What Would God Do?

 

America is not Israel.

On the one hand, this is a question that we must filter--because none of us is God. To some degree, we know how God governed ancient Israel. But we are not ancient Israel. For example, the circumstances that led to food laws no longer exist. While there are legitimate grounds for disagreement on this topic, I personally think the food laws had more to do with distinguishing Israel from their neighboring peoples than because of health. After all, did they really cook pork better in Paul's day than they did in the day of Moses?

Similarly, God no longer deals with the earth through a specific ethnic group. The scope of misunderstanding involved in taking Ezra to prohibit interracial dating is staggering. This line of attack is such thinly veiled prejudice that I have no problem dismissing the spiritual advice of any group that would dare twist Scripture and God's will so blatantly.

This latter matter brings us to an important point. Ancient Israel repeatedly demonstrated that they were not worthy or holy enough to be called God's people. Such a designation was truly a matter of God's grace. It was God who called them to be His people, despite their unfaithfulness and unworthiness.

There has been no biblical revelation pronouncing any other nation to be God's people, God's unique mirror to the world. Indeed, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, American nor Russian, Iraqi nor Canadian, but you are all one in Christ Jesus.

I would say that I aspire for America to be conformed to God's will. If by calling ourselves a "Christian nation" we mean that we as individual Americans surrender our lives to God and will try as best we can to work as Americans to bring this nation in conformity to His will--if these things are what we mean, then no problem.

But we are not pure enough and the American flag is not untainted enough to presume itself the new Israel. There is no new Israel. God does not love us Laodicean and Pharisaic American Christians any more than He loves the Christian Iraqis who are currently fleeing for their life. If there were gradations in God's love, I think He would love them more because their Christianity comes with a price.

I believe God is very practical. If I were pastoring, I would not make a big stink about there being an American flag on the pulpit. But I would register what I believe to be God's thoughts on the matter. Thus saith the LORD: "No nation's flag is pure enough to be on a level with Me or My word. Put the flag by the piano if you want, to remind you to use democracy to make America as godly as you can. But don't even dare to think America has arrived spiritually or that your sinful nation is worthy of My favor. It will be by My grace if you are saved; America cannot earn my favor any more than anyone else can."

I believe many of us will have to repent in heaven for our spiritual pride on some of these matters. I believe God will honor the Christians from many, many other nations for a spirituality so much deeper than ours that we will fall on our faces in shame before our Lord at the thought that we were so blind to think ourselves somehow special for where we were born.

 

 

We have no certain Moses.

We have established biblically that America is not Israel. We have also hinted that even if we could find a modern "Israel" that had the same relationship as ancient Israel did, God would not deal with them in exactly the same way He did ancient Israel. We have the New Testament to reckon with and the Lordship of Jesus Christ administrated through the Holy Spirit in this domain.

By the way, nor is the current Israel yet the Israel of promise. Most prophecies of return related to the return of Israel from Babylon in 538BC. Paul does predict that all Israel will be saved. But this has not happened--indeed, it is illegal to try to convert people to Christ in modern Israel. Most Israelis are not even religious. The last statistics I heard were that modern day Israel was 85% secular. Perhaps they will become the Israel of promise one day, but it has not happened yet. For all we know, they will be destroyed and restored again before these things happen--if indeed this is the way to interpret these biblical passages.

We now come to another important preliminary: we have no certain Moses among us. If we are to be a theocracy, we must have a Moses to show us the way. Who of us is ready to give a particular denomination the authority to set the law and decide what God's precise will is in law?

Indeed, the history of church and state relations seems often checkered with excesses and ungodliness. I doubt many of us would enjoy Geneva if we were transported to the days when Calvin influenced its laws. Which of us desires to be a pilgrim making his or her way to America to escape the persecution of the Puritans in England or that of the Lutherans and Catholics in Europe? I would not want to be a Catholic bishop under Henry VIII or a Protestant one under Bloody Mary. And while Susanna Wesley was fond of Oliver Cromwell, I personally would not aspire to live under his thumb.

