Week #6—What Christians Should Ask of Government: To Not Play God


Editor’s note: This is a manuscript from Jonathan Leeman’s class “Christians and Government,” which he is currently teaching through at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. There will be 13 weeks in the class. Here is the course schedule, to be published as it’s taught.

What Christians Should Do For Government

Week 1: Love Your Nation, People, or Tribe
Week 2: Obey Scripture, Get Wisdom
Week 3: Be the Church Together 
Week 4: Be the Church Apart
Week 5: Engage with “Convictional Kindness”

What Christians Should Ask of Government

Week 6: To Not Play God (manuscript below) 
Week 7: To Establish Peace
Week 8: To Do Justice
Week 9: To Punish Crime, Tax, and Defend the Nation

Week 10: To Treat People Equally (Justice and Identity Politics)
Week 11: To Provide Space for True and False Religion
Week 12: To Affirm and Protect the Family
Week 13: To Protect the Economy

* * * * *

Written by Nick Rodriguez and Jonathan Leeman

In the first half of this course, we thought about what government could ask of Christians. In the second half we are turning to what Christians should ask of government.

We’ll start by considering what the government should not do. That’s what today’s class is about. What “role” should we absolutely make sure the government doesn’t play?

And you can find the answer in the title of today’s class: government must not play God.

I. Playing God is the greatest temptation of government.

Playing God is the greatest temptation that human beings face. In Genesis 3, the first sin involves wanting to be like God. So it’s not surprising that governments, made of human beings, face the same temptation.

Psalm 2 affirms this. Turn to it—I’m going to read the first six verses:

Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”

Just as individuals do, we see here that the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain. Kings set themselves against the Lord, thinking that they can establish themselves as sovereign apart from Him. You can see in verses 4-6 that their plans will be thwarted, and ultimately God will reign. It is futile to play God—but governments try to do it anyway.

For a government to “play God” is to pressure its citizens into idolatry. An example of this is in Daniel 3, where Nebuchadnezzar builds a gold statue, and at its dedication, commands the assembled people, to worship it.

Governments can pressure their citizens into idolatry in multiple ways:

  • The object of idolatry can be a particular leader or regime.
  • It can be a particular political party.
  • It can also, as we’ll explore in a moment, be a particular end (even a good end) that government is trying to achieve.

Throughout biblical history, we see the results of government giving in to or resisting the temptation to idolatry. In his book Between Babel and Beast, Peter J. Leithart says that governments fall into five categories.

First, Babel: Government can set itself up as an alternative to God. We see this in Genesis 11:4: “And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.’” They wanted to make a name for themselves, to displace the name of God—so they built a tower that would reach to the place of God. For a Babel, the government itself is the idol.

Second, Rod: Government can be commissioned by God to discipline God’s people. Assyria in Isaiah 10 is an example of this: the empire made war on Judah and conquered much of it, but Isaiah 10:5-6 makes it clear that God commissioned them to do this: they are referred to as the rod of God’s anger.

Third, Refuge: government can be commissioned by God to protect God’s people. Think of Egypt at the end of Genesis, in Joseph’s time: the government under this Pharaoh respected the God of the Israelites and the religious minority living among them.

Fourth, Messiah: government can even be commissioned by God to rescue God’s people. An example of this is Persia under Cyrus. In Isaiah 45:1, God refers to Cyrus as “his anointed.” He is chosen by God to incorporate Judah, not just protecting the Jews and delivering them from oppression, but providing the materials for the rebuilding of their temple.

Finally, governments can be Beasts, devouring the people of God and sacrificing them to whatever idol they worship. Think of Egypt in Exodus. In Exodus 5:2, Pharaoh says, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.” Pharaoh reenacts Adam and Eve’s original sin, but more brazenly and audaciously: he’s conceived of his own identity so as to exclude the moral legitimacy of God’s claim upon him, refused to assent to God’s judgments, set himself as judge over God’s judgments, and rejected God’s people as God’s people. The consequences of this are a state that exploited, abused, and feasted on the flesh of God’s people.

So we want a government that is not a Babel and not beastly. But to the extent that we’ve checked that box, are there any other forms of idolatry we should guard against?

II. Today, that temptation manifests itself in the form of ideologies. 

In his book Political Visions and Illusions, David Koyzis makes a provocative claim: ideologies are a form of idolatry.

An ideology takes something good in the created order and sets it up as the ultimate aim in place of God, making creation revolve around and serve it. An ideology says that this thing is what has the capacity to save us, rather than God.

