January 23, 2016

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

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

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.

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
  • David Cooke

    I may or may not give a longer comment later but for now I just want to say that even as a theonomist I mostly agree with the “preach the gospel, don’t do statecraft” as distinct from engaging society.

    Most of Christian political theory today has no semblance of sphere sovereignty so they effectively expect the State to fill in all of the gaps. But a healthy society requires in addition to the State sphere (I suspect as an anarcho-capitalist you’d disagree with calling it the “State” but this is not really the focus of my post here) family and church governments as well as other private associations such as businesses, all of which should frankly have a greater emphesis in society than the State. Biblically the church gets 10% and the civil magistrate should get even less.

    On the other hand I would say the State is a piece of the puzzle that is important, though not as important as evangelicals make it out to be. Under the guidance of Biblically theonomic Christians it is a force for good and a force that can to a certain limited extent actively help the church by punishing evildoers, I would argue including those that preach damnable heresies. But under current conditions while the State is run by anti-Christian influences it is wicked and not worthy of our support, hence why Paul commands Christians to judge inside of the church rather than going to pagan rulers.

  • Christopher O’Neil

    I am very eager for your continued work on this series. Grudem’s book is highly influential, and it is founded on principles that are enticingly close to the truth. Yet his approach is flawed because he begins with the tacit assumption that all government action is legitimate, and we must merely look to Scripture to guide that action.

    This is probably why he is unable to discern between statecraft and social engagement: unlimited government power is an assumed reality, and the question of politics is the question of the ends which that power ought to be wielded to serve. Rather than looking to Scripture for necessary authorization for government power, he assumes that power to exist and looks to Scripture for guidance as to how it should be used.

    This leads to an overly broad interpretation of Romans 13:1-7. “[D]o what is good, and you will receive his approval” becomes an unlimited license for the government to promote and enforce policies intended to encourage “good” behavior and outcomes. “[H]e is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” grants sweeping authority to establish and compel policies that limit “wrong” behavior or reduce suffering.

    The result is that, while Grudem does effectively set forth several relatively sound principles, like most Christians he has no real concept of any strict limitation on government power or action. Thus, those principles are applied inconsistently at best. Like most people, he grants the government vast power; he simply wants the government to wield that power in service of good aims rather than bad ones. The difference between a good policy and a bad one becomes fuzzy and even subjective, often a matter of pragmatism instead of principle.

  • Chris Robin

    Would be a great time to pick up this series in light of Grudem’s endorsement of Trump.