THE BIBLE AND THE BALLOT
The Bible and the Ballot Using Scripture in Political Decisions
Tremper Longman III
WilliamÂ B. Eerdmans Publishing Company Grand Rapids, Michigan
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 4035 Park East Court SE, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49546 www.eerdmans.com © 2020 Tremper Longman III All rights reserved Published 2020 Printed in the United States of America 26 25 24 23 22 21 20 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 ISBN 978-0-8028-7734-5
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress.
All translations of Scripture follow the 2011 New International Version unless otherwise noted.
To our new granddaughters: Samantha Tremper Longman (born December 23, 2018) Lydia Eastwick Longman (born January 8, 2019)
The Church and the World
PART 1: THE BIBLE AND PUBLIC POLICY 1. Key Questions for Reading the Bible
The Goal of Interpretation: The Locus of Meaning
2. How to Read Scripture to Make Political Decisions
Key Interpretive Principles
Summary and Conclusions on the Redemptive-Ethical Trajectory
Contents 3. Essential Biblical Theological Themes
Humans, Created in the Image of God
Humans, Self-Seeking Sinners
Redemption and Consummation
Dispositions and Rhetoric
Summing Up and Moving on to Specific Issues
PART 2: BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES FOR CONTROVERSIAL ISSUES 4. Nationalism, Patriotism, and Globalization
Nations: Born of Sin; Token of Grace
Summary: Patriotism, Nationalism, and Globalization
5. Religious Liberty Forced to Sin?
101 108 114
Five Phases of Divine Warfare
But Does the Bible Prohibit Christian Involvement in War?
Can a Nation Go to War and under What Conditions?
Self-Defense in the Bible
Summary and Conclusion
Contents 7. Abortion Biblical Texts Relevant to the Issue of Abortion
8. Criminal Justice and Capital Punishment
Gleanings from the Old Testament
Gleanings from the New Testament
Retributive Justice versus Restorative Justice
What about Capital Punishment?
Terms Related to the Immigration Issue
The Patriarchs as Gerim in the Promised Land
Israel as a Ger in Egypt
Moses as a Ger in Midian
The Rights and Responsibilities of Gerim in Israel
Undocumented Immigrants and the Image of God
Sanctuary Cities and Churches
10. Same-Sex Marriage
Biblical Teaching on Same-Sex Relationships
A Biblical Theology of Sexuality
11. The Environment
God, the World, and Humanity in Genesis 1–2
God, the World, and Humanity in Genesis 3
God, the World, and Humanity: Judgment and Redemption
The Climate-Change Controversy
Contents 12. Poverty Godâ€™s Attitude toward the Poor
Reasons for Poverty
Mandate to Help the Poor
Old Testament Laws concerning Provision for the Poor
The Sin of Prosperity Thinking
God Created One People in His Image
All People Are Sinners
The Question of Affirmative Action and Reparations
Summary and Conclusion
Index of Authors
Index of Subjects
Index of Scripture References
Why a book on the Bible and public policy? This book is written for Christians, especially evangelicals, in America. Evangelical Christians for the most part believe that the Bible is God’s revelation to humanity. The church has historically acknowledged the divine origin of Scripture by recognizing it as canon: the standard of our faith and practice. Thus, we want to hear God’s voice on all matters that Scripture addresses, and it is our contention that Scripture speaks to issues of public policy, including the ten issues addressed here: (1) nationalism, patriotism, and globalization; (2) religious liberty; (3) war; (4) abortion; (5) criminal justice; (6) immigration; (7) same-sex marriage; (8) the environment; (9) poverty; and (10) racism. Right from the start we need to be clear: The Bible does not give us specific public policies. Rather, as we will remind the reader throughout the book, the Bible gives us general principles that we should take seriously as we think through issues of public policy and make political decisions. My main qualification for writing this book is that I have studied the Bible professionally for over forty years. I’m not an expert on public policy, though I consider myself an educated layperson. But then again, my main purpose in this book is not to set specific public policy, but rather to contribute my understanding of the relevant principles to those issues. I do have xi
Preface opinions on how these principles might best be implemented in specific policy decisions at this moment in American history, but for the most part, I try to keep these opinions to myself. That said, I am straightforward in what I think those principles are, though I also indicate where I think Scripture speaks loudly and where I think it is not as clear. Of course, such judgments depend on interpretation of specific passages in their context. Some today think that finding out what the Bible is saying is as easy as picking it up and reading it without any study or deep reflection. As I will point out, that may be true of the basic message of the Bible, but it certainly is not true of most issues, including the topics discussed here. On the other hand, others believe that the Bible is hopelessly confusing and that people can basically make any argument that they want from the text. This viewpoint is also false. But it does show that besides simply asserting that the Bible is the word of God, we also have to consider how to interpret it in a way that will allow us to hear Godâ€™s voice. For that reason, the first part of the book talks about proper interpretation. I would urge readers who are tempted to turn immediately to a later chapter on a topic of special interest that they make sure to read the opening chapters about how to interpret the Bible. To those who may be tempted to say that my previously held political views shaped my understanding of the biblical principles set forth in this book, I offer the following response. First, I am mindful that our preunderstanding can indeed affect our interpretation, so I read people who disagreed with me. Second, I will simply share that I actually changed my views on some matters as I wrote this book. I wanted the text to shape my understanding, and on a number of occasions I found that, as I studied a topic, I changed my mind. Third, close readers of the whole book will notice that I donâ€™t think the Bible ends up supporting any particular partisan view on all the issues discussed in this book. We live in turbulent times. No matter where you are in the political spectrum, you must acknowledge the divisiveness xii
