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A servant, not a god

"A servant, not a god" Continued...

Issue: "Ugly truth of partial-birth," April 17, 2004

This is not to say that such inequality is unimportant: It brings out personal responsibility to be just and generous and the Body of Christ's corporate responsibility to &quotdo good to all people" (Galatians 6:10). It challenges otherwise comfortable believers to sacrifice to help their neighbors.

The form of economic oppression that would appear to come closest to the biblical meaning would be the use of government by influential interest groups to restrict competition, enhance their own market position, and extort subsidies. It is such lobbies, among many others, that the prophet Isaiah addressed when he proclaimed: &quotWoe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and rob My oppressed people of justice, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless" (Isaiah 10:1-2).

Less relevant today are God's rules governing virtually every aspect of the Israelites' lives. The moral purity of the collective body appears to have been God's primary concern. For instance, the death penalty was prescribed for those who sacrificed to other gods, violated the ceremonial law, engaged in forbidden sexual practices, and cursed their parents. Other rules governed everything from appropriate clothing to economic practices.

Enforcement of essentially &quotreligious" laws would not seem to be the proper province of civil government today. Most obviously, the traditional Old Testament strictures were tied to the Israelites' status as the chosen people. That is, God established the law to mold the nation of Israel as part of His overall plan of salvation.

It should not be surprising, then, that the Mosaic Scriptures devote more attention to the Israelites' worship practices than to their civic responsibilities. Similarly, rules established to govern an individual's dedication of property to God were more complex than those governing his commercial transactions with his neighbors (Leviticus 27). Many rules, such as the cancellation of debts and restrictions on interest, applied only to Hebrews, members of the faith community (Deuteronomy 15:3, 23:20). In the same way the communal economics of the early Christian church appear to have involved only believers (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-35). Christians did not impose their practices on others.

Significantly, enforcement of many Old Testament norms required the active intervention of God, something no state today is likely to rely upon. By the time Jesus began His ministry, public enforcement of the old Hebraic rules appear to have been largely abandoned, and the Jewish world at that time-under a secular Roman leadership-looks much more like today's America than ancient Israel.

Another reason to doubt that today's state is mandated to enforce moral/religious rules is that most ultimately deal with matters of the heart as much as conduct. Paul wrote: &quotA man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code" (Romans 2:29). Meaningful enforcement of the moral law, then, requires God's direct involvement in the affairs of civil government, intervention that was possible only in a covenant nation like Israel. Government today fails to perform adequately even basic tasks, such as preventing crime; how can the state reasonably attempt to make men moral and sinless by cleaning up their hearts, consciences, and minds?

Godly people still have an interest in promoting corporate compliance with God's standards. But today God seems to have vested primary responsibility for society's moral health with the religious, rather than civil, authorities. Thus, while the Bible does not prevent the state from taking on a moral role, it also does not mandate it.

If Scripture requires the state to act in some circumstances (for instance, to punish the wrongdoer and promote justice), it also restricts how the state can act. The most important limitation flows from the first commandment given to Moses: &quotYou shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3). Although the &quotother gods" were usually such supposed deities as Baal, some secular rulers, notably the later Roman emperors, also claimed to be divine. God punished kings (such as Tyre's ruler and Israel's Herod) for making or tolerating such preposterous claims.

Today's secular rulers are more discreet in their formal pretensions, but many nevertheless act as quasi-gods. From the Pharaoh who held the Jews in captivity and ordered the murder of their newborn sons to the 20th-century totalitarians with their personality cults, civil authorities have often usurped God's role. What author Herb Schlossberg calls &quotthe idol state" purports to give life meaning, set moral standards, meet personal needs, and otherwise direct human activity. The Bible suggests that an expansive government is bad not only because it might demand to be treated like God, but also because it will reflect the sinfulness of its participants and mistreat its citizens. The inescapable problem is that man is a fallen creature, all too willing to do wrong. For instance, God declared that His people &quotare skilled in doing evil."

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