The Fistfight between Faith and Freedom

“The ears of our generation have been made so delicate by the senseless multitude of flatterers that, as soon as we perceive that anything of ours is not approved of, we cry out that we are being bitterly assailed; and when we can repel the truth by no other pretence, we escape by attributing bitterness, impatience, intemperance, to our adversaries.”

Martin Luther in his letter on Christian Liberty
sent to Pope Leo X, September 6, 1520.

Political correctness has been around for a long time–the church invented it.

In my previous articles we touched on some of the differences between living out a personal faith, and a faith designed to guide political systems. Specifically, we noted that one purpose of the Old Testament law was to establish a political nation (though that was not the whole intention). Much of the New Testament was designed to address personal applications of our faith in everyday life (though that was not the whole intention). It is important to revisit this topic, because this is where we come to the point of greatest controversy.

There is no doubt that faith, particularly Christianity, has been the primary facilitator in the development of freedom and democracy as we understand it today. However, in the course of freedom’s natural development away from legally codified systems of national faith, the balance (in the West) has shifted from a public policy that protects faith, to one of antagonism; specifically, toward Evangelicalism and Catholicism. 

A great deal of this shift in political philosophy is a result of the Enlightenment, and eventually the onset and entrenchment of postmodernism. In one sense we might say that postmodernism represents the greatest expression of political freedom. It begins with an empty slate: there are no rules, no morals, no absolutes, no truly self-evident meaning. It is probably better to say that postmodernism begins with an empty mind rather than empty slate. Fill it with whatever you want.

What renders this philosophy even more difficult is that postmodernism has integrated itself into the Christian church like a virus. Even Christians who are supposed to be guided by common principles and absolutes no longer agree on what is right or wrong, from the personal or political perspective. For example, Evangelicals in the United States tend to be politically conservative, but their counterparts in other countries tend toward what we would label as political liberalism–even forms of socialism1—and it doesn’t stop there. Evangelicals in Latin America and other developing areas have been strong proponents of Liberation Theology,2 guerilla movements, and even Marxist ideologies. These Christians’ claim to faith in Jesus Christ is not being questioned, but their political ideals are not what many well-studied American Christians would view as normative. Why? We all read the same Bible. We all have the same examples from scripture. We all interpret scripture to the same basic conclusions, don’t we? 

No, we don’t. In fact, it’s not even close.

Even in America, postmodernism has had an eroding effect on the church. A 2003 survey conducted by Barna Research “Discovered that only 9% of born-again Christians have [a biblical-worldview].” The biblical worldview, as defined in the research included the belief in “absolute moral truth.” Barna also noted, “Among the most prevalent alternative worldviews was postmodernism, which seemed to be the dominant perspective among the two youngest generations.”3 That includes the church!

This alteration of the church’s worldview has facilitated confusion about how to interpret the “political” vs. “personal” passages of the Bible–and their application. In Chapter Three we learned that over centuries the church’s approach to the Bible’s political application has changed. The Reformation helped craft political liberty as a direct challenge to the doctrines of a state-church and a church-state.4 It is not that they had it right or wrong, it was simply a natural development of the times. As they were able to read the Bible for themselves, men were becoming more accustomed to the concept of personal liberty, and sought to form a case for those rights in the political realm. All of this, culminating into the 21st century, leads us to the question:

“What is the most appropriate application of the Bible’s political principles in the modern world?” 

Let’s try applying a simple question: Should the entirety of the Ten Commandments be codified into civil law? The first response of many Christians who would answer yes is to say something to the effect of, “There should be laws against murder, stealing, and so on.” That covers two out of eight commandments, but what about the rest? How about, “You shall have no other gods before me?” The First Commandment would seem to fly in the face of America’s First Amendment. How can you have a “Christian nation” without tossing out the First Amendment? Before diving into concepts of theocracy and Jewish law, let’s try to codify another commandment that doesn’t seem so “religious.”

“Honor your father and your mother.” How do you write that into modern civil law? How would you define what is legally honoring and dishonoring? What would enforcement look like; fines, prison, beatings? If you say, “I will use the Bible’s other statements on this topic to shape that law,” then be careful. The Old Testament law prescribed death to the one who spoke ill of his parents.5 Are you prepared to go that far? How much of the Mosaic Law will you use or put aside?

The Ten Commandments contain a law that is unenforceable without encroaching upon freedom of thought: the Tenth Commandment, “You shall not covet.”

As already mentioned, even America’s early settlers attempted to use portions of the Old Testament as the law of the land. The intention may have been noble, but the execution was flawed. There is every reason to believe that future attempts to do so in the name of “restoring our Christian values,” may also be doomed to failure. I don’t say this lightly. Like many Evangelicals and the early reformers, I hold to a “literal” or what might be called a “straightforward”6 view of the Bible. It is that starting assumption that helps lead me to this conclusion. With that in mind, I hope the next few pages will answer, or perhaps begin, to answer the question posited earlier: 

“What is the most appropriate application of the Bible’s political principles in the modern world?”

