Church and state and God’s wrath

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:1-5).

Americans sometimes speak as if we invented the separation between church and state. That separation already exists in the Bible. Early Israel—under Moses, Joshua, and the judges, including Samuel—was a theocracy; God was ruler over Israel. But already in his farewell sermon (the book of Deuteronomy), Moses guided by the Holy Spirit anticipated the time when Israel would be ruled by a king. The ultimate king is, of course, Jesus, but the kings of Israel and Judah were pictures of Jesus, preparing the way for his coming as surely as priests and prophets prepared the way of the Lord.

Only Jesus is permitted to hold the two positions of priest and king. Saul and Uzziah were both punished by God when they attempted to do tasks assigned to the priests. Likewise in the New Testament, God’s work is done by church leaders and by human governments, but the work they do is carefully distinguished.

Church leaders proclaim the commands of God largely to diagnose sin, to call for repentance, and to offer forgiveness to sinners. Preachers must speak of the wrath of God, but they do not exercise the wrath of God. Human governments pass laws that regulate behavior to protect citizens from sinners. Governments enforce penalties for murder, robbery, false witness, and other sins, declaring them crimes against the state and punishing people convicted of such crimes.

When the church tries to punish sinners, it steps on the government’s feet. Aside from excluding obviously unrepentant sinners from the blessings of the church, Christian leaders can do little with churchly power to overturn evil in the world. We call upon Christians to do good works, to imitate Christ, but we do not convey God’s wrath when Christians fail. Instead, we continue to call for repentance and continue to promise forgiveness through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When the government tries to forgive sinners, it steps on the church’s feet. Governors and Presidents have power to pardon criminals, but a governmental pardon is not forgiveness. Forgiveness comes from the cross of Christ through the work of the Church.

Christians have a dual citizenship. We are loyal to human government and take part in its actions. We also belong to the kingdom of God, and our first loyalty is to Jesus. When the government opposes God’s ways, we follow God’s ways, as Daniel did in Babylon and as Peter and John did in Jerusalem. But—even though Christians are called to reach out to their neighbors with the good news of forgiveness through Christ—it is right and not sinful for Christians to report a crime to the police. It is right and not sinful for Christians to testify truthfully in court about crimes they have witnessed. Christians may serve as police officers, jurors, judges, and even executioners. When these actions bring punishment to sinners, the wrath of God is being exercised. The final wrath of God will be expressed on the Day of the Lord, but his wrath works through human government today to limit sin and evil in the world and to protect all people from sin and evil.

Faith in Christ spares sinners from the wrath of God on the Day of the Lord. Faith in Christ does not spare sinners from the wrath of God exercised by human government. Prison officials do not witness to prisoners, but they permit Christians to enter the prisons and witness to prisoners. If a criminal comes to faith in prison, that criminal is a forgiven sinner spared God’s wrath on the Last Day, but that prisoner must continue to serve his or her sentence in the world under the authority of human government.

Human governments consist of sinful humans. They sometimes make mistakes and do what is wrong. In a democracy, Christians are free to vote for the leaders they expect to make the fewest mistakes. They are free to send messages to their leaders, advising them to do what those Christians, informed by the Bible, believe to be right for the government to do. Christians even have freedom to gather together and protest wrong decisions made by the government. Christians remain subject to human government, which represents the authority of God. We owe our leaders honor and respect, even when we feel that they are mistaken—even sinful—in what they say and do.

Church leaders describe the wrath of God to warn sinners of the coming Day of the Lord, the punishment that will be dealt to sinners. But we do so to call for repentance. Rather than constantly preaching fire and brimstone and the wrath of God, Christians should be known for pointing to the cross, showing how Christ consumed the wrath of God to spare us the punishment we deserve. Christian leaders should be known for proclaiming the love and mercy and grace of God, not only his wrath.

Church leaders often call believers to discipleship or to holiness. We remind people why we were made—to love God and to love our neighbors—and we encourage one another to do good works. But the commandments of God do not cause sinners to do good works. The commandments do not create discipleship or holiness. The commandments describe what Christians should do, but the forgiveness of God gives Christians power to do good things. The commandments describe the perfection of Jesus, but the forgiveness of God transforms us into the image of Christ, changing sinners into saints. Knowledge of the wrath of God does not, by itself, redeem sinners; knowledge of the wrath of God moves sinners to repentance, opening their minds and hearts to hear and believe the good news of redemption through Christ.

In this way the Bible distinguishes between the functions of God’s wrath under human governments and in the Christian Church. J.

A letter to President Trump

To the Honorable Donald Trump, President of the United States:

Greetings.

Many people in our country are talking about the large number of Central Americans (now estimated to include 6,000 people) crossing Mexico on the way to the United States border. This situation brings to mind the 160,000 Vietnamese refugees who fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon to North Vietnam, and also the 125,000 Cuban refugees who left Cuba in 1980 for the United States. In both cases they were fleeing Communist governments and were welcomed into the United States. But the procedure used to resettle them is one that could be repeated this year. As you no doubt remember, both the Vietnamese and the Cuban refugees were temporarily housed in US military facilities where they could be interviewed and processed, and troublemakers could be isolated. At the same time, sponsors were sought for each individual or family—sponsors who would watch over their resettlement, help them find jobs and adjust to American life, and keep them from causing trouble in their new home. Sponsors included families, church groups, other charitable organizations, and many humanitarians who wanted to assist these foreigners who wished to become American citizens.

