No Christian Nation, No Christian Family

To Deny the Power of One is to Deny the Power of Either

I. Introduction

Some critics of Christian nationalism claim that earthly nations cannot be Christian. I addressed one part of this objection already. In this article, I show that denying the conceptual possibility of the Christian nation—that is, denying that “Christian” can be coherently ascribed to “nation”—typically requires one to deny the conceptual possibility of the Christian family.1

The nation and the family are distinct types of entities, but they share certain features. For example, familial power and national power2 (i.e., the powers to order and regulate families and nations) are species of earthly power, not spiritual or heavenly power. Thus, they share in whatever is generically ascribed to earthly power. If we limit national power by appealing to the nature of earthly power, we in effect limit familial power. 

In my experience, arguments against the Christian nation as a concept are partial syllogisms (or enthymemes) leaving unstated the major premise. So, for example, when one concludes that national power cannot render an entity Christian, stating that national power is not spiritual but earthly, he assumes an unstated major premise, namely, no earthly power can render an entity (e.g., a nation) Christian. Formally stated, the syllogism is:

No earthly power can render an entity Christian. 

National power is an earthly power. 

Therefore, National power cannot render an entity (e.g., a nation) Christian.

Now, I would deny the major premise3, but that is not the point here. The point is: the major premise, once supposed, can serve as a major premise for any number of valid syllogisms, including ones that concern the Christian family:

No earthly power can render an entity Christian. 

Familial power is an earthly power. 

Therefore, Familial power cannot render an entity (e.g., a family) Christian.

This argument relies on a major premise that applies just as well to families, because the middle term (in this case, earthly powers) can be predicated on both the nation and the family without equivocation. As we see below, many if not most objections to the idea of the Christian nation strike equally against the idea of the Christian family. But before getting into objections, we must discuss what I mean by “Christian family” and “Christian nation.” 

II. Christian Nation and Christian Family 

The nation and the family are fundamentally human institutions, and they order and arrange themselves according to natural principles. The power proper to each sphere is earthly, granted to each by God as Creator. Each power directs the outward man, or simply the body as opposed to the soul. Neither is a spiritual power, as found in the instituted church. That is to say, civil and familial powers do not wield the spiritual sword, touching the soul. Furthermore, both are involuntary entities, e.g., children are members of a family by accident of nature, not by choice. Most importantly, both are collective entities, not merely a collection of individuals. So, we can speak meaningfully of the “Wolfe family” and have more in view than the six individual members of it. What we do is not a sum of what each one of us individually does. 

Now, Christian nations and families are foundationally the same as generic nations and families, as described above. However, the “Christian” adjective means that the entity, whether nation or family, is ordered to heavenly things. The way of life is fused with Christian practices. Thus, the familial power is used to bring family members together for family worship, catechesis, Christian forgiveness, and prayer. It is also wielded to protect the family (even its youngest members) from impious, blasphemous, and heretical influences. Ascribing Christian to family speaks not of the spiritual state of individuals in a family, nor to the redemption or salvation of a collective entity. Rather, the Christian family is a family with a Christian way of life—enacted by familial power, performed as a family, and oriented to what is above nature. 

Likewise, the Christian nation is not an immanentized eschaton or heaven pulled down to earth. Nor is it the conflation or confounding of the kingdoms of God and of this world. It is a nation whose way of life is Christian, having been ordered to the highest good—to the heavenly kingdom of God. The national way of life is fused with Christian practices. As with familial power, civil power in a Christian nation cannot command anyone to true faith, but it maintains the best outward conditions for persuasion to that end. 

I must emphasize that we are dealing with collective entities, not mere groups of individuals. A Christian family is a collective ordering not as a kind of small group or “community group” (i.e., people who voluntarily do Christian things) but as a family. The family life itself is Christian. It is not a group of believers utilizing their proximity for Christian practices. 

