Many Christians feel that it is the calling of the church, the discipleship community, to see to it that Christian morals are upheld and enforced by the state. As such, Christians put pressure on lawmakers to pass “Christian laws” and on parishioners to vote for “Christian lawmakers.” However, there are several reasons why such a strategy is both impossible and undesirable.
- The most primary reason is that the New Testament never calls Christians to impose their moral standards on the general society, but rather to win over those in the society to want to follow Christ. 1 Peter puts it this way, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”
- The only way to live out the values and ethics of Christianity is with the help of the Holy Spirit. Non-Christians simply lack the resources to live according to the values and ethics of Christianity. Throughout the New Testament, there is never a description offered of people being able to choose to live holy lives; one is either a slave to sin or a slave to Christ.
- Most of the values and ethics of Christianity are defined by the New Testament specifically in relation to Christ. Look at Eph 5:1, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” You can’t translate that into a third language so that non-Christians can live by it. It can only be understood in relation to the cross.
- Furthermore, the values and ethics of Christianity are focused around the heart and intentions, not outward actions. You can make a law against adultery, if you think that’s best for the country, but you can’t make a law against lust. Seen this way, it is actually impossible to legislate the values and ethics of Christianity in the first place, let alone for citizens to obey.
- Finally, what are you going to do to enforce the the ethics and values of Christianity in a nation? Are you going to kill those who violate the Christian ethic? That in itself is not consistent with the ethics and values of Christianity, which rather admonish the church to suffer for doing good. The entire program is backward.
But this leaves us with two questions. First, how is the church to call individuals to righteousness, if not through the imposition of “Christian laws”? Second, how is the church to call nations to righteousness, if not through the political process?
To the former, the answer is clear enough. The church calls individuals to righteousness the only way possible: through repentance and conversion. The only community over which the church exercises moral authority is its own. As Paul put it 1 Corinthians, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not rather to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.”
To the latter, the answer is more complex. John Howard Yoder observed that while the church cannot call the nation to act as though it were Christian, it can call on the state to act according to its own stated ideals. This is what Reverend King was doing in the civil rights movement. (Thanks to StephenandGinny for bringing this point to my attention recently.) Yoder further argued that the church can call the state away from particular instances of injustice, such as particular illicit military maneuvers and specific governmental corruption.
Finally, according to Yoder, the discipleship community can demonstrate in its own life what the reign of God looks like, and wait for the state to see the benefits and co-opt such practical strategies. Yoder cites public schools, peace corps and state-run hospitals as historic examples of this phenomenon. Another example includes court-mandated Victim-Offender Reconciliation programs. Perhaps one could point to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (in contradistinction to the Nuremberg Trials) as another instance, though opinions are divided on the desirability and efficacy of the Commission.
What do you think? Given that the discipleship community has a calling to manifest the Kingdom of God on earth and to make disciples from all nations, how should the church act to see to it that God’s will is “done on earth as in heaven?” Is there a biblically sanctioned and practical way to bring the nations more in line with the values of Christianity?