An ideology often contains in it some truth and some good—that’s what makes it seductive to many of us. In fact, an ideology does its most damage when it convinces us that serving it is serving God. Ideologies are essentially a “respectable” form of idolatry. Each of them tempts government toward something analogous to totalitarianism: the end is so important that government is willing to intrude into more and more spheres of life and authority in order to achieve it. Rather than seeking to do justice now, ideologies are goal-oriented. The promise of some future conception of “justice” as a goal thus allows us to rationalize any amount of injustice now.

So the risk that government will exceed the practical limits Jonathan defined for us two weeks ago is rooted in the idolatry that comes with ideology.

Let’s see what that looks like. Koyzis has some examples that will make every one of us uncomfortable as we think about our own political beliefs. For each of these, we’ll think about what they elevate, what they miss, and how we should be careful of them.

1. Liberalism

I don’t mean liberalism as the term is normally used in politics in America. I’m talking about a Western tradition that animates both our political left and right. Liberalism elevates the autonomy and freedom of the individual. Much of our human rights discourse comes from this tradition, and it has produced undeniably good things: the end of slavery, religious freedom, and freedom of speech, for example.

What liberalism misses, however, is any claim on individuals by community, tradition, or God’s authority that would limit that liberty. In liberalism’s narrative, we submit to authorities not because God has commanded us to, but because we’ve consented to be governed and entered into a social contract.

So how should we be careful of liberalism? If you’re on the political left, are you tempted to keep expanding the scope of individual liberties or rights, so that government has to enter more and more spheres of life in order to protect them? For example, suppose you decided that housing was a right. You might conclude that government must therefore levy significant taxes and use eminent domain to fund and build and maintain housing for every citizen, regardless of the costs that this imposes on others. That might not be just—but if you’re in the grip of the ideology of liberalism, you might be blind to that injustice.

On the other hand, if you’re on the political right, are you so wedded to the idea of individual liberty that you protect or apologize for people who use their liberties to harm or abuse others? Are you ever tempted to defend a person or entity by saying that they were “acting within their rights” rather than asking whether what they were doing was right?

As you can see, liberalism can actually lead to the ungodly expansion of the state OR to its ungodly negligence.

2. Conservatism

Conservatism is associated with the political right in America. Conservatism elevates a respect for tradition, history, and a humility about what human beings can accomplish. Conservatives are particularly aware of the fragility of human endeavor and of the tendency of human beings to fall into evil. In this sense, they capture a truth that’s recognizable to Christians: that we’re sinful, and that we should therefore be skeptical about our capacity to accomplish big, good things, especially with the state’s power of the sword. And for this reason, conservatives urge caution when change is proposed: there are ways things have always been done, and while they’re not perfect, no tradition is without some redeeming value that is worth conserving.

What conservatism misses is that tradition can work toward justice or toward injustice. The first question you have to ask a conservative is: what are you trying to conserve? And why? You’re not likely to get a consistent answer across geographies or (especially) across time periods. Go back 30 or 50 years—any number of “traditions” from that time that you want to conserve will be a mixed bag. Absent is a serious examination of whether a particular tradition is worth preserving according to God’s definition of justice.

So how should we be careful? Do you uncritically resist change, rather than asking whether the change moves us toward justice or away from it? Think about arguments for the maintenance of slavery, some of which played on a fear of the disruption to society and way of life that emancipation would cause. Or think about the recent relaxing of the embargo on Cuba. Some would argue that this was a move toward justice –that, because it has outlived the Cold War that led to its passage, the embargo wouldn’t be enacted under today’s circumstances. If that’s true, then the conservative impulse might make an error here: it will gravitate toward defending the status quo and be less likely to consider whether changed circumstances warrant changed policy.

Questions about mass incarceration are worth considering here as well. Are we sure that America’s imprisonment rate, one of the highest in the world, is necessary, or are we simply fearful of considering other solutions?

3. Nationalism

Nationalism elevates communities of people—think ethnic groups, language groups, people who live in a particular geographic area. People seek their identities in communities, and the claims they make upon the loyalties of those people matter.

Nationalism also protects communities of people from abuse by government—often by making provision for the community to govern itself (this is where the word nation-state comes from). Ideas like the right to national self-determination come out of this tradition.

However, nationalism has a huge blind spot: the claims and rights of those who are excluded from the community. This is further complicated by the fact that communities overlap and are difficult to define. An example: how do you define the Afrikaner nation in South Africa? Traditionally it’s by their shared language, Afrikaans. But South African “Coloureds,” who have mixed racial origin, also speak this language. And they were never fully accepted by white Afrikaners because their skin color is different.

And let’s just state the obvious: the elevation of any one group of people will, taken to its extreme, run into direct conflict with our understanding of all people as equal image-bearers of God. It can lead to racism, sectarian war, and, of course, war between nation states. Koyzis puts it this way: “Nationalism is a bloody religion whose victims dwarf in number all the casualties of the late medieval crusades.”

