Twin Errors and Deuteronomy 17

“Ideas have consequences and bad ideas have victims,”

       A few months ago, I began a series focusing on bad ideas that worm into the church body and can cause harm. “Ideas have consequences and bad ideas have victims,” is an important truth that connects well with Ephesians 6:12, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” It’s ideas, not people who disagree with us or behave or believe differently than us, that are our enemy. Sometimes, our enemies come in pairs.

           I’ve lived through intense and dangerous situations, but I have never walked a literal tightrope. Someone who walks a tightrope must keep perfect balance, and if they lean too far to the right, or too far to the left, they plummet. In looking back at some of the tensest situations I have experienced, there sometimes have been two goals or ideas held in tension. When I was a Juvenile Justice Officer, it could often feel like walking a tightrope. My priority while on duty was everyone’s safety, and yet my long-term goal was the increasing maturity of each individual resident. Because I needed to both gain their trust and build a relationship with them, but also hold them accountable up to and including cuffing and restraining them, I could err in many ways, as anyone in that job could do. The chief two errors that were often addressed by those managing us and training us were being either too lax, or too tough.

           Although I was only in the position a few years, turnover was high. (Given the positions at the facility, I once calculated a well over 200% turnover rate in just those few years.) Some were let go because they were over-focused on building relationships to the point that they were taken advantage of and were not doing their duty to promote safety; others were dismissed because they were too stern and were agitating the young residents and making the situation less productive. You might be able to connect with a situation in your own life where the correct path was narrow, and you could error on either side. This was also a reoccurring theme in Scripture.

           Jesus informed us that, “"For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:14) This is not the only place were Scripture warns of a narrow path. Deuteronomy 17 warns the Israelites about a time when they will have a king, and some of the dangers of government; it includes a command for the king to have the Old Testament law with him, and even to make a copy of it himself. Verse 20 records the reason for this, “… that his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or the left, so that he and his sons may continue long in his kingdom in the midst of Israel.”

           When we talk about God’s instructions for government, we often go to Romans 13.  Deuteronomy 17 makes it clear that government can go wrong in more than one way. Similarly, as Christians called to be salt and light, as we respond to our government, we can err in more than one way.

           While I do not have the space that Wayne Grudem does in his book, Politics: According to the Bible, I want to agree with him on two related but very different errors that he points out in his work. I encourage you to pick up a copy or download the audio book for further well-reasoned and well-articulated thoughts on this complex issue and the finer points involved.

           The first error is an over-emphasis on government and politics. Hold your applause. In covering both sides of this issue, I believe that if I do this fairly, it will challenge a wide array of individuals. I think many of us can relate to feeling that politics intrude into media or relationships in an uncomfortable and often unproductive way. I completely understand that we want moments to escape, but I also understand the importance of these issues. I, too, get frustrated when it seems they are over- emphasized. I sometimes feel like many actors and media “entertainment” productions are far more “preachy” than I have ever been. 

           While it’s a bit clichéd, I affirm the statement, “It’s the Lion and the Lamb, not an elephant or a donkey that can save your soul.” Jesus is obviously far better than any politician. He is honest. Beyond that, He is also “The truth, the light and the way,” Love, and perfectly just. He isn’t a “respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34) in that He doesn’t value or love some people less than others. He has the wisdom to sort all of that out, and every politician we elect or who runs for office is just a flawed human being, in need of a Savior.

           No political ideology, no matter how well-thought or how well-intended, can turn this world into a utopia. Even if it gets all the ideas right, it still must deal with fallen human beings, and we will introduce error into the system. No political ideology, even when it’s most successful, can suddenly cause a lost person to repent and trust in Christ. Some who went before us tried marrying the church and the state, despite what I think are clear biblical teachings to the contrary, with disastrous results both in Rome and in Geneva. 

           The Gospel deals with matters of the will. Laws can and should encourage what is called “surface compliance,” but the Gospel gets into not just doing the right thing, but — after being saved and transformed — having the desire and the ability to do the right thing. It is in some sense more about who you are than just what you do. It is more than just a list of actions, but about the privilege of becoming a child of God. Once you are a new creature in Christ, then good actions naturally flow from that identity.

           Connected with this error is failing to recall that our enemies are not flesh and blood. It’s easy to see the division on Facebook or even at a family gathering. I, too, have felt this temptation. You see someone in office (or running for office) get caught in a lie or announce support for bad ideas, and you don’t want others to be victims of those bad ideas. However, if we aren’t careful, we forget that God loves that individual running for office too, and the name calling starts and division increases.  I think it’s wise of us to discuss ideas, but I am reluctant to name individuals. Yet I do so see some churches crossing where I would be comfortable with, and naming individuals and in a way that might be mistaken for endorsing someone’s behavior not just certain ideas they represent or attacking an individual, and not just the ideas that they old.