Preface and vitriol and partisanship that threaten our national and human unity. Because of this, our political rhetoric has become caustic. Each side demonizes the other. Unfortunately, many Christians have participated in name-calling and attempts to shame and humiliate the other side. For this reason, I decided to add at the end of each chapter a section that briefly speaks to what I believe Scripture wants our attitudes and dispositions to be on a particular topic. For example, it’s hard to speak badly about immigrants, documented or not, if we recognize them as God’s creation and image bearers (not to speak of the fact that many of them are our brothers and sisters in Christ). What makes this book different from almost any other written recently is that it is a book about the Bible and political decisions. We have had a number of political theologies recently written by insightful Christian scholars and political thinkers.1 But this book is different, as can be seen by the intentional interaction with specific biblical texts in their literary, historical, and theological context.2 The topics that I cover in this book are controversial among Christians. I have tried to back up my understanding of specific texts as I derive the relevant principles. I will be honest that I hope to persuade you on these matters. These are God’s principles, I would argue, not mine. 1. Among others, I would highlight Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (Chicago: Moody, 2010); Tom Wright, God in Public: How the Bible Speaks Truth to Power Today (London: SPCK, 2016); James K. A. Smith, Awaiting the King: Rethinking Public Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017). 2. The one book that in intention is most like mine is Wayne Grudem, Politics according to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010). I have serious reservations about Grudem’s approach and many of his conclusions. I will not be doing a running critique of Grudem, but I hope that some who have read his book might consider the perspective I give here. He invites Christians who disagree with him to publish arguments “opposing what I say,” in the interest of deeper dialogue.
Preface But, of course, I could be wrong on certain of my conclusions. I ask only that my Christian readers feel themselves constrained by Scripture. The worse response would be: He is right about what the Bible says on same-sex marriage, abortion, war, or immigration, but I don’t care. I’ll keep my own viewpoint on the matter. After all, as pointed out above and described in the next chapter, we hear the voice of God in the Bible and thus the Bible is the church’s canon, its standard of faith and practice. What I am hoping for most is that you, the reader, will wrestle with Scripture as you consider these issues of pressing importance today in the United States. Tremper Longman III Distinguished Scholar and Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies Westmont College
We live in a divisive time in our country. Gone are the days when people of good intentions on different sides of a complicated issue could get together and work out a compromise. Our politicians often seem locked into their respective viewpoints on a multitude of the problems facing our nation and are unwilling to give an inch to the other side. The result is an ineffective government that has not done much to fix or even improve problems associated with immigration, the environment, racism, poverty, and more. Christians living in the United States have been swept up in the partisan fights that divide our country. Unlike New Testament times, the voice of the church and individual Christians can be heard (though not always listened to) in the broader society. But how biblical are the views associated with Christians, particularly evangelical Protestant Christians to whom this book is mainly, but not exclusively, addressed? That is the question that I would like to explore in this book. As explained in the first part of the book, Christians should care what the Bible says about the pressing issues of today. After all, we believe we hear the voice of God in the Bible, and, while the Bible does not give us specific public policies, it does give us principles and, just as importantly, attitudes and dispositions through which we think through important issues like
Acknowledgments nationalism, patriotism, globalization, religious liberty, war, abortion, criminal justice, immigration, same-sex marriage, the environment, poverty, and racism. Christians must listen to the voice of God as they think about and express their views on these issues. Before diving into these subjects, I would like to thank a number of people for their encouragement and support during the writing process. Andrew Knapp at Eerdmans proposed that I write this book and that I write it so that it could be published at the beginning of a presidential election year. I would not have written it without his suggestion, and I am really glad that he encouraged me to do so. I also would like to thank those at Eerdmans who worked hard with me to help me express my ideas more clearly. These include James Ernest and Jenny Hoffman, as well as copyeditor Justin Ryan Howell. Further, I sent my manuscript to friends to get their feedback. Since Eerdmans wanted to get this out in early 2020, I did not give them much time to read it. While some understandably could not give their feedback in time, I want to thank Peter Wehner and Shane Kelly for taking the time to give me critical feedback. I heard back from others after the deadline but was unable to incorporate their ideas. Let me be clear, though, that none of the people I have named share all the views expressed in this book. The views expressed here are my conclusions concerning what the Bible tells us about these controversial issues. And these issues are controversial among Christians. I certainly don’t think I have the last word on every topic. I just hope that, as some may decide to criticize me publicly or privately, they justify their views by biblical arguments and not by vague theological rationales or simple name-calling. Lastly, but certainly not least, I want to thank my wonderful family, most of all my wife of forty-six years, Alice. We have three wonderful sons and six equally wonderful granddaughters. Since earlier books have been dedicated to our four
Acknowledgments older granddaughters (Gabrielle, Mia, Ava, and Emerson), the present book is dedicated to our two new additions, Samantha Tremper Longman (daughter of Tim and Kari) and Lydia Eastwick Longman (daughter of Andrew and Tiffany). Girls, my prayer is that by the time you read this dedication our nation and our world will be in a better place.
