Friday, November 16, 2012

Answering Steve Hays on Culture Warriors and Evangelical Political Activism

What do the Scriptures Teach about the Relationship of the Church with Civil Government?

By now, you probably know that Steve Hays and I have a small difference of opinion regarding the answer to this question. It is my view that the Church has become too political in modern American culture. Perhaps even this statement is somewhat misleading as it implies that the Church was less political in American history. The crux of this matter regards the disposition of the believer toward the republic in which he/she exists. The concern is one of focus. You see, I am concerned about the mission of the Church. I see four components in this mission and I have to ask if the Church is busy carrying on with this mission. I think the Church is more distracted with socio-political issues than is healthy from a spiritual perspective. I do not think the Church is called to reform the godless culture. Moreover, I do not believe God called the Church to set in authority of civil government. In fact, my understanding of Scripture is exactly the opposite.

Did the apostles really address the gospel to the government or individual civil authorities? In addition, were these addresses aimed at shaping civil law or were they personal calls of repentance? Moreover, is it lawful to use the Mosaic Covenant to shape the civil laws of gentile governments? I am not saying that it is a bad idea for a government to use the law in this way if that is what they choose to do. That is not the right question. The question lies in the imperative. Does God issue a mandate to governments to use the Mosaic Covenant as the foundation for their civil codes? What business does the Church have shaping the civil laws of secular governments? Again, I am not addressing believers who find themselves, for whatever reason, working as a civil servant. I am address government entities. These are all good questions. Another good question is God’s requirements for the individual believers living under various forms of government. Does the Christian responsibility change from one system of government to another? I don’t think it does. I think the perspective of my Triablogue brothers is very complex and raises more questions than it answers. I come to the text with the presuppositions of a grammatico-historical hermeneutic. This hermeneutic provides the guardrails upon which my exegetical process moves. I believe faith is the foundation for biblically faithful hermeneutic. Vanhoozer calls it the “interpreter’s credo”: I believe in hermeneutic realism; I believe in hermeneutic rationality; I believe in hermeneutic responsibility. [Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in this Text? 31] Sound exegetical principles involve things like criticism, translation, literary and historical context, word studies, grammar, social scientific criticism, etc. I am certain the men at Triablogue understand this. They are educated men. However, being educated and knowing how to handle the text does not mean we always place our biases aside and tackle the assignment at hand. In my view, I do not think they have tackled this issue as thoroughly as they should. If they have, it is not readily apparent in the arguments I have read. The remainder of this blog will examine four basic texts of Scripture with these questions in mind.
Titus 3:1

Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed. Marshall points out “Titus is to remind his congregations of the teaching they already know which needs repetition, αὐτούς must refer in context to all the members of the church (cf. 2:15). The implication is that previous oral teaching had been given.” Remind them, Paul tells Titus. This strongly indicates that this is not the first time the Church heard this instruction.

Marshall adds “Governmental officials, whether imperial, national or local, are in mind. Although Paul generally uses the two terms with reference to angelic powers, he uses the latter of rulers and magistrates in Rom 13:1–3 (cf. ἄρχων)” The idea of subordination to the state clearly comes into view in this text.
John MacArthur comments, Many well-meaning Christian leaders have founded organizations to counteract anti-Christian influences and assaults. Attempting to fight fire with fire, as it were, Christian organizations, publishers, and broadcasters have sought to counter anti-Christian ideas and programs by using non-Christian tactics. They have decided it is time to stand up for their “rights” and have declared war on the prevailing non-Christian culture, especially the liberal national media. They have become hostile to unbelievers, the very ones God has called them to love and reach with the gospel.

I think Dr. MacArthur has the biblical perspective on this issue. He continues, But neither the New Testament nor the example of the early church justifies such a mentality. The cause of Christ cannot be protected or expanded by social intimidation any more than by government decree or military conquest. Ours is a spiritual warfare against human ideologies and beliefs that are set up against God and that can only be successfully conquered with the weapon of the Word (see 2 Cor. 10:3–5 ).
In his book The Evangelical Pulpit, John Seel writes,

A politicized faith not only blurs our priorities, but weakens our loyalties. Our primary citizenship is not on earth but in heaven …. Though few evangelicals would deny this truth in theory, the language of our spiritual citizenship frequently gets wrapped in the red, white and blue. Rather than acting as resident aliens of a heavenly kingdom, too often we sound [and act] like resident apologists for a Christian America …. Unless we reject the false reliance on the illusion of Christian America, evangelicalism will continue to distort the gospel and thwart a genuine biblical identity ….American evangelicalism is now covered by layers and layers of historically shaped attitudes that obscure our original biblical core. ([Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993], pp. 106–7) This is very to the point and it reflects my central concern.
I Peter 2:13

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.

