The Rutherford Option

Spiritual Defense and Cultural Offense

Note: the following talk was presented on the topic “What Shall the Godly Do?” at the Fall Conference of Lakewood Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Dallas, TX on November 18th, 2023.

You’ve Got Options

In 2017 the conservative cultural commentator Rod Dreher wrote a book entitled The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. The basic thesis of Dreher’s book was that Western society has become gripped with a level of hostility toward Christians that hasn’t been seen since the earliest days of pagan persecution of the church. To figure out how Christians should respond Dreher turns to the sixth-century monk Benedict of Nursia, famous for his “Pastoral Rule,” a guide to faithful monastic living in the face of the cultural and moral disintegration that followed the “fall” of the Roman empire. Dreher urges similar efforts of community formation and moral discipline today. Contemporary Western culture is so morally debased, he argues, that nothing short of a radical disengagement from it will be sufficient to maintain the vital heart of Christian belief and practice. Although Dreher has been criticized for putting forward a “head for the hills” mentality, he is emphatic that the purpose of pulling back is ultimately in order to create a counterculture resilient enough to endure the moral dark ages we appear to be descending into.

On this basic point, I would argue, Dreher is absolutely correct. The multitude of ways in which our society is attempting to throw off nearly every righteous moral restraint are truly staggering. It’s almost as if our contemporaries had been given a list of every good aspect of God’s creational design and were working down that list item by item to subvert and destroy each one. I’m not very internet-savvy, but I’m online enough (sadly) to see a good number of memes. One that has particularly struck me is a picture—a hazy Polaroid-type shot—of a little girl in the 80s or 90s standing in a patch of grass, probably in New Jersey across the Hudson River from New York City, with the Twin Towers in the background. The caption of the meme simply says: “The world you were born in no longer exists.”

Unless you are 10 or under the moral world you were born in no longer exists. This is true even for my oldest son who just turned 16 this summer. He was born in 2007. As late as 2008 Barack Obama argued that he was opposed to so-called gay marriage. It wasn’t until 2012 that he was willing publicly to express a change of mind on the issue. And it wasn’t until 2015 that gay marriage was “legalized” by judicial fiat in the Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges. That case was only 8 years ago. Doesn’t it feel like it was decades ago? As late as 2009 only 37% of Americans were in favor of gay marriage. Today that number is around 61%.

The idea that it would be acceptable to push the mutilation of people’s bodies chemically and surgically and then attempt to force others to accept that such people had changed sexes was not widespread even as late as 2015. That all began to change when Bruce Jenner told the world he had become a woman. And change with extreme rapidity it did. Today you can bring rage and fury down upon your head, likely including the loss of your job and livelihood, simply for calmly suggesting that people cannot change genders, no matter how many shooting stars they wish upon.

If you’re at all like me it’s increasingly hard even to remember how much has changed, and how fast it has done so. Insanity becomes the new normal, we forget, and move on. Stealing items under $800 or so in major U.S cities is now not prosecuted. No attempt will even be made to do so. Murder rates in American cities are skyrocketing. “The California State Assembly,” by a vote of 57-16, “passed a bill [recently] that would require judges in child custody cases to consider whether a parent has affirmed a child’s ‘gender transition’ by making ‘gender affirmation’ an equal part of a child’s ‘health, safety, and welfare’ under state law.” That means that in divorce proceedings a parent who refuses to affirm the child’s chosen identity would lose custody. The law also blocks other states from requiring children who have left home to have transgender surgeries performed on them in California be returned to their parents.

Now, my point isn’t to terrify you, though if you are a parent, you have to know what you and your children are up against in our world. Rod Dreher is absolutely correct that parents, churches, and other groups are going to have to get radical in their efforts to protect themselves and their children. There is plenty of room to debate how we do that, but none to debate whether we do it or not.

Mapping out a strategy of spiritual protection is about as far as Dreher’s book takes us. This is where I would argue that Dreher’s approach is insufficient. Here is where we get to my option, the Rutherford Option. In short, my argument is that we certainly must protect our families and churches, but that we should also do what we can to fight for a just political order (understood in Christian terms) in our own nation as well. Why is this the Rutherford Option?

The Rutherford Option

Samuel Rutherford was a seventeenth-century Presbyterian pastor and theologian, college professor and head, and commissioner from Scotland to the Westminster Assembly, the body that wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Shorter and Larger Catechisms. Rutherford is best remembered today for a large collection of pastoral letters he wrote. These letters are thought by many to be some of the most heavenly-minded things ever written by an uninspired author. But Rutherford also wrote Lex, Rex, which was a polemic against the absolute divine right of kings to rule without checks on their power.

