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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

As the State Grows the Church Shrinks

Jan 8, 2020

The growth of the state usually means the demise of the church:

A few days ago I penned yet another piece seeking to make the case for Christian social and political involvement. Unlike some believers who think that Christians should have nothing to do with politics and the surrounding culture, the New Testament makes a strong case that we should be involved. But see that piece here: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/01/07/politics-and-the-gospel/

Even if we went on purely pragmatic concerns alone, a case could be made for our involvement. As Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once rightly remarked, “A religion that doesn’t interfere with the secular order will soon discover that the secular order will not refrain from interfering with it.”

Quite so. The church as a whole and individual Christians will always have some sort of relationship with the culture they live in, including the state. It may be a more or less amicable relationship, an uneasy one, or an antagonistic and hostile one.

In the West we seem to be moving through that progression: as the surrounding culture becomes more and more secular and the state grows in power and authority, often the church is seen as a threat, and must be kept in its place. Of course various totalitarian societies have long seen the church as a rival, and dealt with it accordingly.

But the West is moving in that direction as well, and Christians need to think carefully about this, and how they will respond. Christian thinkers of recent times have done just that, and they have warned us about where we are heading. Let me draw upon just three of them here.

One problem with the expansive state is that the coercive utopians actually think that the power they wield over others is in their best interests. They seek to justify their statism by claiming it is good for people. Sure, they have a love of power and control, but they believe it is for our own good.

C. S. Lewis spoke to this often last century. In one article published in 1949 in an Australian journal he made these sorts of warnings. He was discussing “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” in which crime is considered a sickness instead of a moral evil, and so punishment is replaced with cures and therapies.

He writes, “If crime and disease are to be regarded as the same thing, it follows that any state of mind which our masters choose to call ‘disease’ can be treated as a crime and compulsorily cured.” It is in that context that he speaks about our coercive utopians:

It is, indeed, important to notice that my argument so far supposes no evil intentions on the part of the Humanitarian and considers only what is involved in the logic of his position. My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. Their very kindness stings with intolerable insult. 

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How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (L'Abri 50th Anniversary Edition) by Array Amazon logo

Francis Schaeffer also frequently warned against statism, and how the Christian faith is regarded as the major threat to absolute political power. In his very important 1975 volume, How Should We Then Live? he repeatedly warns us about this. In his opening chapter he writes:

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 in his closing chapter he says this:

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 the 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.

My final witness is Peter Hitchens, brother of the late atheist Christopher. In his 2010 book The Rage Against God he says that Christianity is the real focus of the secularist statists because it is perceived as being the main threat to its lust for power:

The current intellectual assault on God in Europe and North America is in fact a specific attack on Christianity – the faith that stubbornly persists in the morality, laws, and government of the major Western countries. . . . The God they fight is the Christian God

God is the leftists’ chief rival. Christian belief, by subjecting all men to divine authority and by asserting in the words “My kingdom is not of this world” that the ideal society does not exist in this life, is the most coherent and potent obstacle to secular utopianism. . . . [T]he Bible angers and frustrates those who believe that the pursuit of a perfect society justifies the quest for absolute power.

The concepts of sin, of conscience, of eternal life, and of divine justice under unalterable law are the ultimate defense against the utopians’ belief that the ends justify means and that morality is relative. These concepts are safeguards against the worship of human power….

It is not widely recognized that secularism is a fundamentally political movement, which seeks to remove the remaining Christian restraints on power and the remaining traces of Christian moral law in the civil and criminal codes of the Western nations. 

These three Christian thinkers certainly got it right. It is vital that all Christians do so as well. As the State grows in power and seeks to place everything under its control, this will always mean a direct attack on Christianity and on Christians. It has always been that way, and now we are seeing it played out in the West as well.

Pericles had it right when he said way back in 450 BC: “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.” It is high time all Christians start taking an interest in politics, or it will soon be too late for Christians to do anything.

