Since 2020 there has been a lot of talk within Christianity, and without, about the meaning of Romans 13 specifically and then later more generally about the roles and responsibility of Christians toward their government more broadly. Christian nationalism entered the conversation, I suspect as a term of insult and a way to label those that one is opposed to. Men like Russell Moore and David French were early adopters of this term, using it as a way to control the narrative of their side of the larger political divide and tarnish their tribemates and make their ideas seem unseemly. The term was adopted more broadly by authoritarian progressive leftists and mainstream media as a tool to be used to isolate and ostracize MAGA types.
At the core of this matter, we find the same thing we always find, fundamental worldview as the dividing line. For those that believe themselves to belong to the conservative side as opposed to any mention of the concept, the problem is a flawed worldview combined with a misinterpretation of scriptural teaching. And lastly, among conservatives, the reactionary versus pietistic argument is partially a disagreement over eschatology but primarily one of perhaps not misinterpreting scripture but not highlighting all relevant words related to the topic.
In broad terms, the Bible tells us to be subject to governing (or higher depending upon translation) authorities. We learn that all authority is from God and he has instituted means of authority here on earth. Here is where it gets complicated. In Genesis 2:19-20 God instituted the family and gave husbands and fathers federal headship over the family. This authority was implied in Scripture in the Old Testament but practiced throughout with God’s apparent blessing. In the New Testament, we find this authority and responsibility more clearly articulated. Authority comes with duty and responsibility, you cannot have one without the other, and authority by its nature always elicits implied task responsibilities depending upon the circumstances. So we find a first form of authority, created near the beginning. An authority that formed the basis of the formation of tribes and nations. All of our civilization, all civilizations grew from this base level of authority. This is an important point to remember as we work through this.
John Knox and John Calvin understood the matter pretty well, this tension between greater and lesser authority, perhaps a lot better than John MacArthur did for most of his preaching career. Calvin in Daniel Vol. 1-2 said:
“For earthly princes lay aside their power when they rise up against God and are unworthy to be reckoned among the number of mankind. We ought rather utterly to defy than to obey them whenever they are so restive and wish to spoil God of his rights, and, as it were, to seize upon his throne and draw him down from heaven.”
In fact, to a Reformed Christian it could be no other. The Catholic Church was certainly a higher authority, one with vast governmental powers, if the Reformers read Romans 13 in a way so many now do, there would never have been a Reformation at all. If we believe, as we must, that some other responsibility given to men birthed the necessary authority to rebuke and disobey earthly princes in the Church there must be more to our understanding than simply obeying.
Consider the Magdeburg Confession of 1550 where nine congregations openly defied not only the Catholic church but an Imperial Decree of Charles V. John Knox considered it, and expanded upon the doctrine in The Appellation to the Nobility and Estates.  At the heart of the confession and of Knox's later articulation of the doctrine of lesser magistrates we find two principles. First, is interposition, the responsibility of one to stand between another to stop evil. Second, and closely related to the first, is the concept, parsed from Scripture from the beginning of history, that all authority comes from God and that he ordained multiple institutions to wield authority and hold incumbent responsibility.
Below all of that, subservient in many ways, but foundational in a core way, with different responsibilities and incumbent authorities we find the family. Having been created third in order, relative to man, just behind man himself and the establishment of the first law God created the family. In Colossians 3:18-25  we find rules for Christian households but if we rightly allow Scripture to interpret Scripture we learn that the Old Testament tells us much more. Fathers lead their families in going to war, moving to a new land, and supporting various causes. Not merely children, but adults also, it is the patriarch that the family looks to. When the patriarch is Godly and wise and the offspring obedient and loyal we find that the family is blessed. Central to this notion is that in a proper world, the patriarch walks toward God and in so doing protects the family from evil. Family patriarchs, fathers, are the first lesser magistrate established by God. They are to be Godly and wise, and when they are they will act to protect the family. This was shown to us, not as part of some archaic tradition of oppression, but it seems, as an important component of God’s plan for man. When everyone acts as they should, life is better. This is applying Luke 12:48, know and act.
Stated more plainly, if all of the world went mad, all men were evil and all governments and all magistrates intent upon legislating and enforcing evil, in such a case it would be right and just for one man, one patriarch to call his family to his side to do God’s will. Noah was one such example, his sons may or may not have fully understood him, but they led their wives into the work of building and entering the ark, refuting the authority of all princes and principalities and the general spirit of their age.
No prince, no government, and no institution managed by man and ordained by God have authority over the family – so long as the family acts in righteousness. No church, cult, or government can usurp that authority from a Christian father. The protection of children and the guidance of a family toward Godly ways is first and foremost the responsibility of fathers. That responsibility comes with authority and that authority is from God.
A Christian father, rightly centered upon righteous wisdom would therefore be obedient to higher magistrates obeying laws because God ordains rulers to bear the sword, pay taxes, and honor what is honorable. Such a man would understand the command to pray for leaders and he would understand the Great Commission. He would wish to see that all within his nation were presented with the Gospel and that many Christians would be called from among the nation. He would have humble pride in the work God had done, willingly submitting to the nation that God ordained he is born in. In this sense, a Christian father would be and ought to be both a Christian and a nationalist rightly understood.
