Saturday, March 14, 2009

God and government

I’ve been thinking about government a lot lately. Some of the reasons are probably obvious, given the state of our nation at the moment. Some of it has to do with our current Sunday school church history series. We’re studying the Puritan era – a colorful period in the Christian church, which also happened to be pivotal in the formation of the modern ideal of separation of church and state. Some of my thought is just the cumulative effect of a lifetime of political discussions of all kinds. Let me tell you, there’s plenty of good reason why for years religion and politics were not considered polite conversation! There are no more potentially divisive topics under the sun. As a Christian, I cannot - and should not - ultimately avoid discussion of religion, though I do attempt to approach it with as much gentleness and respect as possible. I do, however, because I’ve seen the needless harm that can result, avoid discussion of politics – particularly among my brothers and sisters in Christ. I also avoid such discussion on my blog; and I do not intend for today to be any different. I would like to discuss God and government – not politics. I assure you, there is a difference.

A couple of days ago I read an excellent little article entitled “The Authority of the State” by Cal Thomas, in this month’s TableTalk Magazine. In it he made a statement with which I both agree and disagree, and which has helped give some direction to my thoughts. He says, “Why do authorities exist? It is because we live in a sinful and fallen world, and without authority everyone would do ‘what is right in his own eyes,’ resulting in chaos.” Well, yes and amen… and no. I would like to begin by explaining what I disagree with and then move on to what I found helpful.

I do not believe authority is a result of the fall. God has been exercising it and delegating it from the beginning of creation. In the naming of man, for instance, God was establishing symbolically His authority over him. In bringing animals to man, to be named by him, God was demonstrating that he had given man authority over them. In naming his wife, Adam demonstrated his God-given authority over her. God ordained all of this and called it good. (This pattern is perpetuated after the fall in the naming of children, in which we demonstrate our authority over them as parents. And it was a frequent practice throughout the rest of Scripture, when God wanted to establish a more direct and particular rule over the life of an individual, He would give him, or her, a new name.)

Government, likewise, is not a direct result of the fall. Man, created in the image of God, was created to both submit to and exercise authority. Mankind was never intended to live ungoverned. From the beginning, in the Garden, before sin entered the world, God established government. God retained rule over Adam and his wife, which He demonstrated by designating where they should live, what should be their vocation, what they were to eat, and a single prohibition which if violated carried the death penalty. God governed Adam directly. Adam was the governor of Eve. Together they were to govern the rest of creation. Man’s sin was a rebellion against God’s established system of government. Adam allowed himself to be governed by the words of his wife rather than those of God. Woman’s sin was likewise a rebellion, she obeyed the serpent and her desires rather than her husband – God’s representative in her life. And mankind, has been rejecting the authority of God and government ever since.

And there has been government ever since. It continues in spite of the fall. And this is where I begin with my “amen” to Cal Thomas. It is a mercy of God that He did not leave us without it, or else, there would be chaos. We cannot know, and it would be sheer speculation to guess, what the world and its government would have looked like if man had never sinned. But notice that in the garden there was only one prohibition, and apart from that there was freedom. Mankind, for a brief time enjoyed very minimal government. Once sin entered the world, however, the floodgates of evil were opened, and along with this came the need for much more extensive and heavy-handed government in order to prevent chaos. Another unpleasant consequence is that all the humans who God raises up to rule as His representatives are as fallen and sinful and separated from direct relationship and willing obedience to Him as the people they are called to govern.

Rebels govern rebels, yet in spite of all this, God manages to rule and reign supreme, to accomplish all His purposes (Job 42:2, Is. 46:10). Even in sin and rebellion, fallen man is directed and restrained by God, via the “laws of nature” (which both drive and limit human behaviors), the moral law which He has written on their hearts and is experienced as conscience, His mysterious providence, and as we’ve been discussing, via human government. All of these are means God uses to govern humankind, and prevent them from being as evil as they would be capable of if unrestrained. (see: Rom. 2: 12-15; Jer. 10:23; Ps. 33:10-11; Prov. 16:9, 19:21; Daniel 4:34-35; Lam. 3:37-38) Each of these, though we desire to resist or pervert every one, is a great blessing to sinful humanity.

Finally I would add that when a society undergoes intense moral decay it can expect more heavy handed government. In fact, it requires it. Our own nation, at the moment, has ceased being a society that can be trusted to regulate itself. The latitude we once had is being taken from us. It is an agonizing thing to watch – to suffer. But it is a severe mercy. I grieve over what’s becoming of America, but am thankful that God has not taken away government and left us in chaos. Rather than complaining about government, let us remember to be respectful of it, thankful for it, prayerful for it, and subject to it, insofar as it does not require us to disobey God, recognizing it as an institution established by God Himself for our good.
"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, and avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed." Romans 13:1-7

11 comments:

David Porter said...

Laurie,

I enjoy this post. I learned from Dr. Wayne Grudem, a year ago, that theologians would put your "Why do authorities exist?" question under the heading of commons grace.

http://tinyurl.com/d7kbf8

Common grace is certainly a wonderful thing, as it tends to reign in sinful man.

Imagine everyone driving, what ever speed they desired, through our neighborhoods. Common grace, peoples fear of the ticket, keeps a lid on things.

However, I also agree that government is not a product of the fall. If I understand correctly, it seems that there will be government in heaven.

It seems that some will be put in charge of many things. I have already begun to pray about how I might serve God in heaven.

