Confusing God and Country

 

Title: Confusing God and Country

Text: 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Acts 6:3-5, 2 Kings 4:7

Time: October 16th, 2013

Way back in the day when I was a Boy Scout there was an award that I earned called the “God and Country” award. It was all about faith and patriotism, and the two were linked together in a seamless whole. I can’t remember exactly the requirements but if I recall it had something to do with service to both one’s church and the community, and also knowing the basic teachings of one’s faith – for me Christianity – and knowing the basic principles of democracy upon which the U.S. was founded.  At the time I couldn’t imagine there ever being a conflict between commitment to Christianity and commitment to the United States. Now that’s ok for a young boy growing up in America in the 70s, but it’s not acceptable to an adult Christian today. Anyone who knows anything about Christianity in America today knows that there are plenty of conflicts between where our U.S. government is headed and where our faith leads us. For example, there’s legal abortion since the 1973 Row v. Wade decision of the Supreme Court. That’s a direct conflict between Christian moral teachings and national social policy in the United States. More recently, there’s the whole so-called right to gay marriage, which is a direct conflict with Christian morality if there ever was one. The list could go on. There was a time when Christian teachings and U.S. government policy were almost identical, or at least highly compatible; but not today. It seems as if the official government position today is that Christianity shouldn’t influence public policy — that there’s something wrong with the values of the Bible influencing society, or that anything other than non-religious, secular legal reasoning is prohibited. That’s a lot different than when I was a small boy growing up in America, where God and government, church and state where a lot more compatible. But the reality is that today as Christians we have to be a lot more discerning and wise in how we view Christianity and culture. We can’t simply assume that our government or even our economic system is automatically compatible with our faith. So in an effort to bring clarity to this whole subject I’d like to take a few minutes and outline the differences between the three major traditional influences in society as far as philosophies and religion are concerned. They are, first, of course, Christianity; second, democracy; and third, capitalism. Now people routinely get these three influences confused or mixed up together. Christians often find themselves defending capitalism and democracy with the same zeal as they might defend their Christian faith. That’s wrong. Let me show why it’s wrong, and why we need to hold to our faith priority.

First, there’s Christianity. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance; that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” For the Apostle Paul and for all of Christianity throughout the last two thousand years, the most important thing is that Jesus Christ died for our sins in order to win us spiritual salvation. This is most important, more important than any political or economic system by far. Why? Because Christ won our eternal salvation on the cross. His spiritual salvation gives us eternal happiness with God forever in heaven. When you stake any temporary political or economic philosophy or system on earth up against eternal blessedness, there’s no comparison – eternal spiritual happiness is obviously far more valuable than any temporal system however excellent it is. Besides, Christianity has been around saving souls for more than two thousand years, operating under many different kinds of political and economic systems. It’s succeeded in its mission under any and all conditions. That doesn’t mean that different political situations haven’t affected the Christian faith – they have. But it just means that Christianity doesn’t depend for its existence on any one political or economic arrangement of society. For example, when Christianity was born in the Middle East it operated under the Roman Empire with Caesar as dictator. This wasn’t the ideal political order, but Christianity survived and thrived. Then as the faith spread to further reaches of the earth it encountered many different political kingdoms and kings. It had to exist under all these different forms of government; and it did. More recently, Christians in the Soviet Union are finding new freedoms today after the fall of communism there, but even during communism the church continued to exist even in this harshest of political conditions. That’s not to say there wasn’t much suffering and much difficulty, but it shows that Christianity survives any and all political and economic systems because it’s a component of God’s kingdom which will never end. We don’t have to fear that if democracy fails, or if capitalism fails, that’s the end of the Christian faith. It isn’t. Christianity was here before democracy existed – modern democracy as in the form introduced in America in the 18th century – and was around before modern capitalism that came about around the same time. We need to keep this in mind as we approach government and economics today. We need to be careful not to confuse Christianity, democracy and capitalism, as if they were all one belief; they aren’t.

Second, there’s democracy. Acts 6:3-5, “’Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’ This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit. . . .” It is said that the official birth of democracy was ancient Greece, although they didn’t develop it as a sophisticated and comprehensive form of government like the founding fathers in America. Majority vote had been used off and on in many different forms throughout history, but again, nothing like what the Americans invented in 1776. Here’s an example of majority vote or democracy in the early church in selecting leaders. The Christians didn’t choose which apostles led, or whether the apostles should lead – it was presumed and assumed that they were obviously the best qualified to lead since they had been with Jesus. But Christians, as this example shows, were given responsibility in choosing lesser leaders, and so they did use a simple form of democracy in their decision-making. Church history has other examples of majority vote or democracies, including how some monastic communities choose leadership and were governed. Some historians have argued that certain forms of democracy used in catholic monasteries were actually the indirect precursors for modern democracy. Whether that is true or not is debatable, but the point is – majority vote and democracy have been around, but only in relatively modern times did it become a viable form of government. Now, it seems, the whole world is moving towards at least some form of democracy. But again, we have to remember, that democracy is a human invention, a product of political philosophy. The Bible doesn’t command it or even describe it very much at all. It isn’t essential for Christianity to thrive. While it may be about the best form of government known to man today, ultimately, according to the Bible, it will pass away when Christ returns to establish a kingdom. So in reality, the best form of government is a kingdom with Christ as King. Of course, absent Christ as king, a democratic, representational government is probably best. But this simply reminds us not to invest too much commitment and passion in any form of human government. And certainly we must not treat democracy as sacred, or as something revealed by God from heaven. Christianity is revealed by God; democracy is a human invention. Let’s not confuse the two or get our loyalties mixed up. As much as we are committed to democracy, let’s remember our primary loyalty to Christ.

