A Who Defines Morality:
God or State?
A proper understanding of Church/State relations actually hinges upon one question: Who defines morality: God or State?
If it is the State (one, or more than one, branch government), then morality is subjectively determined and can be whatever the State wants it to be. If it is God, who has given us His Holy, inerrant, and infallible Word, then the definition of morality is objective and independent of human understanding.
The State may reject the objective and independent evidence of God’s Moral Law, but it can never say that it doesn’t exist; just as I cannot say, because I despise its philosophy, that The Communist Manifesto doesn’t exist. It does exist. In fact, I own a copy. Likewise, the Church “can choose to look the other way, but it can never say it didn’t know” (William Wilberforce).
My defense of the Church speaking openly about the State’s violation of the Moral Law is not just academic exercise. For if in truth we believe that God alone defines morality, that we are commanded to teach all His truth (unlike Tomas Jefferson and his edited bible), then we must “Do our best to present ourselves to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, ESV). In other words, we have an obligation to interpret God’s Word correctly, especially during times when it is misinterpreted corporately by the State.
Some in the Church may want to continue “quarreling about words” (2 Tim. 2:14a); but this causes the weightier matters (usurpation of the Moral Law by the State) to go unattended, thus obscuring the identity of a more deadly enemy: an autonomous, arrogant, spiritually blind, and dangerous State, who declares it’s her right, and not God’s, to define morality. Pastor Ray Stedman illustrated it this way:
As the Battle of Trafalgar was about to begin, Admiral Nelson
came across two officers of his own flagship who were arguing hotly
and about to take sword to each other. Nelson stepped between
them and said, “Stop.” Then, pointing to the French fleet, he said,
“There is the enemy.”
For whatever reason, if the Church refuses to speak about the State’s usurpation of God’s Moral Law, and chooses to “dispute about words” instead, then by default it grants permission to the State to define morality for everyone. But even in the Church’s sinful silence, the Holy Spirit is relentless to communicate His truth to us by way of example and illustration, and spare us all the consequences of the corporate sin.
Consider Jesus and Paul, if you will, who harshly criticized the Pharisees and Sadducees (Jewish political and religious leaders) and Judaizers (Jewish Christian leaders) for misrepresenting and distorting the Moral Law. 2,000 years changes nothing. Of course, the dominant focus of moral issues has changed (abortion, marriage, gender dysphoria, etc.); nevertheless, it is still corporate misrepresentation and distortion of the Moral Law, and the Church is morally obliged to respond to the State.
Consider also that the sins of the State have the net effect of becoming civil law, and often without the vote of lawmakers. Then the State, together with some non-State groups (including Theonomists who advance an idea that even judicial laws of the Old Testament should be observed) are responsible for making Divine Law into something it is not. One of my clients, Dr. Michael Milton, wrote in Silent No More (a book that I published in 2013), that he utterly rejected theonomy. I agree.
Who does the Church follow or imitate? Paul said “imitate me just as I imitate Christ.” When we do imitate Paul and Christ, this is what should happen, and this is what we should see with our own eyes: church leaders becoming so convicted concerning State misrepresentations and distortions of the Moral Law, that they actually begin to preach and develop educational programs in this area, and for all age levels. This is especially important for children who are daily confronted with opposing views.
So, why does the Church still resist speaking to the State about its corporate violations of God’s Moral Law? From my research, I have found ten reasons (discussed in depth in the body of this work) for Church resistance to speaking out against the State when it overturns the Moral Law through its legislative power:
1. The Church resists because it does not see it their duty to speak about State violations of the Moral Law.
2. The Church resists because it is in a state of denial.
3. The Church resists because of a misunderstanding of separation of Church and State.
4. The Church resists because it does not fully understand the doctrine of Common Grace.
5. The Church resists because it lacks understanding of the corporate nature of sin.
6. The Church resists because of confusion over Kingdom Theology.
7. The Church resists because speaking to the State is not a priority.
8. The Church resists because of Traditionalism.
9. The Church resists because its focus has been blurred.
10. The Church resists because the older model it uses does not include a response from the Church when the State overturns the Moral Law.
