Believers in America are contemplative these days. Though confident in the workings of a sovereign God who rules over the kingdoms of men, their mood has become increasingly somber as the political and economic pendulum has swung out of reach.
Is this a hiccup for America or a heart attack? Are our freedoms threatened or just our values and traditions? How should believers balance national and eternal interests? Are civic and spiritual tied together? How can one best serve his or her country as a Christian citizen?
I believe that if we reorient our thinking we can cheat the pensive gloom and rekindle hope. To do this, we must first explore the Creator’s principles in the ancient text of the Bible, and then take a walk back through patriot alley to explore the principles underlying this grand experiment called America. When we do, we will discover that we the people are the king, but that we the people / the king has a heart disease only the Great Physician can heal.
The Bible And The Christian Citizen
Most of us are familiar with the salient Scriptures concerning citizenship. It would be good to briefly articulate a few of these principles.
Pray for leaders. We are to pray for those in government so that we can lead quiet and peaceable lives in all godliness and honesty (1 Timothy 2:1-2). I have heard few churches pray for those in authority. Those that do neither mention the names of the office-holders, nor pray for them with any specific requests ("supplication" v. 1). We could do better on this score.
Submit to leaders. We are to submit to the governing authorities, to honor them, and pay taxes to them, since they are appointed by God (Romans 13:1-7, Daniel 4:17). This applies even if the government has evil designs, as the Roman government did in New Testament times. The civil and criminal codes of most countries are merely codifications of natural law written into the hearts of men (Romans 2:14-15). To disobey human law is therefore to disobey God and one’s conscience.
Be a blessing to leaders. We are to be exemplary citizens in our submission to ordinances, for the Lord’s sake (1 Peter 2:13-17). We should also be eager to help the authorities (Titus 3:1).
Obey the highest leader. The only exception to obedience arises when the government prohibits a believer from doing something God specifically commands, or forces him to do something God specifically prohibits such that there is no alternative (Acts 4:17-19; 5:28-29).
Use the privileges of your citizenship. We have privileges and responsibilities as citizens of our country and should not be afraid to use them (Acts 16:37-39; 22:24-29).
Are The People King In America?
The confusion for Christians in America seems to come as a result of our modern methods of government that were not foreseen by the New Testament writers. In the cultural West, we now live in representative democracies where the final responsibility lies with the collective people of those nations. So, are the people now "the king" spoken of by Peter and Paul? Since the drafters of the U.S. Constitution were so dead-set against having a king, is a President really like a king in the biblical sense? Or are Congresses and Parliaments, Presidents and Prime Ministers, to do our collective bidding? Here is where we must take a walk back through patriot alley.
Bringing The King Under The Law
For millennia, human kings stressed their "divine right." The king was the law, and you could be executed on the spot at his whim. In God’s gracious plan, a new idea emerged 800 years ago. A group of barons in ancient England (A.D. 1215) compelled King John to sign the "great document" (Magna Charta) requiring him to recognize the basic rights of his citizens, respect an independent justice system, and accept that his will could be bound by the law.1 It was the first document forced onto a king by his subjects in order to limit his powers by law and protect the rights of his citizens. In practice, the Magna Charta made little difference, but the seed was planted.
Over 400 years later, at peril of his life, Scottish Puritan pastor and theologian Samuel Rutherford published Lex Rex in 1644 arguing that the law is king, and that kings and people are under that law.2 He refuted the divine right model by arguing from Leviticus 17:14-20 that when Israel eventually got a king, he had to keep a copy of the law with him at all times, reference it, obey it, and not lift himself up above the normal citizen.
We Are In A Social Contract
A few years later, John Locke took Rutherford’s Lex Rex and secularized it.3 Locke argued in his Second Treatise of Civil Government that since humans are made in the image of God (dignity) and yet are fallen under the sin nature (depravity), free men left to themselves will naturally establish a civil society by creating a "social contract" in which each person has his civil rights protected (life, liberty, property, and justice) in exchange for subjecting himself to the laws instituted by that government.4
A classic example of the social contract is found in the frosty mists of Cape Cod. It was November of 1620. The Speedwell had betrayed its name and turned back. The little Mayflower, while crossing the Atlantic, had been blown off course to a region not ruled by any government they knew of. They landed in a place where they were back to "the state of nature." Everyone was an equal. Who was in charge? They signed the Mayflower Compact creating temporary laws and appointing a governor until something else could be arranged. It was logical, and it worked.