“I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.” ( John 17:14–19)
Jesus taught his disciples that they are “in the world” but not “of the world,” which raises the question: How are Christians who are not of the world to interact with the world in which they live? Jesus’s teaching and our question presuppose a difference between the world and Jesus’s followers who constitute the church. After all, Jesus had earlier taught his disciples that the prince of this world was none other than Satan (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). No wonder Jesus wanted to make sure his disciples knew that they were not of the world and prayed for them that the Father would protect them from “the evil one,” a reference to the devil. But again, Christians live in the world, but how? In another gospel, Jesus warns his disciples that, as they live in the world, they will be like “sheep among wolves.” Then he goes on to tell
Introduction them to “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). All these passages (and many more) are important to keep in mind (and we will come back to them) as we approach the question of biblical interpretation and public policy. Christians are followers of Jesus but also citizens of a nation-state. How do Christians live shrewdly and innocently with the tension between church and culture? The first step is to recognize that the state is not the church. The error of identifying the state with the church is particularly prevalent among American Christians, and since this book is specifically addressed to the American church, we need to recognize this significant theological error and criticize it from the start. Thus, we will anticipate a longer discussion (see chapter 4 on nationalism, patriotism, and globalization) with a few words here in the introduction. America today is not a Christian nation either by its founding or by its present constitution. Our founders did include people of faith, but they also included many who were shaped not so much by Christian principles and convictions as by various forms of Enlightenment philosophy.1 But even if they were all sincere Christians, that fact would not make America a Christian nation. Indeed, as D. A. Carson points out, “talk of the ‘Christian West’ actually stifles the advance of the gospel in parts of the world where countervailing religions and ideology want people to believe in the stereotype of the Christian West so that Christian claims can be dismissed as merely Western.” Indeed, also, “Christians who wish to be faithful to the Bible will remind themselves of their heavenly citizenship.”2 Only Israel was a godly nation (and only during the Old Testament period), and that role was through God’s choice of them 1. Think, for instance, of the influence of the political philosophy of John Locke. 2. Both quotes are from D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 195.
Introduction to mediate God’s blessing to the rest of the world. As God said to Abraham: “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all people on earth will be blessed through you.” (Gen. 12:1–3)
God had chosen Israel during the Old Testament period to stay separate from the surrounding people, to obey his divinely given law (Exod. 20–24), and to attract the surrounding people to God through the blessing that would come from their obedience. This election was not for special favor, but rather for service that often would bring them suffering for the benefit of the world.3 No nation today, including America, holds the same status as ancient Israel did during the Old Testament period. Indeed, as we move from the Old Testament to the New Testament, we see that God’s people move from being a nation-state to being the church, drawn from many different nations and ethnicities. To treat America as if it has some kind of favored divine status or role is not only mistaken but potentially idolatrous. God is in relationship with and works through the church, not through nation-states. To recognize that the church and the state are different, even identifying the state as the “world,” does not answer the question how the church and individual Christians are to live in the world. This question continues to be one fraught with disagreement and even controversy. In the post–World War II era, the theologian H. Richard
3. For the understanding of election as service rather than special favor, see Joel Kaminsky, Yet I Loved Jacob: Reclaiming the Biblical Concept of Election (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007).
Introduction Niebuhr wrote Christ and Culture, where he explored five different models of the church’s reaction to the world (culture).4
The Church and the World Christ against Culture
The Christ-against-culture perspective arises from a recognition that there is a fundamental difference between the world and the church. This awareness of the contrast between Christ and culture leads to a strategy of withdrawal from the culture to the fullest extent possible. Here we might think of the monastic movement, both historically and in the present. In terms of the latter, we might cite what is called the Benedict option, which calls for the church to withdraw from public life to escape from the contamination of secular life, as well as the increasing futility of Christians trying to speak in the public square due to increasing animosity toward Christian perspectives.5
The Christ of Culture
The Christ-of-culture viewpoint may be the opposite of the Christ-against-culture perspective in that those who adopt this approach do not see a difference between Christ and the culture they live in, although they may seek to improve it by insisting on what they see as Christian ethical values. Niebuhr himself used the social gospel as an example. Advocates of the social gospel weren’t interested in presenting the gospel to people but in getting them to act more justly toward each other. Philip 4. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951). 5. Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post- Christian World (New York: Sentinel, 2017).