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17 Responses to As the State Grows the Church Shrinks

  • “crime is considered a sickness instead of a moral evil, and so punishment is replaced with cures and therapies.
    He writes, “If crime and disease are to be regarded as the same thing, it follows that any state of mind which our masters choose to call ‘disease’ can be treated as a crime and compulsorily cured.”
    “Correction” and “rehabilitation” for criminals has been shown to only work in a small minority; many become more hardened, reoffend with more horrendous crimes; some reoffend to “get back in”, as they are unable to survive in the outside world; at least in prison, they are housed and fed. 🙁

  • Thanks Bill. A good article. Some insights I’ve not seen before.

  • Hi Bill,
    Thanks for the forewarning. Unfortunately, it is not only our Christian brothers and sisters that say we shouldn’t be involved in politics that are the problem. There are those who support the leftist anti-Christian policies, either in ignorance or deliberately. Furthermore, and more worrying, is the theologians out there that undermine the Scriptures by denying the five ‘solas’ that underline the Reformation; especially ‘Solo Christo’ and claiming there is a difference between Christ of the Bible and the historical Jesus; those who were fed to the lions didn’t see a difference. This is due to the ‘fear of man’ and the persecution to come, so they try to placate the secular in hopes they won’t be in the firing line.

  • on this topic – I’d like to recommend practically anything by Dr Joseph Boot (Canada; https://www.ezrainstitute.ca/ ). I am currently about 3/4 of the way through his 2016 book, ‘The Mission of God’. . . fantastic!

  • There is a difference between unjustifiable and justifiable state power. In the past, Bill, you have made it clear that you have little time for radical atheist libertarianism. However, I certainly think that there is a place for the state in certain areas- social security provision, public housing, public health and educational access, as well as criminal justice and national security. It is when the state presumes to dictate what the parameters of “permissible” human life should be, as with abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment and active reliance on the use of nuclear weapons that we need to say no. I have found British evangelicals to be quite wise about public policy issues, particularly John Stott and those associated with the excellent Britsh evangelical magazine Third Way.

  • Thanks Rhona. In numerous articles I have often said there is a role for the state to play. Anarchy is neither biblical nor helpful, but the same can be said about statism and the ever-growing welfare state. Both extremes must be avoided. But as I say, I have often spoken about such matters, eg: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/08/13/scandinavia-socialism-and-the-welfare-state/

  • Bill, I have found the writings of Rousas J. Rushdoony very helpful with regard to a Christian and Biblical view of the State. Some of his writings are not popular in certain Christian circles, in that he is postmillenial and a theonomist (but I hardly think that he is in conflict with the Westminster Confession of Faith on its view of the State).
    He is very worth reading and he wrote prolifically.
    Respectfully
    Andy Thomas

  • Thanks Andy. Yes I have many of his books, including his 1986 volume, Christianity and the State. And I have often referred to him, including in this recent piece: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/12/20/no-god-is-not-an-anarchist/

  • Following on to my first comment, those who think that crime is “an illness that can be ‘cured'” by rehabilitation, have conveniently forgotten mankind is afflicted by an universal disease called SIN (Romans 3:23, 6:23), the mortality rate of which is 100%! (I know, some may point to Enoch and Elijah as exceptions)
    The only antidote, or cure, as most of us reading this site would know, is accepting your fallen position, that you are helpless to save yourself (as the world’s religions teach), & put one’s trust and faith in Jesus, who my His death & resurrection, has taken the penalty on our behalf, & enabled us to follow Him to live the way God intended us to live.

  • Interesting re-inforcement of our current cultural evolution. it seems timely to remind ourselves that Mr Sheehan near Broadford was prosecuted by the State for clearing vegetation on his own property.His house survived Black Saturday; his neighbours’ didn’t. His crime? Trying to protect his family and house. We need to remind ourselves of the State impinging on basic ability of citizens to look after themselves. Its happening.

