Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Certainly, one of Jesus’ most well-known sayings – besides “love your enemies”! – is “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” (NASB)
This story in our Gospel reading this morning immediately gets our attention because in it we see how Jesus deftly thwarts the trap the Jewish religious leaders set for him.
But there are much deeper levels to this too!
Did you know, for example, that Jesus said this in an Empire ruled by someone who claimed to be the Divine Son of God? That someone being Caesar? And that Caesar claimed to bring “Good News,” that is, “Gospel,” to the world?
Instead of supporting Caesar then, it does sounds like Jesus is actually being a bit of a revolutionary, doesn’t it?
Indeed, unlike the religions of Islam and Judaism–and basically every religion in world history for that matter–Christianity is utterly unique in the highly consequential distinction it makes between God’s government and man’s government.
At the same time, a lot has happened since Jesus re-oriented the world with these words…
Have you heard of “Christendom”?
What is that? Well, I checked the oracle that goes by the name of Google, and this is what I was told:
The term Christendom refers to the impact of Christianity on the world. … Christendom is the impact of Christianity on the Roman Empire, moving through western Europe and on into areas of Scandinavia.
Also, and this is key…:
“The word “Christendom” [can be] used… to frame true Christianity [– the whole of the “body of Christ”.] A more secular meaning [though] can denote the fact that the term Christendom refers to Christians as a group, the ‘political Christian world’, as an informal cultural hegemony that Christianity has traditionally enjoyed in the West.”
Now, first of all, don’t be thrown by the use of the word “secular” here.
Even as today this word often seems to mean “anti-God,” historically it has simply meant, “of, or pertaining to, the world”.
In other words, it distinguishes the spiritual realm and the matter of men’s souls – that which is unseen – from more earthly, temporal, and bodily matters – those things which are seen.
The main point here is that “Christendom” is a term that has historically meant quite a lot in the Western world, the lands of Europe, and the English speaking nations, of which ours is but one example.
“Christendom” is the secular influence of Christianity…
Let me tell you a story from the beginnings of Christendom… about St. Ambrose, the author of the Christmas hymn “Savior of the Nations Come”.
St. Ambrose was a bishop in the Christian church in the fourth century, right when Christianity was beginning to gain great influence in the Roman Empire following the life of the first Christian Emperor in Rome, Constantine.
About the later years of his life we learn that he refused to turn one of his city’s[i] churches over to the Arian Empress and Emperor, her teenage son Valentinian II, even when threatened with capital punishment.
“I cannot think of abandoning the Church, for I fear the Lord of the Universe more than any earthly Emperor. If the Emperor acts as sovereigns are wont to act, I am prepared to suffer what bishops are wont to suffer!”
The Emperor surrounded Ambrose’s church with Arian soldiers. The people sang hymns while under this siege.
The rulers gave in and called off the soldiers.
Here is another story about Ambrose related to our topic for the day:
“St. Ambrose, through his influence on emperors, was also instrumental in overthrowing (by then still widespread) paganism and having Christianity replace it as the official religion of the Empire.
One of the most famous scenes of St. Ambrose’s life is his confrontation with Emperor Theodosius when the latter’s command ended in a massacre of 7000 people in Thessalonica. Ambrose openly threatened the Emperor (whose faith and loyalty to the Church were not in doubt) with excommunication and forbade him to receive Holy Communion until he had done sufficient public penance. Only after several months of penance did Ambrose let Theodosius receive the Sacrament. This event – the monarch humbly submitting to a Church authority he publicly acknowledged to be higher than his own – marked the start of a new relationship between the Church and State.”
Now all of this is rather dramatic, but more simply, how does Christendom, or at least a “Christian political influence,” happen?
Those who might be tempted to think or even assert that this was all about earthly power plays – even if without a sword like the one Mohammad wielded – certainly do not have an accurate picture.
And even as only the Lord is ultimately in control, I don’t think that God would take offense at me saying: “we can definitively answer this question and a major clue is in our Epistle reading!”
In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians this morning, we read:
You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere.
What are the implications of this? Well, it is like this: God Himself has taken the punishment for our sins on the cross. He did it to be just and the justifier of the wicked person who has faith…And so when it comes to us… the implication is that we, regardless of our cultural and political context, have – and increasingly create – spaces and places where this message can be heard, believed and lived.
This means that a Christian people will create a Christian culture…
Now yes… it is true that at times Christendom relied on earthly force.[ii] And yet, the faith did not get its start that way, nor did it gain its early influence in that way.
Instead, Christianity – the Kingdom of God ushered in through Jesus Christ – was a revolution of divine love… as opposed to a revolution of earthly power…
And it all happened just like Jesus said!