The importance of this question cannot be stressed enough, which is why I have repeated it. As we have seen, the Bible’s text has been used to establish, protest, and even revolt against a variety of political systems for more than 1,900 years. The answer to this all-important question—or perhaps, its application—has been a constantly changing affair since often men looked to the “literal” text for their answers, and not the principles of character behind the text. Perhaps it is time for us to examine codifications of Christianity in politics from this perspective. Let’s do that by addressing three issues:

  • Man’s practice of government, as an expression of his nature
  • The divisions of the scripture concerning government, corporate religion, and personal behavior
  • God’s practice of government, as an expression of His nature

Man’s Practice of Government as an Expression of His Nature 

            The word that may best describe the development of most political systems and man’s practice of government is Reactive. It is especially easy to see this truth when you look backward to trace the development of political systems, and their adaptations. Take American democracy as an example. How did the United States build a political system with a federal authority that is cooperative, yet supreme over the states? It was in part, a reaction to the Civil War, which established federal preeminence. Previously there was a tendency toward stronger states rights–even by those who supported a strong central government.7 Why did the states retain such a strong position until the Civil War? Go back further to the Revolution, the Articles of Confederation, followed by the U.S. Constitution. The states had just come out of a bloody war with England when they fought for the right of colonial independence. Decades of protest preceded the war in which the colonies protested the then ill treatment by the English parliament and King George. 

            Where did the colonists get the idea of their rights independent from Great Britain (other than the influence of their faith)? From their shared history as settlers from European nations that saw kings’ absolute power wane as Reformation ideas transformed the continent. Cross the sea, back in time to Europe, and you find even more reactive political development. Were the crusades launched simply to invade foreign territory, or was their original purpose to preemptively protect Europe from the coming Muslim onslaught, and protect those on pilgrimages to the Holy Land?

            While there is not space here to trace the complete process, even a cursory reading of church and European history reveals that the development of various political rights—the rise and fall of European powers, even the changes in Roman political structure over the early centuries—were all the result of events and philosophies that facilitated philosophical and structural changes in a reactive manner. You will find the same reactive process in the development and application of Marxism, Nazism, and virtually all political philosophies. Even in America’s own culture war the reactive process is in full swing, with the outcome yet to be determined. According to Rabbi Daniel Lapin, “The Christians who are leading the legislative measures are not being proactive – they are being reactive. They are reacting to the changes in this country that have not been neutral towards religion, but hostile to it.”8

            While the many issues that led to these developments are much more complicated than presented here, one truth remains: Man is a creature limited to reaction. This truth helps us understand why no one ever conceived, or implemented modern concepts of freedom or democracy thousands of years ago. Man had to go through a normal process, through time, reacting to his various religious and political circumstances to eventually come to the ideas that we now consider so simple. Imagine, if given another 1,000 years, what type of political ideologies will exist? You can’t, and that’s the point. So how does this reactionary process help answer our principle question? 

“What is the most appropriate application of the Bible’s political principles in the modern world?”

Prior to our time, the answer either could not be known, or would have been extremely difficult to discover. During the Reformation period men were still interpreting the scriptures within the context that was most familiar: Christendom. That all men everywhere should have the right to freely believe and propagate whatever philosophy they want rarely would have occurred to them. It did occur to certain reformers, but not in the context we understand it today. Christianity may have been spread by missionary force, but it was usually a force supported by kings, or the political Roman church. At the time, considering the political and economic shape of the world, it was the most effective means they could think of. It was only natural for many laws to be derived from a church-state point of view. The Roman, or state-church was concerned with maintaining certain levels of what we might call, theo-political integrity, therefore, laws against blasphemy were enforced, respect for church institutions was required, religious missions became political ventures, and political leadership was either kept in check, or legitimized through the authority of the church. The basic Constantinian model flourished, though it adapted with the changing politics over the centuries.

            Our discovery through history is summed up in this: Man’s development of governmental systems, and his practice of governing himself and others, is reactionary, driven by the limits of his contemporary understandings. This is no less true today than it was l00 or 1,000 years ago. The problem with past applications was two-fold. 

First, the attempt by well-intentioned people to adapt Old Testament laws to the current day was always done with the understanding that their sect of Christianity was to be protected, and advanced by the state. After all, if God established a nation in the desert (Israel) to advance the faith, why shouldn’t Christianity do the same? The world and the men in it belong to God; therefore shouldn’t they be subject to his political rule, even if they reject his spiritual rule? The problem with the approach is that it always creates divisions among people of differing though honest intentions and only advances true religious faith in a minimal way – the political applications become paramount, instead of heart transformation. 

Second, the New Testament never provides a command, a model, or even a reason for biblical precepts to be adopted into law specifically for creating Christian countries. 9 John Calvin, who himself favored government support of the church, also said it was the Apostles “object being not to form a civil polity, but to establish the spiritual kingdom of Christ.”10 A careful study of the Old and New Testaments will reveal something remarkable: God deals with man differently than some think the Mosaic Law would seem to prescribe. To understand this, a short Bible study is required, which will lead us directly to the third point (God’s practice of government as an expression of His nature).

The Scripture: Public Policy and Personal Behavior

            Whenever Christians have looked for a biblical model for applying Christian principles to civil societies, they have always looked to the Old Testament. Exodus through Deuteronomy contains a wide variety of laws and guidelines for criminal justice, health and education policy, limitations on government, even personal rights. However, there is often a lack of understanding on how, or which laws should be adapted to modern times and nations. Fortunately, we have the New Testament which helps to put the purpose of the Mosaic Law into perspective. Specifically, the Apostle Paul made two statements that should help guide our thoughts when looking for modern application of the Mosaic Law. 

            The first is Galatians 3:24: “The law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” Paul states that one purpose of the law was to lead us to the Savior, not to create a political system under which we think we become pleasing to God as a people. John the Baptist, preaching before the coming of Christ, summed it up in Matthew 3:9 when he said to the Jews, “Do not think that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham.” The same principle was also found in the Old Testament, in Hosea 1:9, when the prophet rebuked the people’s false religion, saying, “…you are not my people, and I am not your God.” 