Introduction Yancey cited some liberation theologians as examples, since they read their Bibles with Marxist lenses and then applied biblical principles of liberation to the oppressed, apart from a relationship with God.6 Perhaps another example might be those Christians who basically Christianize the culture as we have it—for instance, some mainline Christians who simply accept contemporary culture’s sexual mores, or perhaps more conservative Christians who baptize capitalism as divinely sanctioned economics.
Christ above Culture
According to Niebuhr, this “church of the center” perspective understands that “Christ and the world cannot be simply opposed to each other. Neither can the ‘world’ as culture be simply regarded as the realm of godlessness; since it is at least founded on the ‘world’ as nature, and cannot exist save as it is upheld by the Creator and Governor of nature.”7 In this view, culture is basically good (and the antithesis is between Christ and humanity, not Christ and the world [culture]), but it needs to be improved by Christian values. Thomas Aquinas is often taken as a lead example of this perspective.
Christ and Culture in Paradox
Niebuhr himself suggested that some strands of Lutheran theology and even some Calvinist theologians advocate a kind of “two-kingdom” idea. An individual is both a Christian and a citizen of the broader culture. In this model, church and soci6. Philip Yancey, “A State of Ungrace,” Christianity Today 41 (February 3, 1997): 31–37. See also his What’s So Amazing about Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997). 7. Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 117–18.
Introduction ety have separate but legitimate spheres. We obey Christ in the church and political leaders in our public, community life. Jesus tells his followers to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s (Matt. 22:21), and Paul urges his readers to “let everyone be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1; see vv. 1–7). That said, what does a Christian do when the two kingdoms put contradictory demands on the believer? It is arguable that such a simple bifurcation can lead to a type of unholy collaboration, such as that between the church and the Nazi government of Germany in the mid-twentieth century.
Christ the Transformer of Culture
This view, like the Christ-against-culture perspective, flows out of the recognition that Christianity and the broader culture are at odds with each other. Rather than leading to withdrawal, however, advocates of this view work toward the transformation of the culture. At the time of Niebuhr, Christianity was losing its cultural grip, but its recovery seemed more possible during his lifetime than today. Secularism had not yet taken a firm hold, and there were not yet open hostilities between, on the one hand, many secular cultural elites and their institutions and, on the other, the church’s elites and their institutions, as there are today. After all, it is common today, but not at Niebuhr’s time, to speak of culture wars. Thus, for better or worse, among evangelical Christians at least, transformation often means attacking secular institutions and trying to coerce transformation in the form of legislation. We will have occasion later to question the wisdom and propriety of strong forms of this type of legislative coercion. And we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there are still Christian, even evangelical, voices and institutions that attempt a more nuanced and softer-voiced type of transformation through persuasion.8 While Niebuhr’s five categories have been influential 8. I think here of the work of the Center for Public Justice (cpjustice
Introduction over the past fifty-plus years since Christ and Culture was first published, they have been recently criticized by Craig Carter in his book aptly titled Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post- Christendom Perspective.9 Carter, writing from an Anabaptist perspective, takes issue with Niebuhr on a couple of essential points. First, he believes that Niebuhr presupposes what Carter calls a Christendom perspective—that is, the idea that the culture is essentially Christian and therefore Christians need, through the transforming approach, to call the culture back to its essential Christian nature. Carter charges that such a view involves compromises with the world. Carter believes that we are moving into a post-Christendom period (where the church is clearly a disenfranchised minority within the broader culture). He argues that Niebuhr misrepresented important aspects of the Christ-against-culture perspective, which Carter himself clearly prefers. With these questions about Niebuhr, he proposes six categories. He divides them into two groups of three, where the first three presuppose a Christendom culture, defined by the acceptance of what he calls “violent coercion,” and the second three presuppose a non-Christendom culture, which he defines as rejecting the use of violent coercion.
Christendom Types Type 1: Christ Legitimizing Culture
This approach describes Christians and Christian movements and institutions that use violence to create what they consider to be a Christian culture. Here he places the medieval crusades as well as German churches that supported the Nazis during World War II and before. .org) and thinkers like James K. A. Smith, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017). 9. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006.
Introduction Type 2: Christ Humanizing Culture
Here Christians approach the culture out of their private faith in order to move it toward Christian values. He cites the sixteenth-century reformer Martin Luther and the recently deceased evangelist Billy Graham as examples of this approach.