So how should we be careful of nationalism? Here’s my obligatory Nazi reference for the week. National Socialism was fundamentally rooted in a drive to “protect” the German people from internal threats (non-Germans, Jews) and eliminating external threats (the countries to the west and east, and eventually around the world). The slippery slope of nationalism led to a mandate for world domination and genocide. Beware a nationalism that’s this assertive.

In the present day, how does nationalism influence the way you think about an issue like immigration? A government certainly has its most proximate duty to its own citizens, but are you tempted to think about immigrants and American-born citizens as “us” and “them,” rather than remembering that all are human beings made in God’s image?

Certainly this has been a relevant topic in this post recent election cycle.

4. Democracy

It may sound strange that we define democracy as an ideology; isn’t it really more of a system? Yes, it is. But democracy also acts as an ideology. What it elevates is public opinion, the will of the people.

Democracy as a system has obvious benefits. In essence, democracy restrains governments from many forms of bad behavior because that bad behavior is incompatible with what most or all citizens want.

But here’s what it misses: Democracy as ideology can lead to a belief in the near-infallibility of the voice of the people – we believe something is right simply because the majority favor it. Clearly that isn’t Biblical at all: something is right because God says so. At its worst, democracy as ideology can lead to an unjust majority abusing the minority.

So how should we be careful? To take one example, public opinion has recently undergone a sea change from being pro-traditional marriage to being for same-sex marriage. Politicians of all stripes are rushing to follow this shift. Are you tempted to make it a less important issue because it’s now less politically convenient to take a firm stance?

Or are you ever tempted by arguments that a judge’s decision wasn’t right because it overturned something that had been passed by an elected legislature or by initiative? Sometimes conservatives understandably try to stem the tide of social change coming from judicial decisions; for example, they argue that changes to marriage law should not be decided by the courts, but at the state level or by the people. Well, that’s not true at all. I can understand what they’re trying to do politically, but “the people” have no more right to redefine marriage than the courts do. This is substituting one idolatry for another.

5. Socialism

Socialism may seem to be past its heyday, but it strikes a chord with people because it elevates the idea of a fairer economic arrangement. Sure enough, we recently had a serious presidential candidate who described himself as a democratic socialist. And socialism is not wrong when it says that massive inequality can lead to massive injustice. Think of what the Bible has to say about employers, with more capital, having the potential to abuse their employees. The unchecked market can lead to this kind of injustice. Socialism does us a service by pointing this out.

But socialism misses the limits of our ability to impose or create equality. Socialism asserts that inequality is such a terrible injustice that the existing government and system must be completely overthrown in order to eliminate it. Socialists find that once they’ve done that, it isn’t enough to make everyone equal. So once in power, they need to consolidate and extend that power to do more. Government eventually has to take over everything. This is what led to Stalinism in the Soviet Union and the Cultural Revolution in China.

So how should we be careful? Are you tempted to believe that it’s of paramount importance that the government alleviate a particular social ill? If you elevate that aim to take the place of God, then nothing is stopping you from trampling over all other considerations of justice in order to achieve that aim.

A personal example: I work in public education, a governmental enterprise trying to solve a societal problem. I must always fight the temptation to invest my job with some kind of cosmic meaning beyond glorifying God. A city like DC is full of people whose idols are the causes that they fight for–the problems they solve, the people they help. I go to work every day surrounded by a whole ecosystem of those people. If I let my identity get wrapped up in the good work that God allows me to do to improve the lives of students, it’s bad for me spiritually (I make a personal idol of it), and it might lead me to advocate for things that advance this cause at the expense of other good and right things.

So: hopefully we’ve seen how ideology can be idolatry. What can we do about it?

III. Therefore, we must work for government that resists the temptation to play God.

 1. Check your own heart to root out ideology as an idol. 

Have a look at the list we’ve just gone through. Which ideologies might you be captive to? Is there an aspect of your worldview that you take for granted because those around you take it for granted? Use the questions we’ve asked today to examine your heart.

2. Know your own party’s strengths, weaknesses, and especially its idolatrous trajectories.

We’ve advised this class to hold party affiliations with a loose grip, lest you domesticate your faith to your party. So it’s a good idea to know your party’s strengths, weaknesses, and idolatrous trajectories. Let me give you a quick evaluation, which you’re free to agree or disagree with. This is really just an example of the type of thinking you should pursue.

A Biblical strength of the Republican party is its emphasis on personal responsibility and not looking to government as a service provider. A Biblical strength of the Democratic party is its interest in representing the disenfranchised and downcast.