            Notice the common thread running through these statements, one spoken to a nation, one spoken to religious leaders, and one spoken to individuals: The law does not make a nation, a movement, or a person, pleasing to God. What matters to God is the heart brought under voluntary submission to Jesus Christ. The Mosaic Law is one means for people (specifically the nation of Israel), to recognize their sin, and the need for someone to save them from what the law revealed, our aforementioned sin. In fact, Paul actually discouraged adapting the Mosaic Law as a rule of life, as we will see. 

            Paul’s second statement is also found in Galatians, in 3:25, “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.” This is phrased even better in Romans 6:14, “…for you are not under law, but under grace.” Keep in mind that Paul was not speaking about law or laws in general; he was speaking specifically about the Mosaic Law relative to the ceremonial practices of Judaism. In other words, the Christian’s rule of life is not found in Moses’ regulations. Rather, the rule of the Christian life is found in the person and character of Jesus Christ, who Himself embodies the principles of the Mosaic Law. This is historically ironic in light of the development of the Christian nation concept, where “God’s standards or God’s rules” are adapted into contemporary law. 

            It should be mentioned that Paul was not speaking about national applications of these principles. His application was strictly made to the individual. However, Paul did intimate the failure of the law, as a legal system, to bring the Jewish nation–or anyone–into a right standing with God. H stated this point rather plainly in Romans 9:31, “… Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law.” The law failed in this respect because sinful man is not able to fulfill the terms of the law apart from Jesus Christ. The Mosaic Law set high standards but did not empower its subjects to live up to those standards.

            It is important to keep these principles in mind because they are foundational. Christianity is a personal faith, not a national political system. Professor Wayne Grudem notes, “There is no indication [in the Bible] that the power of government is to be used to enforce adherence to Christianity upon any people. Moreover, there are several indications that Jesus refused to use the power of physical force to compel people to accept the Gospel.”11

While there was a necessity to create administrative structures for the church to handle its affairs, and Paul helped create the beginnings of church organization, it was intended only to administer the affairs of believing congregations, in the specific matters of spiritual growth and reaching the community for Christ; but not for theocratic power structures.

Divisions of Law

            With these guiding principles at the head, let us examine the division of scripture concerning law and government in the context of God’s intentions, and man’s application.

            The Old Testament law can be divided into three general categories: 

  • Ceremonial Law, the national religion, its forms and practices.
  • Judicial Law, forms of government, public policy, civil and criminal law, etc.
  • Moral Law, morality, right and wrong behavior, personal relationships, etc.

It should be clearly understood that when the Apostle Paul referred to us no longer being under the law, he primarily referred to the Ceremonial Law. We know this because Paul spent a great deal of his ministry refuting Jewish leaders who insisted that gentile Christians obey the stipulations of the Old Testament regarding sacrifices and circumcision. However, where principles of morality were concerned, Paul repeated all the Ten Commandments as universally applicable for the Christian. He even applied them to the unbeliever as a standard of judgment.12

The Moral Law tends to be where we focus our attention when it comes to adapting Mosaic Law to societies, but we have also undertaken strenuous efforts to apply the faith declarations as well–acknowledging God in the political or legal system, national days of prayer of Christian origin, and so on. While there is a legitimate place for these in the American system because of our unique history, they have also been used by some as subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to place Christianity in a dominant cultural position by force of law and politics.

Many of the Mosaic Laws are easy to assign to the above categories of Ceremonial, Judicial or Moral Law; laws on animal sacrifice, dietary regulations, purification rites, temple worship, priestly orders and so on. There are also stipulations in the Judicial Law, those meant only for ancient Israel that are easy to assign. These include the building of refuge cities, the division of land among tribes, foreign policy related to Canaan and surrounding areas, agricultural and economic policies, and rules governing the authority of future Israeli kings. But there are other laws which don’t fit neatly into one category or another, and some which seem to belong to all three. At first reading some would seem to be only a matter of morality, but then a legal punishment is attached for violations that clearly put it into the judicial category. There are also laws on criminal and civil justice that while meant for ancient Israel, carry natural application across time and culture. One such example is the concept of equal justice, a punishment fitting a crime. This principle in espoused in the words, “Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.”13

Discerning the divisions of the Old Testament law, and trying to find modern application of their underlying principles is no easy task. Many Christian leaders down the centuries have differed sharply over the application of these issues, though perhaps not on all of the core principles. Catholic Professor Thomas E. Woods, Jr., notes, “With his fellow theological jurists, [Father Francisco de] Vitoria ‘defended the doctrine that all men are equally free; on the basis of natural liberty, they proclaimed their right to life, to culture, and to property.”14 The reformer John Calvin took the view that the Moral Law was universal. “Now it is evident that the Law of God which we call Moral is nothing else than the testimony of natural law, and of that conscience which God has engraven on the minds of men, the whole of this equity of which we now speak is prescribed in it. Hence it alone ought to be the aim, the rule, and the end of all laws.”15

John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 1600s expounded further, advocating that men had natural rights to do whatever they pleased, but that it was the government’s job to enforce a “moral” policy that permitted only the liberty to do good as defined by their biblical understanding. 

