In God's Name
Guidelines for Proper Political Involvement
by Michael Horton
© 1994, Modern Reformation Magazine (Sept. / Oct. Issue, Vol. 3.5). All Rights Reserved.
Michael S. Horton
Charles P. Arand
S. M. Baugh
R. Scott Clark
J. Ligon Duncan
T. David Gordon
W. Robert Godfrey
Donald A. Hagner
John D. Hannah
Hywel R. Jones
Donald G. Matzat
Mickey L. Mattox
Philip G. Ryken
A. Craig Troxel
Gene E. Veith
Paul F. M. Zahl
© 2004 All Rights Reserved. For more information write to
1725 Bear Valley Pkwy
Escondido, CA 92027
click here for email
The early Christians, in spite of persecutions, were not hermits waiting in the corner to be caught away. In his Dialogue With Trypho the Jew, Justin carefully explained Christianity, trying to clear it of false impressions and charges. Instead of listing the Jewish persecutions of Christians (i.e., getting locked into a "culture war"), Justin has an eye to winning Trypho. To this effort at persuasion, Trypho replied,
If the average person on the street today were asked, "What do you think Christianity is all about?", would he or she be as clear and, might I add, doctrinal, as Trypho the Jew? Have we made a compelling case? Are the pagans even aware of what it is they are rejecting? What separates evangelicals from the culture today very often is not doctrine (since many evangelicals adhere to the same basic notions as the unchurched), but style, extrabiblical codes of behavior, lingo, and in-house spirituality. Yet, Tertullian backed up Trypho's impressions of the early church's non-separatist attitude:
Augustine offered this definition of his classic thesis:
In fact, like Augustine, Calvin had a very high view of the cultural capabilities of pagans. No single form of government is necessarily sanctioned by God, although Calvin himself prefers "an aristocracy bordering on democracy"a rather liberal view to hold in his day, and probably the reason why eminent historians such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., note that Calvinism, with John Locke's Enlightenment twist on it, "laid the philosophical basis for the American experiment in democracy." In many non-Christian societies, magistrates look out for the poor, restrain the wickedness of those who would steal, kill, or vandalize, so it is not necessary to have a "Christian" nation in order to have justice, peace, and civil morality:
Calvin emphasizes how essential it is that Christians, whether rulers or the ruled, distinguish between the two kingdoms and the limits of each, for the safety of both.
Hallowing God's Name In The Public Square
But does this mean that we can never appeal to God's name for support of particular positions in the political sphere? Not at all.
In the last century, contrary to a long-standing position in the Dutch Reformed Church (the majority church in South Africa), white leaders began to argue that God was on the side of the Afrikaner (the white South African), as the victories over the British (who had placed Afrikaners in concentration camps) as well as over various African tribes, appeared to them to confirm. Much as the English had thought of themselves as Israel (the Protestants) at war with Babylon (the Catholics) in the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and just as the American colonists trusted in their "most favored nation" status with God against England, so white South Africans began to create their own myths, drawing upon biblical history and placing themselves in the position of Israel, the kingdom of God.
Although there are as many black or colored (mixed) Calvinists in South Africa as white, the Dutch Reformed decision-making body declared in 1857 that it was acceptable for churches to be built on racial lines. As John de Gruchy has argued, this was chiefly a pragmatic missionary strategy, much like today's church growth idea of "homogeneous" churches, since, as church growth architect Donald McGavran stated, "People like to become Christians without having to cross cultural, linguistic, or racial barriers." What began as a pragmatic idea in the churches was used by the politicians to create apartheid and the oppression of the blacks by the whites received official sanction from the churches across denominational lines, much as evangelicals in America at the same time remained silent during the civil rights movement here. That is why, when the church finally condemned apartheid, it did not condemn it as "racial injustice", or "misguided public policy", nor "a violation of civil rights", although it was all of those things; the church called it what only the church could call it: heresy. Since the political system was justified by Scripture-twisting, the system could only be dismantled by naming the heresy.
One wonders how many set-backs to the progress of the Gospel and the kingdom of God have been due to the church's willingness to allow the two kingdoms to become merged in the interest of power and control. Are we Christians first or Americans first? Christians first or Afrikaners first? Of course, the same confusions with nationalism can be found in a variety of cultures. Karl Barth, Martin Niemoller, and other leaders of the Confessing Church (so-called because they believed that the church's greatest power against Hitler was not political, but a recovery of loyalty to the Gospel as expressed in the Reformation confessions) remind us again and again of the dangers of what the former cynically called the "healthy evangelical national piety" which lent its support to Hitler's nationalistic crusade.
