Monday, February 11, 2008
Toward A Theology Of Government

     In perhaps 58 A.D., the Apostle Paul wrote the Book of Romans, the longest of his Biblical writings. It is also the closest of any New Testament work to what theologians call a systematic theology (an orderly treatment of key topics from a theological perspective).  In Chapter 13, among several matters, he tells Believers of Jesus Christ they must live in subjection to civil authorities (governors and kings in the language of that day).  He also defines the role of government in public life -- to restrain evil and promote justice (see verse 3).   

     In 1215 A.D., the English elites checked the absolute power of Bad King John by forcing him to sign the Magna Carta. In 1776, we expanded on that first-step in self-government in America by declaring the citizenry the sovereign.  This development -- the citizenry becomes the king and selects (elects) the governor -- is at the heart of the Indiana Family Institute's rationale for public policy engagement by people of faith (whether through IFI, as individuals, or in other groups such as a local expression of the church universal). But few among the faithful focus on this area of theology, given the demands of daily life and the other assaults on the Bible, the church, and Christians.

     A key question for all of us to ponder, however, is whether self-government works without a broad shared moral consensus (such as cultural Christianity) informing the citizenry. The issue is not following the laws of government -- that's a given, per Paul's authoritative writings.  The issue is our responsibility to make the laws.  Can we do this without some common moral mindset, political philosophy or shared theology.  Can Western-style democracy thrive or even survive without some shared worldview from which we can govern ourselves?   If the governing ethic is simply majority rule, won't changing public passions whip-saw society while depleting the public treasury?  If the governing ethic is maximum individual freedom (or substitute the word tolerance), won't we regress to the moral minimum?  Is this why Thomas Jefferson rooted our rights in the Creator, to communicate that freedom is "a gift from God and not a grant of government?"   

     In this election year, IFI is committed to sparking and informing this conversation in the churches across the Hoosier State.  And we invite all Hoosiers of good will -- those coming from a faith perspective, and those from other viewpoints -- to join us in this conversation.  Let it begin here today. 

Comments: (13)



Paul's view was that sin is a punishment unto itself. (Romans 1:24)

Jesus' view was, "Don't condemn; don't condone." (John 8:11)

Our currency reads, "In God we Trust."
Is government is that god?

Curt, I appreciate the invite.

I've thought and written at great length about this topic. So, as an aside, I would invite people to read my book, Turn Neither to the Right nor to the Left: A Thinking Christian's Guide to Politics and Public Policy.

In the book, I work toward establishing a coherent Christian/biblical philosophy of government-- unfortunately, but not surprisingly, a rare thing. Along the way, I critique the so-called Religious Left and Right-- on both biblical and practical grounds. (For a shorter version of the book, one might prefer the article that appeared in Markets & Morality in Fall 2002.)

enjoy! eric

I will check those out, and thank you for the references, but do you subscribe to Abraham Kuyper's "common grace" notions?

I'm familiar with Kuyper but not his use of that term. (His "sphere sovereignty" is a vital piece of a coherent Christian approach to government.)

I've heard the term used by Richard Mouw (I think) to refer to the various graces that God extends to all people-- from the offer of salvation to the air we breathe.

This is a worthy enterprise. I will put more time into it after the work day.

In the meantime I note this: The Magna Carta not only placed a check on the King, but on the Government he represented. The document is replete with a formal recognition of the rights of individuals, whether noble or common.

The concept of participation and consent of the governed long pre-dated the Magna Carta, taking its root in classical Greece, if not earlier in instances of which I may be unaware. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment borrowed heavily on study of the classics, and Democratic principles established in the 1700's were drawn from extensively, though not exclusively, the examples of Greek democracy and the Roman Republic.

I have seen conservatives classified according to various schools of thought. One school most certainly refers to the classical philosophies that were current and popular at the founding. ("If only Americans were still required to read the classical philosophers in addition to the religious perspectives we hear on Sunday, we would understand that a huge amount of the stored wisdom available to humanity is found in places not limited to the Bible.")

Reminders of the input of Locke, Rousseau, and Burke are also appropriate in re-addressing the role of morality in government. Further, it would be a mistake (in my opinion) to assume that a morality common to Christianity is not common to most... a consensus in America need not depend upon Christianity to set murder and theft as beyond the pale of acceptable behavior.

