A Response to Brad Littlejohn on Religious Liberty

Last week, The Davenant Institute hosted a debate at Colorado Christian University between their President, Brad Littlejohn, and myself Jonathan Leeman on the topic of “Religious Freedom and the Common Good.” Video and audio of this very thorough debate, moderated by Dr. Ian Clary of CCU, are now available, and I was very grateful for the opportunity to interact with Brad further after the debate. Whether you watched it or not though, here are a few of my takeaways from the debate that are relevant to the conversation more generally.

1) To Summarize Agreements and Disagreements

Brad and I agreed that Christians in government should acknowledge God. We both agreed that Christians in government should enforce elements from the so-called second table of the law (i.e. the fifth through tenth commandments). We agreed that, within the government’s jurisdiction, the government should follow God’s Word.

However, we disagree on what precisely that jurisdiction is. Brad says the government should enforce the first table of the law. I, however, don’t believe the Bible authorizes any government other than ancient Israel to do so under the new covenant. God gave Israel a unique mandate to practice and enforce perfect righteousness, executable by the sword. Enforcement of the first table now transfers to the Church, says I. Not so, says Brad.

Now let me get a little more evaluative…

2) The Methodological Challenge of this Conversation: 

Like a Reformed view of paedobaptism, Brad and anyone who calls for the enforcement of the first table offer a theoretically clean and internally consistent perspective that hangs on a few texts (namely, the Ten Commandments), which is difficult to gainsay. It’s a worldview that all hangs together.

Like a Reformed view of paedobaptism, I believe Brad smothers other texts, especially New Testament ones, or waves them off to say they don’t mean what they quite clearly appear to mean.

And, again, like a Reformed view of paedobaptism, Brad asserts too much continuity between the covenants. Best I can tell, he doesn’t see any kind of structural or institutional changes occurring between the old covenant and the new when it comes to civil government. For instance, “Render unto Caesar,” for him, doesn’t signify any shift. Nor does the complete absence of any instruction to the king to prosecute religion in the New Testament. Nor does the fact that God identifies himself with the Church now, not the nation, and that the Church has been made responsible to “prosecute” true worship. Nor does the fact that pre-conversion Paul wanted to put blasphemers to death, while post-conversion Paul chose to excommunicate them.

Brad won’t like this evaluation, but to me, the conversation feels like me saying, “But the Bible,” while Brad and first tabularians keep saying “But natural law and tradition!” That’s why his talk largely lacked reference to the Bible itself.

As for the relevance of the Mosaic Covenant to nations today, Brad argues from silence: “We assume it continues,” just as Reformed paedobaptists argue from silence on including their children in the covenant community. In both conversations, Baptists like me argue from the New Testament text: “But what about Matthew 22? Acts 17? Romans 13’s explicit emphasis on the second table? 2 Timothy 3? That fact that Jesus said he’ll build the kingdom not by the sword but by sacrifice?”

Plus, the failure of the sword to secure the first table for Israel, leading to their exile, doesn’t mean anything to him “because we have churches now.” Yet where I think the change from Old Covenant to New means we’re to patrol the borders of the Church (the “holy nation” comprised from members of all nations), Brad thinks we’re still to patrol the borders of the nation.

These differences in our methodology make the conversation very difficult to evaluate. As in the baptism conversation, we’re appealing to different things. Again, he offers an internally consistent but self-enclosed system. Everything inside that system is tidy. I feel like that system rests lightly on Scripture and the overall covenantal movement of the Bible, such that it’s out of congruity with covenantal shifts. He does not. And that—as they say—is the whole kit and caboodle.

3) Totalitarian and Infantilizing. 

Next: I believe that Brad’s view of governmental authority is nearly totalitarian. I mean that descriptively, not pejoratively. Like the total authority a parent has in a child’s life, so he hands that authority to the state.