The yeast working slowly through the dough… The birds building nests in the trees…
And, for our own personal context, the cultural writer Matt Cochran put it this way: “The positive forms of secularism and religious liberty that [have] been enjoyed in America grew out of the specifics of Christianity.”[iii]
This is in line with what the as the well-known and highly respected Roman Catholic priest, the late Richard John Neuhaus, said as well: “Culture is the root of politics, and religion is the root of culture.”
Now we as Christians know that the Gospel of Jesus Christ – salvation not ultimately from men but from our sin, the curse of death, and the devil and his demons! – is what God’s people should ultimately be about…
And yet, at the same time… should we be relatively unconcerned about matters of this world? …its cultural practices, and the political structures that arise from them?
Not at all. It would seem this all goes hand in hand with loving our neighbors after all! So, we all will inevitably need to think about the church’s relationship to politics…
But just how should we do this?
Well, what do we already know?
Is Christianity “all in,” for example, when it comes to democracy?
Is American government God’s favorite kind of earthly government?
Well, I like democracy, or at least the idea of democracy, as much as the next American…
Few of us, I’d venture, really like the idea of a King! In fact, it’s been said that in America “the people” are King!
Well, here, I submit, is the key: In spite of the fact that people often use the Bible to support their favorite ideas about earthly government, we really must admit that God’s priorities often seem different from ours….
For example, not long ago, on social media (Twitter), I saw that one of the men I follow recommended the book: “Discovering Biblical Equality- Complimentarity without Hierarchy.”
I know what a book like this is getting at. The Economist [Milton] Friedman for example, “[made] the commonsense observation that ‘coordination without coercion’ is preferable to principles of social organization that require coercion.” (R.R. Reno)
Still, I sometimes have a habit of poking hornet’s nests, and asking disconcerting questions, and so I said to this man:
“[H]ow do you feel about hierarchy overall [though]? [It] seems to me there are even kinds of hierarchy in heaven… If we imitate the life of our Rabbi whose love for all was not in doubt, for whom the dignity of all was not in doubt, is not hierarchy a great thing?”
He replied: “Who did the rabbi say would be at the top of the hierarchy?”
Now, I suspected I knew what this man was thinking. Perhaps he thought I had shown myself to be a backwards rube of sorts, with my questions seemingly defending any notion of hierarchy!…
Hadn’t Jesus said, after all, that the disciples were all brothers?
That the church’s rulers would not be like those of the world who lorded it over their subjects?
Hadn’t Jesus emphatically pointed out that “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”?
Indeed, Yet, here is what I said to him:
“Who did the rabbi say would be at the top of the hierarchy?” With the disciples, Peter. With the heavenly courts, the 24 elders sitting on their thrones. With the ones to whom he gave the minas, the ones who had gained more with them. Am I doing alright? : )
Then, I said this:
I’ll be dead honest. I simply have a hard time trusting people who downplay hierarchy at best or disparage it at worst. Hierarchy is an amazing gift from God. I personally love being under [good and] competent men. [Yes,] I get it can be abused more than most things too…
So, I get what that man was saying. I too, believe that Jesus in some sense upends the systems of the world. The “orders” of this present age. Jesus’ own mother after all, Mary, sang the following in Elizabeth’s presence:
“50His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.”
When we Lutherans confess that the Gospel of Jesus Christ brings forgiveness, life, and salvation, we are right to put the accent on those things.
And it does us good to remember there that the “life” we speak of, while being the “eternal life” which culminates in heaven, ultimately starts right now. Ways of the Kingdom of God among us start now….
And, we also remember that while we are not “of this world” we are “in it”. We do indeed pray in the Lord’s prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread…” As Luther put it, this has to do with “everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body…”
But – and here is an extremely interesting question related to our topic – who should be giving us our daily bread? The things economic that we need in this world?
Americans have traditionally thought that that really should not be our rulers, the higher forms of government. Government should provide some protection, but not necessarily provision – the government in the family, the government of the family, should take care of that!
And even if we think that, ideally, Kings and Governors and Presidents are really there for our protection, that doesn’t mean in each and every earthly circumstance submission is called for.
For example, in regard to the recent looting, a friend recently wrote:
“Romans 13 does not require Christian men to cower inertly and hope it all passes by just because that’s the course chosen by the governing authorities. On the contrary, their vocations require them to find the best way they can to protect their households and livelihoods. It’s entirely possible that picking up your rifle to defend your neighborhood may be the right call sometimes.”
In any case, back to the matter of providing, provision…
America is no doubt changing here, and I don’t think that should really surprise us given world history. In Luther’s times, for example, but also after that — it was not uncommon in the “German lands”[iv] for the coat of the arms of the rulers, of the nobles, to contain an image of bread… An image of bread.
The reason for this was because that was seen by all as an important function of the ruler. Their rulers would, much like our own fathers might, look to provide not only protection but provision for their people….
