The question of an individual’s relationship to the state is an important one. The answer reflects how one views the state and its responsibilities. Christians have given many answers to this question. In his discussion of the 5th Commandment in The Doctrine of the Christian Life, John Frame gives the answers that various traditions have given.
Frame is of the opinion that the state is essentially the government of an incredibly large family. Such large scale government is far more complex than governing a nuclear or even extended family., In places like Romans 13 we see that God has ordained the State, it is not an accident or human invention (though there have been developments that are the product of human thinking). As Christians, we have dual citizenship. Becoming a Christian does not mean rejecting your earthly citizenship. Paul remained a Roman citizen. We should seek to be good citizens of both kingdoms.
In early non-Christian thought, there was the tendencies toward elitism and libertarianism. Frame notes that the rationalist moved toward totalitarianism. We see this in Greek thinking about the state. Some were born to rule, and some were born to be slaves. Plato’s Republic was not democracy, but ruled by philosopher kings. This was not what the Founding Fathers had in mind. But there is a strong tendency toward totalitarianism among political elites today. They know better than the hoi poloi, the masses. Machiavelli, for one, argued that rulers should increase their own glory thru non-traditional (immoral) means to accomplish their goals. This ends justifies the means thinking is prominent in the big government crowd.
The irrationalists moved toward anarchy. There is a tendency among those who oppose totalitarianism aka big government toward libertarianism. The average American is torn between these two extremes with no real options.
Social Contract Theory
Both non-Christian (like Hobbes & Rousseau) and Christian (like Rutherford) theorists developed varieties of social contract theory. Here the people agree to be “ruled by a particular system of institutions and laws.” Government, therefore, is not imposed on the people. Both the people and the leaders agree to ground rules. This was the prevailing theory of the day when the Founding Fathers put together our Constitution– the particular system of institutions and laws that govern us. When government does not abide by the Constitution, many of us are angry because they are breaking the agreement. Changing the system without amending the Constitution is an intrusion of totalitarianism.
Some theorists, like Hobbes, argue for a totalitarian system of agreement. The contract would limit the rights of the people. Others, like Locke, advocated a contract that limits the power of the state. This was the form the Founding Father followed.
Roman Catholic Thought
Their view is a “consequence of its general distinction between nature and grace.” Aquinas is the primary thinker. The doctrine of the state is determined by nature, not revelation. It concerns itself with our natural life, not spiritual life. It is not a product of the Fall, or necessitated by the conditions brought about by the Fall. “The state helps us to find earthly happiness, while the church guides us to eternal happiness,.”
As a result, both church and state have their own realms, or distinct spheres of life in which they are autonomous. They don’t have power over each other. This has not always been true in Roman Catholic thought, as Popes like Gregory the Great and Innocent III often controlled the State. At times those tables were turned.
As Frame notes, this view is faulty because God’s revelation governs all of human life: both church & state. Scripture does not contain this Roman distinction between nature and grace. There are issues to be taken with this view.
They created a radical distinction between church and state. They often believe that the State is illegitimate. It was not instituted by God but is actually satanic. They typically see Romans 13 within the context of persecution by the state and our need to endure until God brings vengeance. That state is a tribulation to be endured, not one to be participating in by holding office or appointment.
It is similar, but not the same, as the Roman Catholic view. The state is understood to rule by reason (natural law) instead of revelation. One difference is that Lutherans recognize the “extent to which sin can corrupt both state and church.”
Like Anabaptists, Lutherans don’t understand how a God of love is involved in war. Instead of rejecting the idea that God authorizes it, they see it as a paradox.
They stand in the tradition of Augustine by talking about 2 kingdoms. God reigns over the state by the law, and the Church by law and gospel.
Frames critique includes the idea that even natural revelation commands all to worship the true God. Romans 1-3 show how all are guilty before God, even if all they have is natural revelation. Secondly, Scripture reveals a Christ who rules over both the Church and the nations. But Christ gives the sword to the State, not the Church. He gives the gospel to the Church, not the State. Neither is out from under Christ’s rule. Additionally, the State is not religiously neutral as many 2 kingdom views suppose.
Calvin & Rutherford
Calvin, according to Frame, essentially accepted the 2 kingdom view of Augustine and Luther. He argues for Christians to be more involved in politics. Calvin believed that the government should pay attention to both tables of the Law. Calvin was one of the pioneers of the idea of forcible resistance to injustice with his doctrine of the lesser magistrate.
Some 2 kingdom advocates today find much of their rationale in Calvin. The Reformed 2 kingdom view is different than the Lutheran view. I wish the Escondido version would speak to the role and limits of the State as well as how Christians function with or in the State. They seem focused on the role of the Church, and therefore Word and Sacrament. In discussions of church ministry that is great. But they argue against the “transformationalist view” so strongly they don’t seem to positively argue their position (at least I haven’t seen it yet).
The idea that the State is also under the authority of the moral law has given birth to the theonomy movement as well. They focus on that part of Calvin’s political writings and built a system out of it. This creates that great divide in much Reformed political theory.
Rutherford developed this further. When the magistrate breaks the contract, the lesser magistrate stands up for the people to resist the higher magistrate. This was the justification of the American Revolution- the Continental Congress declared the independence of the colonies from England. This is why it is often called “the Presbyterian Revolution” by the English.
While Christ is Lord over all, he has granted particular spheres of authority or sovereignty to different institutions. This is called “sphere sovereignty”. The state must respect the authority of the church, as well as the family, as they are different spheres. They have their own authorities (elders and parents). He believed that the state must observe God’s law, unlike the 2 kingdoms view. It is not a theocracy, however, since the government does not have “direct access to God.”
None of these views answers all my questions directly. For instance, we know the State is to concern itself with justice. But what about mercy or compassion? One of the recent criticisms of Tim Keller is that he wants to take the role of mercy from the state. I find that incredibly odd for a Reformed person to think, for I view such mercy (giving of alms) to the be the sphere of the Church and family. I see Keller trying to advocate a more biblical stance on this issue.
How we answer such a question will greatly influence how we vote. I think Keller’s analysis in Generous Justice is quite helpful. Democrats tend to focus on societal justice and societal mercy. Republicans tend to focus on individual justice and individual mercy. The truth is that there is both societal and individual injustice that must be addressed. For instance, I’m glad our nation has outlawed slavery (social injustice) and discourages racism (individual injustice). The church has a role in that it helps change the heart of men and women, as well as raising the cry against that injustice.
The issue of mercy is murkier. Much mercy is individual and can be addressed by churches and private institutions (often begun by faithful Christians). My thought is that the state ought to be the last resort, not the first resort. This is because the state engages in the involuntary redistribution of income. It may be mercy to the recipient, but it is not mercy by the giver. It is coerced, particularly since there has been no agreement on the purpose and use of taxes. Since we have a social contract, that should be part of the contract.
But that gets back to one’s presuppositions about government. Not every citizen holds to the idea of social contract, particularly those who work in D.C. Our discussions about politics need to get beneath the surface of policy to the foundations of presuppositions. We must discuss what we believe about government before we discuss what we think government should do. And this discussion is not happening on essentially any level. We are not tracing our disagreements on policy back to their roots.