A Review of Colson’s God & Government
Chuck Colson is one of the most respected, influential voices in the modern Evangelical movement. His book God & Government is an important one, for in this work we find Colson’s seasoned reflections on the relationship between Church and State.
Having heard Colson speak on many political matters on his daily radio broadcast (“Breakpoint”), I was frankly surprised by how much I agreed with this book. Whatever else one might think of Colson’s perspective, one can’t deny that he is extremely informed, sophisticated and nuanced in his understanding of culture and politics. At the same time, there is much in this book I found troubling. In fact, as will become clear, the part that troubled me also puzzled me, for it seemed to me to be inconsistent with all the material I agreed with.
I’ll first outline two areas of Colson’s book that I agreed with and then discuss the aspect of his thinking I disagreed with and found puzzling.
The Kingdom of God and the Kingdoms of the World
First, Colson is keenly aware that the Kingdom of God, which the Church is called to manifest, cannot be brought about by politics. Among other things, Colson argues that the two kingdoms operate with two very different understandings of how the world can be transformed. For example, “[w]hile politics is based on the premise that society must be changed in order to change people,” Colson notes, “in the politics of the Kingdom it is people who must be changed in order to change society” (105). The Church’s role is to transform society primarily by putting on display God’s love, revealed in Jesus Christ (103). While political power can restrict people’s behavior, only Christ-like love can genuinely transform people. God “commands [his people] to influence the world through their obedience to Him, not by taking over the world” (268, cf. 289, 300). The Church is to influence and lead society primarily by providing it with a counter-cultural model (272-74). Amen to all of this!
Along the same lines, Colson argues that as Christians, we’re citizens of heaven before we’re citizens of any country, and we’re to “serve as ambassadors, citizens of the heavenly Kingdom at work in this world” (ibid). As we carry out God’s work in the world, Colson says, Christians should “not rely on government, but on their own penetration of society as ‘salt and light’” (270). In fact, Colson says Christians must therefore resist “the ever-present temptation to usher in the Kingdom of God by political means” (104, cf. 131). This temptation, he sees, is one “to which the church has most commonly succumbed, and certainly this is its greatest temptation today” (ibid). Indeed, the lure of power “has been one of Satan’s most effective tools from the beginning, perhaps because he lusts for it so himself” (308).
Colson argues that the temptation to think we can change the world by acquiring political power is the very temptation Jesus resisted when tempted by the devil. He notes how easy it would have been for Jesus to accept Satan’s offer to reign over all the governments of the world (Lk 4:5-7). If Jesus accepted Satan’s offer, Colson notes, he “could enforce the Sermon on the Mount: love and justice could reign” (131). Jesus could have easily rationalized his accepting this offer by thinking that “if He didn’t accept, someone else would” (ibid). Colson argues that this is, in essence, the temptation many politicians accept when they “compromise to stay in power” because they believe that “there you can do more for the common good” (ibid).
Throughout its history, Colson observes, the Church has succumbed to the very temptation “Christ explicitly denied,” and this has greatly harmed its mission (132). Power always corrupts, and never more so than when it is wielded by religious people (300-12, 344). This became painfully clear when the Church acquired political power after Constantine (4th century). Colson notes that Augustine was one of the first examples of how Christians can be corrupted by political power when he tragically called on the state to use its power to suppress heresy, using whatever force was necessary to accomplish this. This set in motion a long and tragic history of the Church torturing and murdering people in Jesus’ name (124-25). Colson expresses his agreement with Jacques Ellul who argued that “[c]ollaboration with power, whether Communist or not, is always ruinous for the church. If the church exists, if it is to have legitimacy in the eyes of the people,” Ellul says, ” it must always stand erect as a counter-power to political power” (225-26).
Rather than collaborating with political power or seeking to acquire power over others in any other way, Christians are to follow Jesus’ example of exercising power in weakness, as demonstrated by his washing the disciples’ feet (308-09). Colson insightfully notes that “[n]othing distinguishes the kingdoms of man from the Kingdom of God more than their diametrically opposed views of the exercise of power” (312). This is fantastic!
Colson ends his book by brilliantly exposing the “utopian illusion” that peace and harmony will be brought about in the world through political means. The only hope is in the coming Kingdom of God that is manifested in
…ordinary , individual lives, in the breaking of cycles of violence and evil, in the paradoxical power of forgiveness, in the actions of those little platoons who live by the transcendent values of the Kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdoms of this world, loving their God and loving their neighbor” (420).
Anyone who is familiar with my work Myth of a Christian Nation will know that I was ecstatic to hear Colson proclaiming such truth!
