There’s a certain sort of mainline Protestant, blessedly rare these days so far as I can tell, who has at times argued that while Scripture might teach that such and such is the Christian teaching on sexuality, we must adapt that doctrine to the times. “You can’t possibly expect people living in (obligatory and meaningless appeal to the year here) to actually live strictly monogamous lives, after all.”
The difficulty, of course, is that this is precisely what Christianity does expect—and it was no stranger a command in the first century than it is today, as Kyle Harper has ably demonstrated.
Likewise, there is a sort of Baptist evangelical, far more common right now (I’m friends with many of them and have published them in the past and will do so in the future, I’m sure), who argues that we can’t possibly be serious when we talk about Christendom when we live in a country that is so obviously hostile to many Christian moral teachings.
How can you, they ask, possibly be talking about Christendom when we live in a country that doesn’t even know what men and women are or what marriage is?
The answer here is the same as that above: If it is the true teaching, the immediate plausibility of it to our peers is irrelevant. Indeed, as good missionaries it is our job to find ways of presenting the truth in ways that can either shift people’s plausibility structures or explain how the truth really isn’t so implausible after all.
Now, of course, my Baptist friends will object “but you can’t compare Christendom and the biblical teachings on sex and gender.” But I’m not (yet) arguing that the magisterial view is true. I’m merely noting that this particular way of arguing against it is going to take down a lot of other doctrines as well because it tacitly says that Christian doctrines should be modified in response to a particular cultural moment.
So far my only point is this: If a doctrine is true, then its relative plausibility at any given cultural moment is largely irrelevant. It’s true and so we believe it and so we teach it. And if you think that the cultural moment shouldn’t transform our teachings on sex and gender, then I don’t see any reason that it should transform our teachings on common life, justice, and the magistrate.
The debate has virtually nothing to do with the cultural moment and everything to do with what the Scriptures teach about the nature of public life, the nature of just government, and the nature of the church’s life during this current age. So let’s talk about that. If the magisterial view is false, then we need to shut up about it and stop teaching it. But the reasons it would be false must be derived from Scripture, primarily, and, secondarily, from reason, the guidance of the historic church, and so on.
If this discussion is to get anywhere, we need to drop this talk about cultural moments and the west’s hostility to the faith, as if that is somehow relevant for determining true Christian teaching. If the magisterial Protestant view of the magistrate and the commonwealth is true, then it is true and we teach it. The same holds for the view of contemporary Southern Baptists or, for that matter, the view of the Integralists. Whatever the true teaching is, that should be what we present as the Christian teaching in our churches, in our public speech, and so on. The issue isn’t the cultural moment; the issue is what Scripture teaches.
Now, there is of course an added layer to this, which is that much of what both Jonathan and Andrew are likely objecting to is actually quite unhistorical as well: Theonomy is a terrible way of understanding the law, which is one of the many reasons that virtually no one in the magisterial tradition has affirmed it. Post-millennialism is likewise fairly ahistorical and both of these errors are shining examples of immanentizing the eschaton. Moreover, the proponents of these errors frequently show the same lack of care for present political concerns and public justice that they show for historical accuracy. So there are good reasons to criticize them and be concerned about their growing influence.
In other words, I suspect that many of the people that worry Jonathan and Andrew ought to worry them. But not because they affirm magisterial teachings concerning the magistrate. There are far better and more obvious reasons to think such figures are bad.
But once we are done dismissing the cooks and the fringe and the frauds, the problem for my Baptist friends remains, it seems to me: The notion of a religiously neutral government or a government whose actions are constrained by a religiously neutral natural law would sound like nonsense to an overwhelming majority of great theologians down throughout church history. So why should we dismiss them? It can’t be because the cultural moment has changed or because the model failed—that line cuts against the revivalist churches as much as it does the Church of England, it seems to me. The only reason to dismiss them would because a higher authority, Scripture, contradicts them. So let’s talk about that, please, and drop this chatter about cultural moments and the implausibility of magisterial teaching.