Type 3: Christ Transforming Culture
This approach is based on the idea that Christ is Lord of all and that force can be used to bring everything under subjection to Christ. The sixteenth-century British political leader Thomas Cromwell is a lead example.
Non-ÂChristendom Types Type 4: Christ Transforming Culture
Christians like William Penn, Desmond Tutu, and Martin Luther King Jr. are examples of those who also believe that Christ is the Lord of the cosmos, but they believe that nonviolent means of persuasion should be used to achieve their objective, which is to make the broader culture more Christlike.
Type 5: Christ Humanizing Culture
Like Type 2, a Christian like Mother Teresa wanted to leaven the broader culture and make it more human. But whereas someone advocating Type 2 might start a social action group and thus coerce people to behave in the proper way, a Type 5Â Christian would simply go out and serve humanity with the hope of providing a model to the rest of society. 8
Introduction Type 6: Christ Separating from Culture
Here Carter describes Christians who withdraw from culture with no intention to directly influence culture, except to provide an attractive alternative to it. He uses the example of the Amish, who separate from society to provide a kind of countercultural alternative to the culture. *
For my present purpose, I am not interested in defending Niebuhr over Carter or any one particular model of interaction with the broader culture.10 I present these two examples of theologians exploring different options of interaction with the culture to give us some categories with which to work. My own view is that there is not a single strategy or formula of Christian interaction with culture, but rather Jesus’s instruction to “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” calls on Christians to utilize wisdom in reaction to specific issues that arise in our public life. In other words, there is not a single- size-fits-all approach. Sometimes we will be called to withdraw, at other times to engage and affirm, and at still others to transform or humanize. D. A. Carson seems to agree, when he says that four of the five strategies “can claim some biblical warrant.”11 These four strategies aren’t offered as alternatives so that only one is right, but rather as different ways the Christian and the church should relate to the broader culture, depending on the circumstances. We will see that the Bible does not give us instructions about specific policy decisions. To interact in culture, we need to know relevant biblical principles and be able to read situations and people in order to know how to apply them. 10. For a helpful critique of Carter, see Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, 218–22. 11. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, 206. Carson rightly argues that the Christ of culture option cannot be defended biblically.
5 Religious Liberty
Christians (and others) in America today possess unprecedented religious liberty, both historically speaking and globally. America was founded, at least in part, by those who fled various forms of religious persecution in Europe, in which a Christian religious majority warranted by the state repressed other expressions of Christianity. For example, early European settlers of eastern Pennsylvania came from the Quakers of Great Britain, while Massachusetts was settled by Puritans, also from Great Britain. My own ancestors on my grandmother’s side of the family were French Huguenots who had fled to the Netherlands and then immigrated with the earliest Dutch settlers in the Hudson Valley. My wife’s relatives were Welsh Quakers who arrived in America on William Penn’s ship, the Welcome. While it is true that some of those who sought religious freedom for themselves by coming to the colonies turned around and repressed religious dissenters in their communities,1 such beginnings led eventually to a strong tradition of church-state separation in the United States, which is embedded in the Con1. For instance, the Puritans of the Massachusetts colony lacked tolerance for religious dissenters in their midst, including Roger Williams (ca. 1603–1683), who left to form the colony of Rhode Island and advocated for church-state separation, which inspired the later founders of America to adopt that stance in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights a century after his death.
Biblical Principles for Controversial Issues stitution and the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment of the Constitution states: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
While some today believe that church-state separation should keep distinctively and avowedly religious voices out of the public square, it is unlikely that that was its original purpose. Rather, its intention was to prohibit the government from endorsing or enfranchising a particular religious perspective (a state church) or meddling in the affairs of the church. Even though the intention was not to keep Christian perspectives out of the public square, there was also the sense that America was not a Christian theocracy, and such a position allowed and even encouraged the United States to be the pluralistic society that it is today, with all the benefits and difficulties that such a society brings. Today, it is not uncommon to hear Christians decry the erosion of their religious liberty, particularly as those freedoms butt up against the liberties of other groups in our pluralistic society.2 Perhaps today the most pointed examples come in the clash between Christian religious sexual values and the LGBTQ+ community. Over the past two decades, culminating with the Obergefell decision of the Supreme Court (2015), which established same-sex marriage as permissible by law throughout the United States, LGBTQ+ rights have been recognized and enforced by antidiscrimination laws, which many Christians perceive as violating their conscience and eroding their religious liberty. 2. For instance, see Os Guinness, Last Call for Liberty: How America’s Genius Has Become Its Greatest Threat (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2018).