One can see the same confusion of the name of God and the names of things ("isms") among many African-American Christians in America, where God is identified with every policy put forward by the NAACP. Instead of being one body with one message and one voice, we have become white evangelicals, black evangelicals, Hispanic evangelicals, evangelical feminists and anti-feminists. We are a collection of competing special interest groups, not a church united in its proclamation of the kingdom of God and in its witness to the possibility of hope in the name of God and the new society he is building as a contradiction to the world's societies.
It's a very serious business, this name of God. People were executed in the Old Testament, by divine command, for misusing it, and while God has not given the church in the New Testament the physical sword, He does promise that there will be many condemned by Him on judgment day who really thought they were doing the Lord's work in the Lord's name. At this point, therefore, it is necessary to distinguish the legitimate use of God's name in politics.
Once we have settled that God's name cannot be attached to the names of things ("isms"), we are ready to build a positive notion of political involvement. After all, the church does have a responsibility to call the nations of the world and their leaders to account, not only as individuals before God needing redemption, but as public servants of God who are meant to carry out justice. The following are some rules one might put forward to assist in determining whether we are properly using God's name in the political sphere. Remember, we may pursue all sorts of goals in a democratic society as individuals, but neither individuals nor the church can speak on their own authority in the name of God. We do not need to observe the following rules except in the specific cases in which we claim divine sanction for our position.
Make Sure It Is Theological, Not Political
If we are thinking theologically as a church, we realize that violence against the unborn is surely no more heinous than violence against civilians in such war-ravaged areas as Bosnia. And yet, in spite of regular reports in which we see children lining the streets in pools of blood, a genocide in the name of "ethnic cleansing", the churches seem to be silent. Where are the protests? Where are the impassioned defenses of human life for these children after they are born? Similar questions ought to be asked about children in our own country, since more than 20 percent of the nation's children live in poverty.
Francis Schaeffer, who got the church moving on the abortion question, thought theologically. He was calling evangelicals to rediscover the doctrines of creation, the fall, redemption, stewardship of earthly resources, and a variety of other issues. The same man who spoke out against abortion in Whatever Happened To The Human Race? wrote Pollution And the Death of Man. Schaeffer also had some fairly stern things to say about the attitudes of white evangelicals to their non-white brothers and sisters.
But this is characteristic of our history as evangelicals, if not of our contemporary approach. B. B. Warfield, a Southerner and the staunch defender of orthodoxy at turn-of-the-century Princeton, not only defended the inerrancy of Scripture; he also wrote impassioned pleas for the civil rights of the former slaves. It is impossible for historians to separate the struggle against slavery, child labor, and other injustices in the modern industrial era from the history of evangelicalism. And yet, aside from the abortion issue, if the evangelical movement were committed to defending the oppressed today, without capitulating to typical left-wing or right-wing solutions, the secular press would be at a loss for words. If we thought theologically, we would more readily see the connections between these issues, but we think politically. It is particular public policies, devised in the laboratory of the secular conservatives or secular liberals, not particular doctrinal convictions, that guide our concerns and involvement. Our involvement is, therefore, predictable and unbelievers eventually become quite cynical about our casual invocation of the name of God for policies that always happen to coincide with the particular position of our political party.
Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets invoked the name of God in judgment against bloodshed, mistreatment of the poor and the alien, sexual immorality, and the like. So while we know that we can use God's name with confidence in our outrage at the genocide in Bosnia, we must wrestle with the complicated issues involved in this age-old crisis and distinguish between the calling of the church to remind the world of the larger issues involved, and the calling of the state to make specific foreign policy decisions which are beyond the church's expertise and legitimate authority. While we have every right to use God's name to call the world to account, we cannot identify that name with particular agendas or policies to which he has not committed himself in print.
Make Sure You Distinguish Between the Church's Calling To Proclaim the Law and the Gospel (Revealed In Scripture) and the State's Calling To Enforce Civil Justice, Based on Natural Revelation
I realize that this is a controversial position today, so let me explain it. First, remember that the "first table" of the Law concerns our relationship to God, prohibiting the worship of other gods, the false worship of the true God, reverence for the name of God, entrance into God's Sabbath rest: These are not things that the courts and police can or should enforce, as the true worship of God depends on a right relationship with God and this belongs only to those who have been reconciled to God by Christ alone through faith alone.
