Theological Smackdown: All’s fair

WCF classes took a new turn this week as we looked at the issue of Government. As long time readers will be aware, I get a bit excited about the subject of church and state. I don’t think it’s an issue the church handles particularly well, generally speaking. And it’s to our detriment.

My thoughts in a nutshell are that the church should let the state be the state and we should make sure our own house is in order. Who are we to complain about the legalisation of gay marriage when the global church is ordaining gay ministers? This sort of inconsistency is unhelpful. People will ultimately choose whatever lifestyle they like. That’s their decision. Not the government. The church needs to be free to be the church, we particularly need to be free from state oversight on particular matters (like who we can employ). But gay people should be just as free to be gay, and atheists should be just as free to be atheists, and so on, and so forth. The WCF was written in a time where the predominant social paradigm was “Christian” and the complexity of a modern liberal democracy is too much to bear – but there are some good points in the chapter about war, respecting government, and being part of government.

The best part of our discussion on Tuesday was about war. Just war vs pacifism. We were talking about when it’s “right” for a nation to invade, what makes a nation’s claim to nationhood legitimate, and whether leaders who are obviously on the nose with their people (eg Mugabe) should be removed. And then we talked about whether popular but evil leaders (eg Hitler) should be removed. While Germans got behind Hitler and his cause this couldn’t be said for the nations he invaded. We talked about whether Bonhoeffer (K-Rudd’s hero) was right to join a plot to assassinate Hitler. I was surprised that people could consider that wrong.

I came to the conclusion that pragmatism and pacifism are binary opponents. You can’t be both. The pragmatic solution to questions of international relations and human rights will almost always require an exercise of force.

I am a pragmatist.  


David says:

Ok, so I can’t resist. I know in advance I’ll regret this…..

“People will ultimately choose whatever lifestyle they like.”
“That’s their decision. Not the government.”

The first is undoubtedly true, but it is far from self-evident that it leads you to the second.

Liberalism seems to assume that the role of government is to as far as reasonably possible preserve the right of the citizen to determine their own choices — as your second statement indicates. But the question that I always ask is, Does that mean there is no place for the government to legislate against injustice and other evils? I don’t know anyone who would actually say that.

So liberalism defends itself by saying government should as far as reasonably possible preserve the right of the citizen to determine their own choices — so long as it doesn’t impinge the same right of other citizens. Do what you like, just don’t hurt anyone in the process. Which sounds wonderful, and when you listen to liberals they make it utopic — but when you open your front door and step into the real world it doesn’t work, for the simple reason that b/c I am already part of a society, _everything_ I do affects the other.

I think the role of the government is not simply to help _me_ as an _individual_ function, but to help _us_ as a _society_ function. Augustine argued that a ‘people’, or ‘society’, is “a gathered multitude of rational beings united by agreeing to share the things they love… The better the things, the better the people; the worse the things, the worse their agreement to share them.” (City of God, 19.24)

In Liberalism, there is but one ‘good’ we share — the freedom to be autonomous, to be ‘me’ however I want to define it. It says _more_ than people are free to choose: it says we _as a society_ will agree that this is the _one_ thing we will love.

I want to live in a society which values more than my autonomy. I want to live in a society that values truth and love and justice. And I want that, whether I’m Christian or not. Liberalism trumpets _values_, but its fundamental _value_ is antagonistic to them. Peter Jensen in his Boyer lectures observed that in the end, Liberalism hasn’t been able to satisfactorily reconcile “Liberté” and “fraternité”, despite all the hubris.

And I think your approach to church and state once again reflects your two dimensional doctrine of humanity and your anaemic (absent?) doctrine of creation.

David says:

“to as far as reasonably possible preserve”

There is only one thing worse than having a two dimensional doctrine of humanity, and that’s to split an infinitive….. I hang my head in shame….

Amy says:

Not spliting infinitives is a rule based on latin structure with no real reason within English. So split away (there would be a lot of less-poetic poetry without the split infinitive).

Nathan says:

I’d suggest if you don’t want to live in a liberal democracy that you either lead a revolution or migrate elsewhere.

My doctrine of government is just as Romans 13 as yours. Probably more so because it’s based on the understanding that here, in this country, God has instituted a liberal democracy.

This presents great freedoms for the church, which have caused a malaise when it comes to social justice and issues like that, and have us fighting entirely the wrong battles.

Homosexuality was, without being recognised as marriage, a social norm for those in the first century AD – you don’t see Paul instructing us to stop other people sinning. We’re instructed that if we want to be part of the church we should stop sinning. And stop others within the church sinning.

Nowhere is there a mandate for us to force our views of the world onto others – nor was that the modus operandi for Israel. They were to be different from the people around them, and we’re to be salt and light. I don’t think it follows that we want everybody else around us to taste salty.

I think we can affirm morality without imposing morality.

David says:

“God has instituted a liberal democracy”

So are you arguing a divine mandate for liberal democracy per se?

Everyone ‘imposes’ morality. None less so than advocates of liberal democracy: demonise others who ‘impose’ morality, so you (and they) don’t see their own imposition. The question is not one of imposition, but of _what_ is ‘imposed’.

Australia’s “liberal democracy” is not yet as liberal as liberals would like it to be (excuse the liberal use of liberal)…. it would not be better for the gospel or for our society if it was.

Nathan says:

“God has instituted a liberal democracy”

So are you arguing a divine mandate for liberal democracy per se?”

No, Romans 13 argues that. Since God appoints governments. He’s therefore appointed a liberal democracy in Australia. The fundamental notion of a liberal democracy is liberty. I don’t think we can have our cake and eat it too. We want people we disagree with to be free to live their way to ensure we too can be free to live ours – and to speak against their way without fear of persecution.

“it would not be better for the gospel or for our society if it was.”

I disagree here. I think the gospel is at its strongest where the contrast is greatest between God’s people and those around them. Nominalism is more harmful to the gospel than anything else. Because it gives our opponents the ammunition to lump the nominals in with the actuals and throw stones at the actions of the nominals.

“I think the role of the government is not simply to help _me_ as an _individual_ function, but to help _us_ as a _society_ function”

I would suggest that this is a political difference though, rather than a theological difference. The Bible makes no real comment on the preferred method of government. Except that for the Jews they should prefer a theocracy because kings will lead them astray.

I think the government has a responsibility to free us to function as a society rather than to help us. But that’s my political ideology.

“I want to live in a society that values truth and love and justice”

This is where the relativists have a point. I get my preferred model of government by thinking about how I’d like the other side to function if I were in power. How can we, as Christians, impose a system of government based on our God infused morality on people who reject the very notion of God? If God doesn’t exist then homosexuality is all that the people who don’t believe in God say that it is.

We can’t govern for people who don’t believe in God by forcing them to act as though they do. Changed behaviour doesn’t lead to the Gospel, the Gospel leads to changed behaviour.

Leah says:

I think there is a difference between telling other people in society how to live (eg. saying “you shouldn’t be gay”) and trying to influence the government’s decisions in regards to those issues.