III. Opposing the Christian Nation

Now that we see the overlap between the Christian nation and the Christian family, we can proceed to the common objections against the Christian nation and consider how those objections might affect the Christian family.

Earthly power cannot change hearts; only the Spirit can do that.

Citing earthly power’s limitations vis-à-vis the soul is the most common objection to the Christian nation. People will claim, on this basis, that civil power (or civil institutions) should neither promote true religion, nor restrain false religion; and, more generally, they claim that a Christian public order—where Christianity is culturally and legally normal—is a coercive order, violating the sacred rights of conscience. But if these claims follow from the supposition4, earthly power cannot change hearts, then it strikes not only against the Christian nation but also the Christian family. The Christian family–an institution of nature, not grace–therefore, violates the sacred rights of conscience.

In a Christian family, familial authority is used to enact Christian practices such as requiring by earthly (or natural) authority that children participate in family worship, listen attentively to the reading of the Word, pray, memorize the catechism and scripture, sing hymns, observe the Sabbath, or attend public worship. But if the family cannot violate the rights of conscience (per the rationale above), then no power inherent to the family can be wielded to require participation. Nor may parents as parents correct any bad attitudes, reluctance, or negativity towards these practices. Indeed, parents must only invite their children to participate. 

Moreover, if civil government may not use civil power to suppress blasphemy, atheism, paganism, and heresy, because earthly power cannot change hearts, then using familial power to suppress such things is also impermissible. Families cannot establish safeguards against spiritually harmful influence, which might include errant older children or extended family members, television shows, movies, books, etc. If the civil magistrate cannot silence the anti-Christ, then neither can the parent as parent silence the anti-Christian sibling, cousin, or uncle. Indeed, familial power cannot be wielded to protect the souls of anyone in the home. The outspoken heretical or atheistic uncle cannot be denied admittance, nor have conditions of hospitality laid upon him. Nor can the parent use power as a parent (again, an earthly power) to prevent younger children from reading or viewing explicit paganist, atheistic (e.g., evolutionist) material. Doing so is using earthly power for a spiritual end—an end denied to earthly power and institutions. 

At best, parents must allow their children to consume soul-harming material and then verbally present their case against it, though parents cannot compel their child to listen to their refutation. Using familial power to instruct and protect souls entails that earthly powers may order earthly entities to spiritual good.5

Only individuals can be Christian

Owen Strachan recently wrote, “Nations can’t be Christian. Nations can be profoundly influenced by Christianity, but only people—sinners—can become Christian.” At best, Strachen is opposing the position that nations as such are direct objects of redemption. I would join him in rejecting this. Christ did not die for nations in the same way that he died for individuals. Nevertheless, Strachan still affirms that only individuals can be Christian, which has certain logical consequences. If individuals alone can be Christian, then no collective entity can be Christian. But the family as a family is a collective entity. Thus, neither the nation nor the family can be Christian. Individuals in families can be Christian but the family as family cannot be Christian.6 

Relatedly, people often say that “nothing outside the kingdom of redemption can be Christian.” We can speak of Christian individuals and Christian churches but not of Christian nations, so they claim. The earthly nation is a non-redemptive entity. But so too is the family and therefore it cannot be Christian. 

Outward conditions are irrelevant to inward conversion

One often hears the claim that since Christian civil culture, Christian laws, and Christian heritage are merely outward, they cannot convert the soul, which is a work for the Spirit. Civil culture, laws, and heritage are irrelevant with regard to converting souls. For this reason (so the claim goes), they should not be pursued. 

This argument, in my view, does not logically follow, but the point for our purposes is that it equally strikes against the Christian family. The Christian family as such is also an outward ordering—a culture with rules enacted by familial power. If the ordering of nations regarding religion has no relevance to conversion, then neither does the ordering of families. Both are outward and earthly. The work of parents, for example, in establishing a Christian home using parental authority for the spiritual instruction and spiritual protection of their children is irrelevant to the conversion of their children (so it would seem to follow). If the Christian nation is irrelevant to spiritual life, then so too is the Christian family. 