The Massive Failure of the Contemporary Church
Second, Colson seems acutely aware that the Church in America is absolutely pathetic at living out the radical call of Kingdom citizenship. American Christianity, he decries, is “a pale shadow of the radical Kingdom its Founder announced” (55). American Christians are outwardly religious, but, as numerous studies have shown, “our religious beliefs make no difference in how we live” (245). The remarkable wave of secularism that has swept America over the last forty years is mainly the fault of the Church failing to be the Church (243). (I’d argue that the failure of the Church to be the Church is the reason for almost every other social ill western culture has ever faced, but that’s a different story). Colson writes:
Christian values are in retreat in the West today, primarily, I believe, because of the church itself. If Christianity has failed to stem the rising tides of relativism it is because the church in many instances has lost the convicting force of the gospel message…Christianity…has become a religion of private comfort and blessing that fills up whatever small holes in life that pleasure, money, and success have left open, what Bonhoeffer called a “god of the gaps” (252, cf. 243).
I couldn’t agree more! But here’s where I become puzzled.
Our Alleged “Divided Allegiances”
Given that Colson believes the main job of the Church is to transform the world by using the power of weakness rather than political power; given that Colson believes political power always corrupts the Church and is a temptation of the devil we must resist; given that Colson believes that the hope of the world lies not in politics but in the Church being the radical, counter-cultural Church it’s called to be; and given that Colson agrees that the Church in America is failing miserably at this all-important task, wouldn’t you think Colson would focus all of his attention on helping the Church become the Church rather than how it should influence politics? Oddly, this is not what Colson does. Yes, he has many admonitions for Christians to live out their Kingdom calling, but he also focuses a great deal of his attention – in this book and in his broader ministry – on how Christians should engage in politics! Among other things, Colson hangs his hat on Christians fighting to outlaw abortion, gay marriage, embryonic stem cell research, and confirming “strict constructionst judges” in our courts (120).
According to Colson, Christians have “divided allegiances between God and the state” (313, cf. 126). ) “[A]s citizens of the nation-state,” Colson says, “Christians have the same civic duties all citizens have…” (314). We thus “have a duty…to work through civil authority for the advancement of justice and human good.” (133-34). Indeed, Christians are called to be patriotic (he has a whole chapter on “Christian patriotism”), though Colson grants that “Christian patriots spend more time washing feet than waving flags” (283). (I’m wondering why we should be waving flags at all!)
Despite the fact that Colson grants that “Jesus was remarkably indifferent to those who held political power” (126), and despite the fact that he agrees the Church should not “seek authority over political matters” (127-28), Colson argues Christians are commanded to try to influence the “kingdom of man” by bringing the values of “the Kingdom of God” to the political arena (262-63). Moreover, “Christians have a duty to “hold the state to account for its obligations to its citizens” (275). In fact, if a state is completely failing to carry out its God given duty, Colson says, “[t]he Christian may be justified…in organizing to overthrow the state.” He adds that, “Where peaceful means are available, force should be avoided” (283), which obviously implies that where peaceful means are not available, force is permitted.
Not only this, but “while the Christian is not to return evil for evil…he may participate in the God-ordained structure that restrains the evil and chaos of the fallen world by the use of force” (100). Christians can, therefore, participate in the armed forces and engage in violence if their cause is just. (How is that not returning evil with evil?). And while Colson grants that being involved in political offices may very well require one to lie and deceive people if it’s in the nation’s interest, and despite the fact that Jesus and the New Testament forbid duplicity (Mt 5:37; Eph 4:15; I Tim.1:10), Colson argues that Christians should not hesitate to aspire to these political positions and participate in deception if they feel so called (313-14). Since our loyalties are “divided” between God and the state, sometimes Kingdom people must do things for the state that would otherwise be forbidden for Kingdom people if it’s for the greater good of the country.
Where Does Colson Get This?
Now you may be wondering, where does Colson get all this? It’s interesting to observe that, while Colson’s expositions on how the Kingdom of God is different from the kingdoms of the world are filled with Scriptural citations, such citations are almost non-existent in his expositions on how Christians should engage in politics. He of course frequently cites I Tim 2:1-3 and 1 Pet 2:13-17. But these passages only inform us that we’re to respect and pray for political leaders while obeying them insofar as this is possible (though it sometimes is not, cf. Acts 5:29). These passages hardly justify Colson’s view that Christians have a duty to participate in politics.
The only passage Colson relies on in a substantial way is Romans 13:1-7. Because Paul in this passage says that God “ordains” or “establishes” (tetagmenai) government and that Christians are to therefore obey ruling authorities (again, insofar as this is possible), Colson concludes that Christians have a “divided allegiance” between God and state, and that our duties to the state are the same as every other citizen (99-100).
