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The New Testament and Public Life

From the historical beginnings of the Christian movement, there has been an understanding that the governing authorities of the world are under the providence of God. According to Saint Paul, government serves a valuable and divinely ordained purpose until the Parousia, when the return of Christ will fully inaugurate the new creation. Government, Paul declares, is “instituted by God” and is “God’s servant for your good.” Its fundamental function is to provide law and order and punish wrongdoers: “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” Thus Christians are conscience-bound to honor governmental authority and be law-abiding citizens (Rom. 13:1—7). At the same time, it is implied that government is accountable to God and is to serve the common good. Perhaps Paul’s views here in Romans reflect something of the tradition from the Gospel saying of Jesus, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17; Matt. 22:21; Luke 20:25); it is certainly in consort with the practice of the temple priests in Jerusalem who made sacrifices for (but not to, as others did) the Roman emperor.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, a similar admonition regarding government is expressed by Peter when he tells his readers to be subject to governmental institutions, which exist to “punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right”; thus, they are to “honor the emperor” (1 Pet. 2:13—17). Likewise, in the letter to Titus, there is the admonition to “be submissive to rulers and authorities” (Titus 3:1; cf. 1 Tim. 2:2).

One could also look to the book of Acts of the Apostles, which chronicles the spread of Christianity from Jerusalem throughout the Roman empire to the capital of Rome. A careful reading of Acts shows that the author–who addresses his combined work Luke-Acts to a Roman official or nobleman, the “most excellent Theophilus”–demonstrates Christianity to be a nonsubversive religious movement that should be tolerated, if not respected, by the Roman government. Illustrative of this is his depiction of Paul as a good Roman citizen, a respecter of Roman law, and no wrongdoer–all of which is generally recognized by the governing authorities, although ultimately he would lose his head (not recounted in Acts) at Roman hands.

God’s Will for Our Good

One could say, however, that the rather optimistic tone of the story told in Acts of the spread of Christianity through the Roman world, as well as the accommodating political sentiments in Romans, 1 Peter, and Titus, fail to anticipate times of official persecution and setbacks and hardly provide useful guidance for living in unjust regimes. Without question, the whole of Christian values, experience, and reason must be brought to bear when dealing with the complex sociopolitical situations of religious oppression and persecution, and in the end we “must obey God rather than men,” as said Peter and the other Apostles (Acts 5:29), but one obviously must distinguish between the theological idea that political and civil order is God’s will for our good and its various human applications.

The existence of civil government is part of God’s design for our well-being. Although Christians are a people whose ultimate “commonwealth is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20) or the kingdom of God, in the meantime we are subject to a divinely ordered world that takes into account both temporal and spiritual order: God’s rule extends to both spheres. Another implied principle is that government is not absolute and exists only to serve our good as ordained by God, and government is to be an encouragement to moral behavior.

The Christian message, especially as formulated by Paul and his followers, was able to address the culturally framed (Greco-Roman) religious and moral longings of Gentiles. In a key scene in Acts, Paul is in Athens and begins his missionary work there by preaching first in the synagogue and then in the agora–that is, the market place or “public square”–where commercial, governmental, and philosophical activities mingled. Paul’s preaching there kindled the interest of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, and he was able to dialogue with them because he used biblical and philosophical concepts held in common with them–such as the unity of humanity as children of God–as a point of contact (Acts 17:16—34).

To some degree, then, Pauline Christianity incorporated the best of Greco-Roman virtues and could appeal to reason, not just Judeo-Christian revelation. Thus, Christianity was able to attract and persuade those foreign to the Jewish culture from which it sprang. For instance, some of Paul’s moral language could have been recited by any Greek philosopher, such as the Stoic virtues he commends to the Philippians: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence (virtue), if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).

These are characteristics that mark the life of those who are in Christ, but they are also those which could generally be interpreted as at least tacitly making one a virtuous member of society.

Christians are to carry out their lives in a responsible manner so as to be a burden to no one and to command the respect of all. Paul says in the first letter to the Thessalonians that they should “aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we charged you; so that you may command the respect of outsiders and be dependent on nobody” (1 Thess. 4:11—12). Here is a basis for the work ethic and respect for community relations so important in the social history of the United States and which is constitutive for stable social order.

