Jesus and the Federal Budget?
One of the interesting aspects of Scripture is that it doesn't tell us the precise way in which moral principles should be implemented in the civil sphere--even while it contains ironclad moral commands and lasting principles for the lives of God's people. This makes sense for quite a number of reasons.
In the first place, it is important for us to note that the Old Testament was written in the context of a theocracy--a situation far distant from our own. Today, the theocratic nation of Israel is a matter of history and no longer in existence. The Westminster Confession of Faith even goes so far as to say that that "sundry judicial laws...expired together with the State of that people" (WCF 19.4).
The New Testament was written in the context of an underdog atmosphere where the ability of Christians to have any influence on the laws of Rome would have seemed laughably absurd. The New Testament doesn't envision a scenario of cultural/political conquest for Christians, but instead assumes that the readers are powerless minorities who need to learn how to live as a minority in the face of opposition.
In spite of these realities, we continue to find ourselves in an environment where Christians of various stripes insist that the Bible gives us very specific commands for how the government should be run. One of the clearest examples of this at the moment is last week's announcement that over 100 evangelical and Roman Catholic leaders made a joint statement challenging the proposed budget set forth by the Executive Branch of the U.S. government.
The letter, which is addressed to Paul Ryan, Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell, and Nancy Pelosi, states that America has a moral responsibility to not reduce its International Affairs Budget. One might wonder whether the Bible instructs governments as to how to set their budgets. According to the letter in question, it is found in Matthew 25, where Jesus says "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."
These are words, of course, which Jesus directs to His disciples in which He is telling His people how to live in the world and to love other believers. These are words directed to the church of Jesus Christ, for sure. It's hard to conceive of the disciples standing before Caesar and talking budget cuts. My suspicion is that they felt they had a more important message to share.
I am not suggesting that the United States government should or should not seek to assist the poor. However, as a pastor and a minister of the Gospel, I would be out of my depth to suggest what a wise or unwise use of the federal budget would be in this regard.
Some Christians are adamant that the federal government should have little to no budget. Some think that we should have a massive budget that protects every citizen--not only of the U.S., but also of the world. What troubles me most of all is the idea that we should baptize our political preferences and make them the law of the land. This happens all the time, but in this case it's especially sanctimonious and troubling.
Consider the wording of the final paragraph:
"As followers of Christ, it is our moral responsibility to urge you to support and protect the International Affairs Budget, and avoid disproportionate cuts to these vital programs that ensure that our country continues to be the 'shining city upon a hill,'"
The idea that the signers of the letter would accept the statement that the United States is "the 'shining city upon a hill'" is not only disturbing, but another symptom of a Messianic complex that America is still, evidently, struggling to shrug off.
In Matthew 5:14 Jesus, speaking to his disciples, says "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden." Why does Jesus say that his people should do good works in this passage? Because, he says, so that "others...may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (5:16). In seeking to apply an imperative made to the church to the United States of America, we feed rather than lessen America's messianic self-identification.
I am especially troubled that there are signatories of this letter within my own denomination (the PCA), but perhaps even more so that two of the signatories sign the letter, not as concerned citizens, but as the President of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and the Vice President of Governmental Relations of the NAE, respectively. This is a lobbyist group that serves, among many others, the denomination of which I am a part. These are men presuming to speak on behalf of my church and other constituents.
I believe that we need to think long and hard about whether or not we want to be associated with a group that speaks on behalf of us while dictating foreign policy and budget to the government.
The answer to these problems, in part, is for Christians to have a modest assessment of the Bible's teachings and how closely they really apply in the political realm. In the short-term, I wonder whether the PCA ought to even continue its association with the NAE.
Adam Parker is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church of America and the Pastor of Pearl Presbyterian Church in Pearl, MS. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary Jackson and the Associate Editor of Reformation 21.