Lex, Rex was published in 1644. To give some historical context, England and Scotland had been ruled as a republic since King Charles I had been executed in 1649, ending the English civil war of the 1640s. (This was the time during which the Westminster Confession and Catechisms were written). In 1660 the monarchy was reestablished in England and Scotland. Unsurprisingly, the new royal regime was none too pleased with Rutherford, who had argued in Lex, Rex that earthly kings were not free to rule as they pleased, but were bound to rule according to God’s moral law, and that the people had a right to resist them if they did indeed become unbearably tyrannical. Now I’m no expert on Samuel Rutherford, and I happen to know personally at least 3 or 4 people who know far, far more about Rutherford than I do. However, I chose my title, not because I am going to spend a lot of time on Rutherford, but rather because he is such an excellent example of someone who could hold together gospel-saturated, heavenly-minded theology with a political theology that encourages God’s people to seek and fight for a just political order.

Consider, for example, an extract from one of Rutherford’s letters (number 88), written to a woman whose husband had been imprisoned because of his theological convictions:

When we shall come home and enter to the possession of our Brother’s fair kingdom, and when our heads shall find the weight of the eternal crown of glory, and when we shall look back to pains and sufferings; then shall we see life and sorrow to be less than one step or stride from a prison to glory; and that our little inch of time – suffering is not worthy of our first night’s welcome home to heaven.1

Rutherford’s letters (nearly 800 pages of them) are full of such spiritual gems. His tenderhearted pastoral care is evident throughout.

And yet this same man argued this in Lex, Rex:

That power which is obliged to command and rule justly and religiously for the good of the subjects, and is only set over the people on these conditions, and not absolutely, cannot tie the people to subjection without resistance, when the power is abused to the destruction of laws, religion, and the subjects. But all power of the law is thus obliged, and hath, and may be, abused by kings, to the destruction of laws, religion, and subjects.2

Rutherford, as many scholars of America’s founding have noted, had a profound (even if indirect) impact on the ideological justifications for the American Revolution. It’s not hard to see why that would be the case from the quote I just read. But my purpose this morning is not to trace Rutherford’s impact on America’s founding, nor really even to talk much more about Rutherford at all. As I’ve already said, my use of Rutherford is illustrative: for him, piety and political order are not opposed. “The Rutherford Option” captures this synergy succinctly. Sketching out what this might look like with regard to the political realm today is the purpose of the second half of this talk. But before we get to that we must get our own houses in order. Literally.

Commonwealths in Miniature

Holding together spiritual and earthly concerns without letting one consume the other is a commonplace in Protestantism’s past. The sixteenth-century Italian Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli put it well in his Introduction to his commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:

Among these moral subjects, the first place is surely held by ethics, then economics [by which he was referring to family life], and finally politics. I see this order as circular. Through ethics, those who are its students will, one by one, become good men. If they prove upright, they will raise good families; if the families are properly established, they will in turn create good republics. And in good republics, both law and administration will aim at nothing less than each man becoming a good citizen, for they have eyes not only for the body but also for the spirit, and they will take care that citizens live according to virtue.3), 12.]

Law and administration have eyes for the body and the spirit. Nations should see to it that their citizens live virtuously.

The Lutherans got in on the fun too. Niels Hemmingsen, a contemporary of Vermigli’s, memorably described man as “a commonwealth in miniature.” What he meant by this was

that the virtues of the soul by which the soundness of the state of man is preserved should be transferred to the society and dominions of men. For by these four virtues—prudence, temperance, courage, and justice—men’s societies are preserved, that is, their households and polities.4

In other words: if (and only if) men let virtue rule over their own souls will they be equipped to preserve their own homes, societies, and nations. And indeed they must seek to preserve these things. But they must begin with themselves.

This means that we have to get our own lives in order. And here I’m not urging some sort of self-help plan, a Jordan Peterson program of fixing your life by a sheer act of will. No, I’m simply talking about listening to Jesus when he tells us that “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 16:25), or when he asks his disciples: “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul” (Matt 16:26)? We will be of no use to our families, our cities, our nations, or our world if we have not first of all attended to that which matters above all else: our relationship with God.

But those other realms do matter. God designed each of them to bring goodness and order into this world, even though imperfectly so in a fallen world. And so “the virtues of the soul by which the soundness of the state of man is preserved should be transferred to the society and dominions of men,” as Hemmingsen says.

