feel like almost all Christians agree on the first two statements. The times I have seen it addressed have been more like blog fly-by’s that only produce shallow contradictory principles that cant be applied across the board. It is amazing once you apply the law of God to a group (by any name or state) as you would to an individual how you can have a principled stance on every issue that is consistent.

  • Benjamin Nelson

    Not bad, but I think you specifically have to deal with Romans 13:4 in your 3rd prong, because that verse has substantial impact on both the 2nd and the 3rd prong. The 2nd by providing another reason why the Christian is supposed to submit to the state, and the 3rd by clearly expanding the righteous moral authority of the state just a little beyond that of the individual.

    That the state has stepped vastly beyond the expanded boundaries of Romans 13:4 is plainly obvious, but to confine the state to precisely the same boundaries as I have independently is a misinterpretation of Scripture.

    • C.Jay Engel

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, I have interacted with Romans 13 in detail in the past, but wanted this piece to be short, so I left out other related matters. In our upcoming book, we will interact with the whole Romans chapter in light of the third category described above.

      I realize that you and I differ on whether the individuals who work for the State are bound by the same boundaries as the individual, but this is precisely my complaint. That there can’t be a dual standard.

  • Kerry M Adams

    I think a much better book is one that is now out of print. It’s called The State in the New Testament by Oscar Cullman. It’s very careful to recognize the authority that the state has without making us feel that we have to obey in areas where God’s word is supreme. It’s a fantastic read.

  • Terrence Daugherty

    Did you ever finish your review?