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Big Government Christianity

A few years ago I was involved in doinga good bit of reading and research for writing a book on the unholy matrimonybetween Christian pietists and humanists over the past two centuries. It wasquite an interesting project but one that I never completed. About nine monthsinto the effort my business partner and I found ourselves growing too rapidlyduring the first year of “The Great Recession”. Our lack of cash and controlduring that time of growth in the midst of economic turmoil resulted in an “allhands on deck” response. I’m from Florida so I would liken it to a hurricanethat you saw coming but somehow you still found yourself in the middle of it,unprepared. My dedicated study time on weekdays before dawn and on Saturdaymornings was soon caught up in the category three cyclone such that for acouple of years I barely had time to sleep or even pay adequate attention to myfamily. Although I would do some things differently if I had it to do over, Ilearned a lot. Needless to say, my writing project after being relegated to theback-burner, was soon taken off the stove altogether.

During my time of study for the projectreferenced above, I came across an incredibly interesting and at the time veryhelpful book entitled, Pietism and the Making of Eighteenth-CenturyPrussia by Richard L. Gawthrop.I’m sure it was far from the author’s intent but after reading it, I came awaywith a better understanding of how clearly Christians aid in strengthening thepower of the state when we ignore the proper application of Biblical law andGod’s three ordained covenant institutions. Christians far and wide lament theincreased role of the state this day and age, and many spend time crying outagainst it. That said, of those that are protesting, not many seek to understandjust why we are experiencing an invasion from this bureaucratic juggernaut intoevery area of our lives. And although in this article I will only introducesome preliminary application from Gawthrop’s book, I think his work providessome helpful insight.

“How did a state as small and backwardas Prussia in 1700 transform itself to compete successfully in war againststates with far greater human and financial resources?…

The intensive use of every availablesocializing institution to inculcate state-service ideology had a profoundsocial and cultural impact that laid the basis for subsequent influence of“Prussianism” on the development of modern Germany.

This ideological campaign can best beunderstood in terms of the history of German ascetic Protestantism, especially theLutheran Pietist movement. Strongly influenced by English Puritanism, thespirituality of Pietism emphasized a “born-again” conversion, followed by ahighly disciplined life centered around “doing good for others.” How thePrussian state came to embody the values of this activist form of Christianityis the subject of this book.(1)

Over and against other historians,Gawthrop discusses what he calls the “underestimated cultural factor”. This recently reformed culture had been permeated by a puritan ethic anda pietism that went beyond the traditional definition to include a definite concernfor changing every area of the surrounding culture. The zeal was present. TheBiblical understanding of how to express such zeal was not.

Deeply influenced by EnglishPuritanism, with all its intrusive moralism and emphasis on tangible results, LutheranPietism in its first two generations struggled to find the appropriateinstitutional means through which to impose moral “reform” on society.(2)

The first mistake was the attempt to“impose” the chosen morality. This is not how God subdues society into a grateful submission to hisLordship. Gawthrop demonstrates throughout the book that the chosen“institutional means” for imposition was the state. The state’s reachencompassed nearly every aspect of society.

The agenda…included increased state support for thetheology program at the University of Halle, improvement in the care fororphans, elimination of begging through the founding of workhouses, and thesetting up of “common schools” in order to train all the children of thecountry in religion and useful skills.(3)

Sound familiar? The state assumed therole of savior and caretaker. Again, a zeal for law that represented the reformed milieu was notlacking, but an institutional framework through which to express theirreligious commitment was.

…the context within which the Prussianpolitical culture took shape was the common effort on the part of all thepost-Reformation Christian confessions to inculcate discipline, morality, andknowledge of the faith into the population at large.(4)

They also lacked a clear understandingand application of Biblical law in all areas of society. When a society does not applyscriptural law to all areas of life, other forms of law arise. Such man-madelaws may be well intended, but they are man’s laws nonetheless. This is seenclearly in the influence of one of the leading clergymen of the time – AugustHermann Francke.

Francke also sought to help hisfollowers remain obedient to God in their work by devising a comprehensivecode of conduct, his Lebens-Regeln. These “rules for living” went wellbeyond the exercises in piety prescribed by Spener in laying down detailedrules and regulations governing all aspects of life, including everyday socialinteraction.(5)

There is a way that all of this mightbe good, correct? God’s morality being distributed throughout society, codes ofconduct being set up to further the conforming of each and every individualaccording to the Protestant ethic – this is all positive and a breath of freshair to the current secularized world we live in, right? Wrong.

Make no mistake, God intends for hisLordship to be present in every area of society. God’s command in Genesis 1:28 to fill the earth and subdue it was notjust for the first Adam prior to the fall. Christ’s preaching on the kingdom ofGod includes God’s will being done both in heaven and on earth (Matt. 6:10). But he hasspecifically designed the way in which we are to carry out such an extension ofhis rule. He has established three ordained covenant institutions and hasgiven each specific laws, jurisdictions, and sanctions detailed throughout thewhole of His Word.  When we seek to carry out his will through anotherframework, we should not expect long-term success. In the Prussian example, thestate was given a role that extended beyond its God-given jurisdiction. Theyconcentrated rule within the state, in effect making them God. This hasdisastrous consequences as we have seen throughout history.

It is no different today. We not onlyhave to do what God desires, we have to do it in the way he desires it to becarried out. This includes an understanding of what power and responsibility hehas granted to the state. The constant crying out of the Christian community inour current cultural context is not sufficient. Yes, we must acknowledge wherewe sit.  Beyond this we must understand better how we arrived here. Then,we need to do something about it – God’s way.

By John Crawford

 Endnotes: Richard L. Gawthrop, Pietism and the Making of Eighteenth-Century Prussia (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993), Back cover copy(↩) Ibid.

11(↩) Ibid. 201(↩)

Ibid. xii(↩)

Ibid. 145(↩) -

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