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Volume 9, Issue 4: Magistralis

Leading in Righteousness

Gregory Dickison

While most Christians take exception to recent judicial interpretations of the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment, we consider the basic doctrines they embody to be fairly sound. We want the civil government to acknowledge the authority of Scripture and honor God in legislation, but we also agree that it has no business setting up a national church and taxing the citizenry to support it. We're comfortable with a state that leaves the church and us alone in spiritual matters, and allows us to worship God (or not) as we see fit.

I recently came across the following passage in a book outlining the influence of Christianity on the development of English and western law:

In 878 Alfred [king of England] defeated the Danish king, Guthrum. The terms of the surrender stipulated not only that Guthrum withdraw from Alfred's kingdom but that he and his leading men be baptized also. In the laws agreed upon and enacted by Alfred and Guthrum the commitment to "love one God and zealously renounce all heathen practices" stands first.[1]

This is an historical example of a Christian king requiring his conquered enemy to swear allegiance to the New Covenant as a condition of peace. More recently, Zambia's President Frederick Chiluba declared his country a Christian nation, pledged to submit himself, as president, to Christ, and gave a speech of corporate repentance for Zambia's immorality.[2] Contemporary accounts do not indicate he consulted his pollsters before doing so.
This strikes modern evangelicals as odd, given that we tend to see people primarily as individuals, rather than as individual members of corporate groups with corporate responsibilities. We get fidgety when people start "imposing their morality" on others. But in a very real sense, the political leader is the head of the civil covenant. If that head acknowledges that his authority comes from God (as he should), is it enough that he honors God personally? Can he lead only by example, or does he have authority, as the civil covenant head, to call upon the citizens to honor God as well? How far does his headship extend? Is he limited to passing statutes reflecting biblical legal standards? Or can he also require, for example, oaths of allegiance to the Lord as a prerequisite of citizenship? (Before you balk, keep in mind that we don't have any problem saying pledges of allegiance to mere flags or the nations for which they stand.)
Our secularized government school educations taught us that any time in history that a government tried to foist Christianity on the people, it was a bad thing. Modern experience teaches us that anything the government does becomes a burdensome, tedious, time consuming, expensive, inconvenient pain in the neck. Most of what our government currently does fits that description, but not of necessity. The law compels us to such biblical duties as respecting the lives and property of others and providing for our families, and we don't mind the burdens imposed. Furthermore, a huge, prying bureaucracy swarming with busybodies is not a necessary side effect of legislation. If Congress declares these United States a Christian nation, it does not require the establishment of a Federal Department of Church Attendance.
As the church is being reformed, the idea of covenant blessings and obligations in the church and in the family are taking hold. When the elders teach the whole counsel of God, and when parents are faithful to the Word, the people under them are blessed. But we are not only members of churches and families, we are members of states. A nation is blessed when the king is righteous; why should we think that the blessings are only material, and not spiritual as well?
It is true that salvation is, in an important sense, individual. God does not save us because we belong to a particular group. But this is not to say that belonging to a group is unimportant. God works covenantally, and one of the blessings of the covenant is the salvation of many of its members. We expect the members of the church to behave as Christians, and they are subject to excommunication when they don't. Likewise, because we expect God to bless our children with salvation, we discipline them when they sin and teach them the need for repentance. Yet we balk at the idea that a civil ruler can do the same.
Again, we have no problem making school children dutifully recite the pledge of allegiance, or requiring new citizens to swear oaths of loyalty to the U.S. government. Why can't they also be required to acknowledge the sovereignty of the one true God, and to "zealously renounce all heathen practices?" Obviously, taking an oath and changing external behavior doesn't save anyone. But externals are not irrelevant. Someone who is required to renounce Buddhism as a condition of citizenship is no longer trapped by a spiritual snare, and can't be a snare to anyone else. That is a blessing.
Granted, the current condition of our civil government makes us hesitant, and rightly so, to trust it to lead us in civil righteousness. But that is a reflection of the way things are, rather than the way they ought to be. We live in the midst of unrighteous politicians who don't know the first thing about honoring God in the civil government, let alone how to lead people in righteousness with wisdom. They are tyrants in everything else they do, and exercising their authority by requiring conformance to God's covenant would only extend the tyranny farther. In finding the right road, we want to carefully avoid the Erastian ditch. There is a lot of theological spade work to be done first. That politicians don't exercise covenantal authority now is a back-handed blessing. But it is also a curse, the end of which we should diligently seek.

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