A Captivating Ride
The time period is the 1970s, America is in an embroiled state with young people engaging in revolutionary activity. Only thirty years prior, the nation had been engaged in a second world war and had seen its sons die in Vietnam. In 1972, the Watergate era was an epochal point filled with friction and moral decadence. Zooming in, we come to the bustling city of St. Louis filled with myriads of individuals. In this city, two theological masterminds of the twentieth century gather together. Both of these men would be embroiled in fights for the truth, play instrumental roles in defending biblical inerrancy, and leave lasting marks long after their deaths. Powerful volumes would flow from their pens and countless individuals were positively impacted by the work of the Lord in their ministries. The younger man in the car was a charismatic R.C. Sproul, the other man was the elder Francis Schaeffer.
It is in St. Louis that these two men share a taxi cab together. During that ride, the younger Sproul could not resist asking Schaeffer, who was in the prime of his career, a pressing question. He said, “Dr. Schaeffer, what is your biggest concern for the future of the church in America?”1 Now, pause and realize the gravity of this question during that timeframe. The Chicago Statement on biblical inerrancy was signed in 1978. Darwinian evolution was on the rise. Liberal theology was running rampant. Pragmatic ideas were taking root and continuing to develop. The Charismatic movement was continuing to grow crazier and more extravagant. Which one of these issues would Schaeffer say was the greatest danger? Not a single one of them! He simply spoke one word to the young Sproul who undoubtedly was eagerly anticipating the response . . . statism.
What exactly is statism? Sproul describes it in this manner:
“In statism, we see the suffix ‘ism,’ which indicates a philosophy or worldview. A decline from statehood to statism happens when the government is perceived as or claims to be the ultimate reality. This reality then replaces God as the supreme entity upon which human existence depends.”2
In the end, statism is the attempt on the part of the government to place itself in the seat of divine authority and rule. Encroaching more and more, the state takes on what does not belong to it seeking to control even minute details of life. Steadily progressing and working, they seek to replace the idea of God-given rights with state-granted privileges. In the end, they seek to define reality so that they are the god before whom you must bow and serve. Such a state is at odds with the Creator God. As time has gone on, it is hard to say that Schaeffer was wrong in his assessment. Perhaps, there are many issues equally as rampant as statism, but it is difficult to see how he was incorrect in stating the dangers this snare would pose to American Christianity. In 2020, we watched as churches closed their doors in droves all because the government said so. Many even went right along with the ideas of socialism being advocated and were prone to encourage totalitarian impulses. Whether knowingly or not, it seems as though these individuals are helping the government in its attempt to reach deity . . . but that action in and of itself deserves an explanation.
The “Divine” State
Some individuals may be confused by Schaeffer’s prediction and thoroughly mind-boggled at the idea that the government might try to play god. After all, as of this moment, no one in congress or the presidency is telling others to worship them. However, we must be more perceptive than to think that would occur forthrightly in the beginning. Jesus said:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” -John 14:15
The principle here is that you obey that which you worship. Christ followers are called to worship Him leading to their adherence to His commandments out of love. They view Him as the ultimate authority, thus their final allegiance is to Him and believers will seek to obey Him even when others contradict His commands. Take the ancient Roman Empire as an example. Caesar called on all to bow before him in worship, Christ calls on us to bow before Him alone. Those who obeyed the command of Caesar demonstrated their allegiance while those who, because of their submission to Christ, rejected Caesar’s idolatrous blasphemy showed their loyalties. It is not necessary for the state to call itself “god” in order for statism to exist. Rather, increasing control of what God has not given to it, perverse standards of justice, and redefinitions of reality all constitute evidence of statism increasing. What then keeps us from falling prey to this pernicious threat?
A Biblical Understanding of Government
The need of the hour is to be anchored in Scripture not just inside our church walls but in every issue of life. In the Bible, we have not only the authoritative revelation for the church, but one that applies to the totality of life in service to God. Foundationally, we must remember the government is the servant of God:
“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 13:3-4
Since the government is defined as God’s diakonos, or servant, it is undoubtedly responsible to Him. Authorities will be judged by the Word of the living God as to how they perform their duties. When they encroach into that which God has not given them authority over, they will suffer judgment. For example, if a pastor told everyone in the church he was going to give them a menu each week prescribing what they would eat each day in their homes, it would be a perverse abuse of his authority. God has not given him that jurisdiction, and the congregants should tell him to determine his own meal plan for himself. Likewise, when the government acts like a welfare state, educational authority, or countless other areas, it is taking that which God never gave it. God has given the government the authority to administer justice by rewarding good and punishing evil (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-14). Clearly, the only true standard of justice is the Scripture, any society that refuses to live by God’s Word will enact a perverted standard of justice (Habakkuk 1:4). Understanding all of these points, and many more, empowers us to steer clear away from the errors of statism. God defines reality, He prescribes what is just, He determines the role of the government, and none of these things are left up to autonomous man to define. When civil authorities step out of what God has said, we as believers are obligated to say that we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). Certainly, we are not anarchists, we realize the government has legitimate authority and a purposeful role before God. Neither are we statists though, and we need to dive into Scripture to have a proper view.
Schaeffer’s warning should still echo in the minds of today’s evangelicals roughly fifty years later. We must evaluate every legislation and action of our government by the standard of Scripture. It is imperative we do not rest merely on what we “feel” to be right, but go with what is written. The standard is not what the government says, but what God has revealed. No doubt, we want to submit to and encourage those in authority who are using their positions rightly. However, we must not go blindly along like sheep following the statist shepherd of the civil magistrate. We must hold firm to Christ as the King, stay on the path of Scripture, and commit our ways to God who is the Final Judge over all!