What's more, some matters of common morals fall outside Government's role or capacity. For instance, is it Government's place to police adultery and false witness in the household? Kenn Gividen is right: in many instances sin is its own punishment, and government an inefficient executor.

If by this invite, the Indiana Family Institute is proposing to engage in a good faith discussion and is re-examining its own positions in what has placed it in a role perhaps unfamiliar... that is as target of criticism by decent people who feel IFI has pursued actions unworthy of conservatives, unworthy of a pro-family organization, and unworthy of Americans... then it is a worthy discussion.


It seems to me the "decent people" you are referring to are the liberals and gay activists, including yourself, who comment. Being the target of criticism by these groups is not a "role perhaps unfamiliar" to us. We obviously disagree on many things.

I can't speak for IFI, but I continue to be willing to examine my positions if you are willing to examine yours.


I am neither a gay activist nor a liberal. I am theologically and socially conservative and have spent considerable time thinking about a consistent Christian approach to politics-- and yet, you have not engaged my comments and questions at all.


No need to whine or pick a fight.

Stacey, I don't think I'm doing either one... ;-)

Ryan has provided no direct response to me (on the recent threads) and seems to think that anyone who disagrees with him on this is a gay activist or a liberal.

Just trying to clarify that I'm not in the same camp as the others with whom he disagrees-- and hoping that he'll assess my comments/questions from that vantage point...

Grace and peace to you and yours...eric

1.) I agree with you, Eric.

2.) Ryan, if you aren't hearing criticism of the IFI and its allies from across the political, ideological and generational spectrum, then you aren't listening. While they have been kind in their language, editorial boards, corporations, and universities alike have expressed publicly their concerns that the agenda you have been promoting against gays conveys an attitude of intolerance. And while the politicians have not been so apolitical as to speak aloud their thoughts about the agenda of the Right, their silence in your support has been criticism in itself.

I would challenge the IFI and the HRCC to release the cross-tabs on the results of the state wide survey. "Traditional family values" was 10th, listed as a government priority of only 5% of the population. We know we would find that those who support the marriage amendment (who have now fallen into a minority in the state) tend toward older generations and toward the less educated. The majority of youthful generations, the crosstabs would reveal, have no sympathy for the anti-gay aspect of your agenda at all, and precious few of any generation consider it a priority.

Kuyper argued that there is a "common grace" implied from various Biblical passages ('the rain falls on the just and unjust', for example) that restrains evil. He is one of the few theolgians who also served in high public office (Prime Minister of the Netherlands around 1900), and so he's a thinker I'm beginning to read and explore for a project I'm working on. This view got him in trouble with the hyper-Calvinists in his native Holland, who said there is only saving grace -- everyone else is damned. But Kuyper argued evil, as bad as it is!, must have some constraint or restraint. The world would be very different if evil was allowed to follow its warped ways without end. My contention is is that government is the God-ordained institution that provides this "safe place" for life to be brought forth (via family) and for life to be elevated (saved) for those who accept the gift of eternal life (church). Those three institutuions, then, (family, government and church) create healthy culture when they operate in their right respective roles.

It is hard to find his works in English, but there was a centennial reader published by Eerdmans a book buyer found for me a few days ago. I'll post more as I work through the essays.

My larger point is that I believe we need a more robust theology of government (those of us with a Christian worldview anyway) and William Wilberforce (English member of Parliament who almost single-handedly abolished salvery) and Kuyper are among the very few government leaders who brought a robust Chritianity into public life. I believe we need more of that if we are ever to address our most intractable problems.

Good stuff Curt!

I think you may have found Kuyper's six "Stone" lectures at Princeton. You should find those helpful in your quest.

One thing that quickly emerges-- and if not resolved, messes things up-- is that one must figure out which "evils" should be dealt with through government. Or more specifically, which "evils" should Christians devote resources to using government as a means to those ends?

Because most people have not wrestled through that thoroughly enough, they often end up in a place that is neither coherent nor ultimately, Biblical.

It's wise to be aware that Kuyper, while not exactly the father of the South African apartheid sustained by the Dutch Reformed Church, did provide theological arguments that were capable of being badly misused in South Africa. This is a danger of the application of theology to government... whose theology, with what effects both beneficial and ill, and with what potential for misuse?