But now, let me be pejorative. I believe that leads to all kinds of political violence. Perhaps Brad cannot imagine prosecuting a holy war (Charlemagne, Crusades, Inquisition, Protestants and Catholics against one another), but his political children will, because that’s where his principles of enforcing the first table lead. It is not by accident that the New Covenant community, being regenerate by nature, carries out their jurisdictional responsibilities with non-coercive biblically prescribed means—namely, preaching the gospel, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church discipline. In this community, you may be excommunicated for unrepentant sin, but you won’t be executed for failure to assent to theological agreement. Underlined in this distinction is the qualitative increase of grace native to the movement from Old to New. Instead of execution, the excommunicated church member has an opportunity to repent. Should he genuinely do so, he will not only be forgiven and comforted by God but also by the Church (2 Cor. 2:5-11). Just consider: Paul excommunicates Hymenaeus and Alexander from the Church to be taught not to blaspheme (1 Tim. 1:20). He wants them back. But how will he receive them back if the state then executes them?

Brad invests remarkable confidence in the sword to help and assist belief and obedience. And, once again, I just don’t see Jesus or the apostles doing this. They don’t give us a single whiff of advancing the kingdom by the sword. Just the opposite, in fact. At this moment of redemptive history, the New Testament offers not a theology of triumph and power, but of weakness.

4) Rose-tinted View of Authority. 

I believe that first tubularians, like Brad, offer an idealized and rose-colored view of human authority. None of their formulations treat people as consistently using their authority for wickedness or the general propensity to use our authority for harm. It’s as if the government has been removed from the doctrine of the Fall and placed wholly inside of a realized redemption.

I believe we must simultaneously keep one eye on authority in creation and redemption and one eye on authority in the Fall. This is why the Federalist Papers were so wise to work to protect against abuses of authority and why the Bible doesn’t give First Table enforcement to Caesar. When Jesus said, “Render to Caesar,” do we assume he wanted Caesar to enforce his religion?

5) Natural Law v. Scripture

In my mind, the view of natural law among the first tubularians, like Brad, feels like it risks displacing Scripture. I affirm our moral accountability to the natural law (Rom. 1), but I believe we must keep promoting Scripture as the only norming norm for clarifying and determining what we can authoritatively know as binding upon the consciences in matters of righteousness, justice, and authority.

In some ways, this conversation can feel like the conversation between Protestants and Roman Catholics on Scripture and Tradition. And, yes, I’m saying I’m the Protestant and Brad is the Roman Catholic! His reliance on natural law leaves us biblically unconstrained, which leads us back to the comments on the propensity of his system for unjust political violence.

6) Strong Man Appeal

In a culturally embattled moment, people want a strong man. That’s how populism works. And what’s true of the general population can also prove true among those of us with a slightly more intellectual bent. The possibility of picking up the sword for prosecuting the first table of the law feels like a strong solution to our present chaos and disorder. It will feel attractive to Christians under pressure. But I do think there is a genuine risk here of being seduced away from Christianity’s kingdom-built-on-sacrifice principles. Plus, some church members will be drawn by the appeal to strength, while others won’t, leading to division in churches. If Brad and others continue to promote these ideas, I hope they will simultaneously pastor people away from the possibility of being divisive.

7) Where is the Church? 

My political theology gives primary emphasis to the church’s work of making disciples. I don’t believe Brad’s does. Our nation and every nation desperately need healthy churches. Good governments are good, but they aren’t necessary. Otherwise, the apostles’ work never would have gotten off the ground.

So I’m happy to have theoretical conversations about what authority the government does and doesn’t have. But it’s not clear to me why we don’t wait 300 years to have this conversation. Right now, what our country and every country needs is the work of churches making disciples. We’re not about to capture the government for enforcing the first table, are we?

As I said at the outset of this piece, I am hugely grateful for the conversation between Brad and myself, and for this chance to respond to Brad’s half of the debate.. Let’s keep talking.

Jonathan Leeman is the Editorial Director at 9Marks. He lives with his wife and four daughters in a suburb of Washington, DC and serves as an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church. He teaches adjunctively at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the Reformed Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter at @JonathanLeeman.


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