Schaeffer, the State, and Absolutes

The Christian claim that Christ is Lord always puts it at odds with the state and other power structures. Demand of absolute loyalty to God alone makes the faith something that will threaten rulers who seek to have total control and demand complete allegiance.

This has always been the case, and was certainly true when the faith first developed and spread. In this regard a somewhat recent aspect of New Testament studies has arisen, known as “Empire criticism”. It asks how much of NT writing is in fact a political swipe at Roman imperial rule, especially as found in the book of Revelation.

How much is the emphasis on Christ as Lord a direct assault on Caesar as Lord? It obviously is an attack on the notion of the worship of Caesar – the Roman imperial cult. The early Christians knew that only Christ is to be worshipped and given total allegiance.

The idea of an anti-imperial NT, and various political connotations of it, has been made by N. T. Wright and others of late. Are they correct? That particular debate cannot here be entered into. But those wanting to take it further are invited to peruse a very helpful volume on this edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph Modica: Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not (IVP, 2013).

In it the authors argue that this theme has been pushed too far and the attempt to make the case has been overblown. While there is some validity to this thesis, too much is being read into the NT texts, and too much politicisation is going on.

However it is still true that the absolute claims of Christ and the gospel compete with statist claims. Here I want to look at one earlier voice that offered prophetic warnings about the dangers of statism and its absolute claims. Francis Schaeffer often spoke about this, and in his very important 1976 volume, How Should We Then Live?, he spoke to it at various points.

Let me quote parts of it here. The book’s subtitle is “The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture.” Early on in the first chapter he discusses ancient Rome, and he says this:

Rome was cruel, and its cruelty can perhaps be best pictured by the events which took place in the arena in Rome itself. People seated above the arena floor watched gladiator contests and Christians thrown to the beasts. Let us not forget why the Christians were killed. They were not killed because they worshiped Jesus. Various religions covered the whole Roman world. One such was the cult of Mithras, a popular Persian form of Zoroastrianism which had reached Rome by 67 B.C. Nobody cared who worshiped whom so long as the worshiper did not disrupt the unity of the state, centered in the formal worship of Caesar. The reason the Christians were killed was because they were rebels. This was especially so after their growing rejection by the Jewish synagogues lost for them the immunity granted to the Jews since Julius Caesar’s time.

We may express the nature of their rebellion in two ways, both of which are true. First, we can say they worshiped Jesus as God and they worshiped the infinite-personal God only. The Caesars would not tolerate this worshiping of the one God only. It was counted as treason. Thus their worship became a special threat to the unity of the state during the third century and during the reign of Diocletian (284-305), when people of the higher classes began to become Christians in larger numbers. If they had worshiped Jesus and Caesar, they would have gone unharmed, but they rejected all forms of syncretism. They worshiped the God who had revealed himself in the Old Testament, through Christ, and in the New Testament which had gradually been written. And they worshiped him as the only God. They allowed no mixture: All other gods were seen as false gods.

We can also express in a second way why the Christians were killed: No totalitarian authority nor authoritarian state can tolerate those who have an absolute by which to judge that state and its actions. The Christians had that absolute in God’s revelation. Because the Christians had an absolute, universal standard by which to judge not only personal morals but the state, they were counted as enemies of totalitarian Rome and were thrown to beasts.

And at the end of his book he offers “A special note”. In it he makes three points. First, he exhorts believers not to fall into humanistic thinking and “existential methodology”:

We do this if we try to keep hold of the value system, the meaning system, and the “religious matters” given in the Bible, while playing down what the Bible affirms about the cosmos, history, and specific commands in morals… If we do this, the generation which follows will certainly be undercut as far as historic Christianity is concerned. But also, if we ourselves bear the central mark of our generation, we cannot at this moment in history be the voice we should be to our poor and fractured generation; we cannot be the restorative salt which Christians are supposed to be to their generation and their culture if in regard to the Scriptures we, too, are marked by the existential methodology. If we are so marked, we then have no real absolute by which to help, or by which to judge, the culture, state, and society.

Second, he reminds Christians that “we are not only to know the right world view, the world view that tells us the truth of what is, but consciously to act upon that world view so as to influence society in all its parts and facets across the whole spectrum of life, as much as we can to the extent of our individual and collective ability.”

Third, he looks at past anti-slavery activism and reminds us of our present calling, including “speaking out and acting also against the special sickness and threat of our age – the rise of authoritarian government.” He explains:

The danger in regard to the rise of authoritarian government is that Christians will be still as long as their own religious activities, evangelism, and life-styles are not disturbed. We are not excused from speaking, just because the culture and society no longer rest as much as they once did on Christian thinking. Moreover, Christians do not need to be in the majority in order to influence society.

But we must be realistic. John the Baptist raised his voice, on the basis of the biblical absolutes, against the personification of power in the person of Herod, and it cost him his head. In the Roman Empire the Christians refused to worship Caesar along with Christ, and this was seen by those in power as disrupting the unity of the Empire; for many this was costly.

