Law, Church, Mission, Eschatology and the Powers
We recently had a lively discussion here on Jesus Creed about the Manhattan Declaration. In the Summary Statement accompanying the Declaration, the drafters assert that the sanctity of life, the dignity of marriage, and the freedoms of conscience and religion “are increasingly under assault from powerful forces in our culture,” and that Christians are obligated to respond with civil disobedience. In addition, in the Declaration itself, the drafters argue that Christians are obligated to support legislative and other political efforts to curtail abortion and gay marriage.
What eschatological vision do these documents reflect? What theology of the Church’s mission in the world flows from that vision? When faced with laws we believe are immoral or unjust, how should Christians respond? How do law, church, mission, and eschatology relate?
The MD Summary Statement’s reference to “powerful forces in our culture” strikes me as an obviously eschatological statement. On its face, this refers to the various political lobbying groups that are promoting the socially “liberal” agenda of abortion rights and gay marriage. The drafters of this document, however, are highly theologically astute, and also are echoing the New Testament’s vision of conflict prior to the return of Christ: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:12)
The MD’s drafters are
not interested in sensationalist “Left Behind” eschatology. I perceive – partly based on the MD
itself and partly on some of the drafter’s other writings – that they espouse
versions of Reformed and Catholic eschatology in which the “Kingdom of God” is
a present (though as yet unfulfilled) reality and in which part of the Church’s
mission involves preserving and strengthening civil legal institutions, including, if necessary, through the means
of forceful resistance. They
are not “theonomists” – people who believe the Biblical Old Testament civil law
should apply essentially unmodified today – but they do believe that the Church
should play an active role in calibrating the civil law with moral law.
This “political theology” of the MD drafters runs deep in the
Christian tradition. Consider, for example, St. Augustine’s treatise “On the Correction of the Donatists,” written around 417 A.D. The Donatists were a group that
threatened to separate from the Roman Church over the question whether people
who renounced Christ during persecutions should be readmitted to the
Church. The Donatists believed
those who had apostatized during persecution should be forever barred from the
Church, in contrast to the Church’s practice. The Donatists thereby challenged the authority and
legitimacy of the Roman Church.. The
Roman government, at the behest of Church officials, persecuted the Donatists
as schismatics, resulting in violent military conflict and the confiscation of
Augustine provided a theological rationale for this persecution:
If, therefore, we wish either to declare or to
recognize the truth, there is a persecution of unrighteousness, which the
impious inflict upon the Church of Christ; and
there is a righteous persecution, which the Church of Christ inflicts upon the
impious. She therefore is blessed in suffering persecution for
righteousness’ sake; but they are miserable, suffering persecution for
unrighteousness. Moreover, she
persecutes in the spirit of love, they in the spirit of wrath; she that she
may correct, they that they may overthrow: she that she may recall from
error, they that they may drive headlong into error. (Emphasis added.)
Compare this to the following statement in the
And so it is out of love (not “animus”) and
prudent concern for the common good (not “prejudice”), that we pledge to
labor ceaselessly to preserve the legal definition of marriage as the union of
one man and one woman and to rebuild the marriage culture. (Emphasis in
drafters are not advocating military or physical persecution against advocates
of gay marriage. Nevertheless,
they are making the very Augustinian argument that the Church can and should participate
in efforts to wield the power of the civil law in order to establish a
righteous community, and to resist forcefully if the civil law goes astray.
another strain of political theology in the Christian tradition that rejects
such cooperation with the state. Writing
in around 205 A.D., for example, Tertullian said
be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that
he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace
take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And
shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment,
who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?
Tertullian is writing here specifically about
military service, but his argument in The Chaplet arguably applies equally to all participation by
Christians in state violence. Even
more importantly, we have the Apostle Paul’s instructions about how Christians
should live in a pagan society:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the
eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at
peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s
wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed
if he is thirsty, give him
something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap
burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but
overcome evil with good.
Are there alternatives to the political theology inherent in the
Manhattan Declaration? What other
approaches could a faithful Christian take?