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WHY GOVERNMENT CAN'T SAVE YOUAn Alternative to Political Activism
By JOHN F. MACARTHUR, JR.
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2000 Thomas Nelson Publishing
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePolitical Involvement: A Christian Perspective
There was a time when nearly everyone could name off all the Ten Commandments, but today most don't even know what the Ten Commandments are. There was also a time when retail stores, dining and entertainment establishments, and all nonessential enterprises would be closed on Sundays out of respect for the Lord's Day. But now for most people in the West it's fairly much business as usual on Sundays. Furthermore, there was a time (not so many years ago), when respectable citizens uniformly disapproved of homosexuality, adultery, and divorce; believed sexual promiscuity was absolutely wrong; disdained cursing or obscene language; saw abortion as unthinkable; and automatically held public officials to high moral and ethical standards. But today many citizens, when polled on such issues, view them either as acceptable practices, civil rights, or inconsequential matters.
How times and the culture have changed! All those past scenarios seem to most unbelievers better suited to the realm of an old novel or book of legends and fables. The strong Christian influence and scriptural standards that shaped Western culture and American society through the end of the nineteenth century have definitely given way to practical atheism and moral relativism. The few vestiges of Christianity in the culture are at best weak and compromising, and to an increasingly pagan society they are cultic and bizarre.
In the United States, political leaders, legislative bodies, and courts during the past half century have adopted, mainly through laws and judicial rulings, a distinctly anti-Christian attitude and agenda. The country has swept away the principles of the Christian worldview under the guises of strict separation of church and state, equal rights, "political correctness," and tolerance.
Evangelical Christians are understandably alarmed and even resentful at what has occurred in contemporary America:
Public institutions and officials now sanction "alternate lifestyles" (homosexuality) and same-sex unions.
"Reproductive freedom" (a woman's right to have an abortion) is an accepted viewpoint that's supported by the Supreme Court.
Schools and government agencies promote "safe sex" for young people (secular sex education that ignores the moral and spiritual issues of premarital sex and worries only about venereal diseases and unwanted babies).
"Judicial fairness" gets prime consideration in the court system (criminals exonerated as "victims of their environments," at the disregard of the real victims).
"True freedom of expression" (pornographic literature, film, and art exhibitions) is all that matters in the arts.
To make matters worse, believers often feel intensified hostilities toward the government when they realize that their tax dollars are funding such ungodly ideas and practices.
During the past twenty-five years, well-meaning Christians have founded a number of evangelical activist organizations and put millions of dollars into them in an ill-conceived effort to counteract the secular undermining of American culture. They have used these groups, along with existing Christian publishing houses and broadcast networks, to lobby hard for a "Christian" political viewpoint and fight back against the prevailing anti-Christian culture. Sadly, those believers have often displayed mean-spirited attitudes and utilized the same kinds of worldly tactics as their unbelieving opponents. The problem with this overall approach should be obvious—believers become antagonistic toward the very lost people God has called them to love and reach with the gospel.
LESSONS FROM HISTORY
There is no denying the historical precedent for political, cultural, and even military activism by professing Christians. But such precedent doesn't make that sort of Christian preoccupation right or biblical. The Crusades during the Middle Ages were waged for the purpose of regaining Christian control of the Holy Lands, yet few believers today would praise that effort. Religious wars and campaigns tinged with political motivation, such as what occurred during the Reformation era in Europe and England are viewed with disapproval, or at best curiosity, by people today. For example, who today can identify with the motivations of France, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, and some of the German states in the early 1600s to wage a long conflict (Thirty Years' War) whose cause was rooted in the bitter rivalry between Roman Catholic and Protestant rulers as much as it was in nationalistic hostilities? Or how many present-day believers would even partially approve of the Puritans' bloody overthrow, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, of the English monarchy in the 1660s and the imposition of their austere view of church, state, and morality on the nation? (The Puritans were particularly cruel to Irish Catholics.)
