July 15, 2017

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

By In C.Jay Engel

One deficiency I have observed among Evangelical 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.  Evangelical commentary on political theory blur the categories in an unhelpful matter and don’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 reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • Thanks. Very helpful.

    I think it is worth noting that the reason why so many conflate 2 & 3 is because in Romans 13, Paul ties our subjection to the divine authority of the civil government’s actions. We should be subject to “the governing authorities” because they are “instituted by God.”

    Paul cannot be referring to your first prong (that is, Paul cannot be arguing that God foreordained the governing authorities in his providence) because he says resisting the governing authority is opposing God’s command. He’s referring to God’s preceptive will, not his decretive will. Paul is not making the is/ought leap. Simply because, by providence, a ruler is over us does not therefore mean we must obey them. Our subjection, per Paul, must be based on authority granted to rulers preceptively not providentially.

    So that is the logic behind the common rationale. We are to be subject because God has granted them authority that must be obeyed.

    The question then is, what authority has he granted them? Do they have authority to command whatever they want? Most Christians would say no, they can’t command us to do anything sinful. But aside from that, do they have unlimited authority? The common answer is yes, based on what Paul says. But Paul’s point here is not to specify the limits of their authority (although he hints at it in v3).

    But if it is not Paul’s point to specify the limits of their authority, and therefore specify when we must be subject, what exactly is his point? I would argue his point is simply that a “foreign,” non-Christian, pagan ruler may exercise legitimate authority over the Christian. That doesn’t mean everything he does is backed by God’s authority. But it does mean that it is possible for him to do something backed by God’s authority. This is in contrast to the Old Covenant, where foreign, Gentile, pagan rulers had no authority to rule over God’s people in the Holy Land. Any foreign rule was an usurpation of authority that the Israelites were to unite and rebel against (2 Kg 17:1-23; Deut 28:64; 2 Kg 13:5; 18:7; 1 Sam 11:13).

    Contrary to the Old Covenant, Christians in the New Covenant are not called to unite and rebel against earthly non-Christian rulers because the Christian kingdom is not of this world. In other words, Paul is applying Jesus’ words in John 18:36 to Christians in Rome who were living in the midst of various Jewish uprisings against Rome.

    In our earthly kingdoms, we are not to overthrow pagan rulers for being pagan rulers because they possess legitimate authority (when they rule justly according to lex talionis – “an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong”).