Monday, December 13, 2010

Monday Minute : Is Your Pastor An Anarchist?

Thoughts from our Executive Director

Ok, the title is a bit alarmist. But there is a point, I promise.

Within Christendom, there are a wide range of approaches as to how Christians, both individually and collectively, should engage in law, government, and public policy. Some feel that government exists to make sure everyone behaves like them, some feel government is irrelevant. Still others feel government is an instrument of evil and should be totally abandoned.

However, the greatest conflict within Christian churches is between two groups that generally agree what the outcome should be but have strong differences of opinion as to what should be done to achieve that outcome.

One camp believes in complete engagement. They see it as a right, and indeed a responsibility, to engage in political and social battles. On the other side is a group that believes those efforts are ultimately futile. They believe bad laws and bad governments are merely a symptom of heart conditions that can only be addressed one person at a time.

Banning abortion will not prevent it from happening, defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman prevent people from being gay, and banning divorce will not prevent men from being abusive or unfaithful, they say. They will agree that certain behavior shouldn't be encouraged, but they disagree that government should be used to compel people to behave in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.

If you are not in this camp yourself, you undoubtedly know someone who is. Many of them work in pulpits.

The problem with this argument is not with their motives. Of course, motives are almost always good, and good motives pave the road to hell.

The problem, as I see it, is simply that none of it is relevant to the question of “should we be involved?” God created government and God created the church. Both serve different functions. The purpose of good government is to reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. The purpose of the church is entirely different. The fact that the government cannot accomplish the goals of the church should be obvious. Yet, many Christians abandon the realm of public policy as a form of protest against that very fact.

Moreover, refusing to get involved on issues like marriage and abortion because a legislative victory would not change hearts is not an argument for limited government, it is an argument for no government. No government action is designed to change hearts. If it is your desire to induce change only through a heart change, you would need to oppose the entire penal system.

Because I can hear the argument already, I feel compelled to acknowledge that many will make a distinction between social issues and criminal acts. They will feel that crimes should be punished because people are actually hurt, while social issues like marriage and abortion hurt no one. Ignoring the absurdity of this argument as it relates to abortion, those who make that argument in any case are arguing from outside orthodox Christianity.

Christianity is clear that corporate promotion of sin is never without consequences, for both the individual and the collective. Therefore Christians can not argue that promotion of bad behavior will ever be without consequences. As a result, refusal to take a position on a law that encourages bad behavior should never be based on the belief that it doesn't matter.

So the question remains, if you hold the position of non-engagement on social issues because hearts will not be changed, shouldn’t you also oppose (or at least be ambivalent to) every effort of government to control behavior? And if you recognize that bad behavior always has negative consequences, is ambivalence ever an option when your government moves to encourage bad behavior?


  1. As always, a good, thoughtful and logical argument. Wanted to commend you for your posts for some time. Keep up the good work!

  2. 1) You avoid another question which might be phrased as follows: "To what degree and in what ways should Christians be involved with and supportive of coercion?"
    2) It's pretty easy to accuse those who see it differently from you of "refusing to get involved" when in fact they are involved in persuading people to think and act differently, not coercing them to do so through legal mandate and involuntary compliance.

  3. @Craig...I think that is exactly the point I am making. I would much rather persuade someone to agree with me than force them to comply, but coercion is all government does. Still, I can't see how someone who opposes coercion could support a government of any kind. Cops don't persuade us to drive the speed limit.
    Of course changing the heart is the best way to change behavior. But to me that does not mean that we do nothing to restrain evil until we have persuaded every last, living soul because that will never happen. I see no reason why efforts to restrain evil and efforts to persuade cannot be done concurrently.
    My experience suggests that those who claim they don't want to use "coercion" do so selectively in order to avoid controversy and score points for tolerance. My concern is that the desire to avoid controversy and score points for tolerance allows us to convince ourselves we are doing things for the right reasons when we may not be. Of course it is not my place to make that judgment, but I do feel it is a fair question.

  4. Thanks Joseph for the good article. In Romans 13, Paul endorses the civil magistrate, and that magistrate bears a sword. Obviously you don't spank with a sword, and what some call coercion is really justice. The question seems to be not whether we have coercion or an enforcement of justice, but rather whose justice will be enforced. Even Obama said all law is imposed morality. Do we want man's law, or God's?