In reality, this passage doesn’t support Colson’s position: it argues against it. Among other considerations, we have to read Romans 13 as a continuation of Romans 12 (in the original there were no chapter divisions). In Romans 12 Paul commands Kingdom people to love and bless their enemies while never retaliating. We are rather to leave all vengeance to God (Rom. 12:14-21). Then in chapter 13 Paul proceeds to tell us one of the ways God exacts vengeance – the very vengeance he just forbade us to ever carry out: namely, God uses the sword of government (13:4). The purpose of Romans 12 and 13, therefore, is not to inform us that we have a “divided allegiance.” It’s to rather distinguish the behavior that characterizes the Kingdom of God from the behavior that characterizes the sword-wielding kingdoms of the world.
The truth is, Kingdom people do not have – or at least should not have — two allegiances. We cannot serve two masters (Lk 16:13). We are to obey government not because we have a duty to it but because we have a duty to God, and he tells us to submit to government insofar as it’s possible. Government is simply not worth bucking against if we don’t have to because this will distract us from doing our Christian duty of manifesting the Kingdom and spreading the Gospel.
A lot of Questions!
So, it’s not clear where Colson gets his passionate call for Christians to be involved in politics. It’s also not clear how this passionate call to politics is consistent with his excellent exposition on the unique, Jesus-looking way Christians are to transform the world and how different this is from politics. Here are eight (of a hundred) questions (or sets of questions) that arose in my mind as I read Colson’s book.
1) As we saw above, Colson grants that Jesus was “remarkably indifferent” to political powers (126). Since our central call is to imitate him (e.g. I Cor 4:6; 11:1; Phil. 3:17; Eph :1-2; I Thess 1:6; 2 Thess 3:7; Col 2:6; I Pet 2:21; I Jn 2:6), shouldn’t we too remain relatively indifferent to the political powers? Colson never addresses why our attitude should be so different from the Lord we’re called to imitate.
2) We saw above that Colson believes Christians have a duty to hold the state accountable (326) and even to violently overthrow it if necessary (283). When did Jesus ever hold Caesar accountable or tell his followers to do so? Even more to the point, if any government deserved to be overthrown it was the Roman government of Jesus’ day. And there was, in fact, a popular Jewish movement that was calling for just this (the zealots). Yet, Jesus explicitly disavowed this movement and forbade any use of the sword. He rather chose to subvert government by manifesting God’s love while allowing the government to put him to death. We are explicitly taught that this is the example we are to follow (I Pet 2:21). Colson never supports his endorsement of potentially violent revolutions with Scripture.
3) Related to this, on what basis can Colson justify Christians resorting to violence simply because one deems it justified? When Jesus, Paul and others in the New Testament command us to love, do good, bless and pray for our enemies and never retaliate, they never once provide us with an exception clause. Why does Colson not even attempt to offer a justification for his position? He seems to not notice the contradiction.
4) If political power is a temptation of the devil that always corrupts, as Colson argues, why should Christians trust it to bring about positive change and be invested in bringing about this change? Since Colson grants that the Christians main job (I’d say only job) is to influence the world by imitating Jesus’ self-sacrificial love, and since Colson concedes that this is where the only hope of the world lies, and since Colson further grants that the American Church is pathetic at doing this, shouldn’t we regard Colson’s own call to political activism as a massive distraction from our primary (if not singular) mission? At the very least, shouldn’t we put politics on the back burner until we get good at doing the one thing God explicitly calls us to do: namely, to look like Jesus?
5) Colson grants that ministers and priests must take great care to distinguish their political opinions from their “spiritual roles.” Otherwise they can’t help “presenting two faces to the world” that ” inevitably damages the work that should be a primary concern: the witness of the church” (326). This is certainly wise. But if this is true of clergy, why isn’t it also true of lay people? We are all called to be ministers and priests (Eph 4:11-13; I Pet 2:5; Rev. 5:10; 20:6). We’re all called to be “the witness of the church.” How many people have been ostracized from the Kingdom in America simply because they can’t stand the public political positions many Christians have taken?
6) Colson repeatedly notes, with great wisdom, that Kingdom people are called to be faithful rather than pragmatic. But then how can he justify encouraging Kingdom people in politics to compromise their Kingdom walk by killing or lying if they have to on the grounds that doing so would serve “the common good?” This strikes me as putting pragmatism over faithfulness.
7) Here’s a big one. Colson grants that whenever pastors become partisan, they “may soon discover they have compromised both their own witness and that of their church” (329). This is wise advice, and, as I’ve said, it applies to lay people as much as clergy. Yet right after saying this Colson reports that he helped draft a statement with Richard Neuhaus in 2006 that said, “Those who take pro-choice positions are denying themselves the company of believers” (331). How is this not being partisan? A particular political position is being made into a litmus test for church membership!