Unless we truly believe that it is the business of government to force people to become Christians, the first table of the Law is not to be legislated by the state, but is rather to be proclaimed by the church and is to shape the witness of the church as it is properly related to God by the Gospel. It is the duty of every person, but it cannot and ought not to be the duty of the state to enforce it. That leaves us with the remaining commandments regarding our relationship to each other. Surely, it is not the place of the state to enforce love, and yet Jesus tells us that this is what the Law commands. The state can keep me from murdering my neighbor with my hands, but cannot keep me from murdering my neighbor in my heart.
It seems clear from the Scriptures themselves that God gave His written Law to Israel as part of the covenant, and not to any other nation. When Moses was informed that, because of God's anger with that unbelieving generation, it would be left to Joshua to lead the next generation into the promised land, the patriarch reminded his holy nation, "What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous laws I am setting before you today?" (Dt 4:7-8). Thus, a sign of Israel's elect status was the nearness of God in prayer and in the Ten Commandments. No other nation enjoyed such an intimate relationship with God that they were actually in covenant with Him: "I shall be your God and you shall be my people" was addressed to no other nation.
If Israel was the only nation in history to enjoy the linking of the two kingdoms, and the church today is the new Israel, then no nation can be "in covenant" with God as was Israel. Even the most Christian nations stand under God's judgment and enjoy no special relationship with Him. While those nations whose institutions are founded on a Judeo-Christian understanding of righteousness and justice are far more likely to execute their secular callings wisely and justly, there is no guarantee that they will and there is no guarantee that pagan societies will not. That is because the Law of God is written on the conscience and even the heathen have a sense of right and wrong. In fact, Paul argues in Romans that both Gentiles, without the Law, do that which is contained in the Law, while very often the Jews themselves, though confident because they had the Law given to them, lived contrary to it. In summary, Paul says, both Jew and Gentile stand under the Law's condemnation, for "there is none who is righteous, no not one" (Rom 3:10).
But just because there is no one who has kept God's Law perfectly, either as it is written on the conscience or on tablets of stone, that does not mean that it is impossible for men and women to discern right from wrong. This is why John Calvin argues, for instance, that as you "look around and glance at the world as a whole, or at least cast your sight upon regions farther off, divine providence has wisely arranged that various countries should be ruled by various kinds of government." While Calvin certainly did not deny that the moral Law of God is the standard of true righteousness, he strongly criticized the idea held by many Christian "revolutionaries" in his day "who deny that a commonwealth is duly framed which neglects the political system of Moses, and is ruled by the common laws of nations." It is not a question of what God requires, but of what the state must require. God demands total obedience in heart and life, and this must be proclaimed by the church to the world, in order to drive sinners to Christ and then guide their lives, while the state is simply concerned with civil order, safety, and public justice.
Make Sure That Natural Law Is Your Common Ground
Here again, we find help in Augustine's and Calvin's interpretations of Scripture, but first to the infallible authority itself. The Apostle Paul declared that even the most godless "secular humanists" have accurate knowledge about God. They cannot know everything about Him, not even some of the most important things: That He is a trinity, that He has spoken through the prophets and brought salvation to the ends of the earth through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and so on. But they do know enough by nature to condemn them apart from supernatural revelation (Rom 1:18-20).This knowledge of right and wrong and the transcendent divine authority above their judgments of right and wrong implies that even pagans can set up just societies. And what is implicit here is explicit in Romans 2:14:"Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them." They cannot be justified before God by their occasional obedience to the Law written on the conscience any more than the Jews can be excused by their occasional obedience to the Law written on tablets. Nevertheless, there is enough there for what philosophers and theologians have called "natural law."
The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas was one of the most brilliant exponents of this notion of "natural law" since Augustine. Modern historians are agreed that John Calvin was one of the chief architects of our modern understanding of this theory, a theory which has been rejected today in favor of relativism and pragmatism. This "natural law" is not a rival to God's Law, rather it is that same universal divine mandate imprinted on humanity's conscience as part of God's image. But since modern nations are not in a covenantal relationship with God, as Israel was, the rule ought to be "general equity," as it was established by constitutions and interpreted by courts. Note Calvin's comments:
First, notice that here Calvin is employing the principle mentioned above: Distinguishing over-arching universals, clearly discovered in Scripture, from particular applications or policies, which differ from nation to nation.
