Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Was The Election a Reforendum on Social Conservatism? Jason Engwer’s Political Optimism at Triablogue


I have been engaged in a debate with Jason Engwer over at Triablogue regarding the recent election and what it tells us about the future of conservatism in American culture. Like so many American Christians, Jason is a political optimist. I, on the other hand, am a realist and have tried to bring my patriotism under subjection to my true citizenship, which is in heaven and which has nothing to do with American culture, except to evangelize it.

Jason has said that Paul has given the government a mandate from God for how it is to operate. He says that these mandates are located in Acts 25 and Romans 13. I have argued that Paul had no such mandate in mind when he defended himself against false charges brought against him by the Jews who were attempting to manipulate the legal process in an attempt to kill him. Paul had been preaching the gospel and as usual, the Jews didn’t like it. So they accused Paul of desecrating the temple, something that he had not done. This was a false accusation. Luke tells us in 25:3 that the whole point was a conspiracy to assassinate Paul. He then tells us that the Jews were not able to prove these false accusations against Paul. Festus attempted a political move by asking Paul if he were willing to go up to be tried at Jerusalem, probably knowing about the conspiracy himself. Paul then makes his appeal to Caesar, realizing that is his only recourse if he is to survive this episode. Paul exercised his right as a Roman citizen at the time to preserve his life. Who could ever say that a Christian would be wrong for exercising their right in the courts for defending themselves against slanderous accusations such as this? No one! However, Jason argues as follows: “Paul doesn’t have to be “lecturing Festus on the role of government”, in the sense of only or primarily addressing that subject in the larger context, in order to be addressing governmental issues. I’ve explained how he addresses issues of government in the passages in question, and you’re still ignoring what I said. You aren’t addressing what I’ve said about Acts 25. Pointing to the larger context doesn’t prove that Paul doesn’t address governmental issues within that context. And pointing out that Paul tells Christians to obey the government in Romans 13 doesn’t refute my point that he’s presenting a view of government. You keep making irrelevant points that fail to refute what I’ve said.”

Actually, what Jason has said is that Paul was actually informing Festus of the role of government in Acts 25. In addition, Jason has asserted that Paul’s goal in Romans 13 was political. Essentially, Jason argues that Paul wanted others to join in his political philosophy. Jason’s argument that Paul is actually addressing governmental issues in Acts 25 is terribly lacking in support. Luke is providing a historical narrative around the event that eventually led to Paul’s death at Rome. The government is never the object of direct address. Never does Paul issues even the hint of a command to what the government should do. It is highly presumptuous to claim that Paul’s comments around what Festus should do to him is actually in any way an imperative from Paul to Festus. Paul is merely appealing to the laws that are. If I have done wrong, says Paul, you should punish me accordingly. However, says Paul, I have am not guilty of the things of which I have been accused. Paul says in v. 11, “If, the, I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die.” Where Jason finds Paul providing guidance to the government in this text is beyond puzzling. In fact, Paul’s appearance before King Agrippa also provided an opportunity for him to issue commands and mandates for civil authorities in secular roles and he was incredibly silent on that point. In short, there is no exegetical support to conclude that Acts 25 contains revelation that should lead any Christian to believe that it is the duty of the Church to command the government in matters related to its legal or civil system. Yet, here we are, in the American Church doing precisely that. Jason seems to think this is the calling of the church.