I heard once that Charles Spurgeon, a famous Baptist of England, was once asked why the Baptists never burned anyone at the stake. His answer was immensely insightful: "We were never in power."

We should read the first amendment boundary between church and state against the backdrop of these situations. A healthy distance between church and state saves us from ourselves and from the times we frequently mistake our interpretations and thoughts from those of God.

And the claim that we will base our laws on the Bible is misleading and potentially very dangerous. Whose interpretation of the Bible will you use? Most of those who say this only know to read the Bible as it appears to them and have little awareness of the original meaning of these words--and how different it was from their own thoughts. Both Jesus and Paul model a spiritual interpretation of the Bible's words that cannot be quantified or pinned down. It is only as valid as the Spirit behind the prophecy, and it is always subject to the spirits of other prophets in our midst.

In short, Adam's Fall has impaired our moral and natural image. Entailed in these impairments is a need for checks and balances in our thoughts and understandings, because we are all stuck in our heads. No one person or denomination or nation has a corner on God's thoughts.

 

 

God vis-à-vis the world

The reason that Jesus' ethics in the Sermon on the Mount only seem to give us a partial sense of how a Christian would govern is because his words, like those of so much of the New Testament, were aimed at the governed rather than the governing. Jesus, Paul, Peter and others presume that the situation in which the Christian will find him or herself is one in which the governing force is either completely independent of or more likely hostile toward him/her.

Jesus' words on turning the other cheek picture a person in the role of the slapped. Paul draws a sharp dichotomy between church and state in his comment that we make judgments in the church but that God will judge the world--leave it to Him (1 Cor. 5). Hebrews and 1 Peter both picture the Christian as the stranger and alien on the earth, not as the emperor or senator.

On the one hand, the love ethic--love God and love others--is the greatest absolute of the Christian ethic. God gives no exceptions to this rule, so we can set down the first rule of Christian governance. A Christian will govern with a view to the benefit of those within as well as without.

As a side note, it does seem likely to me that for God, His justice ultimately does triumph over His mercy if there is a hell without the possibility of repentance. God is not bound by some abstract "rule" that says He doesn't really want to send people to hell, but He has no choice. If God is God, He has a choice. If God consigns individuals irrevocably to hell, then He must ultimately consider love of Him a priority over love of others.

But I believe the opposite priority is in force on earth. On earth, mercy should triumph over justice. The cross is the ultimate demonstration of this principle.

Of course it is true also that God occasionally does seem to enact justice before mercy on earth as well. While He most of the time gives us a chance to repent up until our deaths, Ananias and Sapphira were immediately taken from the earth. Similarly, if there is such a thing as the unpardonable sin, it is an irrevocable instance of God's justice set in stone on earth. In general, we might suppose that there are people who we observe to be unwaveringly unrepentant. Has God withdrawn the grace that leads to repentance from such individuals? In other words, is this the triumph of justice over mercy even on the earth and before the final judgment?

To return to our subject, the teachings of Jesus while on earth and those of the other New Testament authors do not address as directly the question of governance as they do the question of those governed. A nation will not turn the other cheek long before it makes the transition from the governing to the governed. "If someone shoots an ICBM at the east coast, give the coordinates to the west coast as well"? If this is the Christian way to govern, then Christians will not govern for long. Some take this position--Christians simply should not get involved in governance.

But I would suggest that the most appropriate model God gives us for how a Christian would govern is not Jesus' ethical teaching aimed at the disempowered.

Similarly, I would suggest that it is not God's relationship with Israel that provides the model either. On the one hand, I have already suggested several clear differences between our situation and that of God's relationship with ancient Israel. We have no Moses. We have no biblical basis for thinking ourselves a chosen nation over other nations. And the New Testament modifies several Old Testament laws beyond continuance.

