Sunday, December 23, 2007

Critique of Maternal Statecraft

In a previous post I explored a number of areas in which the modern state assumes the role of mother. These thoughts built on some of the points I made in the article I wrote for the Kuyper Foundation and may possibly form the backdrop to an additional article for that journal. In a series of successive posts, I want to share some of my thoughts on this subject and hopefully get some feedback before going to print.

I begin with a qualification about the previous post through stressing what I am not saying. In claiming that the modern state acts as mother, it does not mean that lawmakers are self-consciously thinking in terms of the maternal paradigm when they construct policy. A conceptual paradigm, like a worldview, can quite easily operate in the background without ever being recognised.

Just as the impulse to be a faithful dog is ennobling in a dog but demeaning when exhibited by a man, so the mothering instinct is nurturing in a mother but tyrannical when assumed by government. Despite this tendency to tyranny, however, it is not by its effects but by its starting point that this pattern of government must ultimately be assessed. The starting point is a rejection of the Biblical teaching on the role of government.

According to scripture, earthly rulers have the God-appointed task to bring God’s order to God’s world against the day when He will take power and rule directly. [Space does not permit me to give a complete Biblical defence of this view, but merely to offer a few scriptural pointers. A good Biblical defence for this view of government can be found in Cary DeMar’s three volume series God and Government (Atlanta, GE: American Vision, 1997).]

This is brought out in Romans 13 where Paul makes it clear that the job of the state is to retrain evil. The state achieves this end through wielding the sword to punish evil-doers. This enables the nation to avoid anarchy and to achieve social order. In a state of anarchy it is normally the rich and powerful who triumph at the expense of the week. The institution of statecraft protects the weak by punishing those who would take away my private property or stop me buying and selling. On a larger scale, if another country tries to invade our land, the government defends our collective property.

Under the above scheme of things, government is there to preserve, not to create, an independent social order. It is not to be salt and light but the sword. It is there to allow people to get on with their lives similar to the way a fence allows sheep to peacefully graze. While it does not have a mandate to try to change the nation for the better, the state has been given the job to protect law and order and, in so doing, preserve what already exists in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:2) C.S. Lewis makes the point like this in Mere Christianity:

It is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects - military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden - that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time.

When we consider the vocation of the Church, we find that the reverse is the case. The Church, not the state, is God’s instrument for bringing life and positive change to the world. The images used in scripture to describe the role of the Church bear this out: the Church is to be the city on a hill (Mt. 5:14), a light to the nations (Mt. 5:14) and God’s means for bringing salt or flavour to the world (Mt. 5:13). Whereas the civil magistrate is mandated to bear the sword against those who practice evil (Rom. 13:4), the Church is not authorized to use force against threats to law and order (Rom. 12:9). Rather, the Church is called to be proactive in bringing good to society (Mt. 28:18-19; Rom. 12:21; 2 Cor. 5:18-19; Col. 1:19-23), as epitomized in our Lord’s prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Mt. 6:10).

The Maternal Church

There are many equally correct ways to organise the above aspects of the Church’s vocation into a single organising principle, and one of these is certainly the motif of motherhood.
[1] The relation of the Church to God’s people is similar to the relation between a mother and her children, a relation which the Head of the Church movingly evoked (Lk. 13:34). The Church, like a good mother, takes responsibility for teaching her children (Rom. 12:7) and equipping them for good works (2 Tim. 3:16-17) and helping them when they are sick (James 5:14). The Church, like a good mother, has a mandate to provide materially for her children (Rom. 12:8 & 13; 2 Cor. 8 & 9), even redistributing wealth among her offspring (2 Cor. 8:14-15) so that none go without. Through the institution of baptism the Church, like a good mother, washes her children. The Church, like a good mother, is called to provide teaching, accountability and discipline to those under her authority. The Church, as a good mother, gently draws us to our Father. To the degree that scripture anticipates the time when the entire earth will be brought into the family of God, it gives us freedom to think of the Church as a mother to all people, in potentiality if not yet in actuality.

The Church acts as mother to the degree that She is central to all of life. Without Mother Church, life would collapse. The entire life of the Christian should revolve around Church just as the entire life of a young child revolves around mother. Douglas Jones describes this aspect of the Church in his essay ‘Mother Kirk’.

