This past Thursday Pope Francis delivered an unprecedented papal address to the U.S. Congress. In it he told Congress that “You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.” At one point in his address he cited the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12) and declared, “This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”
Here we have an unassailable truth, rooted in Scripture itself, that all should follow. And yet many members of his audience, on both sides of the aisle, would have problems with the agenda he laid out. On the one hand he attacked abortion and recent attempts to redefine marriage. On the other hand he called for efforts to combat global warming, the abolition of the death penalty, and for an end to the international arms trade. His views on economics were nuanced, however. “It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable.” It sounds like a call for a socially responsible capitalism.
Interestingly, it was the British writer C.S. Lewis who had earlier made the observation that “Christianity has not, and does not profess to have, a detailed political programme for applying ‘Do as you would be done by’ to a particular society at a particular moment” (Mere Christianity, 1960 ed., pp. 78-79). But he goes on to say, “All the same, the New Testament, without going into details, gives us a pretty clear hint of what a fully Christian society would be like” (p. 80). And what would it look like? Lewis’ answer is similar to the Pope’s. On economic issues, “Christian society would be what we now call Leftist,” but that in social relationships it would be “rather old-fashioned – perhaps even ceremonial and aristocratic” (Ibid.).
But how would you go about creating such a society? Pope Francis, in addressing Congress, could tell them directly, “you are asked to protect, by means of law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.” Lewis, however, did not think that things were so simple. “A Christian society is not going to arrive until most of us really want it” and we are not going to want it until we have become fully Christian.” And so, “we are driven on to something more inward – driven on from social matters to religious matters. For the longest way round is the shortest way home” (op. cit., pp. 82-83).
On this point I think that Lewis is absolutely right. The New Testament writers seem almost oblivious to the social and economic problems of society around them – and neither Jesus nor His apostles made any effort to influence the government under which they lived. It is taken for granted that human society requires some sort of authority structure, but it is largely a matter of indifference what form that should take – monarchy or democracy, socialism or capitalism. The New Testament does not even condemn slavery outright. But in whatever station in life we may happen to find ourselves we are morally obligated to practice the Golden Rule, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes: how would you want to be treated if the roles were reversed? And as for society as a whole that will mean, on the one hand, that we will want to preserve the traditional family structure, while at the same time we should genuinely be concerned about the plight of the poor and disadvantaged in our midst.
But the Christian will always be conscious that at the bottom of it man’s deepest problem is his sin, and that the only real solution to that problem is salvation in Christ. The cure for society’s ills must begin with the renewal of the inner man. This is why the church’s primary task is to preach the gospel, not to get involved in the secular political process.
As a matter of right every human government ought to conform to God’s moral standards. God is the Creator and Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth. And He has given to Jesus Christ “the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . .” (Phil. 2:9,10; NKJV; cf. Col. 1:16-18). But at the same time immoral court decisions are just a small part of the big picture. The fact of the matter is that the entire human race is in a state of rebellion against God. The primary task of the church, then, is not reform secular government, but to “make disciples” (Matt. 28:19,20), calling individual sinners to repentance and faith in Christ.
As Americans we have the right to vote and to choose our own leaders, and as Christians we should do so wisely and carefully. And on a moral issue such as abortion or same-sex marriage we must speak out clearly. But we must be careful about being aligned too closely with any one political party or platform. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats fully reflect Christian values, and Christians should not let secular politicians speak for them. Our first responsibility is to “preach Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1:23).
Having said that, we hope that Congress took seriously the Pope’s remarks.