After 11 chapters of doctrine in Romans, Paul moves to application in Romans 12. He begins with the famous imperative that we present out bodies a living sacrifice before God. He moves to the gifts in the body of Christ, each one having his own.  Beginning at verse 9, he discusses Christian behavior in a very succinct and precise manner. He discusses sincere love, hating evil, clinging to good, being diligent, etc. There is no obvious break in the text when Paul says, in Romans 13:1, Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. Paul says that every governing authority is established by God. Two things come into view here. The first is that the church is instructed to take up a disposition of submission to the governing authority. She is not told to preach morality to the government in order to ensure that it passes the “right” laws and does the “right” things as defined by the church. Rather, the Christian group is commanded to submit to the government. The word is in the imperative mood, indicating that it is a command. Paul is not laying out a comprehensive view of his political philosophy. He is concerned with the sanctification of believers, not the morality of the government. He is dealing with what “is” in terms of the nature of government in order to extend divine imperatives to those whom God has sanctified so that they might please God. The Christian group is not a bunch of insurrectionists looking to over-throw government. This attitude would have been easy for the Christian group to adopt given the environment at the time. After issuing his command for her to submit, Paul then informs the church that God sovereignly appoints all civil authorities. Hence, he reasons that if any Christian resists governmental authority, he or she has also opposed the ordinance of God Himself. Paul then explains that rulers are here to deal with law breakers and to maintain some degree of societal order. This is not only God’s plan, but it is an example of common grace. Before leaving off the subject of civil authority, Paul says concludes that Christians are to render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. He then says we should not be in any kind of deficit when it comes to this particular obligation and even applies it to loving our neighbor.

Nowhere in Romans 13 do we find Paul teaching Christians what the role of government “ought” to be. Civil authorities and government leaders are not the object of Paul’s communication to the Romans. Rather, the Church is the object of that communication and the commands pertain to the Church. The object lesson is not how the Church must lord it over the government with God’s commands and insist that the government actually govern according to our interpretation of Scripture. Rather, it is for the sanctification of the individual within the Christian group, the Christian community, a.k.a. the church. The church is to respect the government as God’s servant and to submit to it. The American church has a long way to go in this respect. I fear that Jason is not helping Paul’s cause in Romans 13.

Jason has implied that Scripture was written to and for unbelievers as much as they were the church. I have disputed Jason’s claim and insisted that he explain what he means when he says this. Jason then uses Theophilus and Timothy as an example and then says John was essentially written to unbelievers so that they might believe the gospel.

Was Scripture written to unbelievers? Was the use of Scripture as the Word of God to the Church, the body of Christ, merely secondly? Jason also contends that John wrote his gospel to unbelievers because of John 20:30 where John says he wrote so that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ. I must agree with Kostenberger who says regarding this verse, “At the same time, John’s Gospel seems to presuppose an audience that is already familiar with Scripture since it contains detailed instructions for believers, especially in the second half of the Gospel. What is more, there are few examples of directly evangelistic first-century documents. For reasons such as these, it seems that John’s purpose encompasses both aspects, evangelism and edification of believers, and that John pursued an indirect evangelistic purpose, aiming to reach an unbelieving audience through the Christian readers of his Gospel.” [Kostenberger, The Cradle, The Cross, and the Crown. 304] In addition, in order to interpret John 20:30 with any degree of confidence, one has to deal with the textual variant hina pisteuete or hina pisteusete. Is it aorist subjunctive or present subjunctive. I won’t dive into that argument here, but clearly that process is located in the exegetical task of getting to the meaning of the text. As mentioned above, I agree that John’s gospel has an evangelistic thrust, but of its own. I mean that the gospel was given to the church and it’s material serves as an evangelistic resource in addition to being a revelation of divine imperatives for the believer. It cannot be argued that the gospel of John was intended to delivered to unbelievers because of one verse that contains a textual variant. It is as if Jason wants to build the doctrine that God’s word was also given to the unbelieving community largely based on one verse that contains a significant textual variant that remains unresolved and probably will remain so until Christ returns. In addition, there is another answer to Jason’s contention here. That answer is located in II Corinthians 5:20 where Paul begs the Corinthian church to be reconciled to God. Wait a minute. I thought they were already reconciled to God. No doubt, there were those who still needed to be reconciled to God in the visible community. It is good not to read more into a text than is there.