By this, man, as he stands in relation to man simply, hath liberty to do what he lists; it is a liberty to evil as well as too good. This liberty is incompatible and inconsistent with authority, and cannot endure the least restraint of the most just authority. The exercise and maintaining of this liberty makes men grow more evil, and in time to be worse than brute beasts: omnes sumus licentia deteriores. This is that great enemy of truth and peace, that wild beast, which all the ordinances of God are bent against, to restrain and subdue it. The other kind of liberty I call civil or federal; it may also be termed moral, in reference to the covenant between God and man, in the moral law (emphasis mine), and the politic covenants and constitutions, amongst men themselves. This liberty is the proper end and object of authority, and cannot subsist without it; and it is a liberty to that only which is good, just, and honest. This liberty you are to stand for, with the hazard (not only of your goods, but) of your lives if need be.16

Notice that even Winthrop, an obvious believer in liberty, still tied together the notions of religion, morality, and political authority in such a way that the Constantinian model was still evident. There were others who believed that any legal enforcement of religious morality robbed men of their God-given liberties; but their voices were rarely if ever heard in Puritan New England. 

Ignoring the various historical attempts to codify biblical laws into contemporary society, we should look to the overall context of the Bible to discover what is and is not appropriate. For the moment, it is easy to put aside the governmental laws of Israel. They were clearly written for a people group, culture, political situation, and time far removed from us. That in not to say there aren’t principles which are not transferable; but that is not a subject for this article. This leaves us to deal with Ceremonial Law and personal behavior. 

The Apostle Paul stated that the Ceremonial Laws were given to the Jews (Romans 3:1-2) and not the Gentiles (Romans 2:14). At no time in the Old Testament did God require gentile nations to adhere to the Ceremonial Law of the Jews within their own nations. Israel’s religion, as encompassed in the law, was a national religion. Here we discover the first problem with past applications of Mosaic Law into non-Jewish societies. As already noted, the Roman church-state, many subsequent European powers, and the early American colonies all had laws regulating activity on Sunday and requiring tithes or offerings for churches (in the form of taxes). The Old Testament regulations on these fall under the category of Ceremonial Law. 

Some would argue that the Sabbath and the tithe existed prior to the Mosaic Law, and they therefore should be classified as Moral Law. They are correct. However, it was under the Mosaic Law that they were codified as part of Israel’s religious observance–with punishment prescribed for the lawbreaker. At no time prior did God demand people take a day off and give 10 percent of income as a required religious observance, with punishments prescribed for failure to do so. Prior to Exodus 20, only character examples were provided, but not a command to follow those examples (though obedience to these examples is implied). So why were these Mosaic Ceremonial Laws later codified in the Roman church and eventually in early American colonies? 

“Sustainable infrastructure.” Without Sunday attendance, tithes drop. Without tithes, the work of the church (state supported or not) is diminished. If the political power base is situated squarely upon a state-church, then the weakened church results in a weakened political power. When normal giving was not enough to sustain the Roman church’s various projects (massive cathedrals, St. Peter’s Basilica, Crusades, etc), the church power turned to selling indulgences17 to help maintain its agenda and political influence. This is not the sole reason the church incorporated these Ceremonial Laws, but it clearly had influence.

Another form of Ceremonial Law is often codified: the profession of faith. The profession of faith, defined as acknowledging God’s existence, and man’s dependence upon him, actually falls under all three legal categories in the Mosaic Law. Exodus 20:2-3 reads:

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” 

            This short passage falls under Ceremonial, Judicial, and Moral categories for three reasons. First, as a profession of faith this law is religious in nature, and is the defining law for whom the Jews would worship. It set the stage for all other categories of law to follow. Second, the law speaks of establishing Israel’s political freedom from slavery. Additionally, it is also presented (along with the rest of the Mosaic covenant) in the ancient form of an Imperial-Vassal covenant,18 common to political treaties of the day. Third, the declaration of God’s identity at the head of Israel’s most important element of moral code provided the character base for the code itself. In other words, the laws given later are moral and right, not because the nation decided they were, or because they are a part of man’s conscience. Rather, they reflect God’s character. They are good for no other reason than that He is good. This concept of spiritual imitation is driven home by other passages like Leviticus 11:45, “Be holy for I am holy.” 

Making the Law into “Law”

            We find the First Commandment codified in Western laws when a denial of God’s existence resulted in a punishment of death or banishment. In American history, acknowledging God’s existence, and swearing allegiance to the Bible as God’s word, was a prerequisite for holding political office; or in some cases, even being allowed to live in a community. The early colonies all prepared an acknowledgement of God (profession of faith) to establish the foundation of the community’s affairs; such as in this statement from The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut,  

…and do for ourselves and our successors and such as shall be adjoined to us at any time hereafter, enter into Combination and Confederation together, to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now profess, as also, the discipline of the Churches, which according to the truth of the said Gospel is now practiced amongst us; as also in our civil affairs to be guided and governed according to such Laws…19

            Even during the late 1780s and early 1800s, some states still required an oath of fidelity to God, along with fidelity to the Old and New Testaments. Notice North Carolina’s 1776 constitution: 

No person who shall deny the being of God, or the truth of the protestant religion, or the Divine authority of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the state, shall be capable of holding any office, or place of trust or profit, in the civil department within this state”20

Maryland’s 1812 constitution read, “No other test or qualification ought to be required on admission to any office…and a declaration of a belief in the Christian religion.”21 Other states had similar provisions, including constitutional statements that it was the “duty” of citizens to worship God.