As this is where I will spend eternity, why not make my wishes known now?

Great post Laurie!

Andy C said...

I enjoyed the read! I think that authority has been there since the beginning as you stated by government was put in place because God designed a earthly mechanism to restrain man in his self centeredness. As in all else, sin has marred that as well. The authority of the garden was a natural thing ordained by God and His Word was enough to insure proper exercise of authority until sin came.

But one good thing about worrying about our government is that it takes our mind off the economy!

Laurie M. said...

David, leave it to you to be so forward thinking! A wise man indeed.
Andy, I realized as I wrote this that some may understand the word "government" slightly differently than my rather literal meaning. Perhaps I should have defined my terms. I just mean "that by which people are governed". By "authority" I think we mean the same thing - the right to rule over, make decisions for, etc". With that understanding I say that unfallen man was "governed" by the word of God, and presumably his unfallen conscience (though we know little of what that entailed), and operated under an authority structure.

haithabu said...

A nice balanced summary on authority.

christov10 said...

Those who do not find the idea of "Common Grace" in scripture would be more likely to say that all God's creation (which includes the created order) was well-made and still tends to function reasonably well most of the time in spite of the fall. They, and I with them, would be more likely to classify the proper use of government and genuine authority under the heading of Providence.

Laurie M. said...

Christov, great comment. You've opened a huge discussion in our house this morning. I did not have "common grace" in mind when I wrote this piece and even was a bit surprised when David mentioned it here, but that's not because I don't hold to a belief in it. I just didn't have it in mind in this case. So I was talking to Paul about it before he left for work. He seemed to understand the distinction you're making right away. And in thinking it over, I also recognized that common grace may be a philosophical position. By that I do not mean that it's UNscriptural, but that it's not directly Scriptural, being arrived at from an overarching view of the way God works as revealed in Scripture. As such, we've decided it's time to take another look at both these doctrines - laying them side to side, so to speak and evaluating them. Paul's on his way to work with his brother, who also happens to be our pastor, and is no doubt discussing it right now. I've got to work today, but will be looking into it over the next several day. Thanks for raising a great distinction, and a lively discussion! We'll let you know how it turns out. We'd welcome any input you have into this, here or via e-mail. I'll likely do a blog entry about it at some point as well.

christov10 said...

I've been reading a slightly tedious, but well-written and well-argued little book by a fellow named Englesma entitled Common Grace Revisited. He writes in response to the work of a Fuller theologian named Mouw (I think I've spelled that correctly). And, interestingly, Englesma argues like a gentleman.

The guy's got me convinced.

Before picking up this book, I hadn't given the matter any clear thought, and had certainly not thought about it categorically.

The congregation at Cafe Church has been reading through this on Wednesday nights, and although we don't attend Wednesdays, I have been reading along.

Laurie M. said...

We'll have to check that out. Thanks.

christov10 said...

And I'm still hung up trying get my mind around infralapsarian and supralapsarian

Laurie M. said...

Christov,

I've read quite a lot regarding those two positions and don't find them necessarily at odds. I think their coming at it from different directions and talking past each other. I'm going to cut and paste here, for the sake of time, my response on a friend's blog who was chewing on this a while back.

"As for the 'supra' and 'infra' views, like I said before, I agree with them both. They seem to be both biblical answers, but not necessarily to the identical question. And here I agree with John Frame in his Doctrine of God. (He urges agnosticism in the matter.) I’ll provide a few quotes.

“For defenders of the supralapsarian view, the important point is that God’s foremost concern in his decrees is to display his grace in a chosen people.”

“The infralapsarian view makes no judgment as to God’s foremost concern. It simply asks us to imagine the process as if God were thinking of the order in which events would occur. Here the governing principle is mostly what I have called condition-realization. It is therefore important to understand that the two list have different concepts of order.”

He lists several reasons why we should remain agnostic here:
1)The two positions equivocate on the meaning of order and therefore can’t be precisely compared with one another.
2) Scripture never explicitly presents a complete and definitive order of thoughts in God’s mind, in any of the relevant senses of order.
3) Scripture warns us against trying to read God’s mind…
4)Surely, in one sense, all of God’s decrees presuppose each other and exist for the sake of each other. God formulates each decree with all the others in view. Each influences the others. This fact makes it very difficult to list decrees according to any of the proposed principles of order. (This is why I have trouble with the notion of “hypothetical universalism.)
5)In God’s mind, where the decrees take all others into account, all my be considered ends, and all may be considered means…
6)There are therefore reciprocal relationships among the purposes of God….Creation provides the backdrop for redemption, but redemption restores creation. Redemption presupposes creation, but creation itself is in the image of redemption.
7)I know of nothing in Scripture that settles the question whether God in eternity views the elect as “creatable” or as “created”…..God views us in all states, actual and possible.
8)The question whether God envisions his elect as taken from a fallen humanity, or somehow existing apart from the Fall, does not make much sense

He makes three more points, but it’s past midnight and I’m running out of steam. At this point, I remain a 5-point Calvinist. It took the Scripture to get me to that place, and if I’m wrong, may God through His Scripture correct me."

That was something I wrote late at night when I should have been sleeping. This is something I'm writing when I should be on the way to my haircut!

BTW, John Frame's The Doctrine of God is excellent reading.

christov10 said...

Thank you! That was helpful. I've never even heard of John Frame. Hope the haircut was all you hoped it would be. I always feel better about myself after a visit to the barber shop.