One difference between liberal Christians and conservative Christians is how much weight each places on the violence inherent in government action. While authorized for “the good,” according to St. Paul in Romans 13, the magistrate nonetheless “bears the sword.” While God-ordained, Paul paints us a realist picture of the human basis for the magistrate’s power: It is violence or, more usually, the threat of violence.
As Christians think about social obligations—obligations to others—I think this distinction between the means by which the church operates and the means by which the magistrate operates matters. This doesn’t mean that the government should never transfer wealth. But it does mean that the conditions under which the government transfers wealth are different than the conditions under which the church transfers wealth.
I accept the preferential option for the poor (consistent with the biblical admonition not to be “partial to a poor man in his dispute”). But I worry about the church inviting a multiplication of state-sanctioned violence against others when it is the church’s failure to live up to her mission that prompts a good part of the need for that violence. Let me explain.
The New Testament instructs Christians to use our resources to take care of our pastors and to take care of the needy. But the average Protestant donates a paltry estimated 2.5 percent of after-tax income, and Catholics less than that.
Of this 2.5 percent for Protestants, I’d guess that the largest proportion of those funds go to support services provided to the congregation itself—to the meeting of the congregations’ own needs rather than the charitable assistance of those outside it. First, there is pastoral support. St. Paul, again always the realist, notes that pastors must make their living from the Gospel. Most pastors are undercompensated relative to the important responsibilities they bear. Then there are mortgages, building upkeep, and the like. (Not that I’m opposed to beautiful church buildings.) That leaves a small residual of the 2.5 percent to go to the needy.
In such a case, how could anyone object to churches asking the state to step in and help the poor? What if the numbers of poor are so great that even a generous church could not take care of them all?
The problem is that when church officials petition the government for increased government assistance to the needy, the claim implicit in these petitions is that, because the Christian laity is, on average, so miserly, the government needs to step into to provide for the poor whom the church neglects. Rather than a lecture on social justice from church officials aimed at government officials, I’d prefer to hear a humble acknowledgement of sin and failure for the lamentable aggregate level of the church’s charitable work. We’re asking the civil government to increase its efforts because the church cannot or will not.
That said, I see few problems with church leaders going to a city council, or state legislature, or even Congress, and testifying that that the needs of the poor are so great that the government needs to do something to help. Yet it is at least an embarrassment for church leaders to petition political power—even in the name of “social justice”—when the Christian house is in such dismal shape.
While it is a shame, the move to soliciting political authority is understandable. Church leaders and concerned Christians face time and resource constraints as do the rest of us. “Rent seeking” is not limited to corporations seeking to make a profit through government largesse rather than through making a better product. For churches, it is easier and more effective to aid the poor by asking the government to coerce money out of one’s congregants (and non-Christians as well) than it is to inspire lay folk to embrace the new humanity that Jesus Christ has created in us.
But consider: Holding current church expenditures constant, increasing contributions from church members to eight percent or even ten percent of income would generate huge sums that could be devoted to the needy.
Ginning up donations, however, is the hard road. Given the imperative that the needy should be fed, how much easier it is to step around the church and the power of the Gospel, and instead to make a friend of violence. It’s all in service of a good cause, after all. With the magisterial sword, no need to change hearts and actions. We only need to threaten. What a temptation it is to call on magisterial violence to accomplish God’s work. I am not a pacifist, and therefore do not object to the sword in principle. But as with war, I think that use of the magisterial sword needs justification.
There is also the impact on the church. Once the move is made to the domain of the civil sword, it’s difficult for the church to go back. If the church has ceded responsibility for the needy to the state, then what’s the point of increasing contributions to the church? To be sure, there will always be interstices in government welfare, but filling in the cracks of the welfare state is hardly a stirring call.
There are other ventures—like international missions and other domestic ministries—to which a generous church in a welfare state could attend. But our practices shape our thinking. Once we get used to having civil authority take the lead in responsibility for an issue, then we start to think of it as the natural state of affairs. The cost for the church is that the ease with which civil authority gets results becomes a temptation, and so we look to the state’s coercion for the answers rather than to the Gospel. And that impoverishes the church, as well as society more generally.
I do not at all suggest no role for the civil authority. In noting that the magistrate carries the sword, Paul does not run away from its role in providing for “the good.” But understanding the role of the state to be filling in the interstices left by a generous church is quite different than what we have today. Even more so, because the civil authority necessarily uses violence, or its implicit threat, to implement its goals, I would suggest that there is a different threshold for state action relative to ecclesiastical action. In particular, the church needs to be concerned about her witness when she advocates coercing non-Christians to achieve her distinctively Christian vision of the good that can be reasonably obtained in this world.
James R. Rogers is department head and associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. He leads the “New Man” prison ministry at the Hamilton Unit in Bryan, Texas, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Texas District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
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