            Incorporation of a proclamation of faith, even at the generic level, provided a basic understanding to all parties that the supreme authority in a society is not the government, but God. Frankly, many people don’t have a problem with such a concept. No one wants to live under a government that is unaccountable for its policies and actions. Even the Mosaic Law restricted the authority of kings. But the difficulty of including a proclamation of faith into modern law is how far that proclamation should go. Early proclamations in Europe and America were Christian in nature. With the entrenchment of postmodernism in Western societies, the proclamation transformed into something generic, or nonexistent.

In the United States, conservative Evangelicals have tried to hold a line against the erosion if the nation’s Christian heritage, in culture and politics. Many are trying to reverse the trend. Judge Roy Moore, for example, at his own expense, placed a two-and-a-half ton granite monument of the Ten Commandment in the rotunda of Alabama’s judicial building. The monument contained more than the Mosaic Law, it was framed on each side with quotes from presidents, legal history, and Founding Fathers, in support of biblical principles of government.22 Moore’s opponents, including the ACLU, held the monument was an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Moore and his supporters countered that a public official has the right to acknowledge God in his official capacity, and that the government has the obligation to acknowledge God’s laws (and existence).23

Joseph Loconte of the conservative think-tank, the Heritage Foundation notes, “The problem with this argument is that America is not a biblical commonwealth, and the Constitution is not the Law of Moses. The American framers, keenly aware of the religious wars that ravaged most of Europe, deliberately kept religious doctrine out of the document.” Loconte, Heritage’s Fellow in Religion and Free Society, went on to say, 

It’s also a bit curious that Moore, an evangelical Protestant, is so devoted to what amounts to a public symbol of his faith. It was, after all, the medieval obsession with icons and religious legalism that helped ignite the Protestant Reformation. Though revering the 10 Commandments, Evangelicals have always emphasized a “religion of the heart”–a personal relationship with Jesus that doesn’t confuse a living faith with the trappings of orthodoxy. Even the evangelical magazine Christianity Today has warned that a fixation with posting the 10 Commandments” runs the danger of becoming an idol.”24

Ted Haggard, president of National Association of Evangelicals also accused Judge Moore of critical errors in judgment: 

Moore should have known that, as a public official, he should not favor one religion over another. When he installed the monument, he should not have given special treatment to a particular church by permitting it alone to film the installation. Moore compounded this error and abused his office when he permitted the same church to prominently provide funds for his legal defense. Moore should have understood that defying court orders would change the conversation from whether and how religion should be present in public affairs to whether his authority, as administrator of a government building, trumped that of the federal courts.

Moore’s errors, though, are not just tactical. Judeo-Christian ideas have not been the only ideas informing our political system. As Christians we believe that God is the ultimate author of laws, but our constitutional system is designed to admit and respect a wider range of views in public life. The U.S. Supreme Court building may prominently feature the Ten Commandments precisely because it also features other intellectual and historical streams.25

No matter on which side of the issue you come down, the debate illustrates how dramatically American cultural has changed. This is, to make a point, the exact point. It is the culture which is the ultimate arbiter on these issues. What is readily apparent is that the culture does not uniformly agree with Judge Moore, or with his opponents. In its current state, the culture is not decidedly Christian, or unchristian, it is pluralistic. This is evident even in the Barna research findings of 2004 about American’s attitudes on Christian values in public affairs. “On balance, though, the research shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans want traditional Christian values and symbols to prevail, although most people would stop short of declaring the U.S. to be a Christian society.”26 America is a pluralistic, self-battling, internally contradictory culture that has enabled the Christian mission to flourish as never before, because of the free debate that rages within it. Let’s look at this from another perspective.

Iraq and Afghanistan

Following U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq 2002-2004, both countries, with U.S. help, drafted and signed their first democratic constitutions. Afghanistan, formerly ruled by the Taliban sect of Islam, brutally oppressed religious opposition. In Iraq, Sunni Islam was the supported religion of the state. Though Iraq had millions of Shias (the majority) and Christians, Sunni Islam was the political preference. 

When the new democratic constitution of Afghanistan was signed, it implemented recognition of Islamic law as the basis for the nation’s legal system, declaring in Article 3, “No law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam.”27Under the new “Taliban-Lite”28 religious freedom is guided by the principles of Islam, one of the most notorious oppressors of religious freedom in history.29 It turned out that Iraq took a similar direction. When the country’s interim constitution was signed in March 2004, Shia members of the governing council protested that there was not enough representation in the new government for Shias. Even after the new constitution was signed, the protests over Shia representation continued.30 From the view of the average American this seems to smack of religious favoritism. The American system bases voting and representative rights on simple citizenship, age, and geography. We don’t apportion special representation based on tribal origins (such as the Kurds), or religious affiliation (Shia or Sunni). But that’s not how democratization has developed elsewhere, where religion and ethnicity have for many, come to mean the same thing. Democracy developed in the United States under a Judeo-Christian-influenced multi-culture. Most other developing democracies have significant, pre-existing ethnic and religious issues to sort out–and they do that in the political arena, apportioning rights and representation based squarely on ethnicity and religion. Therein lays the problem. American democracy is so strong because it denies representation based on ethnicity and religion. But many countries that base representation on ethnicity and religion encounter revolving difficulties. Iraq is just one example: If Shias are successful in acquiring “more” representation, how will that impact the rights and representation of the nation’s other groups? One can guess. Considering the track record of Islamic states, regardless of sect, one won’t have to guess too hard. If genuine religious freedom is to be maintained in the formative years of Iraq’s democracy it will be because Iraqis adopt a non-Islamic approach to their new government – which they don’t appear to be doing. According to observations made by the human rights organization, Freedom House, the Iraqi government is drafting a constitution with “language to the effect that ‘Islam’ would be the fundamental source of law in Iraq, rather than a source of law.”31 The beauty of freedom is that the Iraqi’s now have the opportunity to do so, unlike the previous years under Saddam Hussein.