The Church should be so central in our thinking that without her life would collapse. She should play prominently in our understanding of the past, the present, and the future. She - not the state or the family or the individual – should be first on our lips when we discuss evangelism and social change and the good life. We should turn to the Church first for doctrinal nourishment and practical raiment.

At the heart of the Church is the institution of the Eucharist. Here the Church, like a good mother, nourishes us with her food. I have already alluded to the principle that human beings have an instinct to follow the person who provides food. In the gospel, it was after Jesus fed the crowds that they were ready to follow Him. We expect food from our parents and that is why we pray to our Father in heaven, ‘give us this day our daily bread.’ That is not something we should pray to the state because the state is not our parent. But when the state feeds us, we unconsciously begin to think of it in a parental light, which itself orients us to look more favourably on its augmented power. As Schlossberg notes, “A class that is able to distribute life’s blessings exercises a godlike power.”

God’s answer to the maternal state is the maternal Church.

The Church and state have opposite goals. While the former is instituted to cultivate virtue and maturity on the earth and is equipped to do this with the gospel, the later is instituted to maintain law on the earth and is equipped to do this with the sword (i.e. force). While the function of the Church and the state are opposite in this respect, they have complimentary ends that should work together like two blades in a pair of scissors: when the Church promotes social good it discourages evil from flourishing; when the state punishes crime it encourages good to flourish.

Just as we saw the state frequently abandons its God-prescribed vocation, so the Church is often tempted to abandon its spiritual weapons and take up the carnal weapons of the state. Thus, instead of promoting redemption in the world through the spiritual resources Christ has provided, many Christians have the tendency to adopt the world’s mindset which says that the solution to any problem is a policy. According to this way of thinking, as soon as enough Christians are elected and as soon as enough godly laws are passed, then the national neurosis can be rectified. Implicit behind such thinking is the salvation through statecraft ideology that Jesus had to continually confront during His earthly ministry. Because many Jews in Jesus’ day saw the kingdom of God in externals only, they expected the Messiah to bring social revolution. Like the Israelites during the time of Gideon, they believed that God was going to fix the earth by first fixing the world’s systems.

Although the Church cannot fix the world through the power of politics, she has been given tools for bringing change into the world. Those tools are Word and Sacrament, the law and the testimony, as outworked into all the nooks and crannies of the life of the expanding Church. While it is true that government must be evangelized as must every other area of culture, the best a truly Christianized government could do is to fulfill its God-appointed goal of retraining evil. Changing hearts must be left up to the Church. As Douglas Jones puts it in Angels in the Architecture,

The restoration of the nations is not, in any important sense, a political process. Rather, the process is one of baptism and catechism. The means given for the conversion of the heathen were the waters of baptism and the words of instruction. When the lessons have been learned, there will of course be some political consequences. But they will be minimal for the simple reason that the state itself, in a nation that has come to repentance, will also be minimal....Our problems are spiritual, and the solutions are the Word and sacraments. The charge was not 'go ye, and elect right-of-center congresspersons.' Now certainly the gospel has an effect on all of culture, as it should. But results are not causes; apples are not roots.”

It will be useful to briefly review the ground we have covered so far. In my
earlier post I suggested that it is a frequent tendency of sinful governments to overstep their circumscribed sphere by assuming the role of National Mother. My Biblical critique of this tendency involved the notion that the Church and state have been given different jobs by God: while the Church has a proactive role in changing society for good, the state has a negative role in restraining external threats to law and order. I moved from there to suggest that the maternal metaphor, while being inappropriate for the state, is a fitting way to describe the function of the Church.

[1] This works on the principle that any motif of the Bible can be used as a single organising motif. We may gain insight by using any number of different themes as the most basic organizing motif of any given passage. See Vern Poythress’ book Symphonic Theology, chapter 7, point 8 & 9, available at

[2] Douglas Jones, ‘Mother Kirk’ in Angels in the Architecture, ibid.

[3] Schlossberg, op. cit, p. 201

[4] Douglas Jones, ‘And Babylons Fall’ in Angels in the Architecture: A Protestant Vision For Middle Earth (Moscow ID: 1998). See also Peter Leithart, The Kingdom and the Power: Rediscovering the Centrality of the Church (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1993).

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