One of the things we want to stress on this website is that Christians have been studying, thinking, praying, and writing on issues for a very long time. The fact that I have an iPhone doesn’t mean my opinion is necessarily better than Augustine’s. Actually, the existence of cat videos is almost sufficient in itself to make me think his opinion is automatically better than mine.
Something the New Testament church has had to think about since its beginning, and especially since Constantine, is the relationship of the church to the state. Things were relatively simple when we were getting fed to the lions, but Christianity spreads like leaven in a lump of dough; it permeates a society and eventually you have Christian kings, politicians, and lions. We’ve had two-thousand years to think about this and around seventeen-hundred years to practice it in various places.
What I mean to say is that there have been various theories of church-state relations throughout church history and most of them, excepting the papacy, have made some attempt to distinguish between church and state—to separate the two. Virtually everyone has recognized that the sword is given to the state and the pulpit to the church. Mixing those two typically results in blood being shed, which we have seen happen a few times.
While the idea of a separation between church and state is nothing new, the way it is stated in our constitution is very new and relatively untested. I’ll get into specifics later, but you should understand at the outset that our constitution’s notion of religious liberty is novel within history. Not even Rome or Greece with their pantheons attempted to have the kind of religious liberty we aim for.
Moreover, this idea of religious liberty was not invented, primarily anyway, by people that conservative evangelicals would want to consider Christians. It was largely the work of deists and unitarians. That is, its main writers and thinkers were people who denied that God works within history and people who deny that God is three Persons in one.
Before you start charging me with arguments ad hominem, please understand that’s not what I’m doing. These facts in themselves do not make the notion of religious freedom wrong. God can draw straight lines with crooked sticks, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing. But you should understand that when you accept our national concept of religious liberty unquestioningly, you are not accepting an idea that Christian pastors or theologians devised through the study of the Scriptures. You’re accepting, without investigation, the word of nonbelievers about the role of the church and faith—and it is a view that stands in opposition to what the majority of Christians have believed about church-state relations for nearly two-thousand years.
The constitution is, by many Christians, thought to be the next best document to the Bible. And so I realize that by challenging something so core to it, I’m ruffling feathers and tipping a sacred cow. Please understand that I have not yet begun to argue against our concept of religious freedom; I’ve merely tried to set up the case for the possibility that it could be wrong. I’m hoping that I have made you willing to read what follows, which I confess, is neither a short nor simple case.
It would be easy to shut me down at this point as being anti-American and thus anti-Christian, but I ask that you not do that. Proverbs 18:13 says that it is folly and shame respond to a matter before hearing it. Please don’t be so set in your ways that you, without hearing the beliefs of Christians throughout history and thinking deeply about the issue, side with unitarians and deists out of some sense of patriotism or pragmatism. Also understand that the position I hold took me a while to embrace, and I had to do more than read just one article. I’ll link to more resources at the end.
Some Common Ground
Let’s start with something we agree on, being complicit in a crime is a crime. No one debates that if you lend your gun to a buddy so that he can kill his wife, you are complicit in her murder. This is an obvious truth, even one our current system of law readily acknowledges. Leviticus 5:1 even goes so far as to declare guilty those who witness a crime but do not come forward to testify.
I suspect that we also agree that you can be complicit in sins which aren’t crimes. Lying for a friend to cover up an affair isn’t adultery itself, but it makes you complicit in that person’s sin. The principle here is that it is sin to break a command directly, and it is also a sin to knowingly help someone else break a command.
The Westminster Larger Catechism Question 99 states: “…what is forbidden or commanded to ourselves, we are bound, according to our places, to endeavor that it may be avoided or performed by others, according to the duty of their places” and “…in what is commanded to others, we are bound, according to our places and callings, to be helpful to them; and to take heed of partaking with others in what is forbidden them.” It cites a number of passages to support this, one of which is 1 Timothy 5:22, which reads “Lay hands suddenly on no man, neither be partaker of other men’s sins: keep thyself pure.”
Where Things Get Foggy
Reformed theology teaches that the Ten Commandments are divided into two tables. The first table contains commandments based on the greatest commandment, to love God with all we are; this includes the first four of the Ten Commandments. The second table concerned the second greatest command, which is love for neighbor. The examples I have given so far all pertain to the second table of the Law, and they’re all something we agree on.
Until relatively recently in church history, I could argue that a person who helps someone break one of the first four commandments is also complicit in a sin. However, our American concept of religious liberty has made this area so foggy that we can’t even see our own blasphemous hand gesture right in front our our face.
To illustrate, let me ask this question. Let’s say that you’re a lawyer and a Muslim comes into your office and tells you that he and his fellow Muslims are attempting to build a mosque, but are being blocked legally by the city in some way. Now if he were to ask you to fight the legal battle so that he and his fellow Muslims could build their mosque, a place of worship to a false god, is that something you could do in good conscience? Admittedly, some American Christians —like most orthodox Christians throughout history— would decline. I should also confess that some Christians would refuse to help based solely on vile, racist motives; that is a topic for another whole blog post, which I won’t take the time to address here.
