The Growing Idolatry of Civil Government

The trouble with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.” — Margaret Thatcher.

Some may think we’ve not yet sunk into the clutches of socialism — Unexpected Slipwhich happens when we have a state-run economy. But consider this: In 2009, federal and state governments will consume 40 percent of the United States’ TOTAL gross domestic product.

This means that nearly half of all the wealth generated in America this year will be taken by civil government to fund its ever expanding control over more and more of our lives and our economy. As a result, we have run out of money while undercutting the means for producing future wealth.

Yet the federal government seeks to expand its reach even more.

This has happened because too many Christians confuse civil government with self government and the other spheres of government ordained by God — mainly the family, the church and voluntary associations. We have failed to fulfill our obligations of self, family, church government, and want the “easy out” of expecting civil government to do it all for us. Politicians, ever eager for more power, are only too willing to accommodate us and we are now reaping the disastrous results.

In 2008, many Christians (especially among the younger generation) were disgusted by the failings of the Bush administration (gross fiscal irresponsibility, undercutting constitutional protections, environmental disdain, turning a blind eye to unjust business practices, an unprovoked war with Iraq, etc.). They were even more disgusted as they watched Christian leaders from my generation fail, time and again, to muster the courage to speak truth to power when otherwise friendly politicians were involved. Instead, too many of our “Christian” leaders tried to garner elusive influence through silence and by sacrificing clear Biblical precepts.

As a result, younger Christians were ripe for the picking by politicians touting “change”.

The problem is, this new generation of Christians is also failing to stand firm on solid Biblical principles. They allowed themselves to be tempted by then-candidate Barak Obama’s ploy of garnering votes by promising to “solve” a host of social problems through an expansive federal government. Many of those problems are legitimate concerns, but God never intended for civil government to encroach upon the jurisdiction, or fulfill the responsibilities, of self government, the family, the church and voluntary associations.

Rather than turn to civil government to solve all of our problems, Scripture challenges us to:

  • exercise self control, virtue, thrift, productivity, creativity and compassion for others (i.e., self government);
  • pass along the virtues and values of self government, discipline and train the young, produce mature and responsible adults, and take care of our family members (i.e., family government);
  • speak truth to power, celebrate God’s sovereignty and mercy, teach God’s ways, develop individual gifts within the community of faith, and take care of those who are destitute but lack family support (i.e., church government); and
  • extend our ability to fulfill our rights and obligations of self government through voluntary associations (i.e., covenants and agreements, businesses, local communities and various institutions).

Nowhere in scripture is there any admonition for (nor even a positive example of) civil government Legal and Ethical Standardsassuming responsibility for meeting our personal, individual needs or usurping the role of the family, church or voluntary associations. Instead, we see throughout Scripture that civil government is given the right, responsibility and power to restrain and punish evildoers (including other forms of government — see Beware! as an example where IRS intervention is appropriate to stop an abusive church), protect and foster virtue, defend the rights and responsibilities of the other God-ordained spheres of government (e.g., judging civil disputes and protecting the institutions of the family, church, etc.), and provide for our common wellbeing (e.g., national defense and domestic tranquility, infrastructure, sound money, economic policy, foreign relations, etc.). Its role is vital, but limited.

When we apply Biblical rights and obligations given for one sphere of government to another, we get all sorts of crazy results. For example, “turn the other cheek” is an admonition given by Jesus to individuals operating in the sphere of self government. In context, it was never given or intended to apply to civil government, which instead is expressly told to use the power of the sword to protect society and punish evildoers. To confuse those two obligations and jurisdictions would make no more sense than to use the passage in Romans 13 regarding civil government to claim that the church also has the power of the sword — which it does not!

Likewise, care for the poor and meeting personal, individual needs is uniquely relegated, with some variations, to the domains of self government, the family, church and voluntary associations — but never in Scripture to civil government!

What we see throughout Scripture is that different jurisdictions have different rights and different roles and different responsibilities. Once we surrender our rights and responsibilities of self government, the family, the church and voluntary associations to voracious politicians, however, civil government becomes our idol and the foundations of society start to crumble.

This is an issue of profound importance to the Christian community as we seek to be salt and light to our nation and to become engaged in the great debates of our day.

For those who want to promote some nebulous “Christian” obligation to expand civil government into the domain of self government, or to assume the roles and responsibilities given in Scripture to the family, the church and voluntary associations, I challenge you to provide Scriptural references and examples. The best you can do, from what I’ve seen, is to take passages directed at one jurisdiction of government (self, family, church or voluntary associations) and twist them around to apply to civil government. But as we like to say here in Virginia, that dog don’t hunt.

Any takers?

