When it comes to determining how the Bible addresses political issues, its many related verses can feel like a massive sack of Legos. One person opens the sack and builds a car, another a brontosaurus, another an old Western town. With enough skill, you can build whatever you want.
Want to make the Bible say welfare policies are bad? Find a proverb on laziness leading to poverty (Prov. 10:4). Want to say the opposite? Find another calling people to “defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:8–9).
The point is not that Proverbs contradicts itself. All these passages say something true. But we lack clear rules for knowing how any one of them should guide today’s public policy. Further, we too often witness people and parties exploiting the Bible for their purposes.
Longtime Westmont College professor Tremper Longman III brings his Old Testament expertise to bear in The Bible and the Ballot: Using Scripture in Political Decisions. The book offers counsel on how to read Scripture politically, followed by what Longman believes the Bible teaches on ten public policy issues of our day: nationalism, religious liberty, war, abortion, criminal justice and capital punishment, immigration, same-sex marriage, the environment, poverty, and racism.
Most of what Longman offers about how to read the Bible politically is sensible. He argues that the Bible does not provide us with specific public policies, only general principles we should take seriously. I agree entirely.
Longman offers good, solid principles of interpretation. They include paying attention to a book’s genre and original context and taking account of continuities and discontinuities between the Testaments, especially the way in which a Christian reading of the Old Testament recognizes Christ’s fulfillment of all things.
Yet Longman’s approach is insufficient because it lacks institutional awareness. Let me explain. Suppose I place a list of evening “to dos” for my wife on my desk at work, but my assistant thinks it’s for him. Why am I returning a new pair of oven mitts to Bed Bath & Beyond? he wonders. The confusion arises because my wife and I inhabit one institutional structure, my assistant and I another, and interpreting such a to-do list means minding those structures.
Longman rightly observes that the rules binding Old Testament Israel cannot transfer directly to the New Covenant church. Yet we also need to ask which to-do lists the Bible gives to the governments of the nations. What is their purpose? What authority do they receive? The Old Testament prophets indict the nations for injustice. In Israel’s case, however, the indictment is for injustice plus idolatry. That’s significant because, in covenantal terms, the United States and Kenya stand closer to ancient Egypt and Rome than to ancient Israel and the church. By the same token, we must distinguish between church authority and individual Christians, who can work in government.
In short, reading the Bible politically requires institutional awareness, not just a few principles of interpretation. When we encounter Proverbs’ instructions regarding the poor, for instance, we need to read them through that institutional filter, just as my assistant needs to interpret the “to do” list through the filter of “Is this for me or for your wife?”
Without institutional and covenantal sensitivity, we pick up our Bibles and default to what feels right in our time and place. For instance, Longman feels politically burdened by Israel’s civil laws concerning foreigners. Why not by its moral laws concerning adultery or honoring one’s parents? Perhaps because it’s literally unimaginable today that the government might draw from Israel’s laws on sexuality.
Longman denies that his own previously held political views influenced his reading of Scripture. Indeed, he observes that Scripture changed his views on some matters as he studied for this book. Which is well and good. But with few exceptions, his views fall left of center (by 21st-century American standards) on nearly every issue. He’s reluctant about war. He would accommodate undocumented immigrants. He fears climate change. He pushes hard on caring for the poor. He calls for race reparations. He questions the justice of capital punishment due to racial disparities. He says the church shouldn’t impose its sexual ethic when it comes to same-sex marriage. And he seeks a “third way” on abortion, arguing that “there may be wisdom in making abortion rare and safe,” with the implication that it’s also legal, as Bill Clinton’s infamous triplet had it.
It concerns me when any Christian’s political positions match, point by point, a well-defined constellation on America’s left–right spectrum. You see the first two or three stars, and you know where the rest will flash. Perhaps this is my own idealism, but I’d like to think that working from Scripture would yield some unexpected combinations, like someone who is staunchly pro-life and pro-reparations, or pro-traditional marriage and pro-environment.