Religious Liberty For instance, some religious adoption agencies refuse to place children with same-sex couples and are then threatened with losing their government subsidies if they don’t comply. Politicians have threatened some religious institutions of higher education, including Christian colleges, with the loss of government-backed student grants (Pell grants, for example) because of their unwillingness to hire LGBTQ+ staff or faculty or not recognizing and funding LGBTQ+ student organizations. In addition, conflicts have arisen when religious (usually Christian) wedding providers (florists and bakers) refuse to provide goods and services for same-sex marriage ceremonies. In a different area of law, there have also been conflicts that have reached the Supreme Court (such as Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, 2014) over the requirement for companies that are privately owned by Christians who are against birth control to provide health insurance (in this case under the Affordable Care Act) that would provide contraceptives. We will explore some of these specific issues in later chapters (see chapters 7 and 10 on abortion and same-sex marriage). But does the Bible indicate how we as Christians should respond to the issue of religious liberties? We should begin by remembering that Christianity was birthed in a culture that had virtually no religious liberty (at least toward the new Christian religion). Religious liberty, in short, is not a biblical principle. The Roman government of the first century was not interested in giving room to Christ or the fledgling church, either in Jerusalem or anywhere else in the empire. The church was not protected from or by the government. Yet the church thrived and grew and flourished in the midst of oppression and even persecution. When we turn back to the Old Testament, we also don’t find a culture of religious liberty, though the long history presented there does not give us a single picture. Of course, nothing like today’s separation of church and state existed during the period of the Old Testament. In terms of ancient Israel, God wanted 103
Biblical Principles for Controversial Issues his priestly kingdom to be faithful to him, but this was a time when (see above on nationalism) God had chosen a particular nation, Israel, to be a godly nation to draw the other nations to him. While foreigners could worship Yahweh and in effect become Israelites, Israelites were not encouraged or even permitted to choose another religion.3 Of course, such religious purity was supposed to be the case under a godly king, like those described in the law of kingship, found in Deuteronomy 17:14–20. The book of Kings, though, informs us that, contrary to Deuteronomy 17, many kings decided to worship other gods, thus bringing on the ire of the prophets. For an example, one needs only to remember the prophet Elijah and his confrontation with King Ahab and his Baal-worshiping wife Jezebel in 1 Kings 18–22:40. Neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament suggests that religious liberty is a right or even necessary for God’s people. What the Bible insists on is that God’s people stay faithful in the midst of whatever circumstance they encounter. We have many examples, but to illustrate this point, let’s turn to two. In the Old Testament, Daniel and his three friends find themselves deported as political hostages to the Babylonian court. Nebuchadnezzar wants to train them in Babylonian ways in order to serve the interests of his growing empire. A close study of these four men shows that they actually bend quite a bit in accommodating to the culture in which they find themselves. Much of whatever they had by way of “religious liberty” was denied to them by the Babylonians. In response, they didn’t protest when the Babylon official changed their names from good Hebrew names that glorified their God to names that glorified Babylonian gods (for instance, Daniel, “God is my judge,” to Belteshazzar, “the divine lady protects the king”). Nor did 3. The historical books are filled with accounts of Israelites receiving God’s judgment for daring to worship other gods. One need think only of the golden-calf episode (Exod. 32) or the account of Israelite men seduced by Moabite women to worship false gods (Num. 25).
Religious Liberty they protest when they were forced to undergo Nebuchadnezzar’s mandated training to learn the “language and literature of the Babylonians,” a curriculum that included learning about divinatory practices and would have been hostile to their faith. They did not even protest publicly when they chose to eat vegetables and drink water rather than the rich food and wine provided by the king. This latter instance did not even have specifically religious significance.4 So we see that in a context that lacked religious liberty, Daniel and his friends were willing to bend quite a bit in a culture hostile to their faith. However, when it came down to something that would have caused them to compromise their faith at a fundamental level, they refused and were willing to die. In Daniel 3, we read about the three friends refusing to bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s idolatrous golden statue, and in chapter 4, Daniel does not stop praying to God even though he knows he will be thrown into the lions’ den (Dan. 4). As we turn to the New Testament, we have the example of Stephen, one of the seven men chosen by the disciples as a deacon to minister to the needy in their midst. Each of these seven men were “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). Soon, Stephen attracted the attention of those from the Synagogue of the Freedmen, who were worried that he was attracting a following. They took him before the Sanhedrin, the most important ruling body of the Jewish people at the time. His opponents were demanding that he stop bearing witness to Jesus, but he refused. Indeed, in response to their demand, Stephen rehearsed the history of redemption, beginning with the call of Abraham and continuing through to its climax with the death and resurrection of Jesus. The latter he implied when he, looking up to heaven, cried out, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). At this point, they stoned him. 4. See Tremper Longman III, Daniel, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 51–54.