And, of course, in Rome, they spoke about how the good ruler provided not only “bread” but circuses” to keep the people, the “masses” or “hoi polloi,” content and happy…
And finally, with all of this focus on what the rulers must do, can do, for us… this can lead to some rather dark pictures of what can go wrong…
Some for example, speaking about the dangers of Totalitarian rulers, have painted a frightening picture of the people being crushed by their power-hungry rulers, under the foot of a forceful jackboot and mind control. This was the picture pained by George Orwell in his class book 1984.
Others envisioned a different kind of Totalitarianism. In his book Brave New World, written a few years before George Orwell’s, Aldous Huxley imagined a world where the physical needs and desires for personal pleasure of all were increasingly met by the elites of society.
People would not have to be forced to comply, but would gladly comply….
Lost in the process, of course, would be notions of personal responsibility and agency. With their most basic needs and more met, men and women would no longer struggle to survive. And a decrease in religious belief would be a natural result….
This reminds me of some of Jesus’ harrowing words about the Last Days: “the love of many will grow cold, but he who endures to the end will be saved,” and “when the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?”
The Christian author and cultural guru Rod Dreher, in his most recent book “Live Not By Lies” warns about a kind of “Woke Totalitarianism” that he says is arising in our country.[v]
He points out how not only politicians, but big businesses so quickly adopt the moral and social trends and popular causes of the world, and do so not under any political pressure, but because they believe, at worst, that the world is right in its way, namely, its pressing for a nebulous and in the end deceptive “equality” or “equity” in all things…
At best, perhaps, they must go with the flow, to keep up with the currents of what is happening in the world.
And hence, by careful tracking of our internet habits and more – as it is happening in China right now – more and more subtle influence can be exercised on the population, applying pressure on us by limiting our opportunities to attain particular kinds of work and status if we resist…
Convincing us that we too should be on the “right side of history,” should change…. lest we be left behind in the dust…
Stronger measures, like those used by the Totalitarian regimes of the past, would only be necessary for the few holdouts that remain…
Is that what is happening now?
Perhaps we in America, arch-individualists all, are particularly susceptible to the world’s currents, as the Apostle John put it: “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life…”
Sure, we like to hear the story of Ambrose!
We like to hear that through him and others, the world was impacted… transformed… in a positive way by the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ!
At the same time though, we don’t we definitely don’t like what the Roman Catholic Church was doing 700 years ago…when they claimed veto power over all earthly rulers even as corruption claimed them….[vi]
Really, because of this, we are still quite skeptical of nearly all authority in the church today…. We might have trusted the leadership of the Apostles, but those who followed them?
This comes out strongly in the 20th century German theologian Werner Elert’s words here, from 1953:
“The medieval church… laid claim not only to the position of religious mediator between God and men. She is, in her intention and in her structure, a creation resembling the state with a central authority (head) — the prototype of a totalitarian and authoritarian imperialism. She is authoritarian, because she tries to direct all the areas of life — political events, the entire social and economic order, and the family even on down to its most intimate transactions. She lays claim to compulsory power over all who want to be Christians, and she puts this into practice against all those who oppose her. She lays claim to a cultural monopoly and to a great extent she has it. Her goal is to rule the world. The Reformation was unsuccessful in completely setting aside this system, but it did succeed in cracking it open and making it null for a broad portion of Christianity (1953 Elert essay in Seminarian: https://crossings.org/lutheranism-and-world-history/)”
For Elert, the only good church, it seems, was a very weak one. But there is also a problem with this…
What is that problem? Well, even as we know it makes sense in one regard to talk about the church as hidden or invisible, it also is true that the church is indeed visible. It too is an earthly institution established by Christ among us.
And being an institution of our Lord on earth, it is critical that the church embodies the will of its Master. That His voice might be ours. That we might be ambassadors of His will.
That we must call people to repent, to trust in the Lord Jesus, and to walk in His ways…indeed, down to our most intimate transactions…
But there is the rub. Nobody wants to be told what to do such that they actually have to do it. Nobody wants to be “managed,” much less controlled…
We don’t like it with our friends. We don’t like it with our spouses. We don’t like it with our government!
And, here’s the key… frankly, we don’t like it with our God… Maybe this is why even a theologian like Elert contradicted Martin Luther, saying of the 10 commandments that they offered us no real practical guidance about how to live….[vii]
And when the church doesn’t hold the line, when the church cowers before the opinion-makers of the world, this will, of course, have implications…
In fact, as Rod Dreher, that Live Not By Lies guy, recently put it
“[T]here is a significant element in progressive Christianity in America that in years to come will be leading the charge to punish traditional churches and individual believers, to prove their loyalty to the [Woke] regime and its ideology.”[viii]
And so, this kind of thing leads that friend I mentioned to say:
“American Christians: Be wise. Be vigilant. Be prepared. Pray for God’s guidance. Remember the ones for whom you are responsible. The time will come when you’ll need to make a hard choice. Make the best choice you can according to the wisdom given to you, and lean on Christ’s forgiveness for the rest.” (Cochran)
Can one still believe that America is still, in some way, a Christian nation or should be a Christian nation?