It only makes hypocrites

A Christian nation has a national way of life fused with Christian practices. Many claim that ostensibly “Christian” nations do little but create “nominal” Christians, since people merely conform to outward practices, even deluding themselves into thinking that they are true Christians. The outward ordering is counterproductive, since the will to conform tricks people into thinking they are believers. The Christian nation (they conclude) not only fails to orient people to true religion; it generates only nominal Christians bound straight for hell. 

But if outward conformity in this way has no other effect, then the same is true of Christian families. The Christian family claims that we—as a collective entity—are Christian and arrange ourselves outwardly in light of that fact. If the Christian nation must be discarded because such arrangements produce hypocrites, then the Christian family is to be discarded as well. If the outward Christian practices of nations make people “comfortable” in their nominal Christianity, then the practices of Christian practices of families do as well. 

Again, the Christian family is a family whose outward way of life is Christian. If demands for outward conformity produce only fake Christians, then we must also reject the Christian family.

III. Conclusion

We can see then that at least some and, in my experience most, objections leveled against the idea of the Christian nation assume premises that strike just as effectively against the idea of the Christian family7. The anti-Christian nationalist can certainly follow the logic and deny the coherence of the “Christian family” if he wants. 

But I suspect that most Christians want to use their God-granted power in families to order the family to the things of God. Most parents want to limit their child’s exposure to atheism, paganism, blasphemy, and heresy, and they will use their power to say “no” to certain media, friendships, and activities to these ends. Most want to use their parental power to establish the best possible outward conditions for conversion and to aid in the believer’s pilgrimage. Most want this natural thing called the “family” to be Christian—to have a Christian way of life. But if you want all this, then many objections to the idea of the Christian nation are eliminated. Indeed, if you want all this for your family, you should want the same for your nation.8

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Show 8 footnotes
  1. By “conceptual”, I mean what is inherent to the idea or thing itself.
  2. “National power” includes both social and civil power. Social power is (put simply) cultural and implicit in society (e.g., subtle social expectations), and civil power is official, governmental, and explicit.
  3. Earthly power can order outward things to spiritual ends, though earthly power cannot itself produce a spiritual effect.
  4. They do not follow. See The Case for Christian Nationalism, Ch. 9.
  5. The classical Protestant position on civil law vis-à-vis religion is that it seeks the best outward conditions conducive to spiritual good—both regarding conversion and in aiding people outwardly in their pilgrimage to heaven. Civil law cannot convert heart, nor compel belief, but it can aid in spiritual life. Likewise, at least classically, familial power may enact rules for the family by the same principle and for the same end—to order the whole to spiritual good.
  6. The reply to this argument is straightforward: non-redemptive things can conduce to, support, or be oriented toward redemptive things; the temporal, secular, earthly can point to the eternal, sacred, and heavenly without anything being conflated or confounded.
  7. I offered arguments for Christian nations in this essay.
  8. The only argument that could coherently deny the Christian nation but affirm the Christian family is one that appeals to adventitious divine commands “authorizing” the latter but not the former. That is, family power is augmented by divine fiat to pursue spiritual ends, which is unauthorized by nature, while national powers must remain oblivious and unordered to higher ends. There is prima facie validity to this, though it is unsound in my view. Even if the Christian family is divinely authorized, the power of family is still in itself earthly, unless rendered a type of spiritual power akin to that found in the church (which is strange). If it remains earthly, it still retains the same natural limitations as civil power, even if it is authorized to render the family Christian.
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Stephen Wolfe

Stephen Wolfe is a Christian political theorist. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and children.

3 thoughts on “No Christian Nation, No Christian Family

  1. Wolfe’s argument claims that those who deny the possibility of a Christian nation because of the basic premise that Wolfe claims they use, contradict themselves when they talk about the existence of Christian families. And if their argument is what Wolfe claims it is, Wolfe is correct in noting the contradiction.