Then Calvin refers to the example of stealing. God's Law forbids stealing, but prohibitions of this nature are found, he observes, in "the very ancient laws of other nations" as well. However, while the civil penalties imposed varied from society to society, "They do not agree on the manner of punishment. Nor is this either necessary or expedient", since each society has its own particular problems which require specific policies and punishments.
So, Calvin observes,
Therefore, while the church may insist on universal equity (justice) in the name of God, it may not claim God for democracy, even though many of the great biblical doctrines suggest a form of government that is certainly compatible and perhaps even most consonant with democracy, as Calvin himself argues in that same chapter. Our defense of the unborn ought to be made on the same basis as our defense of civil liberties for everyone in this country: Equity, and this can be argued on the basis of natural law, without a single reference to the Bible.
But in our day, not only do we seem to have trouble distinguishing natural revelation from special revelation; we have trouble also, it seems, distinguishing absolutes from non-absolutes. Any compromise in the political arena is regarded as a fatal blow to principle. Any questioning of supply-side economics is tantamount to heresy, since, as Falwell argues, America's free enterprise system was patterned on "the clear teachings of Scripture". Justly outraged at a moral relativism that has rendered it almost impossible to say that anything is true, good or beautiful (except, of course, for the dogma of relativism itself), many Christians refuse to acknowledge that there is any place in the political, social, or moral arena for "things indifferent" (i.e., the "relative"). It is true that we ought to be "black and white" on the sanctity of life, stewardship of the divinely-given earthly resources, the dignity of work, civil liberty, and other absolutes we not only find in Scripture, but find written on the human conscience. Nevertheless, general wisdom guides our application of these universal aims and truths, a wisdom that is always fallible and conditioned by particular factors.
No one person or group of individuals may rise up and impose its will even in the name of God and Christ. For we are all sinnersstill, yes, even we Christians. Self-righteousness only intensifies the damage the will to power can create. I must change. I must repent and believe the Gospel. I must forgive my neighbor and seek his or her forgiveness of my wrongs. Repentance is always my duty, always a burden and a joy which I must carry, not a weight of judgment which I may place on someone else, although I am obliged to announce it to all on God's behalf.
This, I think, is Jesus' point in Luke 11:46, 52:
This is also why Paul told the immoral Corinthian church to mind its own business and get its own house in order. "What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside" (1 Cor 5:12).
Therefore, while the church warns of a day of judgment on the horizon, it may not take it upon itself to seek to bring down God's wrath before that day. "Do not judge, or you too will be judged," Jesus told the religious people of his day. "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" (Mt 7:1-6). That is not because there is no such thing as absolute truth or morality, nor because it is impolite to judge. Nor indeed ought this be interpreted to mean that Christians ought not to discern good laws from bad laws and encourage the former. What it does mean is that we must not confuse the civil role of the state in exercising its temporal judgments for the preservation of good order, peace, safety, and justice with the divine judgment at the end of history. The church proclaims the latter and calls all men and women to account, making God's absolute truth and morality clear from the text of Scripture.
If we want to see God's name hallowed or revered in our day, judgment must begin not in the world, but in the house of God. We have severely damaged God's credibility in our age and that is something we are all going to have to come to terms with if there is to be reformation. We are the ones who are regenerated and are being reshaped into the image of Christ. We are the ones whom God has taken from every tribe, tongue, people and nation to be a kingdom of priests, a city of hope in the middle of the hopeless skylines of the modern kingdoms. We are, as John Stott has described the church, the true counter-culture pointing the way to real meaning and transcendence, not just by what we say but in the way we relate to each other and reach out to our neighbors. Whenever a cup of water is given in Christ's name, the Bible says God's name is hallowed. Whenever we pursue our calling with excellence, God's name is glorified. Whenever we care for our families, respect is given to the name of God, even by those who do not as yet know Him.
The evangelical world is in a state of confusion: Theologically, nobody seems to know anymore what holds us together; ethically, we are scandal-ridden and worldly from head to toe; socially, we are confused as to what our relationship to the world ought to be. It seems to me, especially in the light of these New Testament warnings about judging those outside the church, that our own plate is full; that our own crisis is sufficient to warrant our full attention, and for this sort of reformation we can surely claim the name of God.