The naysayers will come at you fast and furious:
“Don’t worry about the nation, focus on the church’s wrongs!”
Well, yes. We always should start in the church, get our own house in order first!
So… if you get connected with a pastor who will never confront you, not take a stand on the word of God, not say “no” to you…not actively and lovingly work to change the direction you or your loved one is going in…
Then you won’t have much of a pastor…
I’m not talking about tying heavy burdens on peoples’ backs such that they are not able to stand up. I am talking about brothers in the faith who will take seriously the call to “Carry each other’s burdens… in this way…[fulfilling] the law of Christ…” (Gal. 6:4)
So with that out of the way, know that the naysayers will continue to come at you…
- “There is freedom of religion in America, which is a pluralistic nation.”
- “[The] right to free exercise of religion should end when one crosses from private life into the public sphere!”
- “Jesus Christ is not mentioned in our founding documents. It is in God we trust!”
- “Christianity does not work for politics. It won’t work.”
- “Friend, we are not in medieval times any more…”
I’d content that these objections, spoken or unspoken, don’t ultimately matter.
You can still believe that America is a Christian nation or should be a Christian nation[ix] – and, for example, vote accordingly.
Certainly, to say the very least, our nation’s founding documents and laws would not have been possible, thinkable, conceivable, without the influence of Christianity!
In order to respect the notion of the “separation of church and state”, this doesn’t mean that you:
- Must condemn the preference for one religion over another
- Or express the irrelevancy of religion for civic standing
- Or contend for all manner of religious neutrality in American civic life…[x]
Not at all – you should trust, in fact, that only the One True God can make us all live in peace with one another…[xi]
And you can pray accordingly for, hope for, work for, Christian faith to continue to be a part of—and hopefully a stronger part of—our nation’s heritage, customs, and laws…
We will never be able to fully avoid suffering in this world — and really, this should never be our goal. Rather the point here is that it is indeed a good thing – it is in fact a great thing! – to have a desire to see the way of the Lord honored among one’s own people and all nations!
And of course, God’s good gifts to all people – not worldly successes, but the very real blessings of things like family, a home, and the love that can be found therein, for instance, are things that we should want all people to be able to experience….
And yet, again: that is not even the main thing.
The main thing is that the message that Jesus Christ is the Lord of all, and gives forgiveness, life, and salvation to all – it the message that we must make known and make known increasingly…
And keep this in mind as well: If we lived in a nation that explicitly called itself a Christian nation in its official documents and official ceremonies, we would still not be without problems.
England and Sweden, after all, are both explicitly Christian in their founding documents, and yet today, in those lands, few hold to the Word of God, still believing that it endures forever.
Again, even if a country like America had a government which explicitly acknowledged its Christian heritage… Even if it defended it and perhaps embraced it… Acts 5:29 would *still* apply to each individual believer.
Until the end comes, all of us must always say “We must obey God rather than men.”
Christian men and women: have you not seen? Have you not heard?
The Lord’s Apostle and good Ambassador Paul, formerly called Saul, says this:
“If we endure, we will also reign with him.”
“If we endure, we will also reign with him.”
“Do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world?”
“Do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world?”
Do you understand what he is saying here? Do you get what this means? Yeah, it’s kind of offensive to the world…
It means that when Jesus Christ comes again, descending from the clouds to judge the nations of the earth…[xii] that we too, His sheep, will be by His side doing so in some capacity.
We will pronounce judgment upon this world.
Again, we must obey God rather than men.
I get that this is not what is on everyone’s – even Christians’ – minds these days. We have an election coming up after all!
Still, if you have a chance to talk to someone about who to vote for[xv], that is much less important than talking to them about Jesus Christ….
And again, not only just individuals but whole nations as well!
As the Psalmist says:
“Be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling.”
“Kiss the Son, lest He be angry.”
Part of being a Christian is calling your nation, and the nations, to repentance and faith in His Name.
What kinds of politics might result from that – or perhaps what political consequences might result from that – we can’t necessarily know.[xvi]
But again, this is emphatically true:
All nations – whether they be those who value freedom of religion, speech, and assembly or not – must kiss the Son lest He be angry.
He is not just our King, but the King of All.
And so, I don’t know about you, but here, I have had to repent about not telling America to, yes, “Come to Jesus…”
And, by God’s grace, I will continue to repent.
Long live King Jesus!
…the Only One who freely gives forgiveness, life, and salvation to all.