I believe the same thing can be done with these Central Americans who say that they want to become American citizens. In addition to border guards and Army reinforcements, the people in these caravans could be met by Spanish-speaking clerks from Immigration who would help them to fill out paperwork to request permission to entry our county legally. Sponsors could be recruited within the United States—perhaps calling the bluff of those who are saying for political reasons that we should not try to stop these people from coming. These six thousand people who say they want to live in the United States could become a resource making America even stronger and greater, as waves of immigrants (including the Vietnamese and the Cubans) have done in the past.

Meanwhile, this is a tremendous opportunity to remind our own citizens and the other countries of the world of the greatness of America. Since no one is sure who is organizing and supporting these caravans, some Americans are beginning to accuse the Russians or some other foreign power of trying to embarrass the United States. What an excellent time this is to ask why thousands of people are not trying to enter Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The United States is a great country, and the rest of the world knows it, whether they admit to it or not.

You remain in my prayers as you continue in your difficult job as the President of all the citizens of the United States of America.

J.

Taxation

The Christian attitude toward taxes is set in the New Testament. Jesus said, “Give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give God what is God’s.” Paul wrote to the Romans, “If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” Christians living in a democracy can do more, though, than pay what they owe. They can advise their leaders on the topic of taxation, they can choose their leaders according to their statements about taxation, and they can speak and write to shape public opinion about taxation.

Taxes are part of the social contract between government and its citizens. Citizens surrender some property to the government in the form of taxes, and the government provides benefits for its citizens in exchange for that property. Benefits can include armed forces to protect the nation from attack and police forces to protect communities from crime. Using tax dollars, governments build and maintain roads, finance schools, and provide parks, museums, libraries, and community centers. Tax dollars maintain the judicial system in which criminals are prosecuted and (if found guilty) punished and by which two parties can settle their differences without resorting to physical attacks on one another.

Taxes can take many forms. In a head tax, every person pays the same amount. In a flat tax, every person pays the same percentage of his or her income. In a graduated tax, wealthy people pay a larger percentage of their income and poor people pay a small percentage (and some of them pay no income tax). Tolls are collected from people as they use highways or bridges. Import fees and export fees can be charged on products when they cross borders. Sales taxes can be assessed when products are bought and sold. Fees for licenses to own a car or a gun or a pet are taxes. Money paid for a marriage license or a fishing license is a tax. Landowners pay taxes on their land. Investors pay taxes on their profits. Even money won through gambling is taxed.

Governments assess taxes for several reasons. The most obvious reason is, of course, to gather money for government services. However, taxes can be used to discourage some kinds of behavior and to encourage other kinds of behavior. Taxes on tobacco and on alcohol discourage people from smoking and from drinking. Taxes on gasoline might motivate drivers to drive less or to purchase more efficient vehicles. On the other hand, capital gains are taxed at a lower rate to encourage people with extra money to invest in businesses that provide jobs.  Property taxes on industrial land frequently are reduced or eliminated when a city or state wants to encourage companies to build new facilities that will provide jobs.

Taxes sometimes have unintended consequences. Some years ago a state wanted to raise more money to cover unemployment benefits, and it wanted to raise that money by taxing only wealthy people. For that reason, the state government enacted a special sales tax on luxury yachts. To avoid paying that tax, the wealthy people in that state decided not to buy new luxury yachts. Because yachts were not being bought, the yacht manufacturing companies had to lay off workers. Instead of raising money to cover unemployment benefits, the state’s yacht tax only increased unemployment.

An increase in the gasoline tax causes an increase in the price of a loaf of bread. Farmers need gasoline to operate their machinery when they plant the seeds and when they harvest the grain. Then the grain must be driven to the mill, and the flour must be driven from the mill to the bakery, and the bread must be driven from the bakery to the store. No one in this chain of production is willing to pay more for fuel while receiving the same amount of money for their work. The cost gets passed along the line until it reaches the man or woman who is buying the loaf of bread. By the same token, other taxes on products and the producers of products only raise prices in the stores. Governments that tax the factory owner may think that they are taxing the wealthy, but they are only driving up prices for all people, including the poor.

Many citizens would like to pay less money for taxes. To achieve that, they have to be willing to have the government provide fewer benefits to its citizens. Other people want the government to do more for its citizens. They have to be willing to pay higher taxes. Any request to have the government do more to help one group of people while asking another group to pay for the service with higher taxes misses the point. People pay taxes willingly only when they know they are getting something for their money. Again, this is part of the social contract.

On its own, a tax is neither good nor bad. It just is. The value of a tax comes from the government’s ability to use tax dollars to provide citizens with the services they want. Politicians who want to be elected sometimes promise to cut taxes without reducing popular services. Others promise to provide more services without raising taxes. They rarely keep these promises if they are elected. Sometimes politicians who have been elected threaten to cut funding for popular programs (or actually do cut that funding) until citizens object, funding is restored, and taxes are not reduced. If I were running for office, I would never make a promise I couldn’t keep. If I were elected, I would be responsible with your tax dollars; I would not play tricks with them or waste your money. J.