The Sword v. the Cup – the Purpose of Government and Church

The last 30 years of political involvement by the evangelical movement has left me jaded and cynical.  The failed agenda of the Moral Majority and all its various spawn over the last three decades should bring us to a critical examination of evangelical thinking about the nature of government.

According to Romans 13, the purpose of government is to visit the wrath of God upon the one who practices evil.  This is set over against the closing verses of Romans 12 which admonish us not to take our own revenge upon our enemy, but to leave room for the wrath of God.  The government is the agent of that wrath, a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.  Government is a minister of God for justice.  The church is the minister of God for mercy.  The government is to promote and practice justice and the church is to proclaim and preach the gospel.

The government bears the sword of God while the church bears the cup of Christ.

The government metes out punishment while the church metes out pardon.  There is a wall of separation between church and state and it is the wall of purpose – government and church have different purposes.  The government is to work to make this a just nation while the church is to work to make this a justified nation.  Our political leaders, therefore, should be known for their commitment to justice, not to Christ.  They should be those who are committed to our constitutional rights as citizens and not our spiritual righteousness as individuals.

In short, our President is not our Pastor.

It is not God’s intention that the President turn this nation back to God.  It is God’s intention that our President promote justice and protect the citizens from injustice.  This is the purpose and limited scope of government.  But there are those who want to make it more than it is.

It seems that some evangelicals think that if we could just get ‘our man’ into the White House (or other high offices), this nation could be turned ‘back to God.’  But the purpose of government is not to turn the nation back to God.  The purpose of government is to protect its citizens from evil men and to punish evil men.  In wanting to get ‘our man’ into the White House, some are confusing purposes with results.  Will a Christian President result in a more Christian nation?  Will his influence radiate out and be felt at an existential level in the hearts of the citizens?  So far, the answer to that is a resounding NO.  Carter, Bush1, Clinton, Bush2, and Obama have all claimed to be Christian – but their Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, and United Church of Christ faith have all resulted in – well, not much in terms of the results of righteousness.

Purpose has to do with what should be.  Result has to do with what could be.  When what could be overshadows what should be, we are aiming at results and not focusing on purposes.  When we expect a result from a purpose not engineered to produce that result, disappointment and disillusionment are right around the corner.  If I drive my Ford Focus to pick up twelve high-schoolers in order to take them to camp, I won’t get the result I desire.  I am expecting too much – the load is too great.  A Ford Focus is not a 15 passenger van.

When we expect a whole nation to be spiritually moved by a just President, we are expecting too much.  When we expect a whole nation to be impacted by a godly President, we are expecting too much.  Expected results should be in line with intended purposes.  We are expecting too much of our government officials when we expect them to forward the agenda of the church.

Proverbs 20:8, and similar Scriptures, are sometimes forwarded in this kind of discussion –

A king who sits on the throne of justice disperses all evil with his eyes.

Two things – the President is not a king and America is not a theocracy.  An eastern monarch was a despot (benevolent or otherwise) who wielded much more authority than does a democratically elected President.  He could be arbitrary, erratic, and dictatorial and there were few checks upon his power.  In our day, even the most godly President imaginable will still be surrounded by a vast bureaucracy marked by spiritual indifference and vested self-interest.  And even the most godly President would still need to appeal to the Constitution and not the Bible as a basis for his/her decisions.

Yes, righteousness still exalts a nation and sin is still a reproach to any people.  Yes, Christians should very much be involved in politics and in the political process.  But let’s not fool ourselves into believing that government can deliver more than it is designed to do.  (In many cases it doesn’t even deliver what it is designed to do.)  The government cannot deliver righteousness even as my Ford Focus can’t transport 15 people.  There are two mutually compatible ways to exalt a nation – the exercise of a just administration and the ministry of a Bible informed, Spirit formed church.  Let’s expect from the government what the government is purposed to do and let’s expect from the church what the church is purposed to do.  And let’s pray for mercy from God.

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