[ii] Rulers of tribes used to convert, and the whole of their tribe, or nation, would convert as well…
Sometimes this was forced by external threat, other times the pressure was only cultural ; or perhaps in some cases the influence was seemingly without any pressure – and most all were happy to follow in their ruler’s train in their newfound Christian faith…
One pastor I respect has said:
“In order for lives to change, hearts must change and with this change must come the willingness to suffer for the sake of doctrine and practice of the faith. The heart does not have to change if behavior is enforced by fear of punishment. So the path of Puritanism ended up with laws ruling but hearts still filled with wrong desire.”
I’d suggest that, as I put it in a past blog post responding to this pastor,
“All of us need to recognize that people in the 16th century were more right then we are about how politics and religion should go together. Leaders of the earth should indeed be challenged to kiss the Son, lest He be angry.
…Before the Gospel can take root, the Law must do its work. And does not the Law speak of the worst punishment of all? And to bring up the Puritans as a foil is also to set one’s self up to fall off the other side of the horse. None of this is to say that I support things like Charlamagne’s forced baptisms, but I also am not going to say that the practice of people following their nation’s leaders in Christian conversion was unfortunate, or less than Christian. While ultimately only God knows the hearts of each, both individuals and peoples, tribes and nations can convert to God. If you disagree with that, speak with the prophet Jonah.”
[iii] More from Matthew Cochran:
“It’s not some stroke of blind chance that lead to religious freedom in the Christian West—it was, in fact, due to our Christian faith… our religious liberty never proceeded from attempts at religious neutrality. It came precisely from the privileged position that Christianity has historically held in America and in the West….”
[iv] Germany as a nation, meaning a modern “state,” did not yet exist.
[v] Interestingly, even though Christians know that external compliance is ultimately not all that God wants – He wants people’s hearts – it seems that Christian rulers, often ruling in what we would call an “authoritarian” manner, knew they could not force people to believe things they did not want to believe.
Today’s main players however, are not merely authoritarians however, modeling Christian authoritarians of the past – they are soft totalitarians….This is something new. What you believe, think, is now a political issue…
Why is that the case? It is because in many ways this soft totalitarianism is a Satanic mimic of Christianity. No, God is not a soft totalitarian, but it is easy to see why a Satanic mimic of godly rule would think that he is…think that He is a hard man, as the Gospel put it. He does, after all, not only care about what people do outwardly, externally…. He cares about what you think and believe… In some circumstances to us Christians even, that doesn’t strike us as good news!
Hence the “Woke Menace” with their “Woke Church” and “Woke Capitalist” friends are going to make sure you don’t only act a certain way, and do not speak out against what they are doing…. you must fully conform in thought and desire as well…
Perhaps Christopher Hitchens was right. Only a Christian culture could have made a Marx, Lenin, and Stalin… Maye, we should just cut to the chase? In a sense, are Christians are kind of like “soft totalitarians” as well?
Well, as I like to say, we are all, in fact, idealogues, it just depends on what kind of idealogue you are…
Are we also all just soft totalitarians down deep? And that it just depends on what kind of soft totalitarian you are?
Even God, after all, does not just demand your external conformity. He demands your heart. He wants not just your actions and words, but your thoughts and desires to be in total conformance to your will. Don’t Christians want this for others as well, even as they want it not to crush others, to destroy them, but so that all might, in fact, know the love of God?
And so, pastors, knowing personally how good this God is, are His ambassadors, His emissaries, His deputies… (like a sheriff? An enforcer? Well, a deputy simply means someone who is authorized to proclaim and carry out the will of another…)
In any case, God, it turns out, is really loving. And patient. Even tolerant…. One can’t not think about tolerance and patience here, which we all need.
*Who* are we patient with?
[vi] In the 1530 Augsburg Confession the Lutherans confessed:
“[E]cclesiastical and civil power are not to be confused. The power of the church has its own commission to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments. Let it not invade the other’s function, nor transfer the kingdoms of the world, nor abrogate the laws of civil rules, nor abolish lawful obedience, nor interfere with judgements concerning any civil ordinances or contracts, nor prescribe to civil rulers laws about the forms of government that should be established. Christ says, “My kingdom is not of this world” [Jn. 18:36] and again, “Who made me a judge or divider over you?” [Lk. 12:14]. Paul also wrote in Phil. 3:20, “Our commonwealth is in heaven,” and in II Cor. 10:4,5, “The weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy arguments,” etc.
In this way our teachers distinguish the functions of the two powers, and they command that both be held in honor and acknowledged as gifts and blessings of God (see Tappert, p. 83, The Book of Concord, bold mine).
The duties of Christian clergy and secular rulers were certainly very distinct (note that secular here means “of the world” or “of the earth,” not “opposed to God”).
In many ways, this description of the two kingdoms sounds a lot like the modern American concept of “separation of church and state,” but there are significant differences.