But before we think of transferring them to society, we must attend to the family. And here we face unique challenges today, challenges that often feel overwhelming. Even though we are in the midst of a radical cultural revolution, God’s grace is sufficient, and his methods remain the same. Those of us who are parents must raise our children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4 ESV; the King James Version of the Bible more famously says “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord”). We must teach them the truths of God’s word. We must show them their need of Christ and the riches of salvation that are found in him alone. We must pray for them and set an example of faith and holiness for them. In short, we must “train up a child in the way he should go” as Proverbs 22:6 says, trusting the promise that “even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

And I should mention that this can only take place as we are attending to the means of grace in the church, which, as the apostle Paul says, is a “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). The spiritual nurture of our families is a community project. Hillary Clinton wasn’t entirely wrong when she said that “it takes a village to raise a child.”

Yes, God’s methods for raising our children never change, but more will be required of parents than we’ve been used to in the past. We can no longer coast on the waves of cultural Christianity. Obviously, cultural Christianity itself doesn’t save anyone, but there was a time when many of the outward currents of our society were flowing with our efforts at pursuing sanctification, not against them. That is no longer the case. To adapt Robert Conquest’s “second law of politics”: if you’re not actively and vigorously pushing against the tide of today’s cultural pressures you will be swept out to sea by them. We have to exercise an extreme vigilance in watching over our families which is often tiring and overwhelming. We have to protect them from things we never could have even imagined when we were growing up: online pornography, sexting, but also the ideological attacks of our day. Honestly, it seems to me that we’re going to have to work about 90% harder than our parents did (if not more) simply to protect our children from harm.

I’m not going to get into the specifics of how to educate children here, but I can say this without any doubt: no matter how you educate your children in math, science, literature, and the like, you who are parents are absolutely responsible for knowing what your children are learning, what ideologies they are being confronted with, what informal influences are shaping them (in schools, sports, clubs, just hanging out with neighborhood friends). Unfortunately, nowhere is safe. Many Christian schools are allowing ungodly ideologies to creep in. This is true even of some Christian homeschool curricula. If you give your teenager a phone are you monitoring their usage, and teaching them to use it in a godly way? There are lots of good apps that can help you with that monitoring. It will require us to relearn what was once common knowledge: parents will protect their children from evil, even if that means rejecting bogus notions of what teenage privacy entails, and so on.

So, we have to get our own houses in order. We men have to die to ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Christ. And then we have to lead our wives and children to do the same. And pastors and elders must do likewise for our churches. We have to exercise extreme vigilance. Call that the Benedict Option. Call it whatever you like, so long as you do it.

But is that enough?

Is pursuing personal, familial, and churchly holiness all we need to worry about? In one sense, yes. Looking back in church history we can see plenty of examples where even the most godly of men were not able to save their nations from disaster. Think of the Westminster Divines. Though they produced the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, their work at reforming the Church of England and the nation came to virtually nothing, and very quickly so. Was that due to a lack of faithfulness? I can’t see anything that would lead me to believe so. God’s ways in history are mysterious. Evil often triumphs over good in this evil age.

But in another sense personal, familial, and churchly holiness are not enough. A basic commonplace of Reformed theology at least into the 19th century (and sometimes even into the 20th) is that we should get our houses and churches in order, but also our civil communities, states, and nations. It’s to this that we now turn.

The Good of Politics

The family and the church are distinct divine institutions. The first is built into creation, the second is a work of God’s saving grace. But there is another divine institution, that for a variety of reasons, has been neglected in the modern world, even among Reformed Protestants. It’s the state. Now no one would deny that Christians are constantly talking about politics, perhaps even at times to the neglect of their own spiritual growth. But that’s not what I mean. The state is ordained by God for the good of man. It is, therefore, a worthy and important subject of sustained Christian reflection.

Authority, rule, governing things. Dare I even say the word… politics? All of this is built into God’s creational design for the world, even prior to the Fall:

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ (Gen 1:26)

Dominion, subduing the earth (Gen 1:28), is at the heart of being made in the image of God. God rules over all things and yet grants that man should be his specific agent of rule in the world.

The entrance of sin into the world certainly makes that rule more difficult, and introduces all sorts of perversions of godly governance over creation, but it does not negate the necessity, and even goodness, of that governance. We can see numerous examples of good and bad human governance throughout the Old Testament. Although it is something you might not notice at first (though it’s obvious once you look for it), Proverbs has a lot of timeless guidance for good governance. This is not surprising when you consider that Proverbs was written by a politician. Okay, a king, but perhaps you get my point. His job was to rule a nation. They are “the proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel” (Prov 1:1). And the purpose of his proverbs is that man would “know wisdom and instruction,” would “understand words of insight,” would “receive instruction in wise dealing”… but also, would receive instruction in “righteousness, justice, and equity” (Prov 1:2–3). All three of those words, whatever private, individual significance they have, are inescapably political, if we care to use that word (as we may) to designate the qualities necessary for a just and healthy nation and society.