Over the past several centuries, people have mistakenly linked democracy and political freedom to Christianity. That's why many contemporary evangelicals believe the American Revolution was completely justified, both politically and scripturally. They follow the argumentation of the Declaration of Independence, which declares that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are divinely endowed rights. Therefore those believers say such rights are part of a Christian worldview, worth attaining and defending at all costs, including military insurrection at times. But such a position is contrary to the clear teachings and commands of Romans 13:1–7. So the United States was actually born out of a violation of New Testament principles, and any blessings that God has bestowed on America have come in spite of that disobedience by the Founding Fathers.
Also, many present-day Christian activists seem to be unaware of how much their methodology parallels that of liberal Christians at the turn of the twentieth century. Like those misguided idealists, contemporary evangelicals became enamored of temporal issues at the expense of eternal values. Evangelical activists, in essence, are simply preaching a politically conservative version of the old social gospel, emphasizing social and cultural concerns above spiritual ones. In that framework the government becomes more and more the earthly ally (if he can persuade it to support his special agenda) or enemy (if it stays opposed or unresponsive to his agenda) of the Christian. But the ideal human government can ultimately do nothing to advance God's kingdom, and the worst, most despotic worldly government in the end cannot halt the power of the Holy Spirit or the spread of God's Word.
To gain a thoroughly biblical and Christian perspective on political involvement, we should take to heart the words of the British theologian Robert L. Ottley, delivered at Oxford University more than one hundred years ago:
The Old Testament may be studied ... as an instructor in social righteousness. It exhibits the moral government of God as attested in his dealings with nations rather than with individuals; and it was their consciousness of the action and presence of God in history that made the prophets preachers, not merely to their countrymen, but to the world at large.... There is indeed significance in the fact that in spite of their ardent zeal for social reform they did not as a rule take part in political life or demand political reforms. They desired ... not better institutions but better men.
LESSONS FROM SCRIPTURE
My point is not that Christians should remain totally uninvolved in politics or civic activities and causes. They ought to express their political beliefs in the voting booth, and it is all right occasionally to support legitimate measures designed to correct a glaring social or political wrong. Complete noninvolvement would be contrary to what God's Word says about doing good in society: "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:10; see Titus 3:1–2). It would also display a lack of gratitude for whatever amount of religious freedom the government allows us to enjoy. Furthermore, such pious apathy toward government and politics would reveal a lack of appreciation for the many appropriate legal remedies believers in democracies have for maintaining or improving the civil order. A certain amount of healthy and balanced concern with current trends in government and the community is acceptable, as long as we realize that such interest is not vital to our spiritual growth, our righteous testimony, or the advancement of the kingdom of Christ. Above all, the believer's political involvement should never displace the priority of preaching and teaching the gospel.
Believers are certainly not prohibited from being directly involved in government as civil servants, as some notable examples in the Old and New Testaments illustrate. Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon are two excellent models of servants God used in top governmental positions to further His kingdom. The centurion's servant (Matthew 8:5–13), Zacchaeus the tax collector (Luke 19:1–10), and Cornelius the centurion (Acts 10) all continued in public service even after they experienced the healing or saving power of Christ. (Acts 13:4–12 records that the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus also remained in office after he was converted.)
The issue again is one of priority. The greatest temporal good we can accomplish through political involvement cannot compare to what the Lord can accomplish through us in the eternal work of His kingdom. Just as God called ancient Israel (Exodus 19:6), He has called the church to be a kingdom of priests, not a kingdom of political activists. The apostle Peter instructs us, "But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9).
Political and Social Difficulties
Jesus, as we would expect, perfectly maintained His Father's perspective on these matters, even though He lived in a society that was every bit as pagan and corrupt as today's culture. In many ways it was much worse than any of us in Western nations has ever faced. Cruel tyrants and dictators ruled throughout the region, the institution of slavery was firmly entrenched—everything was the antithesis of democracy. King Herod, the Idumean vassal of Rome who ruled Samaria and Judea, epitomized the godless kind of autocratic rule: "Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men [concerning the whereabouts of the baby Jesus], was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under" (Matthew 2:16).