[vii] “…even if we could elicit from the Decalogue the desired information on all the practical questions of our life, the practical conclusions which we would draw form them would still be human conclusions, burdened with the same dubious character as all human decisions.”
[viii] The Roman Catholic writer Anthony Esolen rhetorically asks, in response to a Facebook post:
“Which party is dead set to persecute the church?
Which party is committed to the evil un-definition of marriage?
Which party is full of people who will ruin your life if you say, “Marriage can only be between a man and a woman?”
Which party is full of people who want to criminalize the expression of a wide range of opinions?
Which party wants to keep enshrined in constitutional law the “right” to dismember your unborn child?
Those things are enormous. What weighs in the favor of that party? Their rather lackadaisical immigration policy? The endless wars for no clear objective? The ceding of national sovereignty to international ideologues and bureaucrats? The nationalization of medical care? What is in their FAVOR? They have long ceased to be the party of farmers and tradesmen….”
For another respective (or perhaps not?) see the article: “Why Voting for Biden Isn’t Necessarily a Sin—And Why That Matters.”
[ix] Do we think that this kind of commentary is out of place or unhelpful? Well, before you assert that too strongly, please also consider how persons looked at this kind of thing in the past, particularly those whose nations had adopted Christianity, like the nations in the Middle East (before Muhammad begin to change that around the 7th c. A.D.) Rome, and many European nations as well…
Particularly interesting here are the views of the Christian theologian Martin Chemnitz, who, many years after the rise of Christianity in general and Lutheranism in particular in his native Germany, wrote the following in his Loci Theologici (late 16th century) regarding the fourth commandment, “honor your father and your mother”.
It is fascinating reading from a day gone by….
Regarding “the duties of government officials”, Chemnitz says of them:
- Their first concern must be for the religion of the people: they should make sure their people can “live in godliness,”
- They should make sure that “the true doctrine…be taught to the people and they may be instructed in the true worship” ; also “kept from outward blasphemies and godless forms of worship and whatever else is a detriment to piety.”
- “it is the duty of government officials to be supportive of churches and schools, to provide for them and protect them, cf. Ps. 2:11-12; 47:9….”
- “let him rule according to the Decalog” and “let him rule according to the ordinance of men,” that is, in keeping with laws which are favorable and which are keeping with the law of nature.”
- “defend the bodies and properties of their subjects against the violence and injustice and thus protect the peace” ;
- the ruler is to “execute wrath upon evildoers,” ; “…he is to execute judgement.”
For Chemnitz, who lived in a Christian nation, these kinds of commands by rulers were not only critical for Christians but non-Christians as well….
“[N]o person should be encouraged to sin and it is a sin to ignore discipline in the unregenerate.”
“[T]he doctrine of the Word of God cannot be taught when crime rules. …outward discipline instructs us to find out where righteousness comes from…”
One is taken aback with how much religious duties – nay particularly Christian responsibilities – fall on the shoulders of the secular ruler.
And he is only following Luther, who said that the If a pastor says to kings and princes…. ‘Consider and fear God and keep his commandments’ he is not meddling in the affairs of secular authorities, and also that “God intends the secular Regiment to be a model of… the kingdom of heaven”.
As I said in a past blog post:
“The Western world at large, and America in particular, honestly need to come to grips with its Christian heritage in some way, shape, or form,[vii] and to give thanks to God–to Jesus Christ–for its true blessings (no, “Judeo-Christian values” will not cut it).
Obviously, this is going to be more difficult to do–and yes, perhaps it is impossible to do–when Christian influence and true faith has waned as much as it has…”
[x] References from Matthew Cochran’s article in the Federalist about Christian nationalism: https://thefederalist.com/2019/08/13/need-christian-nationalism-religious-neutrality-failed/
[xi] I am reading the book by the black American sociologist George Yancey, Transcending Racial Barriers: Toward a Mutual Obligations Approach, and one of the things that he points out is the importance of any functioning nation having a “cultural core”. There can be differences between groups, he says, but there must also be this cultural core. He asks what it is though, suggesting, on the basis of serious sociological studies he has done, the notion of freedom… while also pointing out the way that this idea is understood varies widely…. (for more on that hear this podcast: https://newbooksnetwork.com/annelien-de-dijn-freedom-an-unruly-history-harvard-up-2020/)
In another book I read the authors emphasize those things found in the Constititution’s “Bill of Rights”: freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly ; the right to bear arms and not be subjected to unreasonable search and seizure… How convinced are most Americans, much less those who immigrate here, that these are definitive to being an American today?
And of the United States Constitution, George Washington said: “The Constitution which at any time exists, ’till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole People is sacredly obligatory upon all.” Most of us are aware of the statements made by John Adams: “Our Constitution was made for a religious people ; it is wholly inadequate for any other…”
What unites us, can unite us today?