~ Jim

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15 responses

  1. Jim, I cannot believe no one commented on this particular blog. I have been personally telling people for years now that the church (individually, locally, univerally) has surrendered our/its responsibilities to the government. I commend you on writing this, and more so, on the challenge you have proffered.

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  2. You know, if only they hadn’t separated church and state. Then there wouldn’t have been a mad dash to get members (for financial support to sustain religion) and we could have, as a country, eventually chosen to use our state funded church tithes for charitable and social goods.

    I heard today that the worst person to defend capitalism is a capitalist because railing against big government and social programs begins to make a person sound insensitive and greedy. Too short sided to see the big picture that a sociological approach will provide. Churches that rail against big government and socialism seem to be those that have lost track of helping others and embrace isolationism and play the “victim” card in a country that is nearly a theocracy (depending on the government at the time). This makes church people with arguments like yours a bad advocate for anti-social welfare.

    That said, there is no way Jesus would have been a capitalist.

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  5. I’m to the party 2 years too late it would appear …. But that’s the story of my life:

    A few thoughts:

    1. Yes. There’s nothing in the Bible that looks like democratic government in a post-industrial age.

    2. You will find an overlap in the different forms of theocracy in the Old Testament where civil, religious and social issues overlap and are addressed in a manner that doesn’t separate all those elements.

    3. The absence of a specific example that looks like our system and circumstances doesn’t necessarily imply that it is unwise or impermissable for Christians to believe that some elements (large or small) might be in part or whole properly addressed through government. It might even be that it’s permissable for Christians to disagree on that on a personal level and to accept that in eternity it won’t matter so much, so long as benevolance and support for the weakest in our midst gets done.

    4. There’s such a thing too that comes in play in examining issues like this that is pyschologically known as compartmentalization, or where issues and needs are seen as residing in different realms and where in each realm, different rules apply. Human wisdom might note, (and be accurate) that government can be a very inefficient and wasteful means to address certain problems such as poverty, care for the elderly etc. The observation can be made that other institutions; church, the family, non-profits can do a better job, and that might be true as well. It begs the question however, if those institutions were (and are) able to do so, then why didn’t they in the past, and why aren’t they now? Is it better to be right structurally in theory with more people falling through the cracks as it were or to address the need more broadly even if the means are not as efficient as we want in theory? Human nature doesn’t have a great track record of voluntarily inconveniencing themselves for the benefit of others on a sustained basis.

    Raising these thoughts doesn’t mean I’m a full blown social liberal (there are middle position between the extreme right and the extreme left, believe it or not.)

    I’m not sure Jesus would write a book on social values as applied as government (assuming that were his primary focus which is debatable). If He did however, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t sound like Adam Smith or Ayn Rand.

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    • Thanks, Bart. Those are thoughtful comments.

      My purpose was not to defend any particular system of government (democracy, socialism, et al), but rather to ask whether God – as Sovereign over all of creation – ordains the rights, responsibilities and limits of various spheres of government such as the state. If the basic principles are understood, then various cultures can determine how best to apply them within their own context and within different systems of civil government.

      Fundamentally, if God has something to say in Scripture about the jurisdiction of the church, the family, the individual and civil governments, then we can and should look to Scripture for examples that provide guidance and for specific precepts. Nonetheless, I agree that there is much left unsaid – which I think is God’s way of allowing for human creativity.

      The intended purpose, function and limits of civil government, I think, are fairly clearly set forth in Scripture given the numerous examples we see and also some fairly explicit passages like Romans 13. That those boundaries are ascertainable from Scripture is made evident by the work of men such as Witherspoon in the formation of our own country. When those are boundaries are ignored, then things just don’t work well – as I think history and our current problems so amply illustrate.

      I also think that in the past the role of the church, the family and individual responsibility were much more evident and were in the forefront when it came to addressing social problems. I concede, however, that it’s likely a chicken and egg thing – which came first? The rise of the power of the state in lieu of the church, the family and individual responsibility; or abandoning the legitimate role of those other spheres of government?

      Regardless, some of us are not willing to concede such unbridled power to the state, while concurrently working to renew and rebuild the essential roles of the church, the family and individual self governance. Giving the state the naive power to solve all of our problems (which isn’t even possible), is also giving the state the power to enslave us and usurp the roles that God has ordained for the church, the family and the individual.

      Nonetheless, this is not an issue on which fellowship between believers depends, although it is one on which believers must dialog together as we seek God’s perspective. Interestingly, though, I have yet to have anyone provide even a single example or verse in Scripture to support the view that civil government is responsible for providing for individual personal welfare, as opposed to the common good.

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  8. Not that we should despair of efforts to influence or improve society and civil government, but we should remind ourselves that our Lord has historically not been intimidated by the corrupt Roman society of the first century nor the Communist society in China in the 1940s and ’50s. Who knows what He will do with today’s society?

