Grudem’s Politics: Part 1, Wrong Views of Government

As I stated in the introduction to this series, I plan to reflect on Grudem’s book on “Politics According to the Bible” in 2016. Now would be a good time to reiterate the fact that I am personally a very nuanced individual, and therefore this site reflects this same character.  Thus, what will be seen throughout this series is that there are areas in which I agree with Grudem’s broad criticism of something, but am not satisfied with his alternative. This is consistent with my more general opinion that the political theory of the modern evangelical world is largely deficient and far too wrapped up in the American flavor of statism that has permeated our culture over the last century.

Part 1, Chapter 1 of the book overviews what Grudem considers as “Five Wrong Views About Christians and Government” that he wishes to juxtapose with his own, positive view, that he sets out in chapter 2.  The five “wrong views” are categorized as follows:

  1. Government should compel religion
  2. Government should exclude religion
  3. All government is evil and demonic
  4. Do evangelism, not politics
  5. Do politics, not evangelism

First, I will summarize each view, state my agreement or disagreement where it applies, and then give over some overall reflections. Let’s start with the first wrong view.

Government should compel religion

Grudem expresses disappointment in the fact that, historically, major leaders and movements in “Christendom” have considered Christianity something that ought to be compelled by the government. From the time of Constantine and even through the magisterial Reformation, this mistake has centered around the idea that the kingdom of heaven was something that could be promoted and extended via the sword, having to do with “earthly,” physical,  developments.  Grudem writes:

Jesus refused to have his disciples fight with swords and military power, because he was not attempting to establish an earthly kingdom like the Roman Empire or the various other nations in the history of the world. Earthly kingdoms are established by armies and military power, but Jesus’ kingdom would be established by the power of the Gospel changing people’s hearts, bringing people to trust in him and obey him.

Here, I largely agree with the overall position of Grudem and in fact think it a better, more Biblical, position than modern alternatives, such as Theonomy (Covenanter or Reconstructionism).

Government should exclude religion

This is sort of the opposite of the previous position and is the idea that it would be somehow inherently wrong per se for the government to mention religion, allow it at “public schools” (Grudem’s example), or consider it in a decision making process.

I agree with Grudem that there is no reason why “government” should per se exclude any reference to religion, but there are some important differences in the application of this under Grudem’s theory of government, compared to my own.

For instance, Grudem will use this category to defend prayer in public school. But this assumes that there should be public school. This assumes that it is a legitimate use of force to take money from people and fund a socialist education complex. Moreover, throughout this section, Grudem constantly refers to the idea that the exclusion of religion from “government” is against the so-called “will of the people.” I hope to cover this philosophical and theoretical blunder in future posts in this series, but for now, it must be pointed out how dangerous and arbitrary it is to determine what is good for government based on the “will of the people.” Not only are ethics not determined by majority vote, but there is no “people” en masse as an entity distinct from individual minds. In other words, in deferring to “the people” as Progressives themselves do, Grudem is actually referring to a set of individuals within the broader society at large. He is, in effect making his argument on the basis that “some people think this way.” Christians (and especially Baptists like Grudem!) should be especially aware of the damage of this way of thinking and the prospects it has for freedom and justice.

We will touch more on this issue as we proceed in the next blog post to Grudem’s own positive theory of government.

All government is evil and demonic

This “wrong view” is completely deficient in the way it is presented so as to limit my ability to either agree or disagree right off the bat. Since Grudem yet offers no definition of what he means by government (and we will have to wait until later chapters to get his positive theory of government), it is impossible to render judgement.

He seems to here be dissenting from a pacifistic theory of government which teaches that there should be absolutely zero role for an institution which uses any physical force whatsoever. This, of course means, that it would even be wrong for an institution to prosecute criminals including thieves, murderers, and rapists. Since the libertarian– even the anarcho-capitalist in the tradition of Murray Rothbard– does not agree with this pacifistic theory, we do want to emphasize that we, with Grudem, agree that there must certainly be “laws” and the allowance of retributive force.

However, as will be seen as we move throughout the book, this opposition to zero “governance” should not be confused with opposition to “zero state.” Since Grudem is not careful enough with his language and framework, as will be shown, he lays the foundation for all kinds of later statism, and it is here where our differences with Grudem really take root.

Do evangelism, not politics

Here, Grudem expresses disagreement with the idea that Christians should only evangelize and should never take part in politics.

This is a great place to point out the false dichotomy held by people like Grudem and other evangelicals; and it is a false dichotomy that fundamentally rests on a misunderstanding of the state. Grudem believes that as Christians, we are not limited to only preaching the gospel, but are also to impact society and culture around us. This is what he means by politics. Grudem’s mistake is his confusion of the state with society. I will comment more on this in future posts, but for now, we would break down this “wrong view” into two different views:

  1. Do evangelism, not statecraft (a view we see as being agreeable)
  2. Do evangelism, not social engagement (a view we see as being disagreeable)

What we mean by this is that we want to downplay our participation in politics, not because evangelism is the only thing worth doing, but because politics is something we want to see largely disappear in a free society! In light of this, we can better appreciate the second view, which is that we can do more than just teach the gospel per se, but we can also express cultural opinions, run businesses, participate in social events, and so on. But society is not the state; for the latter is the antithesis of the former and is indeed a parasite on civilization.

Therefore, as will happen time and again in this series, we have found an area where Grudem operates on a false dichotomy based on a poor understanding of the relationship between society and state.

Do politics, not evangelism

The final view is that the church should downplay the gospel and emphasize instead the laws and culture and government. I don’t need much more explanation here of this “Social Gospel” view. We adamantly agree with Grudem that it is a wrong view of the relationship between the christian and the government.

In the next post, we will interact with Grudem’s own positive theory of government, and go into far more detail than we needed to do in this one.