    But if one follows the argument that Wolfe lays out, the negation of the basic premise still allows for the existence of Christian families without allowing for the existence of a Christian nation.

    Besides the fact that not all who rule out the possibility of there being a Christian nation use the basic premise that Wolfe claims they use, we need to examine the definitions that Wolfe is using for a Christian family and a Christian nation.

    We should note that Wolfe has assumed the right to create the definitions of a Christian family and a Christian nation. He has tailored those definitions so as to make them comparable. And in so doing, he has failed to recognize any significant differences between the two entities that would make them incomparable. The question becomes then whether Wolfe can rightly make the definitions that he made.

    We should note that the New Testament does not provide explicit definitions for entities such as the Christian family and the Christian nation. The New Testament gives instructions to the parents on how to relate to each other and how to parent their children. We also have added guidance from the Old Testament through both instructions and examples. But we do not have any similar New Testament instructions regarding the kind of nation Christians should pursue. Though the Old Testament provides guidance and instructions, it does so for when God’s covenant people was a nation. God’s covenant people consists of the Church, which draws its people from many different nations.

    Besides the fact that a nation is not always an involuntary association, each family begins as a voluntary association. Families start with 2 adults who voluntarily commit themselves to each other. There is an automatic dependence relationship once a child enters the picture. But, in most cases, that dependent relationship eventually changes as children grow, mature, and become self-sufficient. At that point, those children now become the adults who voluntarily leave, at least in theory, and who start their own lives including, for most, their own families. Those who start their own families now have a more peer-to-peer relationship with their parents. If their parents live long enough, it is the parents who become dependent on their children if the two sides agree.

    Do we understand the differences that Wolfe did not even gloss over when comparing families to nations. For example, not everyone’s membership in a nation starts as a voluntary one. The basic design for citizens of a nation doesn’t revolve around maturing past the role of a child being dependent on their parents. But most important is that the diversity among peers in a nation far exceeds the diversity that can exist in a functioning family. A nation is a collection of both families and single people who come from diverse religious, races, clans, language, economic, and cultural backgrounds.

    For Christians to pursue making their nation into a Christian nation, they would have to assume a place of supremacy and authority over the other citizens in the nation. They would have to assume a parental position over unbelievers and count them as children. But such is not the natural relationship that exists between groups of citizens. And so the relationship between citizens in a nation is not comparable to the parent-child relationship.

    Furthermore, we have no hint from the New Testament that we should seek such relationships with people in society. We are warned against ‘lording it over others’ as the Gentiles do. And though some would point out that the context of that prohibition was about how Christians should relate to each other, there is nothing either in that passage or in any other part of the Bible that even hints that that passage should not apply to how we are to relate to unbelievers. And so even when relating to the “Gentiles” (a.k.a., unbelievers), we should not follow their example of ‘lording it over others.’ And seeing that God’s covenant people now consists of the Church, Old Testament passages can, in most cases, only apply to the Church in some way, shape, or form.

    The real question that challenges Wolfe’s article here isn’t whether the Christian family exists. The real question is whether the Christian nation that he envisions is allowed to exist in the New Testament.

  2. “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar….. but only if he stays pagan, if Caesar would become Christian then that would be lording over others!”

    Christian Family is better called Christian-led Family.
    Christian Nation is better called Christian-led Nation.

    Which has been around for centuries. This would include laws against anti-Christian speech, which the American founders were fine with for states.

    Every society passes laws against “anti-core values speech”. It only felt neutral during the short transition period between two sets of core values.

    And “liberty” never had the bones to stand by itself, freedom means removal of barriers to accomplish purpose. Different purpose means different laws to enshrine “freedom”.

    1. Anon S,
      Take your pick between freedom or liberty, I will use freedom here, the following math expression holds true:

      Freedom – equality = privilege.

      What has been argued for is privilege, not freedom nor liberty.

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