Back to America

This brings us back to the most appropriate application of the Bible’s political principles in the modern world. Can you imagine the U.S. Constitution stating, “No law can be contrary to the Ten Commandments?” If it did say such a thing, the First Amendment could not exist and protect people of all faiths–or no faith. The two statements, as statements of civil law, are contradictory. If you are going to enshrine one as public policy, there is no room for the other.

While “moral issues” and “traditional values” have taken center-stage in America’s culture war, the issue is actually far deeper. The proclamation of faith is the central issue when it comes to the culture war and restoration of Judeo-Christian values in the political arena. Are we so naive to believe that Christian opposition to homosexual marriage, abortion, evolution in schools, and other “pro-family” issues isn’t first driven by a theological view of public policy? I’m not saying that opposition to these issues is wrong; I’m simply acknowledging the culture war’s root. Orthodox Rabbi Daniel Lapin has noted that in America’s culture war the two ideas struggling for supremacy in society cannot coexist. One needs to dominate.”32 As someone has said, somebody’s ideas are going to dominate the culture–why not mine? 

By basing our laws directly upon religious text or ideals, it only follows that those who don’t hold those ideals will feel slighted, or may even be persecuted in the long run. How would you feel as a Christian in Afghanistan, or Saudi Arabia, or Myanmar? How would their citizens feel in your idea of a “Christian country?” As someone who has lived in Islamic and Buddhist countries, I can testify that when the laws or politics of those nations stood contrary to my faith it was at least uncomfortable. 

God’s Practice of Government, as an Expression of His Nature

In most societies there is universal agreement on basic moral principles that should be upheld through law. We tend to agree on the basics – murder, theft, violent crime, etc. It seems these views are built into the conscience of most people (as John Calvin testified, echoing the Apostle Paul’s sentiments in the book of Romans). Different cultures may differ about the conditions under which the act was committed: For example, did he steal for profit, or deprive others, or because he was starving? Sometimes we regard certain criminal acts as not meriting punishment because of the condition under which they were perpetrated. We desire to leave room for a legal form of mercy. But when we go beyond these moral basics, we slip into the realm of oppression of conscience, faith, and even inquisitions. The irony of our attempt to apply the Bible’s political principles into civil law is that God Himself has never governed man with the fullness of the Mosaic Law He gave Israel.

            God never intended for the Mosaic Law, in the fullness of all three categories, to be adapted as political or civil law for every nation. Except for the timeless principles of morality, which God has ordained as relevant everywhere, the Mosaic Law as a whole, was designed as a law for a self-governing Israeli theocracy. The laws on government and justice were unique to their identity (and even the land itself), and tied directly to the judicial laws that defined their faith. The moral laws were representative of the perfect character of the perfect God whom they served. But there is one thing that stands out as defining the application of those laws. The Mosaic Law was voluntarily compulsory. In other words, though following the law was mandatory (law is always mandatory), there was no system or infrastructure established to compel obedience to the law. Was the law mandatory? Yes. Was Israel under moral obligation and compulsion to obey the law? Yes. Was there a practical, day-to-day political, police system, or infrastructure established to enforce all its provisions? No.

            Comb through the Mosaic Law and you will find codes on a variety of legal and moral infractions, and stipulated punishments, but no provisions for a contingent of police to enforce the law. Dig deep into the law and you will find economic and heath policies, but no prescribed form of government to administer those policies beyond the priesthood. The Mosaic Law didn’t even provide for a standing army–something the nations around them possessed. The fact that the application of the law was voluntarily compulsory is demonstrated in the book of Judges. Throughout the more than 400 years represented in its 21 chapters, God reprimanded the Israelites repeatedly for their offenses, but they had no central government beyond a tribal commonwealth to administer the many aspects of the law. This is typified twice in the book with the statement, “There was no king in Israel, and everyone did that was right in his own eyes.”33

Though we see the Old Testament law as being one expression of God’s nature, the more important expression comes from the manner in which God acts toward people. This defining characteristic is mercy, as an expression of His love. This does not mean that man should always adopt a liberal approach to law and not exact stern punishment from the lawbreaker–to maintain proper civil order and safety, the latter is preferred. What it does mean is that God does not always hold man to the same standards He applies to Himself; or those He applied to ancient Israel.34

Answer the following questions. Other than Israel…

  • How many nations in the Old Testament did God require to adopt the Mosaic Law as their political system? 
  • When God sent a prophet to announce judgment on another nation, how many of those judgments were issued because the nation violated the specific terms of the Mosaic Covenant?

The correct answer to these questions is none. This is not to say that the principles of the law were not meant to be applied to civil societies, but in terms of the specific forms, there is no indication in Scripture that God required those same forms to be adopted by other nations.

This tells us something about God’s character. God is a God of freedom. God did not create men to be religious or political automatons. From the first time Eve reached up to pick the forbidden fruit, to our own day, God allows people to determine their own affairs, make their own choices, and go their own way–even if it means rejecting the God who graciously put such freedom in the human heart.