Further, the relationship between God and Israel is more analogous to that of Christ and the church than to that of God and the world. Although Israel often did not keep the covenant, Israel represented those who were "in," as the church (also full of sinners) represents those who are putatively "in."

But a nation like America is not a gathering of those who are "in." It is a mixture of the ins and outs.

In the end, it is the relationship between God and the world or that of the risen Lord and the world that is a closer model. In other words, the biblical model that comes closest to that of a Christian governing a society is that of God governing the world, a world both with people who serve Him and a preponderance of those who don't.

 

 

Free will

The issue of free will is one of debate among Christians. But I think we can all agree that whether or not we ultimately have free will, we act like we do.

And God lets us. Even if God is ultimately pulling the strings, He lets some murderers think that they are enacting their own free will in choosing to kill others. In short, God does not make the world conform to His will--not yet, at least.

Even our risen Lord does "not yet have everything under his feet" (Heb. 2:8). He is in one sense still waiting until his enemies are put under his feet (1 Cor. 15:25).

For some mysterious reason, God allows people to disobey His will down here. Indeed, He often allows them to do so far beyond anything we would stomach as a Christian ruler. He allows people to murder and steal from each other. He allows Holocausts, genocide, and millions of abortions. These are some of the most pressing questions of Christian faith, why God allows evil to happen to His people.

Surely our first rule of Christian governance must come into play here--a Christian will govern with a view to the benefit of those both within and without the nation. Surely we will not allow murder. Surely we will pass laws that protect our citizens from one another.

But doesn't God show us by the way He governs the world that He much prefers to woo people to Him than to force them to Him? Does He model an approach that seeks to influence and change people so that they come to Him willingly rather than one that focuses on outward action regardless of any heart change?

How do we decide where to force conformity to His will (e.g., murder) and where we allow people to sin to their own detriment?

It is clear that God's model implies that a Christian ruler would not force everyone to believe in God or to go to church. A Christian ruler would seek to influence others to believe in God and go to church, but it would allow the nation the other choice as well, to its detriment.

Would a Christian ruler make sure all businesses were closed on Sunday, to faciliate going to church? I think he or she might--in the 1940's. But I don't think a Christian ruler today would. Why? Because such a law would not draw non-Christians to Christ today. It would push them away.

So we are left with the same question again. Clearly God would have a Christian ruler work for the benefit of all. But God would allow individuals to disobey His will at some points also, to their detriment. What rule of thumb should a Christian ruler use to decide which principle to invoke at what point?

 

 

For the Betterment

At this point I remind myself that I am not designing a system of governance from scratch. Almost everyone--if not everyone--in this room is an American. We have a Constitution that presents us with a law with which I must begin if I am a Christian ruler in America.

Here God models a first insight for us--He starts with people where they are and works to bring them of their own "free will" to where He wants them to be. The very nature of biblical revelation thrusts this conclusion on us time and time again. Each book reflects the language and paradigms of its own time and place, from the stars in between the waters in Genesis 1 to the three heavens of Paul.

Thankfully, there is a great deal of overlap between America's laws and Christian values. Our Constitution is a social contract meant to protect the rights of all within its boundaries. It thus in theory is wired against the harm of anyone.

In my opinion, when we can show that certain actions harm others, we can work within the system to outlaw them. At times our culture has a blind spot to such harm. Slavery would be one instance. The refusal to give voice to women was another. We might look to abortion and racial discrimination as two instances that we are currently working on today. These are areas in which the law still allows individuals to do harm to others.

I believe a Christian ruler would work as wise as a serpent within our society to make it as harmless as a dove toward the unborn and toward those many others disempowered in it. By this comment I mean that some paths to these ends are more effective than others. For example, shooting abortion doctors hardly reduces the number of abortions or brings its legal end any closer.

I believe a Christian rulers would work within the American system for the benefit of all. While the Constitution really works more against the detriment of all than for the benefit of all, this is a small step our system allows.