From a human perspective, it is predictable, though not biblical, when the Church resists speaking to the State about its blatant contempt of God’s Moral Law. However, that fact does not make the consequences of silence any less serious--to the Church or to the general public. In the following paragraphs I give a brief commentary on a few examples of Church resistance in the hope that you will study this subject in depth.
Beginning with Common Grace, I show how these 10 reasons are all connected to the same problem--a lack of moral oversight by the Church! Common Grace is an extremely important Christian doctrine, and should be part of Church instruction at all age levels; however, most churches are only vaguely familiar with what the Bible teaches about how an orderly life is made possible, how the destructive power of sin is restrained, and many other blessings taught by this doctrine which benefit everyone.
Next is Corporate or National Sin, which is most egregiously committed by the State when it overturns God’s Moral Law. Government does this when it, rather than God, determines when life begins. Government does this when it, rather than God, defines gender. Government does this when it, rather than God, defines marriage.
If corporate or national sin is not a part of a church’s vocabulary and teaching, it should be. Throughout history there are very good reasons why God chooses to remove His restraining Grace (the work of the Holy Spirit in restraining human sin) from a whole nation. When this happens, that nation is no longer a safe place. Yes, there will always be individual sin that we will have to contend with in this life, and how it has affected nature. But Common Grace benefits everyone—believer and non-believer alike—by favoring mankind with kindness and love through law and order, protection, peace, and happiness. But Common Grace comes with a price: Government must never take the place of God; it must never overthrow God’s Moral Law; and it is the duty of the Church to teach the blessings of obedience and the tragedy of disobedience.
It is also important to understand how differing views of Kingdom Theology confuse the biblical view of church and state. For instance, if your pastor studied at Reformed Theological Seminary rather than Westminster Seminary California, there would definitely be a difference in the way this doctrine is taught, and how that affects the understanding of church/state relations. Gets confusing, doesn’t it? Actually, the difference hits at the heart of the issue I’m addressing: whether or not the Church should speak to the State about its violations of the Moral Law.
Finally, whether we realize it or not, most Christians are affected by both Traditionalism and Tradition. Traditionalism, as described by Charles Swindoll is “an attitude that resists change, adaptation, or alteration.” Tradition, although sharing an appreciation of the past, does not share that “resistance to change, adaptation, or alteration.” Put another way by historian Jaroslav Pelikan:
“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”
― Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities
What I propose to the Church and para-church organizations regarding the State’s corporate sin is: (1) a shift in focus, encompassing a broader view of Scripture (“teaching them to observe all things I have commanded”); and (2) a new model, radically different from the older church/state model, which never encouraged speaking directly to the State as a corporate body when it overturned the Moral Law.
To put it in context, the meaning of “speaking to the State” over the years was a very general Christian world and life view. What was unique in this is how united all these groups were, and still are, in defending their biblical and Constitutional rights against the misinterpretation of separation of church and state. What was sidelined in the process, though, was the moral authority of the Church, because the Church did not resist intrusion by the State—at least as a church body vs. individual response. Law and order in a civil society depend upon a correct biblical understanding of morality. According to the Bible, this is the way it’s supposed to work: The magistrate (national, state, or local leader) exercises judicial authority in God’s Kingdom over good and just laws, and the Christian Church exercises spiritual authority in the same Kingdom over the definition of morality as given in God’s Word. Same God, same Kingdom, different roles.
Therefore, the Christian Church must be united and resolute in this: The Moral Law of God is not the State’s to define. This belongs exclusively to the Christian Church to teach powerfully and winsomely, in and out of church, exactly what the bible teaches so that hearers will learn to fear God more than man.
So, one of the first steps the Church should take to help remedy the State’s attempt to redefine morality is to reject traditionalism (adherence to traditional views which are not clearly biblical views) and routinely evaluate prioritization (order of importance can and does change) rather than seeing them as fixed institutions. I argue that if we do just one thing right regarding Church & State, it should be to speak forcefully with unity when the State violates God’s Moral Law. This action on the part of the Church will result in letting “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).