Longman’s chapters on religious liberty and abortion are worth unpacking at greater length. Starting with the former, Longman observes that “Christianity was birthed in a culture that had virtually no religious liberty.” From this, he concludes that religious liberty, “in short, is not a biblical principle.” Why the first-century Roman government’s position counts as the Bible’s is unclear.
Later: “Neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament suggests that religious liberty is a right or even necessary for God’s people. What the Bible insists on is that God’s people stay faithful in the midst of whatever circumstances they encounter.” The latter sentence is both true and important. Yet one wonders whether Longman has considered the biblical argument for religious freedom. It’s not a difficult case to make. First, God authorizes governments to prosecute crimes against human beings, but nowhere (except in the nation of Israel) does he authorize them to prosecute crimes against himself—idolatry, blasphemy, false worship, and so on. After all, there could be no proportional punishment, and certainly no way to compensate him.
Second, governments exist for the common-grace purpose of creating platforms of peace and order on which the storyline of redemption can proceed. There’s a reason God’s covenant with Noah, which authorizes coercive authority (Gen. 9:5–6), precedes his call to Abraham (Gen. 12). Paul reaffirms this. In Acts 17, he tells us that God established the boundaries of the nations “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (v. 27, ESV). In 1 Timothy 2, he tells us to pray for kings and authorities so that we may live peaceful lives pleasing to God, “who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (v. 4). Governments exist, ultimately, to serve the purposes of worship. We need safe streets so that we can get to church. Common-grace platforms serve special-grace purposes, like teaching your children to read so that they can read the Bible.
The abortion chapter might be even more worrisome. Longman believes “the Bible does not speak to the issue of when life begins and only indirectly to the status of the fetus in the womb.” Then he walks through each passage suggesting otherwise—including “you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps. 139:13)—and argues that they don’t mean what pro-life Christians assume they mean. Instead, he believes that “a fetus is the potential of life rather than a human person with all the rights of a birthed child.”
What’s left unstated is why he would assume “the fetus” is not a person, a human being, a God-imager. On what basis does he de-personify or de-humanize the child in the womb? The Bible doesn’t do that. It treats the unborn and the born as one thing—a human person.
Whether intentionally or not, Longman has smuggled in modern constructs of “personhood.” Pro-choice ethicists like Peter Singer grant that an unborn entity possesses human DNA. But these writers create the philosophical category of person to maintain distinctions between the unborn entity and a rights-possessing human. Being a person requires “viability,” “sentience,” or something similar. Once you dehumanize people, killing them is easier. (Historically, this has been the strategy of regimes bent on wiping out a class of people.)
Longman affirms that abortion is “sin,” but he explicitly denies that it entails breaking the sixth commandment against murder. Apparently, the offense is less significant, which is why we can feel slightly less bad about abortion and can focus on keeping it “safe.”
Longman is correct in claiming that the Bible offers no “one size fits all” formula for engaging culture. Yet the Bible does offer a coherent political theology—that is, a coherent theology of justice and law, religion and government.
Longman’s apparent failure to work out this theology leaves his counsel, at best, inconsistent. On certain issues (immigration or the environment), he draws pretty directly from the Old Testament. On others he sounds like a philosophical liberal (same-sex marriage and abortion) or a quietist (religious liberty). In one moment, he rejects the view that God governs the civil realm and the church by different norms, saying this led to complicity with nazism. But his rationale for granting legal status to same-sex marriage strongly resembles this “two-kingdoms” view he claims to disavow. He looks askance at “morals legislation” in the chapter on religious liberty but makes moral arguments elsewhere. He should know, of course, that every law depends upon a moral evaluation.
You will learn much about the Bible from The Bible and the Ballot, especially when it comes to Scripture’s witness on caring for the poor. But for guidance on applying the Bible to public policy, it’s probably best to look elsewhere.
Jonathan Leeman is the editorial director for 9Marks and an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in Bladensburg, Maryland. He is the author of How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age (Thomas Nelson).
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