While some Christians would decline to help a Muslim community (or any other community) build a place of worship to a false God, many American Christians would help, because they believe in a core American doctrine: religious liberty. If you, as a lawyer, do not help to ensure this mosque can be built, the same thing might happen to a Christian church even just a few months later.
You see, if the Muslims can’t build a place of worship to their god, why should the Christians be allowed to? If Muslims are entitled to worship Allah, Christians are entitled to worship God. Helping the mosque is helping the church, the argument goes. Christians and Muslims just want the freedom to worship whomever and however they see fit, and isn’t that something we’re all entitled to?
Now the Uncommon Ground
Now I have to confess that I have been wanting to write this post for some time, but it has been difficult to write because I disagree with so much of the above reasoning, it is honestly hard to determine where to start. I certainly won’t make this argument as well or as clearly as someone else might be able to, but I feel compelled by Christian charity to make an attempt and then point you to better resources.
The first thing I need to say is something that should go without saying. Worshiping any god other than the triune God of Scripture is sin. It’s not just sin for Christians or Israelites. It’s not just found in the Ten Commandments. Romans 1 tells us that knowledge of the true God is given to all people. Anyone who worships a false god is rebelling against conscience, doing something they know is wrong, and sinning with a high hand against the true God.
It is a true statement to say that all people ought to be allowed to worship the true God according to how He has commanded us to worship Him. It is a vastly different statement to say everyone has the right to worship whomever and however they please. I am compelled by Scripture to be in favor of every person’s right to worship the true God. I am not compelled by Scripture to be in favor of everyone’s right to despise that God and mock Him by setting up an idol. The notion of religious liberty as a God-given right cannot be said to be biblical. In fact, it must be rejected as explicitly contra-biblical. Our goal isn’t to make sure everyone is free to sin. That isn’t gospel work; that’s the antithesis of gospel work.
Further, it must be said that the command to love your neighbor means taking lawful steps to preserve his life, property, and name. It does not, however, mean taking any steps to preserve his right to commit idolatry, which is soul-suicide. I am compelled by Scripture to not help someone die physically (assisted suicide), and I am compelled by Scripture to not help someone die spiritually. Just as we have no business helping our brother murder, steal, or otherwise sin against the second table of the Law, so also we have no business helping him sin against the first table.
In a culture of man-centered theology, we often treat second-table offenses as if they were worse than first-table offenses. But this is absolutely not the case. We worship and serve a great and holy God. Failure to worship and serve Him is a great sin and He is openly mocked whenever His creatures choose to worship gods of their own imagination instead of Him.
To be clear then, for a Christian to assist someone in ignoring the true God, helping him to render worship to a false god is a great sin against a great God. Your neighbor is mocking God, belittling His glory, and committing cosmic treason. I plead with you as a brother in Christ to not make yourself complicit in this. Do not be a partakers in your neighbor’s sin. I really believe that the only way a Christian could help to build a place of worship to a false god (such as a mosque) is if he thinks much of his own comfort and little of God’s glory.
The Christian lawyer in my illustration has as much business helping to build a mosque as you have helping a strip club open; although I recognize that Mr. Trump’s behavior means I may perhaps need a stronger analogy. You may not be complicit in either. Strip clubs are places where God’s glory is belittled by dishonoring women. Mosques are places where God’s glory is belittled and blasphemed directly.
Where the Rubber Meets the Ballot
Perhaps you are wondering what all of this has to do with our constitution, or perhaps you know where I’m heading and you were hoping the post would end at the end of that last paragraph. Whether you realize it or not, the above argument has profound impact on how Christians should act politically.
Anyone familiar with American history will tell you that our nation is built with religious liberty as one of its chief pillars. The so called God-given right to worship whomever and however we please is so core to us that it is found throughout our constitution. Yet Romans 1 tells us that sins like homosexuality occur because God, in His wrath, gives idolatrous people over to greater and more depraved forms of sin.
Christians watching the flood of immorality pouring down on us often ask how we got here. How did we go from being considered a Christian nation to seeing Christian bakers fined for refusing to glorify the sins of Sodom? Why is this happening to us?
I believe that at least one answer to this can be found in our constitution. It is our insistence on fighting for the human right to blaspheme and defame God by worshiping animals and blocks of wood. And I’m not the first person to point this out. The Scottish covenanters (the ones in America), closely tied to the Westminster divines by history and theology, recognized that they could not swear an oath to and uphold the constitution. They could not swear to defend a constitution that required them to protect people’s right to worship false gods. Further they couldn’t support the candidacy of anyone who would.