A Response to Tim Keller's
New York Times Article
I have a deep appreciation for Dr. Tim Keller as a church leader, church planter, author, theologian, and communicator. Additionally, his ability to give great insight into God's Word, to heighten awareness of it through powerful illustrations, and to speak wisely on varioius subjects is honored and admired across the world.
However, with regard to that sensitive matter of church and state, which is constantly frustrating to most church members, there are other Christian leaders, like Mariam Bell, more qualified to speak and advise in this area:
She has years of legislative experience in Congress and emphasizes the importance of being both Good Samaritan and Good Watchman at the same time. Mariam recently wrote concerning the signatories of a letter to President Trump and Vice President Pence (Tim and Kathy Keller were the first of 50 to sign) and published by the Washington Post regarding their view of the refugee resettlement. I quote Mariam:
Mariam Bell, Board Member WORLD MAGAZINE, former Deputy Assistant Secretary, Department of Health and Human Services; Associate Director of Public Affairs (Reagan Administration); National Director of Public Policy, Prison Fellowship Ministries; and Legislative Assistant, U.S. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA)
Read full article by Mariam Bell, “World Relief Recalls the Samaritan, but Forgets the Watchman,” at the Washington Post:
In his article, Dr. Keller argues that Christians don’t “fit into the two-party system” and that “they are pushed toward two main options.” He also states, “Christians should not identify the Christian church or faith with a political party as the only Christian one.”
In the past this would certainly have been true, and there would have been no argument. However, things are different today.
For instance, when one political party in our two-party system votes into law that which is Godless in every way, and disciples others (especially our children) in this same godlessness while in public schools; and when the other party does not, and even upholds the Moral Law of God, isn’t this party the only one supporting Christian teaching (especially in the areas of biblical marriage, born and un-born children, and gender)? Aren’t we just stating the obvious? I would say it this way: where there is clear evidence that one party supports Christian values and the other party absolutely does not (and even opposes Christian values at every opportunity, doesn't common sense show us the foolishness of not identifying with the supporter of Christian values? Christians don’t have to agree with 100% of a party platform, but they do have to agree 100% with God’s Moral Law.
Dr. Keller goes on to tell a story about a man from Mississippi. Although Keller's story is interesting, I find his use of an imprecise definition of “socialism” might give the impression that true, historic socialism is acceptable and that any political position held by other (even admirable) Christians is trustworthy:
I know of a man from Mississippi who was a conservative Republican and a traditional Presbyterian. He visited the Scottish Highlands and found the churches there as strict and as orthodox as he had hoped. No one so much as turned on a television on a Sunday. Everyone memorized catechisms and Scripture. But one day he discovered that the Scottish Christian friends he admired were (in his view) socialists. Their understanding of government economic policy and the state’s responsibilities was by his lights very left-wing, yet also grounded in their Christian convictions. He returned to the United States not more politically liberal but, in his words, “humbled and chastened.” He realized that thoughtful Christians, all trying to obey God’s call, could reasonably appear at different places on the political spectrum, with loyalties to different political strategies.
Keller's "man from Mississippi" was “humbled and chastened,” but by what? By someone else’s view of socialism? Can historic socialism really be softened, or should another term be used for what the man from Mississippi witnessed in the Scottish Highlands?
The older definition of socialism in the purest sense (N. Korea, Venezuela) is “government ownership of goods and services,” which is no longer a good working definition for socialism or socialistic tendencies in governments today. So rather than trying to argue from the vantage point of an outdated definition, or from a nuanced definition (what Dr. Keller did), I think it is better to look at the examples and results of what happens when moving from capitalism to socialism, and then to radical socialism, which is the situation in Venezuela:
Socialism has turned oil-rich Venezuela into a place where there are shortages of everything from toilet paper to beer, where electricity keeps shutting down, and where there are long lines of people hoping to get food, people complaining that they cannot feed their families.
