Volume 12, Issue 3: Magistralis
It is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way which 'establishes a religion or religious faith, or tends to do so.'
- U.S. Supreme Court
And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers: they shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am the Lord: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me.
- The Prophet Isaiah
A more stark contrast is difficult to find between a description of the blessing which God intends the civil government to be and the rebellion it is. There is a further contrast we need to consider between Isaiah's description of kings and queens as nursing fathers and mothers of God's people, and the prevailing conservative evangelical view of the relationship between the Church and the State. We expect Americans United for the Separation of Church and State to go ballistic when confronted by Isaiah, but not Christians.
Consider what evangelicals typically ask for: a place at the table, prayer in government schools, the Ten Commandments posted on state property, and traditional family values. There is no talk of owning the Lord Jesus Christ. Christians appear content with a secular state, as long as it loses some weight and lets us play government too. The Scriptures present an entirely different view of the State.
The magistrate is God's minister of wrath upon the evildoer, and his power is manifested in bearing the sword. He is also God's minister of good to the righteous (Rom. 13:4). He does not just punish; he praises as well (1 Pet. 2:14).
The magistrate, by God's grace when sought by His saints, keeps the peace. It is not a secular peace, kept so we can live our mundane material lives. The magistrate keeps the peace so the gospel can spread, and the great commission be fulfilled (1 Tim. 2:1-8). God obviously does not need the consent of the State to accomplish His purpose (the gospel flourished under the Pax Romana), but He requires its consent none the less, promising wrath when it is withheld and great blessing when it is given (Ps. 2).
God imposes standards on rulers. They must be just, and rule in the fear of the Lord (2 Sam. 23:3). They must hate covetousness and be men of truth, and we may not choose any other kind (Ex. 18:21). To the extent rulers live up to God's standards, the citizenry is blessed with rejoicing (Prov. 29:2).
It is true that a righteous government would not be nearly as busy as ours is. But there is always a ditch on both sides of the road, and we must avoid temptations to libertarianism or anarchy on the part of the ruled, as well as to weakness hidden behind tolerance on the part of the ruler. The Westminster Confession puts it well when it says that "the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another," and that neither the ruled nor the rulers can avoid their responsibility to submit to and uphold God's law (WCF 20.4).
We post-enlightenment post-moderns are squeamish about any law that smacks of biblical Christianity. We are too easily cowed by accusations that we are trying to bring back the Inquisition. Government schools have successfully made us believe that laws protecting Christianity and the Church lead directly and inevitable to persecution, and that tolerance is much safer for everyone. We are caught in the horns of a false dilemma. The choice is not between a corrupt Christian state and a perfect secular state. The choice is between a Christian state in a fallen world and a pagan state in a fallen world. Honest history does not hide the warts on the Church's face, but neither does it hide the open wounds of the secular state that time and cosmetics can't heal. As bad as the Church's sins may be, they pale in comparison to the bodies left in the wake of men like Stalin, Hitler and Pol-Pot, staunch atheists all. At least Christians have a standard by which to judge history and avoid its sins in the future. The atheists just kill more people.
Tolerance, biblically defined, is a good thing. But we have slipped from our biblical moorings and now tolerate anything and everything, except biblical standards. Reforming the State is not about forcing people to be Christians. But it is about forcing people to outwardly conform to a Christian standard and about protecting the Christian religion. Historically, the civil magistrate has enforced laws against blasphemy, apostasy, heresy, swearing, and working on the Sabbath. The difficulty is not in defining or punishing these crimes; the difficulty is finding the strength and wisdom to do so. Again, the question is not whether we can legislate morality. Of course we can. The question is, which morality will be legislated? The unchangeable standards of God's holy Word? Or the passing fads of political correctness?
We need to avoid a bland conservatism that merely trims the branches of an overgrown tree. We need to examine the fruit it bears. If the fruit is bad, we need a new tree. We need to know history, not to find the good old days of Ozzie and Harriet or the classical equivalent, but to relearn the truth our ancestors knew. We need to shun the revolutionary tendency to force good fruit without regard to the tree. We need reformation, starting at the roots.