God and Masters
February 16, 2020
C.S. Lewis argued that God doesn’t find man’s desire for pleasure too strong, but too weak. I think it’s also true that God doesn’t find the Christian man’s interest in politics too powerful, but too pathetic.
I know that the “Idol of Politics” is a favorite model of rented car to abuse for preachers who say that Christians act like politics and politicians can save them. But I have not met any Christian who actually thinks that the government is the Savior, and most of the preachers who fear the dreaded “Inevitable Compromise” from Christians spending too much time talking about politics are ignorant. They know how to speak accurately about the gospel, but they do not know how to disciple their people to obey all the Jesus commanded, which is the Great Commission, which includes how to obey Jesus when we live together with our neighbors in a city, state, and nation. It is a lot easier to say that someone else is wrong for messing with something that you don’t know about than it is to say that you are wrong for not getting messy.
Politics is messy. That’s because politics is a whole lot of neighbors, “individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power,” and every last one of those neighbors is a sinner. Even the saved neighbors aren’t as mature in Christ as they will be, so the best case scenario is immaturity, and the slide to the side of immorality is short, but a long way down. Thanks be to God that He enabled our founding fathers to plant some trees, and collectively we are grabbing onto (or bouncing off) some of the roots rather than falling all the way to the bottom of the cliff at once. But, we are falling.
Like I said, I think this is because Christians have not cared enough about politics, government, laws, justice. Not everyone has the same experience, of course, but many of us have been told that we would be wrong for being interested in, let alone participating in, political life. We’ve been lectured that our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). We’ve been commanded not to set our minds on the things of earth (Colossians 3:2). But this is too simplistic, and in fact, it is disobedient to God who made us citizens of heaven while leaving us here, on earth, with responsibilities.
I really enjoy J.I. Packer’s introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death. Packer unpacks a three word statement that challenges so much man-centeredness today, including in the church and concerning salvation. Packer’s point: God saves sinners. That is gold, smelt seven times, stamped with an image of a tulip. “God saves sinners” is like the long, deep the ballast of your boat. But there is another three word confession that is better, it comes directly from the Bible, and it more like the ocean for all the boats: Jesus is Lord.
Every Christian has to confess it to be saved (Romans 10:9). Obviously there is much to explain about who Jesus is and what He has done, including that God raised Him from the dead. But our basic confession is not God—who is far away in heaven, saves sinners—but primarily for eternity in heaven. Rather, Jesus-who is God made flesh and who walked on earth, is Lord–right here, right now, and for all people and places and ages. The Jews persuaded the Romans to execute Jesus because of His claim to be Lord; that’s how they blackmailed Pilate.
Jesus is Lord is a first principle. From this ocean an almost limitless network of reverse tributaries flow, tributaries for our obediences and our interests and our investments. Of course this means that we must obey Him rather than men, and of course this means that we acknowledge Him before men. It also means that we serve Him in our relations among men.
In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) Jesus describes a master, that is, a lord (kurios), who gives his servants an unequal amount but still a part of his property for them to use; one got five talents, another two, another just one, “to each according to his ability” (verse 15), and then he went away. When the master returned he found that the first two had invested and made profit, the last had buried the money, though he hadn’t lost the capital. The master shared wealth with his servants and expected their stewardship.
The Lord does give us money, but this is not the only form of wealth. Money, in fact, is just one of the forms that are more easy to measure. The Lord has also given us wealth in the form of skills, and in our day He has given great wealth in the form of opportunity and technology, books and electricity and medicine and food. We are living in the single most wealthy country ever, not just by GNP, but in our Constitution and Laws, in our Legislative/Executive/Judicial branches, in the local, state, and national levels of government.
If one of the servants had taken off with his master’s talents, let’s say crossing the border into Mexico, claiming all of it was his, and trying to ignore that he had a master and that he would eventually give an account, yes, that would be bad. But in this illustration, we’ve been given a diverse portfolio from the Lord. The servant who buried his talent wouldn’t have impressed his master saying, “I know I didn’t do anything with the talent, but I studied the exchange rates every morning in my devotions.”
Jesus is Lord means something and it motivates everything, including our investment of His gifts to us in our government. He didn’t promise the servants that they would win the stock market, but He did expect them to try.
I used to be one of those Christians who thought that God cared about spiritual, Bible, gospel, church things, but that math and history and science and politics were things “we, the people” just had. I assumed in, without applying the right word, neutrality. I lived as if religious people, including the committed irreligious people, all had camps around the outside of the big shared public square in the middle. I never thought that the religious people were required to leave their religion in their camp, but that the point of going into the square was to convince people to go back to their camp, pack up, and move to the Christian camp. I now realize how disrespectful that is to the Lord of the whole field.