Schriener says concerning this text, “The central theme of this section is found in the first word, “submit” (hypotagēte). The idea that believers should be subject to governing authorities is a standard part of New Testament ethical exhortations (cf. Rom 13:1, 5; Titus 3:1).” There is a reason the NT writers were concerned with how Christians viewed civil authority. Due to the nature of the Christian regeneration and especially adoption into the family of God, Christians might be tempted to think they have no responsibility to obey civil laws because they home is not of this world. The writers seemed concern to reinforce the concept that obedience and good citizenship are inherently bound up in Christian values the same as love, purity, and performing good works.
Abernathy says about subjection in this text, “It means to be in subjection for the sake of the Lord, motivated by the fact that he was subject to rulers and commanded his followers to do the same [Alf, ICC, NIC, TNTC]. It means to be in subjection to the authorities because the Lord has established them [NIBC, TNTC] or to human creatures out of regard for him as creator [BNTC].”

Although the emperor, or king, or governor may be the mediate source by which society is ordered, God is the ultimate source. The right Christian perspective about civil authority is that they are ordained by God for the good of society, even the worst of them. The NT writers never bother to tell us that this truth changes based on any particular system of government. Apparently, it applies to every system.
I Tim. 2:1-2

First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.

The superlative πρῶτον either stresses the degree of importance in Paul’s instruction or the sequence. Either this is the first of his instructions or the most important. Either way, the former may very well imply the latter. (Marshall) Here the Christian is urged to make entreaties, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings for all me, to include kings and those in authority so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life. No longer would prayer only be made for one’s neighbors as in Judaism, nor should it be limited to the Christian community. According to Paul, we are given an urgent divine imperative to pray for Barak Obama and every other politician in Washington and the states and districts. The hope is that God will grant us a tranquil and quiet life through these prayers. The need for a tranquil life without civil interference is not so that we may consume it upon our “individual rights” mentality but rather so that we have an environment in which we may carry out our mission.

That Paul is concerned with civil authorities is impossible to miss in his writings. He is clearly concerned with the relationship between the Christian and Emperors, Kings, and Governors. He understands they set the tone for society. How does he think the Church should interact with them? Does he provide Timothy or Titus with a set of instructions for how he wants the Church to influence the civil authorities? He wants us to submit to them, all of them, and to pray for them. It is through living Christ’s values and through prayer that we have our best chance of influencing society it seems.

MacArthur comments on this text, “Paul does not command us to pray for the removal from office of evil rulers, or those with whom we disagree politically. Believers are to be loyal and submissive to their government (Rom. 13:1–5; 1 Peter 2:17). If the church today took the time and energy it spends on political maneuvering and lobbying and poured them into intercessory prayer, we might see a profound impact on our nation. We have all too often forgotten that “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses” (2 Cor. 10:4). The key to changing a nation is the salvation of sinners, and that calls for faithful prayer.”
Roman 13:1-7

Immediately after commanding the Roman Christians to over evil with Good, Paul says that everyone must be in subjection to the governing authorities. No exceptions are provided in the text. No qualifiers are given. Even if the government is one with which we disagree, subjection is the proper Christian response. Why? Governments are established by God. This is true even in a democracy. While the Scripture mentions prayer as a means to possibly having a peaceful life, it nowhere instructs us to pray for the removal of civil leaders because of their ungodly views. God establishes civil leaders who have the most ungodly of views. Nero was profoundly wicked, yet God set him in the place of civil authority. He killed Peter and Paul and a host of other Christians. While God’s command to Nero personally was repentance, from a civil perspective Nero was God’s servant.
Paul tells us in v. 2 that everyone who resists civil authority also resists God. When the Christian sets out to fight against the current leader, he cannot avoid but fight against God. God has placed the current leader in office. It matters not if you are in a democracy. The important thing here is individual sin. We must be willing to ask ourselves if we sin by engaging in all sorts of efforts to remove the current leader. We may call our president to repentance and faith in Christ. We may address the wicked policies as policies that contradict the holy commands of God. But we are interested, not in changing the government, but in changing the individual. We are calling Barak Obama to repentance and faith in God, not in order to win the day and have our platform prevail, but in order that he may know life and know it more abundantly.

