Civility or Silence?

There's a controversy simmering today that threatens to divide the ranks of evangelicals—a controversy over how we should respond to our nation's president. On one side are politically conservative evangelicals, who have been concerned ever since Inauguration Day about President Clinton's policies on abortion and homosexuality. On the other side are moderate evangelicals, who say conservatives have leveled nothing but harsh criticism against President Clinton, and need to show a little civility. Conservatives fire back that moderates have become a bit too cozy with the White House and are forsaking their prophetic role on moral issues. And a few evangelicals have pronounced a plague on both their houses; they call us to forsake the political arena and stick to our spiritual knitting. Clearly, evangelicals need to step back and regroup around some basic biblical principles. What are those principles? First, the Bible commands us to "fear God, honor the King" and to "pray for those in authority." These commands hold regardless of whether those in authority are Democrats or Republicans, whether we voted for them or not. Admittedly, some people on the evangelical fringes have fallen short of this high standard and ought to repent. And none of us is above examining his conscience. But does civility mean silence—or even withdrawal from politics? Absolutely not. Augustine taught that Christians should be "the best of citizens." What does it mean to be model citizens in our own day, when many of the administration's policies are contrary to our deepest beliefs? How can we resist the "King" while still honoring him? Consider the teachings of Samuel Rutherford, a seventeenth-century Scottish cleric. Rutherford wrote a passionate treatise entitled Lex Rex, challenging the divine right of kings— contending that the law stands above the king. Rutherford's analysis rested on the crucial distinction between the office of the magistrate and the person of the magistrate. Christians are commanded to respect the office, he wrote; but if the person acts contrary to God's law, Christians have a duty to challenge him. In more recent decades, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr drew a similar distinction. On one hand, Niebuhr says, Christians are called to honor the ruling authority as a reflection of divine authority. On the other hand, the Bible is replete with prophetic judgments on particular rulers for oppressing the poor and defying divine law. A genuinely biblical understanding of government must retain both these elements in tension: what Niebuhr calls "priestly sanctification" of the principle of government coupled with "prophetic criticism" of any particular government. Modern evangelicals need to strive to be of one mind, regardless of our political persuasion. We ought to show unfailing civility to government officials out of respect for their office. But being civil does not mean being silent or forsaking politics. "Priestly sanctification" must always be balanced with "prophetic criticism." To fall short of either responsibility is to betray our richest heritage and deny our biblical calling.


Chuck Colson


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