Does this mean that we should care about being a Christian nation? Well, leaving aside the question about what that would actually look like in the nitty-gritty, can we say that the Lord does not want us to care about whether or not our nation honors Him, like, by name? Can we show from the Bible that He refuses to be acknowledged by rulers and judges in an official way, that He thinks that will make a muddle of true religion with civil religion? If you are a king, or a president, or a governor, or a city council member, He wants you to keep your confession quiet? It’s not true.
If I could be a higher-lesser magistrate for a day, I’d be in favor of replacing “In God We Trust” with “Jesus Is Lord.”
This is not driven by eschatology, at least of the postmillennial kind. It may sound similar in some respects, but our desire is that the Lord will be pleased with our obedience while He’s gone, not that the earth will be prepared for His return. It’s interesting that some of what I’m about to say has been targeted particularly at Premillennial/Dispensationalists, but I’m not convinced that Dispensationalism necessarily ruins discipleship. This is also not driven by logic per se, other than the logic of obedience to Christ’s lordship over every thumb’s-width of life.
What should we call this? Here are some of the key terms in the discussion whether or not they need to be accepted, rejected, or modified.
Some call the public, official recognition of God in a nations’s politics/government a theocracy; theos is the usual Greek word for God and kratos is the Greek word for power. Different dictionaries offer different definitions, but most specify theocracy as a system of politics where God rules the country directly and mediately through the priests. Theocracy is:
Israel was a theocracy, but only for a while, until they demanded a king. The distinction was exactly that they did not want God’s immediate rule.
A related word is theonomy. This is a combination of the words for God (theo) and law (nomos), so politics/government according to God’s law. When Saul was anointed as king, Israel was a theonomy because they still followed laws given to them by God, starting with the 10 Commandments. Theonomy is not found in every dictionary, but here is one definition:
(Note: this is different than theodicy, which is the question of how God could be providentially sovereign in the affairs of men, and good and just, and yet evil still exist.)
What both theocracy and theonomy share in common, obviously, is the idea of God/god. And this is the inescapable principle: there is always a God or god or gods of the system. Always. Even if the god is the governing principle of denying God’s existence, as was the claim in the French Revolution: Ni dieu ni maître! = “Neither god nor master.”
Significantly, that French phrase appears twice in Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1886 work Beyond Good and Evil. In 1914, Margaret Sanger launched The Woman Rebel, an eight-page monthly newsletter which promoted contraception using the slogan “No Gods, No Masters”. Sanger insisted that every woman was the mistress of her own body.
As it turns out, when there is no God, there still will be masters. There is power in politics and men are drawn to it like the ring to rule them all in Tolkien’s mythology.
Some argue against both theocracy and theonomy because those only existed in Old Testament Israel. But this depends on what we emphasize and how tightly we define the terms. I agree that there has only been one Yahwehnian Theocracy (with a capital T), which was before Saul was anointed king. And there has only been one Theonomy (with a capital T) under the Mosaic Law (with a capital L), in which every civil law and penalty given by God was to be enforced in the nation of Israel. In fact, the Westminster Confession Chapter 19 section 4 explicitly states that this Law is no longer binding “further than the general equity thereof may require.”
But that is not the same thing as saying that we can get just make up our laws as we please apart from God. Morals and laws must come from somewhere.
There is always an authority by which our legislative branch writes laws, and by which the judicial branch interprets, and by which the executive branch enforces. Some authority will be applied on the social level, whether honestly or covertly, explicitly or ignorantly. There are options to theonomy. Let’s call them alt-theos.
The authority could be every man for himself, called anarchy (“Egonomy” with laws given by one, which led to death galore in the French Revolution). The authority could be one man who has more power than everyone else, called monarchy (let’s call it “Big Egonomy” or its more common name, Tyranny). The authority could be whatever the people considered collectively say, the demos, called democracy (“Homonomy”, a Social Contract). The authority could be some system of representatives and checks and balances, a system built off of reason and experience, called a republic (both of the previous are built on reason and the Enlightenment; αντιπρόσωπος = delegate, so “Antiprosoponomy”). But all of these have more in common than not. Apart from acknowledging the Lord and His Word, all of these have in common making man (or an idol of man) the god/judge/lawgiver.
This is why my title is playful but earnest: Theonomy/Theonoyou. There are only two options: either we acknowledge Jesus as Lord in our laws and government and politics, or we say someone else is lord over that. There is no Neutronomy in which laws are handed down by the great god Neutrality. Neutrality is a thick fungus that covers deadly disease. Jesus is Lord is true or false; the law of excluded middle requires it. Unbelievers of course don’t want to hear about Jesus, but it is surprising how many Christians argue more strongly against it.
There are reasonable concerns expressed when Christians start talking about Christian politics and laws.
The church isn’t the state. And I totally believe this. But as we have conversations with others, this is where theonomy may be a better angle than theocracy, at least as defined above. God’s law isn’t mediated through the church or religious leaders, the civil rulers are to learn and submit and enforce God’s law directly. This fits Kuyper’s layout of sphere sovereignty. The church is not the boss of the government, or the other way around. But this is not the same thing as saying that the government does not have obligations to acknowledge Christ’s lordship.