Civil rulers are put in place to direct society as God sees fit. They are there to carry out God’s plan, whatever that plan may be. They punish evil doers and reward those who keep the law in general. Paul adds that we are to be in subjection to these leaders for conscience’ sake.

Mounce remarks, “Obedience to civil law is necessary not only for fear of punishment but also for the sake of conscience. As Phillips puts it, one should obey “not simply because it is the safest, but because it is the right thing to do.”

Schreiner adds, “Believers should submit to the government because they recognize in their conscience that God has ordained the state (vv. 1b–2) to rule and because it is his servant on the earth. The “conscience” signifies a sense of moral responsibility and obligation to conform to what is required (Murray 1965: 154; Dunn 1988b: 765).”

In all of these texts where Paul addresses the Christian and civil government, not once does he advise the Church or the individual to whom he writes that they should formulate a strategy to make godless men good through political activism. On the other hand, Paul does not ignore the civil authorities nor does he suggest a completely passive approach either. Christians wage war on the godless culture spiritually. They use the weapons of their warfare intelligently. These weapons are not lobbyists in Washington DC. These weapons include the word of God, the gospel! They include the ethic of Christian submission and obedience along with good works. Finally, they include the weapon of prayer.

Steve Hays has made much of the Mosaic Law in his remarks on why Christians should be politically active. From my perspective, his general principles moving to logical inferences are nebulous principles employing incoherent logic that result in arbitrary and capricious applications. These words address Steve’s position on this subject, not his character or his academic and Christian reputation. Steve is a good man who, in my view, happens to be using a very bad argument built on illegitimate hermeneutics in this case.

The Mosaic Law belongs to Israel, to the Jew. God never gave the law to the gentile. Romans chapter two tells us that the gentiles do not have this law. Moreover, the law was given for a very specific purpose and to use it unlawfully is a serious matter as many false teachers did in the NT. It is illicit use of the law to say that secular gentile governments “ought” to employ it in their legal process. In addition, it is outside the scope of Christianity for the Church to take up such an initiative.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is never directed at nations in the NT. It is never directed at governments. The secular government is never told to repent and produce moral citizens. Nowhere in the Scriptures are Christians told that their mission is to produce a better, more moral culture. That is never said to be the aim of the Church. The gospel of Jesus Christ is for the individual. All men are called to repent and believe the gospel and this includes Mitt Romney and Barak Obama. However, their repentance is not so that we can ban abortion or gay marriage. Yet, this is exactly what American culture thinks about the Church. American culture thinks the Church uses religion or Jesus to push a conservative political agenda. They don’t see us loving them and simply giving them the gospel and doing good. They don’t hate us because we love Christ in many cases. They hate us because we try to force Christian values on the non-Christian group, and that is simply not the gospel and it is not how we are to be salt and light.

John MacArthur writes, “We must repudiate our confused loyalties and concerns for the passing world and put aside our misguided efforts to change culture externally. To allow our thoughts, plans, time, money, and energy to be spent trying to make a superficially Christian America, or to put a veneer of morality over the world, is to distort the gospel, misconstrue our divine calling, and squander our God-given resources. We must not weaken our spiritual mission, obscure our priority of proclaiming the gospel of salvation, or become confused about our spiritual citizenship, loyalties, and obligations. We are to change society, but by faithfully proclaiming the gospel, which changes lives on the inside.”


  1. An excellent and well thought out post. Over an almost twenty year journey relating to this topic, I have sincerely and strongly come to the conclusion that the western church has been compromised and almost immobilized by participation in the political process. And during that time, we have slowly come to place much hope in that process and subtly reduced our hope in Christ and his gospel. It all stems from a wrong view of the nature of the nation called America. And what we now have for the large part is a religious institution which desires earthly freedom, cultural morality, and personal prosperity.
    Without a dramatic awakening the visible church will continue to make its mortgage payments, send people on short term mission excursions, practice its worship music ministry, expand its staff, cling to its statement of faith, and generally exist unremarkably within an culture of extreme hedonism and debauchery. I do not believe that has ever been God’s will. If worshiping means singing for a half an hour a week, and if self denial means not drinking alcohol, and if being pro-life means following Jesus, than the cross was sensationalism, barbarism, and an overly dramatic archaic display of ignorance which has no practical application in this age of enlightenment and human industriousness. In short, the church has moved on to more productive endeavors which bring more earthly and tangible results.
    If that is the faith once delivered to the saints then we can stop right now. We have arrived.


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