The late Aaron Wolf stated the following:
“In Federalist 2, John Jay argues for the ratification of the Constitution on the basis of nationalism: ‘Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people.’ He did not imagine that the ‘people’ were united under an idea, or around a Constitution. For Jay and the Federalists, the Americans were ‘a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs… and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence. This country and this people seem to have been made for each other… and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.’
This was their case against the Antifederalists. The idea was that, being one people of blood and custom, they must have a strong central government to preserve the people’s liberties against the threat of foreign invasion. So the debate was ‘whether it would conduce more to the interest of the people of America that they should, to all general purposes, be one nation, under one federal government,… or that they should divide themselves into separate confederacies, and give to the head of each the same kind of powers which they are advised to place in one national government.’ Clearly with regard to Jay’s list of criteria that makes ‘one united people,’ the ship has sailed. We can debate whether Publius was right to suggest that national interests were more vital than local and regional ones. (Well, not really: Even that debate is poisoned by cries of ‘Neo-Confederate!’ and ‘racist!’ whenever the Antifederalist side is defended.)
But anyone looking honestly at the original debate between the Federalists and the Antifederalists would have to admit that neither side would recognize the United States as she currently exists. On what basis, then, does one argue for American nationalism today? We can hardly say that the ‘nation’ is ‘descended from the same ancestors’; professes ‘the same religion’; is ‘attached to the same principles of government’; or is ‘very similar in their manners and customs.’ As for ‘speaking the same language’—se habla español.”
Matt Cochran, though, says America is, and can continue to be seen as a Christian nation:
“…until ‘Christian nationalism’ coalesces into something more definitive, in my experience the phrase best describes something much simpler: a rejection of the religious neutrality of the late 20th century in favor of 1) a recognition that Christianity has had a unique and privileged influence on our American heritage that overshadows the influences of other faith traditions, 2) a conviction that a Christian understanding of the world should predominate over other worldviews in American civic life, and 3) an understanding that a nation that successfully excised or sufficiently diluted this influence could no longer be called ‘American’ in the same sense as before. Although more general than what the statement condemns, this understanding would actually encompass many Americans, whether they accept the label or not.”
Again, John Adams said that our Constitution was made for a religious people and that it was wholly inadequate for any other…
And of course, most all the other founding fathers of this country, even a man like Thomas Jefferson who believed not in the Christian God, but a more impersonal God who nevertheless would judge men and nations, agreed…
So what then, really unites us? Can unite us?
Should not God come into the mix? And Jesus Christ specifically?
[xii] There will be nations in the plural, even if that is not what all want to see in the future, as they press or larger “nations” en route to Utopian visions of “one nation”: “The EU has a flag, an anthem, its own currency and bank, laws, taxes, a vast governmental bureaucracy, and power over even the local laws of the member states. On January 31, 2020, the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the Union (“Brexit”) became effective, as the UK became the first (and still only) state to withdraw from the Union.” (Larry Beane)
[xiii] And is saying something like that compatible with a recent article at Public Discourse reviewing David VanDrunen’s Politics After Christendom. Here is the end of the article, titled “Conservative Liberalism” after Christendom :
“Because VanDrunen sees the administration of justice as government’s sole responsibility authorized by the Noahic covenant, he advances an especially limited vision of the role of government. He suggests, for instance, the privatization of roads, and the potential exclusion of government from education and healthcare, and he also questions the validity of state-funded aid to the poor. Each of these may be scrutinized as to whether their existence is a matter of “justice.” But a critical element seems to be missing from VanDrunen’s entire discussion of such matters.
For any government to function, even in a limited capacity, any administrative efforts to promote or uphold justice necessarily entail the function of “ordering” the common life of the people within its jurisdiction. And whether government acts to recognize and codify or to establish new norms to regulate the activities of citizens, the task of ordering common life among the people is not only fundamental to the project of government but will likely exceed the narrow conception of administering “justice” put forward by VanDrunen. While it is true that governments naturally seek to increase the bounds of their authority, it is also true that any meaningful attempt to order the common life of a political community will require more substantive activity than the mere punishment of the wicked. It seems unnecessary, therefore, to argue for the privatization of roads or to question the validity of a social safety net in order to affirm the modest nature of a Noahic political ethic as the proper foundation for political life. In fact, further discussion of how a limited, justice-oriented vision of government rightfully goes about the work of ordering life in the polis would prove beneficial.
Apart from his defense of the Noahic covenant and natural law as foundational for political theology, the real strength of VanDrunen’s project is its utility for contemporary political engagement. The work presents a robust framework for politics after Christendom. And for VanDrunen, this is because Christendom itself was essentially a mistake. “Christians do not need a new and special kind of political theology for life after Christendom,” VanDrunen writes at the book’s opening, because Scripture “never hints that Christians ought to seek the kind of integrated Christian society that Christendom represented.”