This freedom conflicts with Christian attempts to codify Christianity, or proclamations of faith into civil law. Attempts to reconcile the two are futile. As we learned in the first chapter, one of the three primary objectives of Christianity is to create people who are like Jesus Christ. Jesus, as the ultimate expression of God’s love, died on a cross for man’s sin. The omniscient, omnipresent Son of God, who became a man and suffer so greatly, does not force people to embrace him after he paid such a terrible price. Nor did He call for the creation of political systems to advance his teaching; so why should we (the millennial kingdom notwithstanding)? If Jesus Christ is our ultimate example, then why not embrace that example? After all, He guarantees it is the only one blessed with success to accomplish His objectives. What is His objective? To create a people who voluntarily become just like Him.

Back to the Mission Field

In his endeavor to persuade people about Jesus, missionaries are the ultimate, practical expressions of this truth. They enter nations as guests, without arms, without power to force or coerce, seeking nothing more than opportunities to tell people about Jesus Christ. They are the ultimate, living expression of freedom of speech and conscience in that they often must take their message to areas where it may even be illegal or life-threatening to express or consider another faith. Author John Barber notes, “These missionaries have made a fundamental decision not to allow man’s law to overshadow God’s law, and consequently have made a greater political statement then could be made by the most ardent of political activists who lives in freedom.”35 Though missionaries sometimes possess no political or legal right to persuade people about their faith, they still dwell in their host countries, living as if they possessed the right anyway. By virtue of their mission and behavior, they are, even if they do not intend or realize it, living examples of freedom of religion, conscience, and speech. Their daily lives in foreign lands make them front-line advocates for these freedoms. 

The sad truth is that some missionaries have been persuaded that expressing these freedoms—which are the primary foundation of political freedom, and rightly constructed democratic systems—should be avoided at all costs. As one Wycliffe missionary wrote, “When working in another country, I consider myself to be a guest and subject to the laws of that country. This means avoiding politics as much as possible and anti-government politics entirely.”36 This is understandable. There are times when discussing such things in a host country is inappropriate. There are also many countries still in the phase of trying to define, or discover the definition of freedom for their culture. Others would do bodily harm to the missionary for expressing the idea that people have a natural right to believe whatever they want, and freely say so to others. 

But some missionaries have taken a more radical view, that freedom of speech or conscience is not a biblical concept. As an example, the same missionary above also wrote, “I don’t believe that the American practice (of free speech, press, and religion) is compatible and I would not feel justified in teaching the ideals or the practice to people of other countries and cultures…We have no business exporting them… We would wrong them to encourage anything contrary to their political system.”37

If this is true, then why did evangelical Christianity become such a strong opponent of Soviet Communism? Additionally, why does the Bible demonstrate a history of God allowing men to publicly disagree with him?38 So in one sense, the missionary is the chief opponent of expressing his political heritage of freedom as he tries to stay “on mission” (spiritually speaking). On the other hand, he is the chief propagator of those freedoms as he works in the real world to persuade others to believe and grow in Jesus Christ, contrary to what his host culture or its laws may allow.