Isn’t it conceivable that a pro-life Christian could in good faith decide that attempting to overturn Roe versus Wade is simply not feasible in our pluralistic culture and that embracing this all-or-nothing stance is actually contributing to the killing of unborn children? Couldn’t a pro-life Christian conceivably conclude that, since almost all Americans agree that the fewer the abortions the better, the main reason abortion rates remain constant is that the two sides have become polarized at the extremes? Couldn’t one suspect that the one side won’t give in on the barbaric practice of partial birth abortion because they fear the other side will gain momentum in criminalizing the morning-after pill? Couldn’t a pro-life Christian conceivably conclude that trying to find a common ground requiring compromise on both sides would actually allow us to work together to achieve what we all want – fewer abortions? Or isn’t it conceivable that a pro-life Christian might in good faith come to the conclusion that the issue of abortion is so difficult that women themselves should be the ones to decide the matter rather than government?
At the very least, aren’t these (and many related) issues at least ambiguous enough that leaders like Chuck Colson should refrain from disfellowshipping someone because they hold a different political position? Colson’s view here is particularly puzzling because he elsewhere warns about how political involvement has often divided the church (252-53)!
Finally, given that the central call of the Kingdom is not about politics but rather about sacrificial service to the world, shouldn’t we be more focused on how we Christians can sacrificially serve women with unborn children, making it feasible for them to go full term, rather than kicking each other out of church over our opinions about what government should or should not do about abortion?
8 ) Colson worries that if gay marriage becomes permissible by law, Christian ministers and priests will be ordered to marry same-sex couples or see the state yank their licenses to perform marriage (129). This, of course, is very debatable, but partly on this basis Colson encourages Christians to fight for the marriage amendment act. Regardless of whether or not one thinks it’s in the interest of the common good for gays to be able to call their unions “marriages,” isn’t Colson encouraging Christians to acquire political power, which he elsewhere says the Church should never try to do (127-28). This is especially puzzling because Colson grants that whenever the church wasn’t persecuted it was being corrupted (126). In this light, why would Christians fight for the right not to be persecuted? Did Jesus or his disciples ever do such a thing?
Isn’t the temptation to defend ourselves and advance the good by political means the very temptation Jesus rejected, and the very temptation Colson warns us about?
Colson is fantastic in his analysis of the distinctness of the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world, and brilliant at exposing the dangers of fusing the two. But, as we’ve seen, he then goes on to advocate many political positions and encourage many political activities that, at the very least, stand in tension with these insights. What explains this? There are, I believe, two things.
The first and most fundamental problem is Colson’s mistaken view that Christians have “divided loyalties.” He of course stresses that our loyalty to God supercedes our loyalty to the state (despite advocating that Christians in politics can lie or that Christians can participate in killing if it’s in the interest of the nation). It’s because of this understanding of dual allegiances that Colson is able to – indeed, forced to — espouse two very different (arguably contradictory) views of politics and how Christians should, or should not, engage in it.
Second, Colson repeatedly falls into a false antithesis. Either a Christian is politically active, or they hold to a “privatized faith.” For example, at one point Colson criticizes the “passing-through mindset” of
…those who believe they are simply sojourners with loyalties only in the kingdom beyond. They believe that faith is an entirely private matter, and that they are under no obligation to the community or country in which God has placed them ( 280).
Well folks, there is another alternative. One can believe they’re “passing-through” this world (which the New Testament in fact teaches) and that their only loyalty is to the Kingdom of God (which the New Testament also advocates) while embracing a profound “obligation to the community or country in which God has placed them” (which the New Testament also advocates). The question is not whether or not Kingdom people are called to radically affect society, but how. Everything in the New Testament drives home the point that we are to transform society not by thinking we have any special wisdom on how to fix government and run the world, but by simply imitating our Lord and Master. Everything about Jesus’ radical lifestyle, and certainly his death on Calvary, was a radical act of social activism. This is the social activism Christians are to be engaged in.
I don’t think this means Christians can’t be involved in politics (though some of my Anabaptist friends would disagree). But it certainly means we all (not just clergy!) have to take great care to keep our political involvement distinct from our call to manifest God’s Kingdom. Don’t label your political opinions “Christian”! And it certainly means we should not divide our loyalties and trust between God and our political involvement Our only loyalty, and our total trust, must be in God who sovereignly uses our Jesus-looking acts of sacrificial love to transform the world into a domain over which he reigns: the Kingdom of God.