Christians will be distracted from the gospel. This is definitely a possibility. As I said previously, I do not know of Christians who think that the State will save anyone, but if they never do get around to saying how to be saved then that’s a problem. However, a consistent disciple looks for times to say why and for whom he’s holding a position. Why do you vote for a particular candidate or vote to repeal another dumb law? Because Jesus is Lord, He’s risen from the dead, He saves sinners, and helps them live together by His Spirit.
Christians will be tempted to use earthly means and justify those earthly means to accomplish ends, a sort of “baptized Machiavelli.” Again, this is certainly a possible problem, but it is a discipleship problem, an obedience to the Lord problem, which is what the whole exercise is about in the first place. It is possible to disobey Jesus in His name when you’re in the middle of the game, but it is also possible to disobey Jesus in his name by sitting on the sidelines when He called your number five minutes ago.
Christians will become proud in their power. This is similar to the above. Yes, Christians have failed to be humble. In some of the criticisms I’ve read against Theonomists (and Reconstructionists), leaders were (sometimes and at least to some people) jerks. But all of these are a failure of obeying our confession, not the result of obeying it consistently. It’s why worship is so important, confessing our sins and remembering His grace to us and His Spirit’s constant work of setting us apart.
The subtitle of the seminar is “Give me politics or give me death.” It’s an intentional play off of Patrick Henry’s 1775 speech: “Give me liberty or give me death.” The two comments are the same.
Either we have a God over the system who provides us with laws that honor Him and promote the life and liberty of His image bearers in their relationships and responsibilities as citizens, or we have man/men over the system who will inevitably promote power and selfishness, and those lead to death. (Examples: 1984 and That Hideous Strength)
Christians can withdraw, hide, take the Benedict Option. These are just waiting for death.
What if we openly acknowledged natural law (which a strict Theonomist rejects), and the God of nature, along with principles from His Word, in both Testaments, so that others could see our honesty, our goals, and have something to argue against? Let us show our colors, our consistency.
In his book, Our Program: A Christian Political Manifesto, Abraham Kuyper wrote:
“To be sure, we understand perfectly well that there are people who do not embrace this revelation as coming from God. But what we do not understand is that there are people who accept this Word of God with deep reverence and yet do not want to involve its directives in political administration, legislation, and the justice system. “That is worse than being inconsistent. That—we do not hesitate to say it—is tantamount to professing a truth while not really believing it, to be guilty of moral fence-sitting that is bereft of all sincerity; or if you will, it is playing with the sacred that is unworthy of a person of character.”
What should you do?
You should care. Does God care? If He doesn’t care how you relate to your neighbors then you’re free to take the ostrich approach; bury your head in your Bible. If He does care, then you are obligated to care. As I said at the beginning, Christians have surrendered their responsibilities. We’ve been irresponsible with our talents, so no wonder our politics are so destitute.
You should confess Jesus is Lord. Do it with wisdom, do it with grace, do it with courage. Let the politicians know that Jesus is Lord by worshipping Him explicitly on the Lord’s Day, and by praying in dependence on the Lord for your needs, not a messianic state.
You should invest your talents, your political wealth. Maybe all God gave you was voting; don’t bury your vote in the drawer. Pick up a voter registration packet. Maybe He also gave you ideas, strength, speaking ability, knowledge of budgets, and self-control, and so you would be wrong not to run for some office of the magistrate. Maybe He gave you time and followers on Facebook for promoting political truth (there is such a thing!) and demonstrating respectful, Christlike responses. Maybe He gave you friends to talk about these things, maybe He gave you a front yard to endorse a candidate, maybe He gave you kids to enculturate.
You should obey God ruthlessly and obviously. This includes confessing Jesus’ name before men. This also includes not being hypocrites. It’s important for platform, but it’s also a necessary preparation and protection from disobeying the Lord in a position of power. Men aren’t faithful with much who aren’t faithful with little. A life of blessed obedience is right, and it is part of the program.
You should bless your neighbors, which includes fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves (Psalm 82:3-4; Proverbs 24:10-12), which at least applies to the abortion carnage in our country. It includes not only honoring your marriage bed (Hebrews 13:4), but all marriage beds; even nature tells us who belongs there (Romans 1:26-27). It includes tax rates, restitution or prison, and private property concerns. It includes living peaceably with all men as much as possible (Romans 12:18), which doesn’t mean ignoring their opposing principles but it does mean opposing their principles of death, which is not peace. The means of doing that are not just telling others the gospel.
You should not forget the final judgment and the Lord’s return.
His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ (Matthew 25:23)
Jesus claims full authority of your life as a disciple. He will expect a complete account of all He gave you, which includes your political life. Jesus is Lord. Our confession is more than a confrontation point, it is the fixed starting point, the first political principle, and we should build fearlessly on it.