Contrary to the modern myth that governments can and should be neutral with regard to right and wrong, Proverbs 8:15–16 tells us that it is only by true wisdom that “kings reign, and rulers decree what is just;” that “princes rule, and nobles, all who govern justly.” Either righteousness triumphs through wise rule by a nation’s leaders, or wickedness, injustice, and societal collapse will result. “A wise king winnows the wicked and drives the wheel over them,” Proverbs 20:26 tells us. A wise and just ruler is to punish the wicked and thwart his evil plans for a nation. We can see the opposite of wise rule in Proverbs too: “Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked ruler over a poor people. A ruler who lacks understanding is a cruel oppressor, but he who hates unjust gain will prolong his days” (Prov 28:15–16).

None of this is unique to Old Testament Israel as a nation. Proverbs provides timeless instruction for good government, for sound laws, for a just political order. And the goodness of a sound political order is just as clearly seen in the New Testament. The clearest place we see this is in Romans 13. Unfortunately, one of the most common ways of reading this passage today gets Paul’s thoughts almost exactly backward. It’s claimed that Paul’s main point is that we owe nearly unlimited submission to earthly political rulers, as if Paul is describing how they ruled, or as if his only point is that we must submit to such rulers, no matter what they do (short of commanding us to sin). This is not Paul’s point. He is, instead, explaining to us why God ordained the institution of the state. This is what states should look like, how civil magistrates should rule.

The governing authorities—the very institution of their authority—Paul writes, is “by God” (Rom 13:1). How is it that God rules over the nations of the world? Through the authorities he has appointed (Rom 13:2). And why has God appointed them? To be a terror to bad conduct, to approve good conduct (Rom 13:3), to do good to those who are good and punish those who are evil with the power of the sword (13:4). In fact, earthly rulers are meant to be the means by which God himself avenges evil in the world (Rom 12:19; 13:4). Far from justifying evil on the part of the civil magistrate (on the assumption that all that he does must be meekly submitted to without question), Paul succinctly provides us with the magistrate’s job description. He is well aware of how far short real rulers fall in this evil age. One need only read the book of Acts to see that. Instead, Paul shows us what the divine institution of the state is meant to look like in practice.

Politics Reformed

Reformed theologians recognize that political order is a vital divine institution, vital just like marriage and the family. Samuel Rutherford is not an outlier on this.

We’ve already seen the importance Peter Martyr Vermigli attached to a proper ordering of the state. Here’s how John Calvin describes the role of the civil magistrate in the Institutes: “civil authority is, in the sight of God, not only sacred and lawful, but the most sacred, and by far the most honorable, of all stations in mortal life.”5 Calvin allots such an extremely high position to the civil magistrate because political rule so clearly images God’s own rule over the world. Calvin clearly has no trouble holding together spiritual and political matters, even while carefully distinguishing between them. He does so contrary to those who would insist that political order is (and I quote Calvin again) “unworthy of us,” or that it is “far beneath our dignity to be occupied with those profane and impure cares which relate to” things falling under the heading of politics.6

A less commonly well-known Reformer, Franciscus Junius, fellow Frenchman and one-time student of John Calvin argued similarly:

If . . . there is such a practical discipline in human affairs, which should have dominion in all human affairs by its own, certain right, surely this is what we call the political discipline. This is the mistress of the just and honorable; this the guardian of order; this the defender of the public and private rights of the common good. ‘This,’ [and here Junius quotes the 2nd century (AD) Greek philosopher] Polyaenus . . . ‘includes all things; in this all sound things are preserved,’ and, finally, ‘if this perishes, there is nothing’ in public and private affairs ‘that does not die’ and become corrupted.7), 4.]

The “mistress of the just and honorable,” “the guardian of order,” that by which “all sound things are preserved.” Pretty high praise for politics, and this coming from one of the most influential Reformed theologians of the late 16th century.

Such sentiments are not restricted to the old Europe of Christendom either. John Witherspoon, signer of the Declaration of Independence, teacher of a vast number of early American statesmen, judges, and educators, and founding father of American Presbyterianism asked the precise question every Christian considering the worth of politics should ask in a speech in Congress:

Shall we establish nothing good, because we know it cannot be eternal? Shall we live without government, because every constitution has its old age, and its period [end]? Because we know that we shall die, shall we take no pains to preserve or lengthen our life? Far from it, Sir: it only requires the more watchful attention, to settle government upon the best principles, and in the wisest manner, that it may last as long as the nature of things will admit.8

Political activity and order, at least as we pursue it in this fallen world, is not eternal. But it is eminently worthwhile.