Biblical Principles for Controversial Issues There is no religious liberty here, and neither Daniel nor Stephen was making the case for it. They knew that they were called to stand faithful and obedient. My point is not that religious liberty is a bad thing, only that it can be dangerous for the church, as it gives the perception of special treatment and, furthermore, is not necessary for its flourishing. Indeed, in those situations where there is little to no religious liberty, to identify as a Christian takes courage, and only those who are committed to Christ will do so. We can and should work for the freedom to exercise our religion in our pluralistic, democratic society. When we do, we must work for everyone’s freedom to express their faith or lack thereof. We can certainly ground our desire in our creation in the divine image and freedom of conscience. But when our freedoms are violated, we should not panic or grow strident and become demanding as if the faith depends on them. However, that does not mean that we should not desire religious liberty, for ourselves and everyone else, regardless of religious perspective. We can work for religious liberty, but we must also be willing to suffer for our beliefs. But, while we should desire religious liberty, we should not demand it. Nor should we grow shrill when we feel our religious liberties have been violated. What should help keep the church from demanding religious liberty is remembrance of the past. The church tends to thrive under the pressure of persecution and to grow complacent in the context of religious freedom. History indicates that the church flourishes in periods when religious liberty is wanting. We should remember, for instance, that the early church lived and thrived under persecution. While recognizing that a type of persecution can annihilate the church in a region (he cites Albania under communism), Carson observes, “where persecution is not complete, or comes in waves with times of relative peace between the waves, there the old saying often demonstrates its insight. The persecution tends to reduce the number of spurious converts and ‘Christians’ who are not serious, so that 106
Religious Liberty when some measure of freedom, however limited, is restored, the church may grow very rapidly.”5 I would point out only that this “healthy” persecution does not have to take the form of a pogrom; it can happen even when it becomes simply unpopular in the general culture to be a Christian. We should not be surprised when we are despised by the “world,” and indeed, we should welcome it, since it will lead to the refining of the church. I would also say that the rapid growth of the church does not have to wait even until the restoration of limited freedom, as we learn from the story of the rapid growth of the early church or from the story of the vast expansion of the church in China today. The political commentator Nicholas Kristof recently made the following observation about the church in China, comparing the days before 1949, when missionaries were given relatively extensive freedom to share the gospel, to the period since 1949: The paradox is that for half a century before the Communist revolution in 1949, Western missionaries traveled around China, operated schools and orphanages and had negligible impact on the country—yet these days missionaries are banned, ministers are persecuted and Christianity has grown prodigiously. There are many tens of millions of Christians, mostly Protestants, with some estimates as high as 100 million.6
Kristof’s comment conforms with my experience of yearly teaching at the University of Peking from 2008 to 2016. While the American church is filled with infighting and the Korean church, for example, has various forms of corruption7—places 5. D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 223. 6. Nicholas Kristof, “China’s Orwellian War on Religion,” New York Times, May 23, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/22/opinion/china-religion -human-rights.html. 7. A comment based on many conversations with Korean pastors and professors (many of whom are former students) as well as trips to Korea.
Biblical Principles for Controversial Issues that both enjoy relatively generous religious liberty—the Chinese church is intent on obedience and enjoys a large measure of unity standing over against a watching and critical government.8 Jesus’s words about persecution make sense in the light of these observations: Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:11–12)
Forced to Sin?
The New Testament does not envision or express a desire that the state would establish Christianity as a publicly recognized and supported religion. Nevertheless, in the fourth century AD, when Constantine became emperor, matters changed, as the church came under the protection and support of the state. This book is not the place to speak of the dangers, strengths, and liabilities of such an arrangement. In historical retrospect, however, most would judge the advent of Christendom as having a decidedly negative impact on the church, as it associated too closely with the power of the state, a power that was too often used to coerce people to act as if they were Christians rather than to persuade people to act in certain ways.9 8. An observation again based on numerous trips to Beijing and many conversations with Chinese leaders. This comment does not mean that there are absolutely no tensions among Christians or churches in China, but that they are minimal compared to the situation in America and Korea. 9. The exception that proves the rule that Constantine’s influence on the church was problematic is Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2010).
Religious Liberty The genius of the American Constitution, then, was to break this formal arrangement between religion and state by rejecting the idea of an established religion (see the First Amendment of the Constitution, cited above). The establishment clause is followed immediately by the free exercise clause. And here is where much of the tension resides as regards religious liberty today. What does it mean for the government to make no law “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion, particularly today as it conflicts with laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (so-called SOGI [Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity] laws)?10 Again, this book is not intended to recommend specific public-policy strategies, but rather to look at biblical principles through which we should think about specific public policies. So far, we have seen that no clear biblical presumption of religious liberty for Christians is found in the Bible, Old or New Testament. Indeed, the presumption in the New Testament is that Christians will suffer for their faith. That does not mean that religious liberty is not something we should desire and advocate for in the public square. But it does mean that we should be ready to suffer the consequences as we hold on to our faith in the midst of a hostile culture. It also means that we should be very careful where we press our concerns on the broader culture. First, we should not be in the business of making non-Christians act like Christians. Second, we should be strategic where we ourselves appeal to religious liberty. And third, we should be prepared to suffer the consequences when our culture refuses to allow us to exercise our religion freely. In terms of our first point, Martin Lloyd-Jones is exactly right: 10. While it is not the purpose of this book to talk about specific public policy, for helpful reflections on the intersection of religious liberty and SOGI laws, see Shapri LoMaglio, “Does Supporting Freedom Require Opposition to LGBT Rights?,” https://cpjustice.org/uploads/PJR_9.3_Arti cle_2_Shapri_LoMaglio.pdf.