Notes

  1. See Evangelicals and Politics in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Paul Freston, Cambridge University Press, April 2, 2001.
  2. Liberation Theology began as a movement within the Catholic Church seeing Jesus primarily as a political liberator, rather than the Savior of the World who came to save man from his sin and give the gift of eternal life. While Jesus Christ is a liberator, He is first the one who liberates us from our sin. Liberation Theology mixes Jesus’ teachings with Marxist concepts, defining political struggle as class struggle. 
  3. A Biblical Worldview has a Radical Effect on a Persons Life. December 1st, 2003, Barna Research Group Limited. www.barna.org/cgi-bin/PagePressRelease.asp?PressReleaseID=154&Reference=F.
  4. A state-church may be defined as the church or denomination that has the official support of the government, or is the preferred or declared official church or religion of the government or country. An example would be the Anglican Church as the official state-church of Great Britain. A church-state is a political system controlled by, or led by a religious government or set of policies. The Vatican, which is technically a sovereign state, is an example of a church-state. 
  5. Exodus 21:11, “He who curses his father or mother shall surely he put to death.”
  6. I prefer the term straightforward over literal since the former may sometimes imply biblical passages be interpreted too literally. As an example one might, under a strict literal view not understanding the context, think Jesus literally meant for us to “pluck out” our eyes if faced with sexual temptation (Matthew 18:9). A straightforward understanding takes into account the larger context of the passage, and the natural clues in the text as to whether the speech is narrative, figurative, poetic, or even literal. There is a tendency by some to approach the Bible as mystical; thus over-spiritualizing passages. This is especially true with non-orthodox sects and some in charismatic circles. However, the Bible like any other book is written in human language so the normal rules of observation and interpretation always apply. That includes the need to understand the historical and cultural influence the text was written under. 
  7. In his argument for adopting the Constitution, James Madison argued: “It has already been proved that the members of the federal will be more dependent upon the members of the state governments, than the latter will be on the former. It has appeared also, that the prepossessions of the people, on whom both will depend, will be more on the side of the state governments, than of the federal government. So far as the disposition of each toward the other may be influenced by these causes, the state government must clearly have the advantage.” (Federalist Papers: The Influence of the State and Federal Governments Compared; from The New York Packet, Tuesday, January 29, 1788.)
  8. America’s Real War, chapter 6, “The Curious Rise of Anti-Christianism,” page 43, Copyright ©1999, Multnomah Publishers, Inc.
  9. This does not mean that the moral principles of the Mosaic Law should be rejected as a basis for law. There is no higher standard or model to use since the Mosaic Law is representative of God’s own character. But this sentence does mean that we should be wary, and even avoid the attempt to create “Christian countries,” in the political sense where Christianity is given preference or dominance by force of law and politics.
  10. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4, Chapter 20, “Of Civil Government.” 1539.  
  11. Systematic Theology, chapter 46, “The Power of the Church,” page 892, copyright ©1994, Wayne Grudem Ph.D., Intervarsity Press. 
  12. Romans 2:2, “And we know the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things.” Paul is addressing sin in this passage, though in the larger context of hypocritical judgments by Christians. Regardless, his statement in universally applied to believers and unbelievers, recognizing that God takes a dim view towards sin, no matter who commits it.
  13. Exodus 21:24.
  14. How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, “The Origins of International Law;” page 137. Copyright ©2005, Thomas E. Woods, Jr. Ph.D. Regnery Publishing Inc.
  15. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV. Chapter XX, Paragraphs 14-16
  16.  “Little Speech on Liberty,” John Winthrop, The History of New England, from 1630 to 1649 Boston, Little Brown and Company, 1853. 
  17. An indulgence was a tool of the Roman church to persuade people to join Crusades, and later used as a fundraising tool. A person would be sold an indulgence in exchange for a contribution to the church’s important projects. The indulgence, they were told, drew upon the merits of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints, leaving no guilt on the part of the indulger. In other words, to put it more crudely, though accurately, Buy a sin from Jesus.
  18. Simply put, an Imperial-Vassal covenant was initiated by a conquering king who made a covenant of protect and provision for a city or state he conquered. As long as the “vassal” state abided by terms of tribute, the “Imperial” protection of the conquering kingdom would remain valid. Imperial-Vassal covenants always began with the “Imperial” declaration of what the conquer had done to or for the Vassal. In this sense the Old Testament covenants are Imperial-Vassal since they begin with God declaring what He has done for His people, then laying out the terms of the covenant they must follow.
  19. The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, January 14, 1638. This was the first form of a constitution introduced in the colonies, and influenced the eventual development of the American nation. 
  20. American Genesis, “Appendix of Constitutional Quotes,” Tom Terry, 1991, 2003.
  21. Ibid. 
  22. See www.morallaw.org for images of Judge Moore’s monument to the Ten Commandments.
  23. Alabama’s Ten Commandment’s Judge makes his Case, Citizen Magazine Web Extra, Gary Schneeberger, Focus on the Family. (family.org/cforum/citizenmag/webonly/a0022875.cfm)
  24. The Public Square: Should it be Naked or Sacred? Joseph Loconte, August 26, 2003. First published in the Chicago Tribune. (www.heritage.org/Press/Commentary/ed082603c.cfm)
  25. Christianity Today, “Decalogue Debacle,” April 2004, Volume 48, No. 4, page 98. (www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/004/24.98.html) 
  26. How “Christianized” Do Americans Want Their Country To Be? The Barna Report, ©July 26, 2004 The Barna Group, www.barna.org.
  27. For quotations from Afghanistan’s constitution, and analysis, see www.underreported.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=1226.
  28. Taliban-Lite: Afghanistan Fast-Forwards, National Review, Paul Marshall, November 7, 2003. (www.nationalreview.com/comment/marshall200311070906.asp)
  29.  “Wherever Sharia (Islamic Law) is adopted as the basis of national or regional law, or even where adherence to Sharia is the expected norm in a sub-culture, the whole idea of religious freedom as described in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is problematic, to say the least. Sharia as traditionally understood runs counter to the ideas expressed in Article 18.” Religious Freedom Under Islam, Henrik Ertner Rasmussen, General Secretary of the Danish European Mission. Article published by Forum 18, January 13, 2004 (www.forum18.org).
  30. Yes and No, Salah Hemeid, Al-Ahram Weekly, September 30, 2004. “Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the nation’s most powerful Shia spiritual leader, is reportedly growing increasingly concerned that nationwide elections could be delayed and has even threatened to withdraw his support for the elections unless changes are made to increase the representation of Shias.” (weekly.ahram.org.eg/2004/710/re1.htm)
  31. Letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, August 4, 2005, from Freedom House Chairman Peter Ackerman, and Executive Director Jennifer L. Windsor, (www.freedomhouse.org).
  32. America’s Real War, Chapter 7, “Culture War,” page 45; Copyright ©1999, Multnomah Publishers, Inc.
  33. The statement is found, strategically, in Judges 17:6, 18:1, 19:1, and 21:25, following accounts of the religious, legal, and moral chaos in the land (covering all three divisions of the law). The placement of the passages signifies that there was not only no supreme human authority in the land, but God was not even king in His own land. 
  34. If God did hold man to the standards of the Mosaic Law, without exception, then there could have been no propitiatory sacrifice for sins in Jesus Christ. God did not hold man to the standard, instead He held Jesus to that standard on our behalf. 
  35. Email interview June 6, 2003. 
  36. July 8, 2003 email interview with Wycliffe missionary.
  37. Ibid
  38. Isaiah 1:18, 41:21. These passages present two examples of God encouraging people to debate with him over the issues of sin, history, and false religion. There are many other examples throughout the Old Testament where God does not immediately judge or punish a person or people group who disagree with him on the issue. Rather, He is patient, waiting for the person to be persuaded by Godly wisdom. (“God is not slow concerning His promise, but is patient toward you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” II Peter 3:9) If God did not allow people to publicly disagree with Him, then He would simply act to remove or repress that speech immediately. Clearly God does not work in that fashion. If He did, would any of us be here?

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