Furthermore, few of us have experienced the sort of economic and legal oppression that the Romans applied to the Jews of Jesus' day. Tax rates were exorbitant and additional government-sanctioned abuses by the tax collectors exacerbated the financial burden on the people. The Jews in Palestine were afforded almost no civil rights and were treated as an underprivileged minority that could not make an appeal against legal injustices. As a result, some Jews were in constant outward rebellion against Rome.
Fanatical nationalists, known as Zealots, ignored their tax obligations and violently opposed the government. They believed that even recognizing a Gentile ruler was wrong (see Deuteronomy 17:15, "You may not set a foreigner over you, who is not your brother"). Many Zealots became assassins, performing acts of terrorism and violence against both the Romans and other Jews whom they viewed as traitors.
It is also true that the Roman social system was built on slavery. The reality of serious abuses of slaves is part of the historical record. Yet neither Jesus nor any of the apostles attempted to abolish slavery. Instead, they told slaves to be obedient and used slavery as a metaphor for believers who were to submit to their Lord and Master.
Jesus' earthly ministry took place right in the midst of that difficult social and political atmosphere. Many of His followers, including the Twelve, to varying degrees expected Him to free them from Rome's oppressive rule. But our Lord did not come as a political deliverer or social reformer. He never issued a call for such changes, even by peaceful means. Unlike many late twentieth-century evangelicals, Jesus did not rally supporters to some grandiose attempt to "capture the culture" for biblical morality or greater political and religious freedoms. Instead, He did not hesitate to make such clear declarations as, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21), and, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do" (Matthew 23:2–3). The pagan Roman officials and wicked Jewish leaders were not to be emulated, but they were to be obeyed.
Christ, however, was not devoid of care and concern for the daily pain and hardships people endured in their personal lives. The Gospels record His great empathy and compassion for sinners. He applied those attitudes in a tangible, practical way by healing thousands of people of every kind of disease and affliction, often at great personal sacrifice to Himself.
Still, as beneficial and appreciated as His ministry to others' physical needs was, it was not Jesus' first priority. His divine calling was to speak to the hearts and souls of individual men and women. He proclaimed the good news of redemption that could reconcile them to the Father and grant them eternal life. That message far surpasses any agenda for political, social, or economic reform that can preoccupy us. Christ did not come to promote some new social agenda or establish a new moral order. He did come to establish a new spiritual order, the body of believers from throughout the ages that constitutes His church. He did not come to earth to make the old creation moral through social and governmental reform but to make new creatures (His people) holy through the saving power of the gospel and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.
And our Lord and Savior has commanded us to continue His ministry, with His supreme priorities in view, with the goal that we might advance His kingdom: "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:18–20).
In the truest sense, the moral, social, and political state of a people is irrelevant to the advance of the gospel. Jesus said that His kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36).
THE REAL BATTLE
We can't protect or expand the cause of Christ by human political and social activism, no matter how great or sincere the efforts. Ours is a spiritual battle against worldly ideologies and dogmas that are arrayed against God, and we achieve victory over them only with the weapon of Scripture. The apostle Paul writes: "For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:3–5).
As Paul's words declare, we must reject all that is ungodly and false and never compromise God's standards of righteousness. We can do that partly by desiring the improvement of society's moral standards and partly by approving of measures that would conform government more toward righteousness. We do grieve over the rampant indecency, vulgarity, unchastity, lack of courtesy and respect for others, deceitfulness, self-indulgent materialism, and violence that is corroding society. But in all of our efforts to support what is good and wholesome, reject what is evil and corrupt, and make a profoundly positive impact on our culture, we must use God's methods and maintain scriptural priorities.
Excerpted from WHY GOVERNMENT CAN'T SAVE YOU by JOHN F. MACARTHUR, JR. Copyright © 2000 by Thomas Nelson Publishing. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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