Paul and Equality

There is an explicit principle of equality in Paul’s theology that seems at variance with certain aspects of the ancient social structures to which he and his later followers related. He says quite forthrightly that for Christians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). This equality refers to all individuals’ equal standing before God and their need of God’s redeeming grace in Christ. It is a religious equality that embraces the new creation so that all else is secondary in relevance. There is a certain consonance between Paul’s sense of equality and Jesus’ table fellowship with tax collectors and “sinners” (e.g., Luke 5:29-32). The radical nature of God’s kingdom undoes such alienating social attitudes and shows that all are equally in need of God’s grace.

In time this religious equality in Paul becomes the basis of ideas about human equality in general when Christians realize that they must more deeply attend to questions of civil society. Because all stand before God equally and all are equally creatures of God, an enlightened Christian society that so recognizes this can hardly justify anything but equality before the law within its sociopolitical order, in spite of the grueling graduality of its full actualization. In our own civic context, this theological understanding can be seen in the American Founders’ reflection that “…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.…”

The Gospel and letters of John are another important biblical source for questions of social as well as spiritual life. The Gospel imitates the creation account in the book of Genesis, using the same introductory words: “In the beginning.” Christianity now understands Creation in a new way and to express that understanding John uses a term linked to a Greek Stoic concept, logos, which was the principle of reason and order in the universe. Thus, it is through the Word that all things were made (John 1:1—3). In a manner of speaking, we may say that the principle of reason is understood to be joined with creation.

It follows that some truths about the Creator and Creation can be known through created nature, including reason. This understanding can also be inferred from Paul, who implies in Romans 1:18—23 that pagans before Christ could have known God and moral rightness through the created order because such “has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” To some extent at least, they are able to do what the moral law requires because it is “written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:14—15). In spite of humanity’s fallen state, knowledge of basic moral precepts and ability to search for God, though impaired, is not obliterated.

Principles from John

Of crucial theological importance is John’s incarnational understanding. In spite of the high degree of spirituality in the Gospel, the physical and material cannot be meaningless in a religion whose God “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Christ truly came as a man, not just a spirit seeming to have a body. From the understanding of the human credibility of Jesus, against those who denied it and broke away from the Community of John, there accrues some dignity to humanity in its fullness as well. We are not just spirits trying to escape the entrapment of our bodies, as later Gnostics held, for therefore the conditions of bodily life would be of no importance. No, we are embodied souls or ensouled bodies and part of God’s creation. Human life matters in Christianity, and so also do provisions to sustain and order life in the world.

An equally important concept in John is the identification of God as truth. God calls us to be truth-seeking people, to realize that there are distinctions to be made among values and ideas about how to live in the world. Not all things can be equally true and good because ultimate grounding of such rests in God. The Spirit of God in the world is the Spirit of truth (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). In John, Jesus says “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). There is no possibility of real freedom without order and the truth from which it comes. We know only in part and imperfectly (1 Cor. 13:9,12) but we know that we live not in a creation of chaos and accident where there is finally no basis for life’s judgments but individual will and power. The attitude of limitless variability and relativity that has nothing to do with the truth, belongs to the “father of lies” (John 8:44).

The good political order requires a proper concept of freedom. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul tells us. For we are “called to freedom” but it is a freedom to do what is right, not “freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Gal. 5:1,13). The first letter of Peter tells us that we are to live as free people, yet without using our “freedom as a pretext for evil” (1 Pet. 2:16). Our lexicon of freedom includes a sense of moral responsibility. No social order can endure freedom without responsibility, and a society whose institutions of governance and culture celebrate freedom as only individual rights apart from the consideration of standards of propriety and moral principle is a society at war with itself.

Western Culture’s Heritage of Faith

In conclusion, Christian faith and practice gave rise to certain political and social principles: Civil government is part of God’s plan and Christians should be good citizens and promote a virtuous society. Government, however, is not absolute but rather, accountable to God and exists primarily to promote law and order. Individuals have both personal and social responsibilities, including a strong work ethic and a concern for good social order. Truth and a moral order are inherent to God’s creation, and a viable society, in all of its institutions, depends upon this recognition.

Finally, in our modern times, when cultural relativism is celebrated and Western culture is often denigrated, the core of which is the Judeo-Christian tradition, it should be remembered that ideas about human dignity, equality, and freedom–surely not to be thought of as mere “values”–developed from that heritage of faith.