Biblical Principles for Controversial Issues The New Testament is never interested in conduct and behavior in itself. I can go further and say that the New Testament does not make an appeal for good behavior to anyone but to Christian people. The New Testament is not interested, as such, in the morality of the world. It tells us quite plainly that you can expect nothing from the world but sin, and that in its fallen condition it is incapable of anything else. In Titus 3:3 Paul tells us that we were all once like that: “For we ourselves were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. . . .” Thus there is nothing, according to the New Testament, that is so fatuous and so utterly futile, as to turn to such people and appeal to them to live the Christian life. . . . The truth is that it only has one message for people like that—the message of repentance.11
Peter Wehner, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, quotes C. S. Lewis in making the same basic point: Lewis was wary of “morals legislation.” For example, during a period when the criminalization of homosexuality was considered by many to be justified, Lewis asked, “What business is it of the State’s?” Nor did he believe it was the duty of government to promote the Christian ideal of marriage. “A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for everyone,” he wrote in Mere Christianity. “I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives.”12 11. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Faith on Trial (London: InterVarsity, 1965), 63. 12. Peter Wehner, “The Political Magic of C. S. Lewis,” New York Times, September 24, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/25/opinion
Religious Liberty Besides being careful not to coerce our non-Christian neighbors to act like Christians, we need to be strategic in our assertion of our own religious liberty. Here I appeal again to the story of Daniel. Granted, Daniel and his three friends did not enjoy anything like our religious liberty today, and they would have died if they had refused their Babylonian names or their toxic pagan education, or even if their refusal of the food had gone public. But from everything we know about these men, they would have died rather than compromise their faith. We should not press our religious freedom at every turn, but we should ask whether what we are being forced to do will involve us in sin. To take a modern example, it is well worth asking whether it is appropriate for a baker to refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding. Would providing the cake cause the baker to sin?13 Or to take another recent example, is it appropriate for a county clerk to refuse to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple because of her Christian commitments? We can think also of a number of examples where we as Christians must stand up and appeal to religious liberty and not participate in an act. Doctors and nurses who believe that abortion is a serious moral violation should not be forced to provide or support abortions. Religious people who are pacifists should not be forced to join the military as combat soldiers. Religious institutions that hold a traditional view of marriage should not be required to hire those who are in same-sex relationships. But then, finally, Christians should be ready to suffer the consequences. Indeed, they should expect negative consequences when they hold to their convictions in a culture that is toxic to their faith. A potential major negative consequence is a loss of government funding, whether for Christian colleges /sunday/the-political-magic-of-cs-lewis.html. The Lewis quotation is from Mere Christianity. 13. Certainly if the baker’s conscience tells him not to bake the cake, then he should not do so, though he should not expect the country’s laws to protect him from possible consequences (and for reasons of conscience he should be willing to bear those consequences).
Biblical Principles for Controversial Issues or adoption agencies. Again, nothing is wrong with advocating for such funding in the light of religious liberty, but, again, there is no biblical presumption to such government support. If it comes down to it, Christian institutions may have to think about how to survive and thrive without government funding or a tax-exempt status.
Attitudes and Dispositions Since there is no biblical presumption of religious liberty, we should not expect it or demand it. However, we can desire it for all religions and for those who have no religion.
Biblical Principles 1. The Old Testament does not promote the idea of religious liberty within the covenant community. 2. The New Testament teaches that Christians can expect persecution in this world. 3. Christians should not be interested in making non- Christians act like Christians. 4. Christians should be strategic in where they press for religious liberty, asking whether a particular public policy makes them sin. 5. When our faith requires something of us and public policy denies it, we must be ready to bear the negative consequences, remembering that “we are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Cor. 4:8–10).
Religious Liberty Reflections and Questions 1. Do you agree that what we call religious liberty is not found in Scripture? If not, make a biblical case for it. 2. Should Christians be in the business of making non-Â Christians act like Christians? Why or why not? Can you give examples, either positive or negative, where Christians have done this? 3. In what situations should Christians advocate for religious liberty? And where should they be willing to suffer if their religious liberties are not granted by the state?
Christians affirm the Bible as our standard of faith and practice. We turn to it to hear God’s voice. But what relevance does the Bible have...
Published on Jan 14, 2020
Christians affirm the Bible as our standard of faith and practice. We turn to it to hear God’s voice. But what relevance does the Bible have...