An idolatrous trajectory of the Republican party is its tendency toward an amoral libertarianism, which can function according to the utilitarian principle of sacrificing the few for the sake of the many, which can turn everything into a contract for individuals, which can despise the poor, the foreigner, or the minority.

An idolatrous trajectory of the Democratic party is toward a secular godlessness which literally boos God at its national convention, which throws a temper tantrum at the slightest talk of religion in the public square, which organizes classes for knowing how to oppose evangelical Christian parents in the public school, and which considers the “liberty” of a person to have an abortion more important than the life of another, unborn person.

The gospel frees us from being over-identified with our parties. We can be better party members, more provocative members who can move our parties toward doing justice, when we demonstrate that something deeper than our membership in them drives us.

3. Understand your political culture’s supreme values and look for common ground or points of consensus.

It is wise to analyze cultural expectations, forces, and institutions that enable and constrain our ability to pursue biblical justice where we live.

Every culture has some values which it prizes above all others. In America, one of those values is freedom. Both the political Left and Right win arguments this way. Go back and listen to the speeches of George W. Bush after 9/11. You’ll find them peppered with talk of freedom: our call to protect our own freedom, and to help other nations around the world enjoy the freedom we have known. The demand for same sex marriage offers the same thing: freedom. The Tea Party, meanwhile, is captivated by the idea of free-enterprise.

You know you have found a culture’s supreme value when it needs no argument to support it. It is an “of course.” However, you may have also found your culture’s greatest idol. A Christian knows there are just freedoms and unjust freedoms. A secondary good like freedom, therefore, is held with a loose grip.

4. Be more of a pragmatist than an ideologue. 

Christians should prefer a government that is not captive to one ideology or another. Thus, the best position for a Christian is to decide what policy they think would do the most justice, recognize the ideologies driving others in the debate, and be pragmatic about working with those folks to get as close to that policy as you can.

This means becoming “fluent in the idiom of multiple ideologies,” as former member Paul Miller once put it. So cull from the various ideologies, taking what is good and leaving out what is bad. And then be willing to do what it takes to win arguments—within moral boundaries. Does invoking statistics about human flourishing win the argument? Use them. Does invoking points of consensus with your opponents’ supreme values help to win? Then do it. Does showing the contradictions in their positions help to win? Then expose the contradictions. But remember your own reasons for what you do—God’s reasons.

We should show respect in these debates, being quick to listen and slow to speak. Ideologies err by making a God out of something in the creation. If that created thing is still good, then the ideology has uncovered a fragment of truth – one that maybe we’ve failed to see. So we should listen to ideologues and reason with them.

5. Do not attribute your interpretation of historical events to Providence – this can be a subtle form of idolatry.

Throughout the Civil War, both sides continually interpreted the events of the Civil War by ascribing to God a kind of activity which fortified their sense of the rightness of their cause.

The North believed that the South’s desire to perpetuate an evil system provoked God’s displeasure, and so God brought an end to that system. For the South, the defeat was interpreted as an act of God’s discipline against the righteous. But I think it’s better to say, with Moses in Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us.”

We should not interpret something like Hurricane Sandy as God’s judgment against the latest moral transgression of our nation. Was he behind the Civil war and its outcome and behind Hurricane Sandy? Surely. What was he doing? We should not presume upon God’s historical will, which has not been explicitly revealed to us. When we claim to know what God is doing in history, speaking where Scripture does not speak, we are projecting our own ideological preferences onto God and raising our own interpretation of events to the level of Holy Writ. In effect, we substitute our wisdom for God’s, and thus become idolaters.

6. Ultimately, hope in God’s justice rather than man’s.

God’s Word defines the real problem we face: sin and evil, which are the root of real injustice. And He has instituted the solution: Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. We must accept no substitutes for Christ, and we should remember that the ultimate victory over evil belongs to God.

Jesus summarizes this in Matthew 5:6, where he promises: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” The word there for righteousness can be translated as justice. Jesus promises ultimate justice.

This doesn’t invalidate our work for better government. But it puts that work in perspective. As Koyzis puts it:

The assurance of God’s ultimate victory means, not that we are excused from the hard work of fleshing out the command to do justice in his world, but that we know the end of the story in advance. We do not know quite how the twists and turns in the ongoing plot will contribute to the final chapter … But we do know that the finale will come and that God sees fit to use these frail efforts of ours for his own purposes and glory. In short, every act of doing justice, whether in the political realm or in any other realm of human activity, is a signpost to the coming of God’s final reign of justice over the new heaven and new earth.

Let us praise God for the justice He will provide, and hope in it above all other things.

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

Nick Rodriguez

Nick Rodriguez lives and works in Washington, D. C., where he is a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church.

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