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A View from the Altar / Premillennialism and government
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Premillennialism and government

There is much discussion these days among Christians about the proper role of government in the world.  I do a good deal of that myself at AVFTA.  What makes it interesting for many Christians is how this connects to the subject of end time prophecy.

When people believe the church is commissioned to take over the world, they eventually start seeking control over gov’t enforcement mechanisms.  If you lived in, say, Saudi Arabia, you’d say this is futile for the time being and ignore the impulse — I repeat — for now.  But consider a country like France in 1572 when the state and church were both officially Roman Catholic.  Protestants who held such a religious doctrine were naturally seen as enemies of both the state and the established church.  Waging war upon them was not, on their view of matters, an unreasonable reaction.  Likewise, if you lived in Scotland in same time period, following a religious leader to take over the government would seem like a great idea.  So that’s what they did, and for a time, observing the Roman Catholic Mass became a capital crime in Scotland.

It’s no stretch to say that whenever organized religion gets control of the apparatus of state enforcement, they invariably define religious crimes and start punishing unorthodox belief.  Hold on to that last statement, because I’ll return to it shortly.  For now, note that this has been done before, many times and by many religions.

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One of the great things about the premill view (and to a far lesser extent the amill view) is how its famously pessimistic eschatology tends to short circuit attempts at a religious takeover of the state.  The premill guy believes the world will someday fall under the dominion of the anti-Christ, or to put it crassly, the devil will take over the world through a global government (Rev 13).  On the premill view, therefore, government is ultimately incorrigible and should therefore be limited to the smallest possible sphere of influence.

Hence, to the premillennial Christian, it’s futile to expect the church bring about any lasting good by trying to co-opt the state and expand it into a worldwide evangelistic outreach.  The state is viewed as not redeemable.  Whenever premill folks have wandered off their reservation and tried that, it has self-extinguished within one or two American electoral cycles.  Example: Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority are so 1970s.  So premill-ism leads naturally to the view that Spirit-empowered persuasion is the only real tool his box, and it works for the salvation of souls given that the state is soulless and cannot be “saved.”  Frankly, it’s just not possible for such a belief system to mature into a police state.  Premillennial believers just can’t be about that unless they become something else first.

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Under postmillennialism, the church must eventually gain ascendancy over every corner of the world.  This means that at some point, the church has to take over the government.  The post-mill church will begin its work through preaching, but at some point their eschatology tells them they must begin to bear rule.  This has actually happened on a few occasions, and the result has invariably been bad.  There is not a single example of a country where the church took over the government in which the government, the church, or populace registered any lasting moral improvement.  It has never happened, not anywhere.  And it aint’ gonna.  Wherever a religion-based state has emerged, it has become corrupt, repressive, violent, and stupid.  Islamic states are textbook examples of this, but Rome, Geneva, and Scotland are embarrassing examples of the same thing in Christendom.

Postmillennialism is a misshapen and doctrinally aberrant form of the faith.  As long as it can’t get its hands on state power, it’s relatively harmless.  But as the history of the post-Reformation era shows, crossbreeding churchmen with state rulers produces orcs, goblins, and (no kidding) state sponsored terrorism.

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The Secular Man reviews the foregoing and concludes there’s no essential difference between Christianity and, say, Hinduism.  He sees mixing government and religion as pernicious, ergo, religion is bad.  The Secular Man is making several errors in so doing.

First, he’s failing to see that the problem lies not in our religions, but in ourselves.  Governments get corrupted for the same reason religion or college football does: It’s under the power of sinners.  Sin is portable, like bedbugs, so wherever we go, there it is.  When sinners take over the government, you get sinful government.  If nothing restrains them, you get extremely sinful government.

The Secular Man’s second mistake is the same one our post-mill friends make.  They both assume government is properly a primary means of organizing society.  This is wrong.  Government was established essentially to administer vengeance and thereby restrain violence.

While it’s true that some people use government for the purpose of organizing society, it’s also true that this is the basic impulse that spawns oppression.  In its most naked form, it says, “Live as we say, or we’ll kill you.”  No matter what your view of government is, its fundamental nature is unalterable: It is a mechanism for exerting lethal force.  When you put sinners in charge of deadly force, sooner or later they’ll kill somebody unjustly.

Finally, when the Secular Man thinks religion is the primary source of corruption in the state, he is unwittingly revealing his own god, which is the state.  He judges everything, literally everything, by how it affects the state.  And by “secular,” we don’t imply that state is without religion.  The secular state is actually a form of religion — the religion in which the state and its rulers function as deity.  This is the emerging American state religion, and it should deeply concern us as I’ll show shortly.

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The proper mission of the church is in the area of persuasion.  It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe.  (1 Cor 1:21)  Works of charity are part of this mission.  We don’t feed the hungry so they can go to hell satisfied, but so we can get them to listen to the Gospel.  Premillennialism’s view of the latter days informs the activity of the church and says we must restrict our institutional focus to persuasion

The primary role of government is in the area of avenging violent kinds of evil (Ro 13:4).  That would include the domestic variety which goes under the name of crime and the foreign variety which goes under the name of war.  Government functions best when its role is limited to this and a very small smattering of other duties such as building public works like ports and harbors and interstate highways.

What happens when religious affairs and civil affairs are both limited to their proper roles is that we get the best of both worlds.  When society defaults to Christianity (as ours did in 1776) while the government remains an independent authority concerned solely with foreign and domestic law enforcement, the result is nowhere near perfect, but it’s better than anything that ever came before it.

This is where premillennialism can have something to say to our society, something important.  First, it says God now commands all men everywhere to repent (Ac 17:30).  The object of the Gospel is saving sinners.  Every soul from the highest to the lowest must be warned that God is bringing all the world into judgment.  When the Gospel is proclaimed and sinners repent, this profoundly improves society, but that improvement is a side effect, not the primary goal.

Second, premillennialism says to society that not just the church, but also the government must function in a limited role, a role assigned by God and which is suitable to each for its mission.  Since the goal of the church mission is to bring about faith in Christ, and faith by its nature must be freely received, therefore the church’s only legitimate “weapon” is persuasion.  Force and coercion have no place in true Christianity.

For the same reason, government must function in a limited role.  Since government equals force, it must be used as sparingly as possible.  To go beyond these bounds means compulsion and deadly force will get applied where they don’t belong.  This, by the way, is why the role of the church in society is so important.  If men will be persuaded morally, there’s no need to crack heads.

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Before clicking the X on this article, we should ask what happens when a secular state rules with no definite and limited sphere of enforcement.  Well, then you get a state that functions as its own religion.  These have produced the worst, most violent societies that ever existed — Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, Hitler.  Religion, even a very bad religion such as Islam, provides some sort of moral framework that informs the populace about where the limits of human behavior lie.  If this is jettisoned as the Communist and Nazi regimes did, the results are catastrophic.  We used to say such things were unthinkable, except we found that man without God will indeed think such things and act on them.

As Americans increasingly fence the Gospel out of public life, what’s slowly happening is that a secular state is expanding to fill the vacuum.  The role of good religion is to persuade people to live justly.  When government gets into the religion business, it orders people to live according to its own principles — principles that always aggrandize the state — and backs that up with force.  This is happening in America, and at the far end of the process lies a police state that is truly a horror, a state that wants to know every last detail about every last citizen so it can pass judgement.  The state won’t be looking at only criminals to see whether they deserve justice, but looking at us all to see whether your beliefs pass the test of state orthodoxy, whether you belong to the state or not.  And if you don’t….

otherbrothersteve@gmail.com

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