Jason concludes that Paul’s letter to Timothy was primarily personal and only secondarily was it for the church. He almost implies that the church “used” it as if that was not really its main purpose. I would suggest that Jason should consider God’s purpose for the existence of NT documents not only as much as he does the author, but even more so. In addition, Paul’s instructions to Timothy were also instructions to the Ephesian believers where Timothy served and to the rest of us. After all, it is to Timothy that Paul wrote, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (II Tim. 3:16-17) Here Paul clearly indicates that Scripture’s purpose is to produced men of God equipped for every good work. Scripture informs men how to please God. Scripture does not exist to serve as a document upon which to order the laws and customs of secular government. That is not its purpose. The church does not exist to influence the morality of a culture. Our mission is much bigger than that.

Ephesians 4 tells us that God placed men in the body so that the body of Christ, the Church, the Christian group would be equipped to produce healthy fruit. The Scriptures guide us into holiness. They instruct us on matters that help us believe, think, and live in a way that honors God. They make us like Christ.

If I follow Jason’s reasoning, then Luke-Acts were primarily a personal letter that the church just happened to find useful. Such a view weakens the nature of Scripture. I am sure Jason does not intend to weaken the nature of Scripture but anytime you refer to the canon of Scripture as a secondary work of the church, such outcomes are inevitable. Who was Theophilus? He is the obscure person to whom Luke addressed his historical accounts of the gospel as well as the acts of the twelve. Given the fact that he was instructed in the way, he was like a Christian, and perhaps even a leader of sorts even if his information was limited. Some scholars believe he represented a broader audience, standing as the representative of that audience and that Luke’s instructions were intended to help fill in numerous gaps. We really don’t know for sure. What we do know is that Luke and Acts are the inspired writings of God and that they belong to the Christian church. Their purpose are to generate and strengthen faith in the living God and to provide the Christian community with all that is necessary to live a godly life. They do not belong to an unbelieving world for the purpose of shaping government or creating morally good cultures. To contend that his is part of God’s purpose for Scripture is without any support whatever.

The final component of this debate has to do with exit polls. Jason seems to place a tremendous amount of weight in the exit polls. I am much more critical and much less trusting of these interpretations of data collected after someone votes. What do we know about the people who voted for Obama and Romney? We know that Young people voted for Obama by about 60%. We know that single women voted for Obama by a wide margin as well. We know what Hispanics voted for Obama by over 70%. We know that statistically, all blacks voted for Obama. We know the Asian population voted for Obama by a wide margin. We know that white males, married women, and seniors voted for Romney by a higher margin than for Obama. We know that young people lean to the left in their politics. We know that single women lean to the left. We know that the black community leans to the left. These are all segments of the population that are growing. We know that Hispanics lean to the left, but mostly due to class warfare and perhaps a little more to do with immigration at least this time around. This ethnic group is also growing. What is not growing so much are white males and senior citizens. Will age change political leanings? It may or it may not. The point is that people like Jason look at exit polls as if they are the gospel and offer us some hope. I ask, hope for what? Hope that America will suddenly take a turn to be more conservative. Hope that she will once again outlaw abortion. Hope that the institution of marriage will be returned to its place of prominence. Is that really where we ought to place our hope? Is it the business of the Church to make sure that a culture preserves marriage? Or life? Or holds to a particular brand of morality? Is that the mission of the church?

The Church is not given a mandate to change the morality of a culture. She is not told to command governments in this direction or that one. She is not ordered to shape and fashion the moral code of her environment through political activism. No such mission appears anywhere in Scripture either directly or indirectly. The Church’s influence comes be means of her nature. She is the body of Christ and as such, she lives Christ’s values without a veil, she preaches the gospel of repentance, she baptizes her converts, and she makes disciples of wicked men, producing in their place, loving men and women who obey the laws of the land and live by a very unique set of principles for all the world to see. Only God can change a culture. According to Paul, God changes men’s hearts through the foolishness of preaching, not a particular strategy of political activism. Banishing gay marriage is not something the church should think is her duty. If the church wants to protect the institution of marriage, she must begin within, not without. She can “show” the world that she believes in marriage by having enduring marriages that last a lifetime rather than merely give lip service to it. The church will influence the culture to the degree that God has designed by being what God has called her to be: a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a chosen generation called out of darkness into His glorious light!

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