Admittedly, the older Reformed theologians were much more comfortable than most Americans today with the state acting to promote true religion. Another commonplace of Reformed theology until at least the 19th century was that the civil magistrate should enforce all ten of the Ten Commandments, that it should suppress certain manifestations of heresy, and that it should act in support of the church’s ministry, though such theologians never confused the distinct realms of church authority and civil authority. Calvin put their relationship like this: “[A]s we lately taught that . . . [civil] government is distinct from the spiritual and internal kingdom of Christ, so we ought to know that they are not adverse to each other.”9

In fact, it was normally only when a spiritual matter affected the civil realm itself that they believed the magistrate should intervene. This would include instances where open and obstinate heresy or blasphemy were actually undermining civil order, and so forth. Or as Calvin puts it: “. . . I approve of a civil administration that aims to prevent the true religion which is contained in God’s law from being openly and with public sacrilege violated and defiled with impunity . . .”10 Jonathan Edwards would later put the matter like this, even though America by then was more tolerant of diverse expressions of Protestant Christianity:

For although [the civil magistrates] have to do with nothing but civil affairs, and although their business extends no further than the civil interest of the people, yet by reason of the profession of religion and the difference that matters religious make in the state and circumstances of a people, [and this is the main point] many things become civil which otherwise would not.11

That is to say, in certain circumstances, religious matters can cross the line to become civil matters. This is not quite so ill-fitting with America’s past as you might think. Most American states had laws against public blasphemy and laws requiring businesses to close on Sunday well into the 20th century. Charles Hodge, the 19th-century American Presbyterian stalwart went so far as to contend, in support of Sabbath “blue laws” that closed businesses on that day that

Christianity is the basis of the common law of England, and is therefore of the law of this country; and so our courts have repeatedly decided. It is so not merely because of such decisions. Courts cannot reverse facts. Protestant Christianity has been, is, and must be the law of the land. Whatever Protestant Christianity forbids, the law of the land (within its sphere, i.e., within the sphere in which civil authority may appropriately act) forbids. . . . The laws of all the states conform in this matter to the Protestant rule.12

In an American context there has historically been a looser connection between the state and Christian churches than in Reformational Europe. An argument for the wisdom of this looser connection can be made. But it has not meant no connection whatsoever. The contemporary historian of religion at America’s founding Mark David Hall has done great work in highlighting this. In his book Did America Have a Christian Founding? Hall provides countless examples of how the vast majority of America’s founders desired to promote, even through state action at times, certain Christian priorities. Consider just two examples Hall provides, the first from the lesser-known American founder Roger Sherman in the preamble he wrote to Connecticut’s 1784 revised law code:

As the happiness of a people, and the good order of civil society, essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality, it is the duty of the civil authority to provide for the support and encouragement thereof; so as that Christians of every denomination, demeaning themselves peaceably, and as good subjects of the State, may be equally under the protection of the laws.13

The code itself

required all citizens ‘on the Lord’s-Day carefully to apply themselves to duties of Religion and Piety, publicly and privately’; required all citizens to attend church each Sunday; provided tax money to support churches and ministers; punished Sabbath breakers; required each family to possess a Bible and instructed town leaders to ‘supply’ Bibles and ‘a suitable Number of Orthodox Catechisms, and other good Books of practical Godliness’ to families in need; required civic officeholders and voters to take oaths witnessed ‘by the Everlasting God’; required families who adopted ‘an Indian Child’ to instruct him or her in ‘the principles of the Christian Religion’; and passed numerous statutes reflecting Christian morality on issues such as adultery, divorce, drunkenness, fornication, gaming, and horse racing.’14

This code was written the year after the American Revolution ended, and Connecticut was far from alone in passing such laws. Despite the claims of radical secularists, the “real object of the First Amendment,” Joseph Story, associate justice of the Supreme Court from 1812–1845, wrote in his Commentaries on the Constitution,

was not to countenance, much less to advance Mohammedanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity, but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects and to prevent any national ecclesiastical patronage of the national government.

Charles Hodge would have heartily concurred:

The proposition that the United States of America are a Christian and Protestant nation, is not so much the assertion of a principle as the statement of a fact. That fact is not simply that the great majority of the people are Christians and Protestants, but that the organic life, the institutions, laws, and official action of the government, whether that action be legislative, judicial, or executive, is, and of right should be, and in fact must be, in accordance with the principles of Protestant Christianity.15

The original scope of religious toleration at America’s founding was centered on toleration of different Protestant groups. Even if we grant that it’s acceptable for toleration to be extended beyond those bounds, this certainly did not mean for most of America’s history that the laws of our nation should be allowed to subvert Christianity, or to prevent its influence and shaping of our national life.