Are all “thoughtful Christians” trying to obey God’s call, as Dr. Keller’s acquaintance says? I don’t think so, otherwise “thoughtful Christians” on the Left and “thoughtful Christians” on the Right would all agree that abortion is killing; that the definition of marriage is given by God, not the state; that gender is determined by God, not the individual; that bearing false witness is very serious to God, even if our political parties don’t think so. Such thinking is biblically and politically naïve. In the short run, it may bring about a so-called “peace in our time;” but in the long haul, it will only end in tragedy and despair.
Is it reasonable in America today to think that our two political parties, with diametrically opposing viewpoints regarding God’s Moral Laws, can reach agreement without moral compromise? Such collegiality no longer exists. Today, the differences between good and evil are stark, with the Democrat Party supporting infanticide, euthanasia, gay marriage, gender identity, and the list accelerates every day. Is it possible for “thoughtful Christians, all trying to obey God’s call” to “reasonably appear at different places on the political spectrum, with loyalties to different political strategies?” The answer is no, it is not possible if we honor the same God and His Word.
Consider a recent headline:
“Senate Democrats Fail to Protect Infants Born Alive”
So, does the church take Keller’s advice: [Believers] “should not identify the Christian church or faith with a political party as the only Christian one”? But doing just that would seem normal and logical given the regular occurrence of one party—The Democrat Party—opposing the Moral Law which protects infants born alive.
Let’s be perfectly clear, saying privately or publicly that one political party supports Biblical Moral Values (pro-traditional marriage, pro-life, biological gender, etc.) and another party does not is not the same as saying I or my church endorse a political party or candidate. Biblical clarity of Christian teaching is God-honoring; but silence, temerity, ignorance (of God’s laws and man’s), and fear is anything but.
The church’s mission is to speak of Saving Grace, of Sin, of Common Grace to everyone. This involves knowledge of God’s Moral Law and action on the believers’ part. This is true whether we are speaking to the individual or a group of people. When Billy Graham held a Crusade in Jackson, MS in the 1950’s, he noticed upon arriving at the stadium that ropes were set up to separate blacks from whites. He did not need anyone’s permission to tear them down—and he did—and warned the officials that he would leave if they were put back up. No one dared to interfere with Dr. Graham. Why? Because he was totally dependent upon God. He feared no man or organization in Jackson, Mississippi.
Remember the Church at Laodicea and what it was criticized for. They were “lukewarm.” Laodicea in modern day Turkey was wealthy, but they had to pipe in their water from hot springs. The hot water was great for bathing, but when it reached Laodicea, it was lukewarm and not suitable for either bathing or drinking.
What Jesus is saying is that a lukewarm church (one not dependent on God) is useless. Churches today not dependent on God, especially in something as critical as the state’s ability to legislate immorality, are in danger of becoming “useless” in God’s eyes. Being useful, on the other hand, by confronting corporate as well as individual sin, and showing Grace, is exactly what the church should be doing all the time.
Liberty University is not a church
Finally, Keller's article is introduced with a beautiful Getty picture of students singing hymns at Liberty University just before an appearance of Donald Trump in 2016. What is odd is why this particular picture would be used as a visual lead to this article? Is it mere coincidence or does the New York Times really think that singing hymns and raising hands in Liberty’s chapel is not appropriate when a future President is about to speak? Knowing the New York Times, I think this is exactly what they think. To be clear, Liberty University is not a church, it’s an educational institution, and there is nothing wrong with this scene. I sincerely hope Dr. Keller doesn’t either. It could be any Christian-based educational institution; it just happens to be Liberty. However, I feel the New York Times would have a problem with it, and perhaps that’s why its placement is so obvious.
This article, and others like it, whose focus is the Church's responsibility to address corporate (The State) violations of God's Moral Law is part of a new book by Charlie Rodriguez, Raising the Standard of Morality. Pre-order now!