These covenanters I mentioned were some of the first on the battlefield at the revolutionary war, and when the constitution was ratified, the nation they fought to create became something wholly other than what they’d intended and they were not able to find a candidate they could vote for. They abstained, refusing to assist in the attempted defaming of God. They instead chose to pray for national repentance.
Every person on the ballot (most likely) fully intends to swear an oath to protect people’s rights to worship a false god. Our votes empower them to do that just that. This is why the covenanters could not vote and why I cannot as well. I cannot empower idolaters to wield the sword against Christ to ensure my neighbor’s right to worship false gods.
Now, many will want to argue here that the idea of religious liberty is a way of ensuring that Christians will have the right to worship the true God. That is, if we don’t have religious liberty, it’s only a matter of time until Christianity is outlawed and only idolatry is legal. Isn’t that worse?
One problem with this objection is that the true church will always worship God. Even as we are thrown into prison and fed to the lions, we can sing Psalms and proclaim the gospel and the worth of Him for whom we die. And when we are dead, we are granted true freedom to worship—freedom to worship perfectly and not intermixed with sinful motives. Losing religious liberty is no real danger to the church, but sacrificing our holiness for the freedom to worship in comfort is. The church’s enemy is not the state, but sin.
After centuries of being persecuted by Rome and others, protestants founded a nation where they thought they would never be persecuted because anyone can legally worship whomever and however they wish. But as we fought for general religious liberty, we built our churches upon the defaming of God. If it is true that supporting our neighbors’ idolatry is idolatry in itself, then every ounce of liberty we have has been bought at the expense of the honor of our King. Why not rather be persecuted?
Another argument that might be made is that if the covenanters and others like them hadn’t refused to vote, we might not have slid down this slope so quickly. Their abstention doesn’t seem to have helped anything. If the covenanters had voted for the lesser of two evils, less evil people might have been elected. Lives might be saved and abortion might, perhaps, have been stopped or at least delayed and mitigated.
I hate abortion with the same hatred you do. I despise that human lives are counted worthless and disposed of like so much spoiled meat. I believe the Bible teaches that we must take any lawful means possible to preserve life. But the word lawful there is important. I’m not permitted to break any of God’s Law to save a life. If I have to choose between sinning and letting someone die, I have to entrust that person’s life to a sovereign God and walk in obedience. Sinning against a holy God is always worse than any bad thing that could ever happen as a result of not sinning.
The consequences of these truths are quite significant. It means that there has almost certainly never been a Christian politician in the history of our nation who did not sacrifice God’s fame to accomplish whatever good he may have accomplished. Our nation is built on idolatry and Christians are running around trying to understand why we are so quickly being given over to sin. It’s like a man who saw the forecast for rain on the morning news and wonders why there is water falling from the sky during his commute. Paul said this is how it works in Romans 1. When we do not honor God as God, He gives us up to a debased mind to do what ought not be done.
There is only one way to escape the imminent and indeed present wrath; it isn’t strategically electing a vile man who just might pick some slightly less corrupt Supreme Court judges. It’s not strategy or pragmatism. It’s repentance and faith.
We the church must confess that both we and our fathers have sinned. We must flee to Christ for forgiveness and stop building our comfort and security on the blasphemy of our King. Perhaps He will be gracious and redirect the hand basket in which we find ourselves. Admittedly, it may be too little and too late for America, and we might have to try again after whatever zombie apocalypse we’ve got coming. I honestly do not know what is going to happen in the coming years.
One thing I do know, though, is that God’s glory is worth my repentance. The important thing here isn’t stopping all the bad things that we all fear; it’s repenting of our sin of idolatry and turning to the One who died to forgive us, entrusting our souls to Him and not leaning on our own understanding.
I know that many of you fear for your lives and the lives of your children. You fear that within the space of a generation, it may become illegal to share the gospel or decline to go to a gay coworker’s wedding. I can’t tell you your fears are entirely unfounded, regardless of who wins this election. But I do want my future children to see me as an example of faith and repentance in the civil realm (and in all realms), and not as part of the reason the judgment they’re enduring is falling on our nation.
I should point out that I am not a pastor, an elder, or even a deacon. I write these things as a concerned layman, and it would deeply bother me if you were convinced of these things solely because of my blog post. If what I’ve written here resonates with you, please read some of the links below (some written a relatively short time after the constitution was ratified) and discuss this issue with your elders.
- Here are a couple of essays written by James R. Willson in 1832 about the right of Christ to reign and the several ways in which the constitution directly opposes Him. (PDF)
- Here is a talk on Christ-centered voting by Adam Kuehner. (Audio, PDF)
- Here is a newspaper article on the Covenanters’ refusal to vote from 1900. (PDF)
- Here is a variety of articles, mostly by reformers and Puritans, on the biblical view of government. (Blog)
Lastly, let me encourage you to share this article and the above resources with your friends to begin a discussion about some beliefs that are rarely questioned in most political conversations.