Making Men Good

I’ve taken you in this talk on a whirlwind tour through the Bible’s teaching on political order, Reformed theologians of the past on this topic, and America’s early political and religious history.16 Now I want to examine one practical application of the Christian pursuit of a just political order. It’s one that reveals how earthly political engagement can even bring about certain spiritual benefits.

Aristotle stated in his Nicomachean Ethics that

lawgivers make the citizens good by training them in habits of right action—this is the aim of all legislation, and if it fails to do this it is a failure; this is what distinguishes a good form of constitution from a bad one.17 

Similarly, in the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, maintained that in order that 

man may know without any doubt what he ought to do and what he ought to avoid, it was necessary for man to be directed in his proper acts by a law given by God, for it is certain that such a law cannot err.18

Reformed theologians disagreed with Aquinas on much, but not much on his teaching about human government and law. Girolamo Zanchi, a 16th-century Italian Reformer, wrote a treatise on law that is practically a Cliff’s Notes version of Aquinas’s treatise on law. In it, he wrote that God’s law as revealed in nature “teaches us what is good, what is bad, what is just, what is unjust, what is upright, what is shameful, and therefore what should be pursued, what should be avoided” and that “it not only teaches this but it also obligates and pushes us to do good, and it protects us from evil.”19

But God’s law revealed in nature, he continues,

has not been so effectively written on the hearts of all people that it alone is effective enough to protect people from evil or to push them to good. . . . For this reason, it was necessary that external laws be handed down and that external penalties be established for lawbreakers.20

The point that all of these men made is essential. Just laws within the frame of a just political order are not just true; they fundamentally shape the whole of a society. They change how we live, how a whole nation lives. While the laws of the state cannot regenerate a man lost in sin, they can change his behavior in ways that are good for everyone in that society, not to mention good for himself. Perhaps I could put it more provocatively: good laws even make Christian sanctification easier.

What do I mean by that?

Consider a contemporary example: laws legalizing marijuana in individual American states. A certain number of people use marijuana regardless of whether it’s legal, so you might think that number would stay roughly the same no matter the drug’s legal status. But that is not the case at all. Marijuana usage skyrockets whenever a state legalizes it. A recent study has shown that usage goes up by 20%, in fact. In the wake of legalization, states have found that crime increases as well, certainly impaired driving offenses (“a 260 percent increase in youth stoned-driving in Colorado” for example), but also general crime rates (and quite significantly so). What does marijuana legalization accomplish (besides creating human zombies)? Increased crime, schizophrenia, city centers that reek of pot, and more. Because of these worrying trends, beginning in 2022, ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana failed in North Dakota, South Dakota, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, even though they had been passed in many states in the years before. They’ve seen the damage and want nothing to do with it.

The example of marijuana legalization is illustrative of the general point that the law teaches. Laws shape and transform human behavior, and therefore shape and transform human societies for better or worse. Good laws are necessary—even if not wholly sufficient—for well-functioning, just societies: “When a scoffer is punished, the simple becomes wise; when a wise man is instructed, he gains knowledge” (Prov 21:11). That’s what laws are for.

And just laws, as I said a few moments ago, make Christian sanctification easier. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that laws take the place of the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts, or that the Holy Spirit’s work is less necessary in a just society. What it means is that in a nation with more just laws the divinely intended teaching function of such laws moves in tandem with the Spirit-reliant striving of the believer after holiness. Or I could put it this way: just laws point the way toward righteous living. They may even do more than that.

There is an example where this should be blindingly obvious. It’s pornography. If all pornography was made instantly illegal (as it should be) you would find very quickly that usage would plummet. Christians seeking sexual purity would not instantly be free from sexual temptations, but it’s hard for me to imagine anyone denying that their quest for increased sanctification would not be significantly aided by such a law. Jesus himself said in his teaching on the latter days that “because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold” (Matt 24:12). Lawlessness in a society has a devastating and detrimental spiritual effect. Consider abortion. It’s often claimed that women don’t know what they’re doing when they have abortions. If that is true (which is unlikely), a clear law forbidding abortion would help them by making the evil of abortion all the more obvious. Unsurprisingly, no-fault divorce laws led to a rapid increase in unbiblical divorces. We’ve already seen how laws legalizing gay marriage have significantly increased support for it in our society. Where such things are illegal, they will diminish, and everyone will benefit, even Christians in their striving after holiness. Because lawfulness will be increased, the love of many will grow warm.

