In the November issue of First Things Magazine, Evangelicals and Catholics Together has released a new statement. The latest product of an ecumenical movement for political and social change founded in 1994 is titled ‘Fear God, Honor the Emperor,’ and represents a fairly robust primer on Christian political philosophy in the 21st century. We do well to consider it in detail, given the perilous circumstances we find Christian testimony facing in the present, and likely to continue being challenged by for the foreseeable future.
In this episode, then, I want to read through the statement and provide some running commentary on its claims and insights. Additionally, I submit to you a briefer written summary below of this statement’s highlights, as I see them.
First things first, then, a denial of both nature and God’s authority endangers us all, but especially Christians. Godlessness is even now leading us to increasingly open tyranny. If God has called us to more than that, specifically a life of God-given liberty, dignity, and virtue, the Zeitgeist will not hear of it. Preferring repressive and intractable distinctions based on race, gender, and sexual orientation for their political utility, the ambitions of liberalism are terminating in naked totalitarianism. And yet our long, rich tradition as Christians must lead us to pursue and embrace both civil and ecclesiological reformations, and a call to social and political repentance in the public square.
We now inhabit a society which, in the mainstream, stubbornly denies God’s call to place our faith in Him, regarding such as an existential threat to both its programme and paradigm. Thus, in rejecting God’s authority, we also see the unraveling of the basis for human authority. But Christians cannot affirm or go along with this; neither can we legitimately recognize any human authority as absolute, because all human authority is dependent on God’s authority, which always serves to moderate and provide a check on its excesses and abuses.
This is also to say, by way of reminder, that Jesus is Lord in the present-tense; he was not only Lord in the past, nor will he only be Lord in the kingdom come. Thus we Christians must reject the de facto godlessness which says civil authority is a merely human convention and agreement, moderated only by our finite and transient imagination and will.
What we do, and must, support, respect, and honor in human authority is the prohibition and curbing of evil by the civil magistrate. And yet governments throughout history have often rebelled against God’s law by both refusing to curb evil, and actively promoting it. And when they have turned against morality and justice, Christians not only have practiced civil disobedience, they have also worked to replace those governments with others which use their power properly, and to which Christians can be loyal without disobeying God. Thus we look to the example which our forebearers in the faith have set for us, and see our inheritance from them as noble and commendable, as well as necessary to follow.
We cannot ignore, then, the wrongs and falsehoods which are to be found in every human governmental system in this fallen world, including our own. Rather, we work to reform these, even as we recognize that the truest and deepest peace which may result, by God’s grace, is only found in honoring and worshipping God as His people.
There are indeed limits on what can be accomplished politically. For instance, our political, economic, and social structures presuppose fallen, sinful humanity acting out of ambition, greed, and self-interest. Yet it is a mistake that too many Christians react to the limitations on the peace which is attainable in the earthly city by denying it has any value whatsoever so long as it fails to measure up to the ideals achievable only in the City of God.
A refusal to content ourselves with the boundaries of what peace can be had here on Earth may even be an ungodly discontentedness with God not having yet brought about the replacement of this Heavens and Earth with the New Creation by those who say they are conservative. Meanwhile, we do well to note that the greatest atrocities in the modern era were carried out by men and women who were intent on realizing something like this hope independently, on their own power, in their own timing, and in their own way.
Thus we see a pair of errors sent into the world, as C.S. Lewis would say, representing our impatience and discontentedness. Both Activism and Inactivism in response to the Almighty deigning to allow this broken Creation to continue on as it has been may be examples of poor stewardship, faithlessness, and even disobedience. Thus God’s servant must reject both alike, and for the same reason, in the interest of providing a faithful witness to God’s goodness and grace in our time in our present context.
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