A Christian ruler would thus make a priority the empowerment of the oppressed or downtrodden. I cannot believe that a Christian ruler would not make it a priority to educate and transform those who are in a perpetual cycle of disempowerment in society. While it is true that such cycles are often a product of choices, they are not empowered choices. How could it not be Christian to help others from the slavery of their environment?

God does not insist that people choose Him. But He seeks to influence others for Him. A ruler who would write off or simply abandon some segment of society, without seeking to woo it to the better, is not worthy to have Christ's name in front of him or her.

 

 

Justice and War

The point of greatest tension between the teachings of Jesus and the rule of God is the question of justice.  We know that God is just, that His wrath on the world is revealed for the Day of the Lord (Rom. 1:18).  But Jesus models mercy over justice and submission to injustice.

 

However, as a Christian ruler, we have as our duty the stopping of those who do wrong and the commendation of those who do right (Rom. 13:3; 1 Pet. 2:14), an “agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer (Rom. 13:4).  These words are clear endorsements of punishment for law-breaking.  In Paul’s day such punishments included things like fines, floggings, exile, and death.  Paul and Peter make no comments that would lead us to see any of these as inappropriate, even crucifixion.

 

However, how would a Christian govern today?  Paul did not likely have a repentant Christian in view, and was willing to forgive sinners in the church without any legalistic penalty.  These are factors that make concepts like parole appropriate to Christian rule.

 

But we are also often uncertain of repentance and there is a certain cleansing that punishment can have.  There is much to be said for punishment as a part of the reclamation of the wrongdoer, even when repentant.  The protection of others from harm also begs us to be very sure that we do not endanger society in the name of mercy.

 

The question of capital punishment addresses the other end of punishment—how much is Christian.  I do not see anything intrinsically unchristian about capital punishment.  Paul sanctions the authority of Rome to punish in Romans 13:4, and capital punishment was high on the list of punishments.  Paul thus gives implicit acceptance of it in this comment.

 

Nevertheless, I suspect it is Christian to give as much of an opportunity for a person to repent as possible.  And it seems increasingly a bad witness to our society to push capital punishment.  Justice is simply an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth—it is not unloving.  But to be blood thirsty for vengeance, while calling it justice, is not Christian. 

 

It hardly needs to be said that a Christian ruler would only engage in war in the most dire of circumstances—either in defense of its own or in the defense of another.  A Christian ruler would think not only of the betterment of his or her own nation, but of the betterment of the world.  Christians see humanity as one face before God.  A Christian ruler has a responsibility to the nation ruled, but in his or her heart would value those of the world no less.

 

 

The Edges

So what do we do with issues where it is not clear to our society that certain actions are harmful or subject to legislation?  What do we do with homosexuality as a Christian ruler?  What do we do with divorce or adultery?  What do we do with abortion?  What do we do with prayer in the schools or “in God we trust”?

 

Clearly the Christian ruler wants to influence the world to move in Christ’s direction, but God models a method that more often than not does not force.  It woos.  Since culture changes on these issues, different tactics will seem appropriate at different times.

 

I mentioned the question of whether a Christian ruler should prohibit businesses from being open on Sunday to encourage church going.  From the standpoint of the Constitution, it does not seem appropriate to the non-establishment of a Federal religion.  But at a time when such a law fit with the broader culture, perhaps it was perfectly appropriate for a Christian ruler sixty years ago.

 

But such actions would not woo anyone to Christ today.  So we must ask, would a militant approach insisting on prayer in the schools influence our country toward God or be counterproductive?  I see nothing intrinsically unconstitutional about a non-specific prayer.  But would God force the issue if it led anyone away from Him?

 

We can ask the same question about any number of other issues.  Most Christians are not lobbying to enforce laws against homosexual practice.  Few Christians would think to argue that adulterers should be put in jail—even though such actions often do harm to children and others.  We know what our goal is, what we wish to influence society to be on such issues.  But somehow we seem to think of such issues intuitively as issues where God would try to influence rather than legislate.