  • I believe the battle is more spiritual than that. Yes the Zoroastrians and many Stoics criticized the sexual immorality of the time but only Christianity fully criticizes both the tyranny and the sexual immorality. This was a double insult to people like Nero.

    The scriptures tell us that Satan is attempting to leverage human authority and that many will be deceived into joining that side of the fight, hence the battle of Armageddon. For the powers of evil to leverage that authority means there has to be some sort of authoritarian state. How else to you attempt to prevent people from buying and selling without the mark of the Beast?

    To gain that power the first thing that has to happen is the authority of the Christian state (which promotes the opposite of lording it over other people) has to be undermined. This is why we see people like Anthony Albanese crying, after stabbing Julia Gillard in the back, and saying, through his tears, something like “I just want to stick it to conservatives.”

    This is why we see the misappropriation of public funds to support journalists who deliberately ignore the profound sexual immorality within the Labor Party and left-leaning people, with rapes and pedophilia etc., while they talk up and constantly publicize a three year royal commission inquiry into abuse in conservative institutions and then won’t let it rest but push the state police force to comb the state for the slightest evidence and when, after years searching, someone is eventually found who might fit the bill, groom him and rework his testimony until, even though the final testimony still doesn’t fit the facts and despite numerous witness statements that contradict the claims, state that the witness, that they have groomed, is so convincing that we should ignore the other evidence. They then repeatedly publicize it and make as much mileage from it as they possibly can all the while being funded by the public purse and ignoring the repeated offenses within their own ranks.

    The forces of evil have become extremely proficient at causing immorality and then finding ways of blaming decent people for that immorality. This, of course, is why conservative groups have to get their act together. Judgement starts at the house of God and those who do wickedness within the Temple are worthy of more punishment than those who do it outside because not only have they done wrong, they have also defiled the Temple. If conservative groups do not deal with the immorality within their ranks clearly the consequences are going to be dire although it is still better to suffer in this world than at the hands of God.

  • When people will not have Christ to reign over them, ultimately they will prove unable to rule themselves in any real meaningful sense of the word. To deny that the Most High rules His world is to set compass and course for the midst of the proverbial perfect storm – where it is “every man for himself and the Devil take the hindmost”.

  • @ Ron Rumble. The very fact that the Religious Discrimination Bill has been tabled for discussion, when such was not even required until a very short time ago and the exposure of Green tape prohibition on fuel load culls in public and private estates, are signs that the long march through the institutions has come up against resistance. There is a considerable push-back from faith-based schools. The parents of those who are enrolled will be exposed to the arguments about discrimination of value-based choice in teacher recruitment, along with those who will consider the catastrophe of Greenspeak-inspired prohibitions on the right of local community’s to protect themselves and their property after the latest series of bushfires. It is somewhat ironic that the ‘catastrophic emergency’ climate change alarmists have been exposed as contributing to one on their doorstep. Perhaps, if the PM’s Royal Commission proceeds, it may expose the ‘lock it and leave it’ policy as having some culpability in the tragedy. Maybe, even rusted-on Greens might decide that it’s a bad look to continue with that exercise. There could be a reaction against such policy at the ballot box and the Green/Labour alliance will, no doubt, be left holding the same kind of tattered bag of promised disasters that led to their ignominious recent defeat, unless, of course, there is a falling on their sword and mea culpa. As ScoMo said while announcing the Bushfire Recovery Agency, this is about the human cost. The fact that he is still the subject of ridicule speaks volumes about those who seek to divide in the land ‘Down Under’.

  • Ron you mean he had the audacity to think for himself????

  • Biggest problem is we are so nice! We are live and let live while our enemies tend to be live and let die. We want everyone to love us because we have bought into the warped belief that Jesus was very nice and loved by all. Speaking of love we let the world define it, and other words, then try to apply them to the Christian version and end up with a meaningless mush of a faith.

    While we must be involved with government to ensure it doesn’t trample on our rights we can’t get too entangled with it or with a party. I think the moral majority became too entangled with the GOP and started to lose it’s Christian focus.

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