“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” 1 Peter 2:13-17
This has been another week of upheaval in America. Another week of Christians questioning their role in civic life. I believe it’s important for me to speak to the nature of Christian civic involvement.
We are all feeling the significant civic division and tension of our time. People are parceling off into factions that are hardening their positions and pulling at our societal fabric to the point that communities can no longer function. Each year these tensions spill over more and more often into angry marches, violent and destructive riots, and open hostile disagreement. We must ask ourselves squarely, “What is the role of a Christian in society?” How should we as individuals that collectively make up the local church react to the increasing turmoil and ungodliness of our time? This is the time that God has appointed that we live. We must live well for His glory.
I propose that there are three basic approaches to how we can choose to live in the face of a sinful world: Amish withdrawal, daily engagement, or on a militant counter-offensive. The first position of withdrawal is most clearly and fully lived out by the Amish in various communities from Pennsylvania to Indiana. They are a people that have decided living for the Lord means separating from society. They live in a parallel world, touching modern America as little as possible. If members of their community engage in any meaningful way with the modern world, they are excommunicated. Many Christians react in degrees of this same attitude toward the struggles and turmoil of our day. Christians in this camp, shut off news sources, move to the country, work to only build friendships with people like them, and often form small churches of people just like them. The goal is to withdraw from the world and only allow in people that are like-minded enough to not corrupt the small new environment you have carved out. I ask you, does this sound like the life Jesus lived in the world? How does a life like this relate to the great commission to go into the world making disciples of Jesus Christ?
The second common position is the other end of the spectrum – militant counter-offensive. In this mindset Christians become passionately angry about ungodly things happening in the world. Much of their conversation and life passion revolves around plotting and planning political counter-offenses against those they disagree with. Rhetoric is inflammatory, descriptions are one sided, and there is talk of warring against and defeating an enemy, often various governing authorities – not honoring them. People on this side of the spectrum open themselves to moving from angry words to militant actions. Like the withdrawal camp, they also form like-minded groups and tend to not welcome those that don’t share their anger and frustration toward the sinful world. This anger toward the world drives out any meaningful love for the lost souls around them. Again, I ask you, does this sound like the life Jesus lived in the world? How does a life like this relate to the great commission to go into the world making disciples of Jesus Christ?
I feel strongly that we are called and commanded by God to a middle position of neither withdrawal nor militancy, but daily engagement. We are called to live like Jesus, in the midst of the world, but set apart from the world by how we live. A prayer of Jesus is recorded in John 17. In verses 17-18 Jesus prays that His disciples will be set apart from the world by the truth of God’s word. But in the next verse Jesus re-affirms sending His disciples to live in and among the lost people of the world. We are intentionally sent into the world to bear witness about the cross and resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20). We are sent into the world to live virtuous transformed lives that affect our communities like salt and light. We are sent into the ungodly world to be peacemakers, those who show authentic and enduring love – even to those who persecute us. We are commanded by Scripture to be subject to human governing institutions and to honor and pray for governing leaders. These commands were not given during Cromwell’s protectorate or following the American revolution. They were given during the occupying rule of the Roman Empire.
As we remain engaged in the non-Christian world – while also living out an authentic, virtuous, and humble faith in Jesus – we bear witness to the real salvation of Jesus Christ. As we love and study God’s word it will change us, and we will become sanctified (set apart) in how we speak, act, serve, and lead. However, these good effects will be nullified by withdrawal or corrupted by militant anger.
In practical terms this means getting a job in the business world, in the trades, in teaching, in government, in law-enforcement – somewhere in the non-Christian world – then sticking with that job so that your Christian life influences your workplace. It should be obvious that if you withdraw (quit), you will no longer have an influence in that place and with those people. It must also be clear that if you come into that same workplace each day full of frustration and anger, you are having a bad influence on the workplace. You’re actually pushing people away from Jesus, not drawing them closer. The correct role of the Christian is to come into the secular workplace with virtue, hope, wisdom, truth, peace, and contentment.
We live as Christians, associating ourselves with Jesus as we work in the world. We entrust our lives to Jesus, asking Him to make a way for us. Americans are deeply blessed to live under a form of government devised to function according to a Christian worldview. It recognizes our God-given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. One of the central freedoms guaranteed to us by the bill of rights is the free practice of our religion. We should rejoice over the many recent supreme court rulings continuing to uphold our rights to religious liberty. These liberties make way for us to live engaged Christian lives, largely free from direct persecution.