Third, there’s capitalism. 2 Kings 4:7, “She went and told the man of God (Elijah), and he said, ‘Go, sell the oil and pay your debts. You and your sons can live on what is left.’” This is the story of the widow’s oil in the Old Testament. The prophet of God Elijah showed the woman how to make some money and pay off her debts. Obviously, this is not an example of a capitalist economy, but it is an example of profit making, which is at the heart of capitalism. People have always been making profits by trading their goods, but not until relatively modern times has there been a system or economy built on the profit motive. In addition, in order for modern capitalism to work there needs to be a free and democratic system of government. So democracy and capitalism go somewhat hand in hand. These two forces, democracy and capitalism, came together in the early United States and produced the model for the world today. Now the two forces of democracy and capitalism are spreading around the globe, especially in Asia today. But just as with democracy, capitalism we must remember is a human invention, not a divine revelation. The Bible doesn’t command society to organize around a capitalist economy. Christianity doesn’t need capitalism to exist. But listening to some Christians you’d think that without capitalism Christianity would crumble. Now there’s nothing wrong with preferring capitalism over any other form of economy, just as there is nothing wrong with preferring democracy over any other form of government, but we have to remember again that these two things are not divine or sacred. God didn’t reveal them from heaven. In God’s good providence he permitted man to discover them for our benefit, to be used as long as they are beneficial, but like anything else, perhaps they will someday pass and some other forms of political and economic activity prevail. Whatever forms society takes it’s clear that Christianity will survive and thrive because it’s from God and carries his promises of survival and success. Democracy and capitalism carry no divine promises. Therefore, we must be very careful to not “baptize” capitalism (or democracy) with some kind of sacred or holy status. Sometimes it’s tempting to equate Christianity, democracy and capitalism as all part of the kingdom of God, because theses are the best we know. But that would be a mistake. Only Christianity is eternal. Our priority must be first and foremost our Christian faith, not our commitment to democracy or capitalism. We are Christians first, not Americans first. With all the political and economic chatter that goes on today, we need to reaffirm our loyalty to Christ over all earthly systems.

Unfortunately, one of the problems that develops as the result of freedom and prosperity is that as we become better off economically we tend to forget or neglect our commitment to God also. This is what happened time and time again in the Old Testament accounts of the Jews in the Promised Land. When times were hard they naturally turned to God for help and assistance; and he delivered them. But when times were good, the Jews tended to forget God and begin to live life independently of him, breaking his laws, and neglecting worship. We see that same thing happening today in prosperous free and capitalist societies. By the good grace of God, through our democratic and economic freedoms we’ve been able to produce a lot of wealth in the United States, but unfortunately, just like the ancient Jews, when times are good (relatively speaking) we tend to forget about God and focus on having a good life. We tend to make temporal things into idols, like our new technology or abundant entertainment, and so forth. We begin to put these things ahead of our commitment and devotion to God. But this eventually only leads to ruin. As we turn away from God and turn to things as our source of life, God turns away from us and the idols we’ve put in his place can’t sustain life for us. As our idols, our false god substitutes, fail us, things fall apart. That’s what we see happening already in certain areas of life. For example, marriage and family are quickly disintegrating before our eyes. In some major cities of the nation fully functioning families are in the minority. Divorce and family breakup are routine occurrences. Youth are out of control and confused. Suicide is rising. There’s no other way to describe much of society in any other way than “chaos.” I believe as Christians we can help bring order out of disorder by making sure we never confuse our categories in respect to Christianity, democracy and capitalism. As Christians we don’t have a divine mandate to make pronouncements over every political and economic issue. Churches should generally stay clear of becoming too politically involved and active. Yes, in areas of spirituality and morality, Christians and churches should speak out for God’s moral and spiritual truths. But on all the nitty-gritty political and economic issues, we shouldn’t be speaking as if we had revelation from on high; we don’t. We should oppose abortion and so-called gay marriage and other clearly moral/spiritual issues. But in most other things political and economic topics we need to not talk with the same conviction, because we don’t have specific revelation from God about those things. The bottom line is we need to be wise, and know when to speak, and know when not to speak.

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