But let us be realistic in another way, too. If we as Christians do not speak out as authoritarian governments grow from within or come from outside, eventually we or our children will be the enemy of society and the state. No truly authoritarian government can tolerate those who have a real absolute by which to judge its arbitrary absolutes and who speak out and act upon that absolute. This was the issue with the early church in regard to the Roman Empire, and though the specific issue will in all probability take a different form than Caesar-worship, the basic issue of having an absolute by which to judge the state and society will be the same.

Here is a sentence to memorize: To make no decision in regard to the growth of authoritarian government is already a decision for it.

He concludes by quoting from Ezekiel 33, from which the book’s title is derived, and then says this: “This book is written in the hope that this generation may turn from that greatest of wickednesses, the placing of any created thing in the place of the Creator, and that this generation may get its feet out of the paths of death and may live.”

Since writing those words over four decades ago the state in the West has grown even more bold in its absolutist claims and intrusive powers. Yes, freedom remains, but it continues to shrink, and faith continues to be restricted and undermined by the state. Thus we need to heed the warnings made by people like Schaeffer.

The question is: Will we?

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8 Replies to “Schaeffer, the State, and Absolutes”

  1. Yeah!

    The way to go is as I spoke about recently in encouraging other church members to remember Jesus said to him, ”I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

    This being absolute truth from God’s Holy Word the Bible, the best way for a Christian to go is to get to know our Lord and Heavenly Father now as he reveals himself by his Holy Spirit…God’s Holy Word, learn as well as rely on him who we know that in all things all things God works for the good of those wo love him. (Romans 8:28) But that’s not all, God showed His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8) There is peace with God through faith, be like Paul who resolved to know nothing except Christ crucified, we are surrounded by such a great crowd of witnesses like you Bill and since we are changing all of the time why would we object to being transformed by the renewing of our minds, in not being conformed to this world, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect!? (Romans 12:2) We all desire happiness and joy in this life, Jesus is our only hope to succeed in this for now as well as for eternity by the grace of God. Why does this offend everyone so much? It’s exactly as you and Schaeff say is it not? For some stupid reason we still all believe in ”me” rather than ”not for me”, self sacrifice is one way out of this dilemma and Jesus has done all the work for us, paid the ultimate sacrifice, salvation comes through believing in Jesus, he satisfies all the requirements, fits the criteria as thy say today, to know him is to love him as one song goes. Jesus is King! Blessings to all, thanks Bill we’re never too old to learn from HIStory are we! ? Love Sandra xoxo

  2. I think it is far less reasoned and far more spiritual than that. I think if you asked atheists (and the Romans before) why they hate Jewish and Christian religion more than others they would not know why and, of course, they would deny that they do anyway despite the evidence. They would say they’re just being objective when they do things like stealing Jewish wealth or Nero blaming the Christians for the burning of Rome or Jeremy Corbyn in the UK

    The fact is it is all part of the spiritual warfare. They attacks Jews and Christians because they are motivated to do so by Satan but they do not understand how they are being manipulated by the flood of Satanic lies because they are unaware that the spiritual dimensions exist. This is why atheism relates to Islam more than Christianity or Jewish belief and why the Romans were OK with other religions. This is why you will see Islamic and witchcraft stories told by Disney but not Christian nor Jewish because they feel good about those stories but Jewish and Christian religion makes them uneasy. This is why you will repeatedly see witchcraft and pornography on the ABC and SBS and huge support for Islam (despite the evidence) but only ever very fake versions of Christianity and very minor access to Jewish truths. This is why SBS will acknowledge the aboriginal land but will never acknowledge the vastly greater debt to Judeo/Christian heritage.

  3. So I deduce in our society, the need is for Christian activism against immoral issues such as homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia. How else can we oppose the tendency of government to be authoritarian and intrusive?

  4. A timely warning indeed. We need to make a decision NOW as to whom we offer our total allegiance. Is it to our Government, both State and Federal? After all, we are told to honour and obey those in authority over us. (although, admittedly, Daniel Andrews constantly challenges me on this one, through his distinctly ungodly actions!) Or is it to our local church or denomination? And what about our family? Surely they deserve our total support and allegiance. And yet, above all these must be our total allegiance to the living God – the One to whom we owe our very existence.
    Yes, as Joshua said, “Choose you this day whom you will serve!” Because if we DON’T choose now, the decision will be made on our behalf. And if that happens, we can be sure that it will NOT be God whom we are required to serve. So it is imperative that we make that decision NOW, while we still have the ability to choose. Our future depends on it.

  5. The late Dave Breese often said that in the future Christians would never be arrested under the specific charge of “being a Christian.” He said it would be other things like homeschooling or providing an unsafe home for the children by such things as “prejudice via hate speech.” The whole ‘civil disobedience’ drill like happened under the Roman Empire persecutions. Seems he and FS well understood how the enemy’s battle against God’s kingdom would work. I am so grateful for the teaching of FS, and am very happy you are bringing this to believers who’ve never read FS’s works, perhaps never even heard of him. Thank you so much, BM.

  6. I think Schaeffer’s book should be compulsory reading in all Christian churches

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