Our government was founded upon a strong constitutional basis. A basis that requires an inner moral compass to function. No outward governmental set of laws can make up for a lack of inner moral law. The first line of restraint must be our own moral restraint. This was widely recognized in early America. Benjamin Franklin stated, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” Or to the contrary from Patrick Henry, “Bad men cannot make good citizens … No free government, or the blessing of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, and frugality.” The idea is that a people who are not largely governed by their own inner sense of virtue and restraint must be restrained by government and civil law. Personal lawlessness leads to an increase of civil government and law enforcement action in an attempt to control an out of control populace. Eventually, freedom devolves to totalitarian government of complete control.
My point here is that trying to withdraw from the struggle won’t work. There is no unexplored place to run to. Militant revolution of a non-virtuous people will only repeat the horrors of the ineffective French revolution. The answer is the way of Christ Jesus our Lord – direct abiding engagement in the world with the Gospel and virtue. We must be determined to hold our positions and hold our ground, not to fight but to influence. We must not run away, or return evil for evil, but return blessing for cursing. We must turn the other cheek, be long-suffering, content, and courageous for good.
I would remind you of the four classic virtues that this country was founded on. Virtues that arise directly from Christianity and virtues that cannot continue without the preaching of God’s word and the continuation of the local church. As defined by Charles Murray, these founding virtues are industry, honesty, marriage, and religion.
Industry is hard continuous work. From the Bible we know that God created people to work, not sit by the pool. People that have no meaningful work know their lives are being wasted. Christians call this the doctrine of vocation. It is Christian truth that God created you with certain gifts and talents that make you good at certain work. When you apply yourself with discipline and diligence your God-given talent will flourish, your work will be rewarding, and society around you will be a better place because of your contribution. America was built on the Christian virtue of vocational industry.
Honesty is the Christian virtue of not bearing false witness against your neighbor. No society that is full of liars will last long. No business contract law can function, if most people don’t keep their word. No system of justice can endure, if most people are willing to lie to manipulate outcomes. Honesty produces trust. Leaders must be trustworthy. When local, church, state, and federal leaders are no longer seen as trustworthy, all society breaks down into a power struggle. Sometimes political or direct physical force is used to take what you want before someone else does. No free or peaceful society can exist amongst a society of selfish liars. America was built on the Christian virtue of general honesty.
Marriage is the cornerstone of civil society. By marriage I mean one biological man and one biological woman in Christian marriage. Marriage is the chosen life-long bond where a man and woman strengthen and encourage each other through the struggles of life. One is strong when the other is weak. Complementing talents making one whole unit, the family. Into this stability and hope children are born. Here they grow up with a sense of belonging and heritage. Here children are loved, nurtured, educated, and disciplined. Marriage is self-sacrificing. One person lays down their life for another, and together sacrificing for their children. This whole arrangement morally honors the Lord and is an engine for virtue instead of selfishness. America was built on the Christian virtue of marriage.
Religion is most basically the recognition that there is a God. It is the opposite of secular humanism. The Bible reveals to us who God is that we might believe in Jesus as our Savior. All religions are not equal or the same, but a virtuous society understands that a person cannot, and should not, be coerced into a particular religion. From the heart we must learn who God is and that it is right to love Him for His goodness and mercy. Every person is created in the image of God, with the possibility of having a relationship with God. Virtue can never come from our own corrupt and selfish hearts. A virtuous, free, prosperous, and peaceful society can only come from a nation that is largely made up of people that believe in the God of the Bible and by His grace learn to live by divine virtue. Virtue comes from the Lord, not from the academy or from government. America was built on the Christian religion.
Our daily Christian engagement with society should actively work to instill these virtues back into society. We must not withdraw or quit. We must not be characterized by anger, hate, or violence. We must live out these virtues ourselves and teach them to our children. As Christians we must lead in the workplace, the trades, the military, the academy, in law-enforcement, and in government. Apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ these things cannot be accomplished. Virtue comes from a changed heart, and a changed heart can only come from the Lord.
In closing, I would especially note that many people in our church are involved at various levels of government service and law enforcement (local and federal). These are necessary, God-ordained roles. In these roles we must especially press in with engagement and not withdraw or build up anger. Good Christian people should remain in their positions of service. Young people should continue to enter into these positions with hope, but being prepared to stand their ground of virtue. Only by engagement of virtuous people will virtuous ground be gained.
Pray for your governing leaders. See where God is working and join him. You don’t have to look far! God is working in the lives all over our church!
May the Lord restore the peace of our land through revival,