The EFM Feature

Here at EFM, we’ve had a lot to say about the argument that evangelicals should only vote for a candidate whose theology matches up with our own. In probably our first post on the subject, David laid out where theology is (and isn’t) relevant in making political decisions. We’ve also argued–on the basis of Thomas Jefferson and others–that such an argument flies in the face of American history. Similarly, we’ve argued that it flies in the face of Old Testament history, looking at the example of Cyrus. Relatedly, we’ve noted that there is no historical evidence that there is any danger in having a powerful political leader who is a Mormon. We’ve pointed out why we don’t think having a Mormon president would detract from evangelical evangelism efforts–and also why refusing to vote for Governor Romney based on his theology would come back to bite evangelicals politically.
Granted, I’m biased, but I think that’s a pretty good assemblage of argumentation. But as I read recently in Timothy George’s book Theology of the Reformers, there’s more we could say.
Many folks reading this website will know that Luther is said to have remarked that he’d rather be ruled by a competent Turk than an incompetent Christian. But as I discovered reading George’s chapter on him, his views on church and state were a lot more complex and thoughtful than that. Not only that, they are also a long way from what we hear from today’s left–and the folks who insist, in spite of all the evidence cited above, that evangelical Christians must only vote for evangelical Christians.
Luther called the state the “kingdom of the left hand,” with the church being the right hand. George explains further:

Basing his beliefs on Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-14, Luther held that the state was ordained by God primarily to restrain evildoers, to preserve peace and order in the world. If the whole world were composed of Christians, there would be no need for prince, king, sword, or law. However, since “among thousands there is scarcely a single true Christian,” the state is necessary to prevent the world from being reduced to chaos. The temporay rulers were “God’s jailers and executioners.” From this perspective the doctrine of the two kingdoms represents not so much an ethical dualism, the realm of Satan versus the realm of God, as a twofold means by which God’s sovereignty is effected within history.

Translation: The left hand (the secular state) and the right hand (the church) are supposed to work together, just as your left and right hands do–not to be hostile to each other, as today’s antireligious left would have it. God ordains both. And the main way Luther thought they were to interact was this: Secular rulers were to protect the church from the mob, and pastors were to urge their flocks to obey secular rulers, as God commands.
But what about the other side of things? Here’s more George:

Although he believed that a Christian could serve as a magistrate, Luther had no doctrine of a Christian magistracy.

Read that again: no doctrine of a Christian magistracy. Translation: Secular rulers need not be Christians, the claims of some of today’s confused evangelicals aside. Let’s figure out why:

The state was ordained by God as a concession to human sin. It was not the agent of God’s redemptive purpose for humankind. Luther’s apocalyptic eschatology prevented him from harboring much hope for improved worldly conditions. “For the world is a sick thing…like a hospital…or it is like a fur pelt or skin, on which neither hide nor hair is any good.” At best, the state could only patch up the old order, restrain the spread of anarchy, until God’s final judgment was unleashed. Yet this task, the work of God’s left hand, was extremely important for it enabled the gospel to do its proper work even in the midst of sinful society.

“Not the agent of God’s redemptive purpose.” Amen, brother–say it again!
What Luther is arguing here is basically that the state is only so important. Its purpose is essentially negative–to protect the church and to protect the people. (In today’s dangerous times, I’m sure we can sense the importance of the latter.) Its purpose is not to redeem the world.
But I have to tell you–we’ve lost that perspective today. Too often, we evangelicals think in our heart of hearts–as much as we may say that the church and the Gospel are paramount–that the state is really where it’s at. That more political power will solve our problems. But it won’t. It never does. And it never will, no matter how many evangelicals we put in Congress, the White House, or wherever. Because that’s not the solution.
Government, as Martin Luther understood, is basically taking rearguard action in a fallen world. It can never triumph over sin, but it can combat some of its most obvious symptoms. Luther would have cited anarchy; we can cite abortion. And in order to do that, it needs good managers–not good theologians. In fact, the managers are to protect the theologians, who should be doing more important things, in the church.
And I must say–I think that if more evangelicals had a better understanding of the differing but complementary roles of the church and the state, one like Martin Luther’s, we wouldn’t be having these discussions as to whether or not the president of the United States has to agree with every aspect of our theology. It’s not supportable based on American history, the Bible (no one who’s sent me a nasty e-mail about it can produce a verse), or common sense. Had it been prevalent in the late 1700s there would have been no Thomas Jefferson, and if it prevails today, our world will be the worse for it.

About Charles Mitchell

EFM's resident Yankee, Charles Mitchell, works in the non-profit arena in his native Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Charissa, live near the state capital of Harrisburg with their daughter, Adeline, and are members of a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America.

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