Out of the Present Morass?

Michael Anton, a Hillsdale College politics professor, recently wrote about how writers feel the need to tack on to the end of everything they write a three-step program that will fix all of America’s contemporary social and political problems. In closing, I have a couple of practical comments, but I think Anton is right that

[n]one of us knows the way out of the present morass. Finding our way will require a lot of trial and error, which will inevitably lead to a lot of dead ends. The sooner we realize that no one has all the answers—that few of us have any answers—and stop sniping at one another but begin to work constructively toward a shared, positive future, the better.

Now as Christians, we do have the ultimate answer: Jesus Christ, the savior of sinners, the King of Kings who reigns majestically over all of creation, and who will advance his kingdom until that glorious day when all his and our enemies—sin, Satan, death itself—will be put under his feet.

But it is right and good for Christians to seek to do what they can in the world to, as Anton says, find “the way out of the present morass.” One step we can take is simply to recognize what was so obvious to our Reformed forbears: piety and politics are not antithetical, or at least should not be. The solution to people who become so obsessed with politics that they neglect the eternal well-being of their souls is the gospel: to hold out to them the loveliness of Christ.

But the problem is not politics per se—seeking a just political order—even though it is true that politics presents some uniquely powerful temptations precisely because it holds out the prospect of great earthly power. But political order, governance, political power… these are all aspects of a divine institution—the state. Religion, as Charles Hodge wrote, “must influence [man’s] conduct as an individual, as the head of a family, as a man of business, as a legislator, and as an executive officer.”21 To hold these together—while rightly keeping to the kingdom what belongs to the kingdom and to Caesar what belongs to Caesar—is what I mean by the Rutherford Option.

A second step is to encourage Christians to get involved locally where they may have some chance of actually accomplishing real change. Be prepared for a frustrating experience: vanity, pettiness, stupidity, greed, backstabbing, and more. But as things are in America today, local politics is the one real place where Christians are likely to have the greatest impact.

A third step: older Reformed authors would often address their works to kings and national leaders. Despite what we like to think, voting has very little impact on the massive, unelected administrative state in America today, which is where most of the real power at the national level lies. But our civic leaders themselves can and should be encouraged independently to do what is right before God. The apostle Peter says one thing additional to what Paul says in Romans 13. Not only is it the case that the supreme governing authorities are charged by God to do good and punish evil—emperors, kings, presidents. It’s also the case that “governors as sent by him” are “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” Given America’s federal system, it’s almost certainly the case that it is in individual states where the greatest good can be done, precisely by lower-level governing authorities—governors, sheriffs, county judges, and so on. Reformed political thought has often emphasized this in the past under the heading of the doctrine of the lesser magistrate. The recently elected speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives is a very conservative Christian, or depending on who you listen to, a dangerous Christian Nationalist (maybe even a Christofascist). And this, simply because he says he believes that biblical truths should have some impact on our laws. I can’t unpack and defend the doctrine of the lesser magistrate here, but suffice it to say: there is much that lower-level authorities in America can—and according to Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 should—do to ensure that a just political order prevails. Christians should support them in this, and let them know that they support them.

And a final step: we must pray, trusting in God’s perfect providence and loving care in the midst of whatever difficulties may come our way. God indeed works all things according to the counsel of his will, and yet “who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

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Show 21 footnotes
  1. Samuel Rutherford, Letters, Letter 88.
  2. Samuel Rutherford, Lex, Rex: or, the Law and the Prince, Question 28, Section 4, Argument 1.
  3. Peter Martyr Vermigli, “Introduction,” in Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (vol. 9 of Vermigli’s works; ed. Emidio Campi and Jospeh C. McLelland; Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, 2006 [orig. 1563
  4. Niels Hemmingsen, On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method (trans. and ed. E.J. Hutchinson; Grand Rapids: CLP Academic, 2018 (orig. 1562)), 70.
  5. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.20.4.
  6. Calvin, Institutes, 4.20.2.
  7. Franciscus Junius, The Mosaic Polity (trans. Todd M. Rester; ed. Andrew M. McGinnis; Grand Rapids: CLP Academic, 2015 [orig. 1593
  8. John Witherspoon, “Speech in Congress Upon the Confederation,” in Works, 9:139; cited by Jeffery H. Morrison, John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 103.
  9. Calvin, Institutes, 4.20.2.
  10. Calvin, Institutes, 4.20.3 (emphasis added).
  11. Jonathan Edwards, The Miscellanies, Entry No. 14 (Civil Authority), 1722 (emphasis and material in brackets added).
  12. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003 (orig. 1873)), 3:344.
  13. Quoted in Mark David Hall, Did American Have a Christian Founding? Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth (Nelson, 2019), 92-93.
  14. Hall, Christian Founding, 94.
  15. Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3:343.
  16. If I had more time I would explore how natural (i.e., divine creational) revelation (natural law) serves as a key component of establishing a just political and judicial order. I explore that at more length here.
  17. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II.i.4-5 (Loeb ed., 73).
  18. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II.91.4.
  19. Girolamo Zanchi, On the Law in General, “On Natural Law,” Thesis 8.III; (trans. Jeffrey J. Veenstra; Grand Rapids: CLP Academic, 2018 (orig. 1576)), 17.
  20. Zanchi, Law in General, “On Human Laws,” Thesis 1; 28.
  21. Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3:342.
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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.