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  9. Jim. That was one of the most articulate summations Iv’e read in a long time, thanks.
    Here’s my extension of it.
    The ekklesia started out as a family of redeemed families, in close community, under the thumb of a foreign power, in their own land.
    They had an internal culture that most of us moderns have never conceived of or tasted, but which empowered each successive generation to lay down their lives daily for the joy of His smile and the relief of one anothers daily toil.
    In faithfully doing so, they gained legitimacy, and with it, civil authority, as the benefits became obvious, and thus began the decline in walking as aliens in occupied territory, losing the ethos of spiritual citizenship and fellowship that transcends blood and race.
    We transmogrified into some hybrid13th tribe of Israel, as it were.
    And here we are, inheritors of the logical conclusion of that devolution.
    Cursed by our blessings.
    Between then and now, the institutional church split its usurped civil authority off into a second (legitimate) branch called Government, and the two have been jockeying for control ever since.
    Two sides of the same coin.
    I think Daniel would call that Babylon, and if so, we should figuratively leave and go back to Jerusalem, and start over.
    And Im talking about a kingdom that comes without observation, and whose builder is God, just so we understand.
    Our 70 yrs of captivity is up, as evidenced by the mass exodus from churches and institutions of all kinds, and millions of malcontents wandering the wildernesses of every ‘ism’ that ever came up out of the pit.
    Of course Jerusalem, viz a vis the church in ruins, isn’t a sexy selling piece of property.
    And after being comfortable and sharing power in Babylon for so long, very few will give it up and go back to being pelted with rocks as they rebuild their testimony and integrity with God by rebuilding the foundations of our predecessors failures.
    But God is in Jerusalem, and not Babylon, though He cares for His people there, who didn’t and won’t go back.There’s a price to pay for wherever you stay.
    Davids men knew the times, in a similar situation as we are in, and sold everything they had to follow the unpublished prophetic revelation that Sauls time was over and Davids was coming. It wasn’t going to be pretty, and it was going to separate families, friends and a nation,but that separation was the next necessary step before the temple could finally be built.
    Back to Jerusalem for a second look.
    Everything and everyone against them, low morale, no Home Depot and the capacity to forget why they had left Babylon and returned to Jerusalem was just like us today.
    When we have tried everything, and it still wont work, read the manual.
    He calls it, in more than 50 NT scriptures, one another-ing.
    Sure the macro plan is to build the church, but when they returned to every man building his own tiled house which is a picture of no longer one anothering, the master plan got sidelined.
    If we are going to see Jesus build His church, and we co-labor with Him as the master builder, we are going to have to take another look at all those one anothers that we have collectively abandoned for programs and vision statements.
    Taken together, all the one anothers in the NT are a constitution or a manifesto for becoming the most effective church building generation since…..whenever each generation gave up one anothering.
    We have to quit trying so hard to build a replacement for the destroyed temple (early church) and just do what God wired us to do at the one another level.
    We are not really builders, as much as we should be lovers, but this building fetish we’ve had for a few millennium is just so much fun.
    Its not our place to fix the mess we are in, because we’re the mess that needs fixing.
    One anothering is the daily building plan, and once we are all following the plan, and have lost our trust in men and institutions and city’s with foundations, we will discover how much more joy and satisfaction there is in discovering Jesus in each other.
    And that’s when the world will sit up and take notice of Jesus, when they see us practice what we preach about love and truth.
    Nuff said.
    Blessings
    Greg

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  10. Jim, the role of “punishing evil and rewarding good” for our government seems to express itself in laws that restrain oppressive power, rewarding institutions that help the poor and yes even directly helping the poor. What should the poor do while Christians decide whether or not we will fulfill our obligations?

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  12. —In context, it was never given or intended to apply to civil government, which instead is expressly told to use the power of the sword to protect society and punish evildoers.—
    I don’t subscribe to the mental gymnastics required to think that individually men should behave one way, but when they collectively form government they should put their morals and convictions aside and treat people in a wholly different manner.
    At some point we do all need to be realists… I don’t think Jesus asks us to sit quietly while an intruder rapes our loved one any more than I think Jesus wants us to support government which has militant foreign policy.
    Its funny and sad how some christians can read scriptures talking about the role of women or slaves yet put that in 1st century context, but when they read things about government then its like oh lets forget context and use it to support the violent empire we’ve bought into.
    Yes we live in a current tension where evil men and systems abound so punishment and restraint is a necessary evil, but unrestrained all it ends up with increasing violence.
    Anyways, maybe if the church stepped up more, the need for civil govt to be so involved would be less. For now i don’t see many/any churches helping the unemployed or unhealthy in substantial ways. Capitalism has totally infected the western church.

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