We Don’t Need A King
Locke’s social contract theory of government was seen as revolutionary – earth shattering. If legislatures made laws, judges interpreted them, and constables carried them out, the king was … superfluous. This is treason! It took England another 200 nerve-wracking years to phase out the powers of the king. European powers today still don’t know what to do with their superfluous royalty.
Born To A Mother In Crisis
In a bittersweet way, the American colonies got stuck in the middle of England’s identity crisis. In the 1760s, King George III bullied Parliament into passing laws that they knew were illegal. When the colonies appealed to Parliament to stand up to the king, they were branded as rebels. This English lawlessness prompted reprisal lawlessness in the colonies. The ungodly tension escalated. All the while, colonial thinkers who valued Locke’s ideas pondered how Providence might work things together for good.
The United States was born in December of 1775, but the birth announcement wasn’t made until July of 1776. In either case, the war was not a revolution to overthrow government or law. Our independence was not even of our own doing. Then how did it happen?
Just before Christmas, again under pressure from King George III, Parliament declared the American colonies to be in rebellion due to the secret meetings of disbanded legislatures and the skirmishes at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. In the Prohibitory Act of 1775, England declared the colonies out from under the protection of the crown and declared an economic war to cripple the colonies. It was a brilliant strategic move by the king. The British navy blockaded the colonies. The British army, already spread throughout the colonies, immediately became an occupying enemy force.
Booted From The British Empire
Christians are often skeptically surprised to learn of this oft-overlooked piece of history, but the documents surrounding the Prohibitory Act of 1775 speak for themselves. Here are some quotes:
The Prohibitory Act declared: "All manner of trade and commerce [will be prohibited, and any ship that is found trading] shall be forfeited to his Majesty, as if the same were the ships and effects of open enemies."5
John Adams wrote: "It throws thirteen colonies out of the royal protection, levels all distinctions, and makes us independent in spite of our supplications and entreaties… It may be fortunate that the act of independency should come from the British Parliament rather than the American Congress."6
The Continental Congress noted: "That as to the king, we had been bound to him by allegiance, but this bond is now dissolved by his assent to the late Act of Parliament by which he declares us out of his protection."7
In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote that "these colonies are, and of right, ought to be free and independent states." He later added that King George "hath abdicated government here by declaring us out from under his protection and waging war against us." 8
When news of the Prohibitory Act arrived in the colonies in February 1776, the whole landscape of the debate in colonial legislatures shifted dramatically and conclusively. The implications of the Prohibitory Act were clear to colonial leaders on both sides of the issue. Even if you opposed independence, it was now a moot point.
Thus, the War for American Independence was not to achieve, but to maintain, American independence. Although it rebelled against the unlawful acts of a Parliament that would not stand up to an oppressive king, America was not born of revolution. It was the French twenty years later who branded our war as a "revolution" in an attempt to dignify the anarchistic and atheistic butchery of their wealthy leaders in the French Revolution.
Coronation Of The Collective King
America was the first nation to get rid of royalty altogether. The people would collectively be "the king." The U.S. Constitution, the oldest and shortest constitution in the world that is still in effect, was viewed as a social contract (We the people of the United States …).
But how does a group of people function as a "Collective King"? You cannot have a pure democracy by getting 306 million citizens together to make every law and decision by majority vote. Therefore, on a regular basis for more than two centuries now, the American people delegate their political sovereignty to representatives whom they feel will rule and serve them well. Those men and women serve as stewards of the Collective King (i.e. the people). The most significant act the Collective King does under the social contract called the U.S. Constitution is to choose and change his stewards (government leaders) through the vote.
The Heart Of The King
In America, government leaders will be a reflection of the heart of the Collective King who chooses them. If the heart of the king is divided, he will become unstable and choose government leaders who reflect both sides of his thinking, thereby creating conflict. In America right now, the heart of the Collective King has roughly 306 million cells. We should not be so simple as to conclude that America was ever wholly Christian, but there used to be a vast middle ground of Judeo-Christian consensus that unified the king’s heart. People felt that God existed, that He had communicated Himself to man in the Bible, and that society’s morals came from Him and were unchanging.
But now, a great civil war of worldviews rages within the heart of the Collective King: anti-supernatural materialism against Christian theism. The middle ground of Judeo-Christian consensus is gone, leaving us with gigantic polarity. The heart of America’s Collective King now mirrors that of the aged Solomon, with Yahweh and the Temple on one hand, and idols and concubines on the other.
