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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Rights and Freedoms

In the wake of the U.S. election, Crawford Paul muses on the role of the church in a democracy. Here’s his setup:

“The dilemma comes when the church, which is NOT a democracy, exists in a nation that IS a democracy. How does the church uphold a democracy that would ensure their right to follow the teachings of the Bible while at the same time grant rights to those who contradict the Scriptures?

Hmm. I agree with much of what Crawford says in his piece, but I have a very different take on a few of his assumptions.

Upholding Democracy

First, the church does not “uphold a democracy”. I cannot think of a single corporate obligation toward government of any kind that is found in the New Testament. Christians have an individual obligation to obey the existing government to the greatest extent possible without compromising our obligations to God. This is true whether our government is a monarchy, a democracy or even some form of communism. Christians are each to “pay to all what is owed”. But obedience and respect are the limits of that obligation. As for the church corporately, other than in the spiritual realm, the Body of Christ does not “uphold” anything.

That may seem like a nitpicky distinction, but it becomes relevant the moment we start to discuss things like “the church’s position with respect to Issue X”. Since, from the Lord’s perspective, the church is made up of only those who know him personally, it should be clear almost immediately that there is no meaningful way to (i) identify the true church within Christendom; (ii) bring the true church to agreement about any particular issue; or (iii) mobilize the true church in pursuit of any goal, democratic or otherwise.

Sure, attempts at such things have been made by denominational leaders, ad hoc coalitions and entities like the Moral Majority, but these can no more be asserted to represent the will of God for a nation than the preferences of any cross-section of religious humanity.

The true church can certainly be spiritually mobilized through prayer, but I cannot envision how it might be biblically mobilized in any public, formal, identifiable political way.

Ensuring Our Rights

Second, while it is a welcome bonus when governments grant us the legal “right to follow the teachings of the Bible”, in the far more important moral realm, we have had that right from Day One. That right is God-given, not a gift from our elected representatives to be rescinded at their whim. In fact, it is less a “right” than our privilege and solemn obligation. “We must obey God rather than men” does not sound optional to me.

What we do not have is a guarantee that following the teachings of the Bible will always come without cost. The Lord has never promised us that.

Granting Rights to Others

A democracy grants certain rights to its citizens, usually the rights insisted upon by those who make the most noise and carry the most cash. And as I will shortly illustrate, the granting of almost any right carries with it intrinsically the denial of rights to other individuals and groups.

Our (limited) duty of obedience in a democratic environment is not to democracy conceptually or even to our fellow citizens as a group, but only to the current elected government, whether we happen to like it and have voted for it or not.

Thus there is no tension between, on the one hand, the Christian’s obligation to be salt and light in the world and, on the other, his choosing to cast his vote for the candidate who may oppose abortion or mass immigration, or may support a particular economic policy, even though many of his fellow citizens might heartily object to his choices and feel that THEIR rights are being violated. Having cast his vote (and perhaps said his piece in the process), he can now quietly go about the business of obeying the government for the next four years or so — at least insofar as the laws of the land do not make compliance an act of rebellion against God.

Two Untenable Assumptions

Further, Crawford believes the following is the only option for the church:
“Recognize the rights that a democracy brings to all people, including those who oppose the Bible, and live out Christ as He would live, demonstrating not the judgment of God, but the salvation he offers.”
Now, I thoroughly agree with Crawford’s aspiration here, at least insofar as making the gospel the Christian’s priority in the world, rather than engaging in loud, prolonged and ultimately futile efforts to reform society. Communicating truth that leads men and women to salvation is the goal here.

But there are two problems with this option:

1.  Recognizing Rights

As I mentioned previously, as we have increasingly allowed the concept of “rights” rather than responsibilities to frame the public discourse, those of us paying attention have noticed that all these various, mostly arbitrary “rights” we speak of actually exist in tension with one another. In fact, nearly every new “right” granted by government ends up violating the established rights of someone else. The granting of new “rights” often causes more social damage than it repairs and creates more problems than it solves.

Most modern rights legislation simply moves an existing problem into someone else’s backyard. For instance:
  • The putative “rights” of a woman to sovereignty over her own body frequently violate the actual rights of the unborn.
  • In Europe, the putative “right” of unlimited immigration is now violating the actual right to safety and security of the citizens which comprise the EU’s tax base, a self-defeating proposition if there ever was one.
  • The putative “right” of a microscopic minority of transgender persons to use whichever public restroom they please must invariably clash with the rights of parents to ensure safety for their children. If we’re going to invent previously unheard-of rights out of whole cloth, how about the right of children not to be inadvertently sexualized when their parents drag them along to Target?
  • The putative “right” not to be offended (as the law currently attempts to define it) egregiously violates the long-standing and increasingly necessary right to freedom of speech.
  • The putative “right” to freedom of religion cannot sanely be extended to religions that historically have used their muscle in the political arena to create religious monopolies.
Thus to recognize “the rights that democracy brings to all people” is actually to recognize only the particular subset of those rights that is currently in vogue. It is hard to see how a bunch of Christians accepting society’s incoherent and constantly-changing framing of the issues benefits the spread of the gospel or accomplishes the will of God.

2.  The Judgment/Salvation Tension

Crawford exhorts believers to “live out Christ as He would live, demonstrating not the judgment of God, but the salvation he offers.” In doing so, I think he is (maybe inadvertently) setting up an unbiblical tension between judgment and salvation.

It is frankly impossible to preach salvation biblically without preaching judgment, especially in a society that embraces every possible “right”, including rights to participate in things no human being was ever designed for; activities that destroy mind, body and soul. The Lord didn’t separate out these two subjects and neither did his apostles.

For instance, at Pentecost, Peter says, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved”, but not without first answering the perfectly legitimate question “Saved from what?” Here’s what:
“And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.”
In fact, I would argue the salvation God offers must inevitably appear superfluous in a world without a very clear picture of coming judgment in view.

Now of course in a day like ours such a message may not always be appreciated, but that’s a different problem.

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