Throughout history, most nations have arisen based upon kinds. Tribes settled in an area, maybe displacing another or developing organically, and over time tribes grew, expanded, merged, or conquered to form nations in the Westphalian sense. This is not entirely the case in the anglosphere, specifically in the United States. From its inception, there was a not-so-subtle tension between various related but different people groups and the propositional notion of one nation. The arguments for and against Federalism (centralization) and the incumbent battles surrounding States’ Rights and nullification were a result of this foundational disagreement. The arguments continued after, but by the 1870s the propositional nation faction had won and centralization was underway. In the United States, we find now that lesser magistrates below the growing unitary central government are powerless and very often completely controlled via funding.
This reality presents the biggest challenge when considering notions of “Christian Nationalism” if one attempts to attach a meaning other than the one stated above, Christians that are loyal to the nation God ordained that they are born and desirous to see that nation act righteously. The problem is, as most that think about this know well is this. In a propositional nation, certain elements of the contract that formed it are assumed, but no longer present. When John Adams commented that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and Religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other”, he meant for a people like the ones around at the framing. A people guided by Christian ethics and morality, a people that contained a large percentage of actual Christians. When you remove that element of the proposition, then all the work of centralists after is a farce and a lie. It can then only work through luck, common grace, or force and deception.
Those that have embraced “Christian Nationalism” to mean something different than the definition above, I assume know the problems of the propositional nation at present. They also see the opportunity. I cannot fault them, and on some level, I must agree with them. The propositional nation is no more because the foundation of the covenant and agreement is no more. Power is now available to be wielded according to what can be bought through influence and deception. Their theories would say we must fight in the public arena, against deception, lies, and the spirit of the age, and fight as leaders of families concerned with interpositioning ourselves between the weak and evil. I also assume that those that advocate this theory have not abandoned the call of the great commission and that they realize you cannot legislate faith. You can make evil illegal, however.
Those that spend an inordinate time attacking those that argue that we live here, we have a responsibility to rebuke evil and be good citizens participating in the whole of life for Christ I wonder about these rock-throwing pietists. Everything around us has corrupted as pietists concerned themselves with their own houses, never acknowledging that the flood will someday come to their own doors. In some ways they are acting like a postmodern, offering criticism without a substantive solution.
There is, I think a third way. Something between R. Scott Clark and Doug Wilson. Clark is a man whose knowledge I respect but over the last year or so I have come to question his wisdom and discernment. Wilson is not a heretic unless he is also a liar. Clark, however, is a pietist is seems, incapable of clearly reading the room and the tides. The third way would entail someone telling Wilson and Clark (using these two men as archetypes of the argument) to seek the things that are true in both positions. Clark is right, we need to tend the shop and be true to our confessions and our small tribe. Wilson is right in that things have changed and the waves will come to us and we must act in a righteous way to thwart that, using the authorities God has ordained “all of Christ for all of life”.
The zeitgeist has shifted, like a pole shift, everything is different, it is all a threat to us now, it is at its core unrighteous and evil. An atheist has done decent work in explaining it, common grace is a mysterious thing, but the prescription of the problem is useful. This is a problem that has been with us since Genesis 3, but it is now the dominant worldview and religion. We would be foolish at this point not to recognize that this spirit in this age will lead to authoritarianism, a tyranny that will be unkind to our families and churches, the time is long past for ignoring it. The central point of the contract that formed this propositional nation was adherence to Christian morality. A Christian who would abandon that and attack others that proclaim that truth is not acting in wisdom.
I can forgive some Baptists for not fully getting this issue, and for rightly reformed Presbyterians I am left confused at their resistance. Presbyterianism was born in a conquered and oppressed land. The diaspora from Scotland carried that knowledge born of hardship to the American shores. In 1846 William Henry Foote wrote of these people:
“The Scotch Presbyterians in Carolina have ever been a law-loving, law-abiding people; differing sometimes about the extent of powers to be granted to magistrates, all unite in reverence for the laws enacted by the regular authorities under the adopted Constitution. They have always felt it was better to endure some evils than encounter the horrors of a revolutionary war; but they have always felt it better to endure all the protracted miseries of a revolutionary struggle than fail to enjoy- liberty of person, property, and conscience. Their ideas of religious liberty have given a coloring to their political notions on all subjects; perhaps it is more just to say, have been the foundation of their political creed. The Bible has been their textbook on all subjects of importance; and the principles of the Bible carried out will produce a course of action like the emigration of the Scotch-Irish to America, and their resistance to tyranny, in the bloodshed on the Alamance, and their Declaration of Independence at Charlotte.”
That my friend is Presbyterian Christian Nationalism learned the hard way at the oppressive hands of English kings, through troubles and trials in a new land and diligent study and obedience to the Word. These sturdy men would endure much, and suffer fools and tyrants for a time but they would also act.
John Knox said, “resistance to tyrants is obedience to God”. Tyrants in our propositional nation come in many forms now, the greater magistrate and the mob. Many Presbyterians would do well to remember our long and troubled history and the words of wiser men.
If it was not clear above, here are the quiet parts. Knox was the beneficiary of superior theology. The Scottish Presbyterians that struggled against oppression in Scotland and then America were a people that benefited from a culture that respected tradition and commonsense. If we look around at who is touting Christian nationalism presently, well a lot of those guys are not anything like Knox, and if they are of Scottish descent from the diaspora it is several generations removed. A lot of these people are Twitter deep in knowledge and Saturday cartoon level of discernment. Be wary of all this, just as you should be of all emotional movements run by charlatans.
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