Today’s new liberalism, this push to overcorrect social injustice, this libertine fling, seems to be what the American people want to try. As America cynically abandons the dark ages religion of Christianity for the freedom of postmodernity, it will dream up new morals and new models through experimentation, excitedly whirling and wobbling with the latest ideas, unaware that it is cascading downward in ethical collapse. In the far corner, American believers want everything to be sweet Americana until the Rapture. The thought of their land moving toward Europe’s atheistic democratic socialism chills them to the very core.
So What Must Christians Do?
So what must Christians do? While the latest flavor of man’s sin has changed, the answer to it has not.
First we pray. Then we need to lovingly and enthusiastically bring the Gospel to people one by one. The heart of the Collective King in America must be changed one cell at a time, one miracle of God’s grace at a time. Christian political action would work if the populous was by majority Christian and distinctively Christian. But it is not. There is, in fact, no moral majority. As we have refused to share the Gospel meaningfully, our society has drifted away with Oprah the Prophetess, and we have found ourselves fatuously content as long as there is a patriotic conservative in the White House.
We need to repent. The answer lies in winning people to Christ, not in winning elections.
Rising Against Tyrants
But what if, in between American elections, the Executive Branch with a collusive Legislature significantly restricts civil liberties such as suspending further elections, outlawing petition and protest, curtailing a free media or the independence of the judiciary, prohibiting the ownership of guns, or taking away other basic civil rights? In short, what if they become tyrants? Locke, Jefferson, and others said it was the duty and right of the people to alter or abolish a government that tried to steal away the social contract from the people. Francis Schaeffer in A Christian Manifesto agreed.9
It’s a tough question, and Lord willing, one that America will not have to face. I would say that, in such an instance of tyranny, the social contract will have been lost, or stolen, and the people would now be under a king like the old days, and the biblical admonitions of obedience apply as they did in the days in which they were written. If the Collective King chooses government leaders who dethrone him in a coup, he is to blame for his undiscerning choice.
When I ask my Christian friends from Zimbabwe about overthrowing President Mugabe (a man who was democratically elected but, with the army in his pocket, arrested or killed anyone who has run against him for the last 30 years, and is now the worst kind of dictator), they say this: "When God is done teaching our country through Robert Mugabe, God will take him out of the way. We will not presume to be the hand of the Lord." Well said. Liberty is great but it’s not essential to our lives as believers. Christianity can thrive, and often thrives better, under tyrants.
I was the most patriotic of my family, and my boyhood bedroom was always decorated in red, white, and blue. I aspired to political office in the Reagan Era, and as an attorney I am a member of the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and federal bars. I am sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States. I am a patriot. My mom was shocked when she learned I was going to South Africa to serve as a missionary. Why did I do it? Because the eternal is more important than the temporal, AND if you take care of the eternal, the temporal will fall into line.
Personally sharing the Gospel is the most patriotic thing you can do for America. Representative democracy and free enterprise capitalism only function well, avoid oppression, and endure when there is a Christian populace. John Adams wrote: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other."10 Adams similarly explained: "Statesmen, my dear sir, may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue."11 If you want better government, if you want to guard your liberties, share the Gospel and gradually bring the heart of the Collective King back to his Creator.
1. The Magna Charta is of such seminal importance in the history of Western Civilization, that references to it abound all across the Internet and may be accessed easily by any search engine (such as Google).
2. Rutherford was also known for his spiritual and devotional works, such as Christ Dying and Drawing Sinners to Himself and his Letters. Concerning Rutherford’s Letters, Charles Spurgeon wrote: When we are dead and gone let the world know that Spurgeon held Rutherford’s Letters to be the nearest thing to inspiration which can be found in all the writings of mere men. (The Sword and Trowel, 189)
4. John Lock's Second Treatise of Government was published in 1690. The complete unabridged text has been republished several times in edited commentaries. The 1690 edition text is free of copyright. You may access it at http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/locke/locke2/locke2nd-a.html
5. See The Manhattan Rare Book Collection of New York City to view The Prohibitory Act of 1775 and related quotes. For documentation go to http://www.manhattanrarebooks-history.com/prohibitory_act.htm (accessed April 10, 2009).
10. John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown, 1854), Vol. IX, p. 229, from a letter to the military dated October 11, 1798.
|David J. Brown is a missionary with Biblical Ministries Worldwide in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is also an attorney.|