One thought on “The Rutherford Option

  1. The above article suffers from factual and logical problems. Considering the following quote from around the middle of the article:

    ‘I’ve taken you in this talk on a whirlwind tour through the Bible’s teaching on political order, Reformed theologians of the past on this topic, and America’s early political and religious history. Now I want to examine one practical application of the Christian pursuit of a just political order. It’s one that reveals how earthly political engagement can even bring about certain spiritual benefits.’

    The problem with the above statement is the very first sentence. What Scriptures were even referenced, let alone quoted, before that paragraph? Perhaps, there was more to the beginning of the talk than what the above transcript shows. But if that isn’t the case, the statement is false

    Yes, some Scriptures are referred to afterwards, and even some New Testament scriptures are referred to. But Dunson seems to be basing his argument more on Protestant teachings and practices established during Christendom. And one problem with that from a socially conservative perspective is that the faults and failures of Christendom co-planted the seeds of Critical Theory and Post Modernism. That alone provides evidence that not only did Christendom fail, it greatly harmed the reputation of the Gospel.

    Another error that involves factual and logical problems is found in Dunson’s use of the marijuana laws to prove that good laws will always curb personal vices. Yes, it is possible that the legalization of marijuana causes its use to sharply increase. But it does not then logically follow that criminalizing a personal vice will produce positive effects on society.

    Here we should note that the legalization of marijuana is not comparable with the criminalization of a personal vice. Why? It is because the legalization of a personal vice that was once criminalized is not the same as the criminalization of a personal vice that was previously legal. In addition, the effects of Prohibition serve as a counterexample to Dunson’s claim. But even if Prohibition provided a good example for Dunson’s claim, it could never be used to prove his point. Why? It is because to prove by example is a logical fallacy. Some examples might support Dunson’s point, but until all do, he cannot logically use one or even a few examples to try to prove his point.

    Finally, someone here tries to rely on New Testament passages to try to show that we Christians should seek to rule over a nation. But there are problems with using those passages to establish that claim. For example, in the two passages cited, good and evil are not explicitly defined by either Peter or Paul. And it would be easy to do so in Romans because of Romans 1. But there is nothing in either Romans 1 or the rest of that epistle that indicates that the government should punish every sin mentioned in Romans 1. So it appears that what Paul meant by good and evil was already understood by his immediate audience.

    Are there New Testament passages that speak against what is proposed by Dunson? When Paul writes about disciplining a church member for a sexual sin in I Corinthians 5, Paul is explicitly apathetic about the sexual purity of society. His only concern is the sexual purity of the Church.

    Matthew 20:20-28 also provides some insight into whether our seeking dominion over the earth includes trying to rule over others. In a discussion as to who would be great among the disciples, Jesus not only prohibited them from dominating over each other as the Gentiles do, but He told them to seek to serve one another. Some might argue that such a teaching only applies to how Christians should relate to each other. But in Luke 10:8-12, Jesus tells his disciples that when people reject their preaching, they should warn the people about God’s judgment as they leave.

    Also, when we look at the New Testament passages that involve Church discipline, what is assumed is a society that is not dominated by Church laws, rules, and teaching. Being forced into such a society without the help provided by the Church is a punishment for the unrepentant believer only. In fact, such is the ultimate punishment that the Church can visit on a person. But that punishment is for believers only.

    There is nothing in the New Testament in teaching or by example which tells believers to seek to have dominion over unbelievers in society. The passages in the Old Testament are for God’s covenant people. But, in the New Testament, God’s covenant people is the Church; it isn’t any nation or society. Perhaps that is why the writers at American Reformer rely so heavily the words and examples of Christian leaders and influencers who lived during Christendom. But if there is nothing in the New Testament that warrants the seeking of such control over society, why do the writers here speak as if that wasn’t the case?

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