Christian Understandings of the Role of Government
Oct 20, 2009 by Craig Blomberg | 2 Comments
The question was naturally raised when I blogged about health care what a New Testament take on the role of government was. This is arguably the broader issue that needs to be answered before specific questions of policy can be addressed.
The problem with answering it is that there is not much in the New Testament that directly addresses questions of government. Best known, no doubt, is Romans 13, in which authorities are said to be ordained by God. But Revelation 13 reminds us that it can become demonic as well. This would be a flat-out contradiction if Christian thought understood God and the devil as equal, opposing forces. But, as in the Judaism that birthed it, New Testament Christianity consistently viewed Satan as a subordinate, created being, dependent and contingent on God’s permissive will. As with submission to husbands, parents, masters and church leaders, then, submission to governing authorities must never be absolutized. When governments demand that Christians behave in ways that contradict his expressed will, Christians must respectfully disobey. The midwives in Moses’ day knew this, Daniel understood this, and Peter and the Twelve in Acts appealed to this principle against the Sanhedrin more than once.
But short of direct conflict between God and the government, how should Christians understand the relationship between church and state. The early Christian, pre-Constantinian response to pagan Rome was largely one of withdrawal. Christians did not participate in the army or serve in government. They found too many entangling alliances and too little opportunity to work to change “the system.” After Constantine and the legalization of Christianity in the fourth century, trends began in the Catholic Church that would eventually produce the so-called “holy Roman empire.” From a Protestant perspective, too often popes and kings throughout the Middle Ages were too closely aligned. Whether or not that was the case, the church’s goal was frequently clear: to impose its will on the world through the existing government.
Martin Luther strongly opposed this notion, articulating his two-kingdoms theory that would prove influential centuries later in the development of the American doctrine of separation of church and state. But Luther did not take things that far. Lutheran kingdoms developed in Germany and Scandinavia, but Lutheran church members were taught that sometimes they had to behave one way as individual Christians even if the (church-led) government had to act differently. The country might have to go to war, but individual believers could still try to love their enemies.
John Calvin was much closer to prevailing Catholic thought as he sought to create a government for Geneva, Switzerland, consistent with his specific form of Protestant thought. The Anglicans likened the role of church to state to that of prophet to king in the Old Testament—an important servant of the government when it ruled nobly and a crucial critic when it didn’t. The Anabaptists, the so-called Radical Reformers, reacted against this by once again urging much fuller withdrawal from society. The church was to become a countercultural model of the kingdom of God on earth in ways that no mixed communities of believers and unbelievers living together could.
All of these models can find New Testament support and it is not clear that only one of them is right for all situations. In democracies like ours, Christians as citizens have the right and responsibility to work toward electing politicians, enacting legislation and appointing justices whose views are consistent with theirs, and hopefully consistent with the Bible, just as all other members of society do. Unfortunately, within the last generation of evangelicalism and liberalism, each side has chosen to apply this strategy very selectively. So one group is eager to use government in support of its views concerning abortion and homosexual behavior but then abdicates its responsibility to use the same mechanisms for helping the poor or providing adequate health care. The other group excels at times with the latter but often fails with the former. Ron Sider’s long-standing vision of Christians seeking a “completely pro-life” platform inculcating biblical values on all of these (and other) issues seems more lacking today than ever.