Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Imposing Our Faith on Others

One of the great hot potatoes in the history of the Christian church has been the relationship of the church to the civil government. Yet it is interesting how little space is to it devoted in the New Testament. We are told to be in subjection to the government authorities and to render to them what is due them (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13,14; Matthew 22:15-22). We are also told there is a point where we must serve God rather than men (Acts 4:19; 5:29-32; Revelation 6:9-11). But we are told little else. Now I am convinced that the silences of Scripture are intentional. I would conclude from this that the chief way to promote Christianity and Christian principles is not political action. This does not mean that Christians should never engage in such action, but we should not put our trust in it as the way to produce a Christian society. The chief thing we are told to do is to proclaim God's truth (2 Timothy 4:1-5; 1 Peter 3:15; Romans 10:14). This includes speaking against wrong and injustice (James 5:1-6; Mark 12:38-40; Matthew 14:3,4). But nowhere are we directed to political action as the best way to deal with these.

Now one question we have to deal with is, what about the Old Testament? The Old Testament Law provided for severe penalties, even over issues of faith (Deuteronomy 13; Numbers 15:32-36; Leviticus 24:10-16). But the purpose of the Old Testament law was not to show us how civil government should work, but to show us God's perfect standard, which no one can keep (Romans 3:19,20; Galatians 3:10-12; Hebrews 8:7-10). Nonetheless, the Old Testament Law does show the general principles of God's justice. Therefore, it is a mistake either to try to institute it in its full vigor or to ignore it entirely in the present age. Even in the Old Testament God did not always enforce it with full vigor (2 Samuel 12:13). But asking today what kind of laws we should advocate in nations which generally consist largely of unbelievers can be a difficult question. We cannot simply lapse into total pragmatism, as God says a legal system should reflect true justice (Romans 13:3,4; Proverbs 14:34; Amos 1). But we also cannot expect unbelievers to bear the burden no one is able to bear (Acts 15:10; Galatians 2:14,15; Matthew 23:4). This is a hard balance to reach, and those who object to anything we advocate based on God's principles will claim we are imposing our beliefs on them. But we must not back down on this. Still we must ask whether at some point, if we expect an unbeliever to act like or even pretend to be a believer, we are not simply producing hypocrites. There are Christians whose calling is to be involved in civil government. In a democracy it is to some extent everyone's calling. We should carefully consider how to best carry out this calling. But we should be careful of expecting too much from it.

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