           On the flip side, we have another error. An article written several years ago by Pastor and author Timothy Keller warned, “Those who avoid all political discussions and engagement are essentially casting a vote for the social status quo. American churches in the early 19th century that did not speak out against slavery because that was what we would now call “getting political” were actually supporting slavery by doing so. To not be political is to be political. *1” This warning remains true today.

           If we are not part of the discussion, how can we be salt and light as we are commanded to be? We live in a democracy, so to apply Jesus’ command to “render unto Caesar’s that which is Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17) means that we MUST participate if we are to be obedient. If we are to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31) then we must care about their wellbeing, including if they are being taken victim by false ideas.  

           While we must continue to work to share the Gospel, we will always have non-Christians among us. The answer to how to deal with drunk drivers, to borrow the analogy from Wayne Grudem, is not simply to try and get everyone saved and disciple them so that they don’t abuse alcohol and then get behind the wheel. We must have systems in places.

           The article from Keller was entitled, “How do Christians fit into a two-party system?” His answer was: we don’t. I’m sympathetic. Our founding fathers warned us against political parties, and certainly the intent wasn’t a two-party system. It locks us into only two choices, and sometimes it feels like it’s A or C and the right answer is B — or maybe even E. 

           But if not being involved in politics is wrong, even sinful, since as I argued earlier that to be obedient to Christ’s command we “render unto Caesar,” we also shouldn’t pretend that both choices are equally in line with Scripture. The choice is not between two neutral parties. Greg Koukl, of http://www.str.og, has a saying, “Truth isn’t ice cream.” This is not picking what your favorite flavor of ice cream is. We can all have our personal flavor. Truth claims are involved in politics. Economic strategies are either more effective or less effective. Claims about the constitution and what the authors intended are either true or not true.

           Recently, I ordered from one of our favorite restaurants. I was stunned when it arrived with no cheese or sauce. My wife had not checked our order when she picked it up; they were usually so accurate, and she was in a hurry. Why would she? I discovered that I was missing several ingredients in my food, a keto-friendly pizza that didn’t have cheese or sauce! I called them up, and the manager told me that the employee said that they had put the missing ingredients on. I offered to take a picture and send it to her to verify my claim, and she said, “Well there are two sides to every story.” The fact that two different people made different claims wasn’t what needed to be determined. We already know that. What we needed to verify was reality. While I had evidence, she declined to see it.

           In a similar way, there are opposing claims in the world of politics and the choices we have set before us. On each issue, if the claims are opposing, at least one of them is wrong. While it takes some investigating, the right answers can be determined, and there is a real right and wrong. Therefore, there is a vote that will do the greater good.

           I mentioned a moment ago that claims about the constitution and what the authors’ intent was are either correct or not. For nearly all recorded history, when something was written and it was read, folks read it to try to understand what the author intended. In recent years, there has been growing concern about the impact on the reader and allowing the reader to determine the document’s meaning. These two views are at play in deciding who is appointed to the Supreme Court. One side wants to read what our Founding Fathers intended, which thankfully included legal ways to progress and change the law; the other wants to read into a “living document” and create laws that were never intended by our Founding Fathers. The challenge with the latter is that without an objective base, the interpretation can continue to go farther and farther away from the original and can change depending on who is in power.

           Keller mentioned slavery as an important political issue of the past. Then, they questioned if all human beings had the same rights; today, the question is still debated. Size has replaced skin color, and despite the declaration of independence using the phrase, “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness,” many argue that if a small, genetically distinct human being is dependent on its mother, it can be killed. Since the Bible says, “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all the unfortunate” (Proverbs 31:8), we should feel compelled to stand up for those obviously incapable of speaking for themselves.

           Politics and government policy can directly impact the mission of the Church. While I respect, and even encourage those most at risk to stay at home, our Constitution protects our God-given right to of freedom of religion, which all the Founding Fathers knew included assembly to worship. One side is attacking that right now. From the less obvious additional taxes, permits, and building requirements that all impact churches to limiting free speech, and funding programs that are directly opposed to biblical teaching. While we are relatively blessed here in America, it would be much harder for us to share the Gospel, something we are commanded to do, in North Korea, because of the politics and power in place there.

           Who we vote for is not a salvation issue. Despite our current culture focusing on national elections, there are many local elections and state elections that are equally important. All these elections are important, and yet they shouldn’t be so contentious among us as brothers and sisters in Christ as they sometimes are. I think it’s wise to remember Augustine’s statement, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” We must pursue the right choices in these difficult times, but I am convinced that we can’t simply hide, not voting as we should — nor can we trust either party for our salvation.