Minding Our Own Business

I’m a Christian, and I base my beliefs solely on my understanding of the teachings I find in the Bible. I try to steer clear of extra-biblical doctrines and traditions. The Apostles’ Creed is a brief summary of my core beliefs, and I see myself in fellowship with any baptized follower of Jesus who can say, “Amen,” to that statement of faith. This post is about an extra-biblical doctrine that has led to a heresy which has had unfortunate consequences in America. That doctrine is an eschatological view called Postmillennialism. The heresy is a belief that ties the Church too closely to the State.

Postmillennialism holds that eventually the vast majority of people living will be saved through evangelism and that the success of the gospel will produce a time in history when faith, righteous, and peace will prevail on Earth. After the Church has cleaned up Humanity’s act, Jesus will then return to a world fit to be ruled by Him. Postmillennialism was a dominate belief among various reform movements that did much good during the 19th Century, abolitionism, for example. On the other hand, it was also behind movements such a prohibitionism. Jesus told us that we will know people doing His work by the fruit of their labor. Given the enabling of criminal networks that resulted as unintended (I hope) consequences of the Eighteenth Amendment and the War on Drugs, I feel safe in suggesting that it may not have been God’s hand behind those uses of the State’s power.

My point doesn’t rely on whether Postmillennialism is a correct interpretation of Revelation 20. It may be, but I don’t think so. The problem is rather that too many of its adherents have become willing to use the power of the State to affect change in areas that are not the State’s business. The Bible is clear that God empowers the State to maintain order in secular affairs, and even the most corrupt modern governments do that to some extent. The Soviet Union, for instance, maintained a civil police force and courts to apprehend and punish thieves and other common criminals. However, it is the Church that is empowered to call men and women into relationship with God and to nourish God’s people spiritually. While the State may have a reasonable concern with behavior that affects public order, such as theft, it’s the Church that should deal with the moral and spiritual aspects of our behavior. We’re supposed to remember that some things are Caesar’s, and some thing’s aren’t—they’re God’s alone.

My reading of Daniel and Revelation lead me to believe that the State exists to maintain the secular order, but it isn’t always trustworthy. Indeed, it is often led by evil people.

If Postmillennialism is correct, we Christians should be evangelizing our neighbors and nurturing one another in order to bring about that world of righteousness. We don’t need to worry about the State because it will follow as a matter of course. However, if Postmillennialism is wrong, then we still need to be evangelizing our neighbors and nurturing each other, but perhaps in opposition to the State. In either case, the State is not the Church. It’s a part of the fallen world that God is in the process of redeeming through the work of Christ in His Church.

So what?

I’m seeing too many of my fellow Christians engaging in a circular firing squad over politics. May I suggest that probably isn’t what God is calling us to do as part the work of the Church?

Because we are called to be a light to the world, I believe Christians have a place in politics, if for no other reason than to encourage the State to do good rather than evil. However, we shouldn’t conflate our understanding of good politics with the Gospel. There are fellow Christians who I admire and respect who I believe are mistaken in their politics. We can agree on Who is ultimately in charge without supporting the same candidate for President. We can agree on the truth of the Gospel without drawing the same conclusions about public policy. We can love one another as brothers and sisters in Christ and still have honest disagreements.

We need to focus on what’s really important. As the song says, “And they’ll know that we are Christians by our love.”

A Deep Theological Question

Smitty posts these two quotes:

From the standpoint of governance, what is at stake is our ability to use the rule of law as an instrument of human redemption.

—Al Gore

For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God …

—Romans 3:23

and then asks the profound question:

Through what mechanism do individual sinners, forming a government, achieve that which they cannot accomplish individually?

As a Christian, the first place I go in pursuing an answer is the Bible. Further along in the book of Romans, Paul wrote this:

For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.

—Romans 13:3, 4

So I would argue that a government that is doing good rather than evil is operating for God’s purpose. To the extent that we, as individual sinners, contribute to doing good, we are not at cross-purposes with God. The problem we have as sinners is knowing the difference between good and evil.

One of the principal beliefs of historic Christianity is the expectation that one day God will intervene in history to put an end to evil at what is often called the Second Coming. There have been various interpretations of the prophecies relating to that event. One which came into vogue during the Protestant Reformation was Postmillennialism. The Cliffs Notes version of this interpretation is that Jesus will not return until His Church has done a sufficiently good job of cleaning up the world for Him. Thus, working not only to convert the heathen but also to end bad human behavior hastens the day of His return.

This interpretation has almost died out among most Christians. It was severely wounded in Flanders around 1915 and again at Auschwitz in 1945 and has never really recovered. However, in the generation before WWI it was an important motivator for many do-gooders who brought us such social experiments as Prohibition. It’s in that sort of busybody activity that we see how we humans can fail to understand evil.

Was Prohibition a good thing? Drunkenness is a bad thing. If we have no booze in society, all those alcoholics will be dry.

Well, we saw how things worked in the real world. Evil is clever about finding ways around mere laws. Prohibition was not a good thing; it became a means by which Evil got a stronger foothold in our society.

Human beings are creatures with freewill. We are creatures who can choose good or evil. If I write, “Murder is evil,” almost everyone will agree. If I write,”Stealing is evil,” almost everyone will agree. If I write, “Perjury is evil,” almost everyone will agree. If had written, “Adultery is evil,” a hundred years ago, I would have had more agreement then than I would get now. The Apostle Paul also noted that the Law is a schoolmaster that teaches us sinners the difference between good and evil. A law that a significant portion of society flouts is a law that teaches society to be lawless and opens our hearts to greater evil.

I personally believe that defacing the environment as poor stewards of creation is a form of evil. I believe that Al Gore is correct when he says that government has a role in restraining that evil (without agreeing with his proposed solutions), but that he’s dead wrong when he says the purpose is redemption. God does the redeeming.

We need to be more humble about the laws we impose on one another lest we wind up actually encouraging more lawlessness.

UPDATE—Typo corrected. Thanks, Ken.

UPDATE 2–Second correction crediting Smitty. I shouldn’t post until after the second cup of coffee.