Theses on How Christians in America Can Relate to Government
We subject ourselves to the governing authorities for the sake of our neighbor, that they might be protected from our sinful nature that seeks our advantage over theirs (and vice versa)
- The relationship between Christianity and politics spans the history of the church. This relationship is spoken about in Scripture and is ultimately formed by the individual Christian.
While the church as an institution or organization has had relationships with various governments to varying degrees, the individual Christian can participate in government, freely, because of how the first function of the law—which is implemented and upheld by government—affects them and their neighbors.
- The reformers, writing in a different time and place under a different kind of government, captured the ideas found in Scripture, ideas still relevant for us today even though our politics vary greatly from those found in the 1500s.
Christians in America face a difficult challenge in determining how reformation era doctrines like that of the two kingdoms, the two kinds of righteousness, the three estates, vocation, the functions of the law, good works, and the like work together to provide meaningful guidance.
- Christians in America face another difficult challenge in figuring out how to relate to their government: the seemingly all-consuming categories Christians in America have used to distinguish themselves from one another over the last century. Particularly along the political spectrum of right, left, and center; as conservative, liberal, or moderate.
We can see three things happen when these categories engross a Christian. 1) It can shift the foundation of a Christian’s identity from God’s work of salvation for them in baptism to a political work they do to save themselves. Since government and participation in it is primarily a function of the law, forcing a square Christianity through a round political hole results in a loss of the primacy of the gospel. 2) This loss of the gospel’s primacy leads Christians in one political atmosphere to weaponize their partial, incomplete version of Christianity against those who breathe a different political air. Isolated and divided, we fail to realize we all breathe the same air of grace. 3) Christians whose identity remains rooted in baptism find themselves in a political no-man’ s-land.
- The reformation doctrine of the two kingdoms can help offer clarity to the American Christian. This doctrine, sometimes termed the two governments or two realms, speaks to how God rules over his creation. That is, God rules over his creation by ruling through it in two distinct ways which Luther refers to as the kingdom of the left hand and that of the right hand.
On the left, God rules through government. Here the first function of the law takes hold as God works and maintains justice, peace, and order for the common good. On the right, God rules through the church. Not the institution itself, but through the proclamation of the gospel—the free forgiveness of all our sins on account of Jesus’ death and resurrection—a gospel proclaimed by a sinner to sinners. While we distinguish between these kingdoms, they are not separate, and God rules them both.
- When we fail to distinguish the two ways God rules his creation, we confuse law and gospel. In other words, we try to make God’s law do what only his gospel can do and try to make his gospel do what God designed his law to do. In this confusion, we harm not only ourselves, but we also sin against our neighbors and God.
This failure turns the church and its people into enforcers of social law and order instead of deliverers of forgiveness, life, and salvation found in the gospel. It turns preachers into rulers who lord any civic or cultural authority they or their church as an institution has over people instead of proclaimers of God’s work for us. It turns government into a means to achieve an ever-shifting idea of heaven on earth instead of that which God intends, for a time, to hold back sin-spurred chaos. It turns political leaders into insufficient saviors instead of those who should strive to meet the earthly needs of those they’re called to serve.
- Confusing the two kingdoms also fails to distinguish between the two kinds of righteousness: one civil, the other divine. Confusing the two kinds of righteousness results in works done to justify oneself mainly before God but also before others.
Divine righteousness, that is, righteousness before God, is not earned by us but given to us freely on account of Christ's righteous work on our behalf. It is Christ's righteousness we receive in exchange for our unrighteousness. Acts of civil righteousness, that is, righteous deeds in the eyes of our neighbors, can be done by anyone, but it is out of divine righteousness that Christians do works of civil righteousness for their neighbors. As Althaus wrote, "Everything the Christian does presupposes that he is justified."
- God calls us to practice our two kinds of righteousness, not as the hypocrites do (according to Jesus in Matthew 6), but in various ways in service to our neighbor, within his three estates—that of the church, the household, and the state. In these, God orders and places all of human life.
All Christians have been called into the estate of the church by the Holy Spirit through the gospel. In the estate of the household (which includes the economy), God daily and richly gives all we need to support our body and life. "The third estate," as Veith and Sutton suggest, "recognizes that we were each born into a particular time, place, and society… Americans, as well as many others around the world living in a democracy, find themselves in the unusual calling of being both subjects and rulers at the same time since democratic republics place the governing authorities under the authority of the people who elect them."
- Christians in America are called to serve their neighbors in a specific way in the estate of the state: through their vocation as citizens who elect leaders and who can also be elected.
Like other God-given callings such as spouse, parent, co-worker, friend, and the like, our vocation as citizens is grounded in our baptismal identity as children of God freely forgiven and made righteous by his Son. Christians hold dual citizenship: an earthly one by which we serve our neighbors and a heavenly one by which God works for us. As Paul writes to the church in Philippians 3:20, “But, our citizenship is in heaven, and from it, we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” And as Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:9-10, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
- As a chosen people who have received mercy, whose identity is rooted in baptism, and whose citizenship is in heaven, God frees us from the entrapments and temptations of political categories to be his masks and the visible agents of his hidden presence in the world.
As those subject to the governing authorities, we do so recognizing that they are also God’s masks as his servants and ministers for our good as Paul points out in Romans 13:1-7. As such, they are not free from criticism simply because they serve in a divinely established estate and have a divinely given vocation. Simply because they serve in and hold that station does not mean they are fulfilling it as God intends. Neither are we subject to them to defend God by aligning him with or distance him from this or that political figure or ideology. Instead, we subject ourselves to the governing authorities for the sake of our neighbor, that they might be protected from our sinful nature that seeks our advantage over theirs (and vice versa), and that they may receive God’s mercy on earth
- With our salvation secure in the works of Christ, we no longer have to ask with the lawyer in Luke 10, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Or try to justify ourselves asking, “And who is my neighbor?”
Instead, we vote, hold office, and participate in the daily functions of government, that is, the concrete expression of God’s law, for the wellbeing and health of our neighbor that we may then proclaim God’s mercy to them, that is, the concrete expression of the gospel in Christ’s death and resurrection.