VanDrunen recognizes the reality of pluralism not just as a matter of sociology, but of theology itself—beginning with the “common” nature of the Noahic covenant. No meaningful society enjoys uniformity in terms of religious identity and beliefs. And there is no need to pretend otherwise or to use the state to coerce specific beliefs. Instead, as VanDrunen argues, what is needed is an approach to government that recognizes the built-in moral fabric of the universe, yet refrains from exercising too much ambition in telling people how they must live their lives.” (emphasis mine).
Would VanDrunen say that Christianity has not been the privileged religion in America, even if other faiths have been tolerated (perhaps Christianity has something to do with the particular kinds of toleration we have seen in America)? Would he say that we should not hope that Christianity would be the privileged religion in America?
[xiv] Even though it might sound crazy, I think this will likely be interpreted as “White Supremacy.”
No, faithfulness to the will of God as revealed in the Bible, particularly in things like the 10 commandments and especially the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, is not white supremacy.
I am tempted to say that if that is white supremacy, so be it!
That however, would be to fall into their game… Seeing anything cultural and political through the lens of race is, I believe, the height of foolishness.
Another question: In hoping for something like a “Christian nationalism” are we just trying to avoid suffering? After all, as one pastor put it:
“If we have a society in which common values and goals are shared between church and state, then it is less likely we may be asked to give up anything for the sake of faithfulness or sacrifice anything for the sake of a larger good. But a culture in which ‘Christianity’ dominates through force and majority rule may not be one of great virtue but merely a reflection of the ordinary truth that the strong rule the weak.”
Again, it seems to me in saying something like this, we are just one step away from saying that we are trying to prop up “white supremacy”. The pastor would most likely not go there, but the world certainly will….
Why not suggest that a majority, i.e. the strong, ruling, is not bad in itself, but rather say that it behooves a majority to rule well? Regardless of what “color” this or that group is? Here, I am speaking of calling the Christians in a nation to really be Christians, that is, to love and honor the Word of God. To represent Him well by always thinking about just what it means to be in, but not of, the world…
Even if the avoidance of suffering is “in part, the reason why we seek a ‘Christian’ society or nation in which morality has the force of law,” what about the desire to see the way of the Lord honored – and the blessings of love and family, for instance, that He really does mean for His people to know?
And of course, even if Christianity was more a part of our government and its externals more respected by our leaders this doesn’t mean Christians would not be persecuted. The life experience of Old Testament believers living in an honest-to-God theocracy also show us that we’ll probably always be persecuted for upholding the Word of God – either externally, from other nations, or internally, from within.
[xv] And, in the event that it does not look like a peaceful transfer of power can happen, these words from Matthew Cochran are important to keep in mind:
“Even in times of chaotic transition, there is always a higher authority which we can be absolutely certain is there: the father’s authority over his household. We know it’s there because it’s explicitly established by God in the 4th Commandment. As I’ve pointed out before:
In Luther’s analysis of the Fourth Commandment, all temporal authority penultimately proceeds from parents by way of God’s explicit command to honor our fathers and mothers. And, of course, though we loathe to think of it in our feminist culture, that parental authority is most properly paternal authority—for God has explicitly established the husband as head of the wife and instructs the wife to be submissive to her husband. So in sum, whatever governing institutions we may be under, they exist because somewhere along the line, our forefathers delegated their own authority over their households to others in order to assist them with specific tasks.”
[xvi] To the nations, to their governments, we can say this:
“The point is that the church has a responsibility to proclaim the Gospel to all — and this includes, perhaps especially, you. And when you convert, it is your responsibility to protect the church and not interfere in its doctrine even as you also should be supportive of the Word of the Lord in whatever ways you can. If you want to protect other religions too, all well and good, though here harmony and order are no doubt a concern (like when multiple languages cause issues) and no doubt should be for any nation… (Maybe we need more nations? More fences?)”
But should we coerce others then?
When Dr. Gregory Seltz of the LC-MS says “The problem doesn’t lie with Christians in the public square forcing their view of marriage or sexual practice on others” that is, clearly, not the full story. The secular world is right to think that Christians believe that all cultures must honor marriage and that this really, is not something that any society can fail to do and avoid consequences and God’s judgment. Perhaps they better understand the significance of things that we like to suppress. In fact, I am quite sure they do know better. This being the case, they also are quite intentional about what they are doing (even if they “know not what they do”), which is why they must lose this war.
Marriage should be upheld by Christians among the peoples that they inhabit and be urged on them – even to the point of establishing these things in law when the opportunity presents itself to do so. We should then, in a sense coerce. We should try to do this in ways that are kind, “soft,” but we should nevertheless try….