A servant, not a god

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

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

This sinful tendency is exacerbated by the accumulation of power. God instructed the Israelites that their king was neither to acquire too many horses and wives, and too much gold and silver, nor to &quotconsider himself to be better than his brothers" (Deuteronomy 17:16-17, 20). Similarly, when the Israelites requested that God give them a king, He cautioned -through the prophet Samuel-that the king would abuse his authority and that their calls for relief would go unheeded.

And while Scripture is ultimately more concerned about spiritual freedom-particularly liberation from sin-than political freedom, the latter remains an important theme for at least three reasons. First, the lives and dignity of human beings created in the image of God require respect by other people, including governors. In the end, the least important person for whom Christ died is of greater value than the grandest empire.

Second, people must be free to worship God and integrate obedience to Him into their daily lives. This concern obviously animated Peter and John when they rejected the demand of the Sanhedrin, an ecclesiastical body with considerable civil power, that they cease teaching in Jesus' name: &quotWe must obey God rather than man" (Acts 5:29). Paul, too, never hesitated to disobey civil authorities that denied him permission to preach.

Finally, Christ's injunction that believers be salt and light requires that they have at least some autonomy from the state. In the Soviet Union, for instance, the government outlawed private charity, probably the most important practical outworking of a person's Christian faith. The imperialistic tendencies of Western welfare states to take over communal life can ultimately have much the same effect as the USSR's formal ban.

To know what government must and must not do is critical, but only a start, since most issues fall somewhere in between. Moreover, most have been with us since biblical times. Poverty, for instance, as well as debasement of the currency and high tax levels, are hardy perennials. Although the specific manifestations of these problems are different today, broader biblical principles apply.

Consider poverty. God's concern for the poor, the vulnerable, and the weak is persistent, pervasive, and powerful. Notably, however, the Bible does not vest this responsibility in the state. While Scripture does not bar a public role, the alleviation of poverty is consistently presented as an obligation of individuals, families, and congregations, not government, and a duty to God, not a right of the recipient.

Moreover, the biblical model of limited assistance to those unable to work imposed responsibilities upon the recipients, and avoided the social destructiveness of the modern welfare state. Although Scripture does not formally proscribe a public role or broader approach, it implies that believers should fulfill their individual and corporate responsibilities before turning to government, and that any state programs should not violate other biblical norms, such as family formation.

Many other current public controversies, like corporate fraud, insider trading, the minimum wage, and the Export-Import Bank, are more esoteric. About them the Bible offers little specific guidance. Straining to find specific guidance leads to embarrassing proof-texting, such as that of columnist Brian S. Chilton, who cited Joseph's &quotsuccessful administration of Egypt's food supply" in concluding of attempted nation-building in Iraq today: &quotIf this president, as with Joseph, wants to spend money on a project while acknowledging God's direction and role, then he has my support."

But Joseph's program tells us nothing about George W. Bush's efforts. It certainly doesn't tell us that President Bush has correctly divined God's purpose. Godly citizens, no less than a godly president, have a responsibility simultaneously to seek God's will and apply wisdom. For most matters are more issues of prudence than principle and fall within the permissive area of government activity.

That is, there is neither a mandate for nor a prohibition against the government occupying Iraq, or regulating who may trade which securities based on what knowledge. The link between, say, concern for the poor and a particular federal job-training program is prudential, not spiritual. Churchmen who speak on such issues often look more like common lobbyists than godly prophets.

Although there is no formal Christian political philosophy, believers have good reason to be skeptical about using government to solve economic and social problems. The temptation to seize power in an attempt to do good is strong; the prospect of making people moral and righteous is alluring. But can there be greater hubris than the belief that one should forcibly remake individuals and transform entire societies? Literally thousands of years of history suggest that such a project is fraught with peril and doomed to fail.


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