God-honouring Public Service in an Ungodly Government
God-honouring Public Service in an Ungodly Government

God-honouring Public Service in an Ungodly Government

Our careers and our human institutions are made of clay, not lasting gold and silver. Yet they are means through which we experience the satisfaction of serving God and contributing to the wellbeing of others, in this place of exile.

November 7 th 2011

Bear with me—I'll get to service in government. But start here: Maybe Steve Jobs was wrong. Not about Pixar—Toy Story, The Incredibles, and the other amazing digitally animated fables. Not about Apple—I'm biased in his favour, a fan since the Mac Plus (1985), the possessor of a bunch of the gadgets he dreamed into mass production. No, I mean what if he was wrong about the character of meaningful work and a meaningful life?

After his recent death, Steve's 2005 Stanford University commencement speech was much re-read and re-watched. It is an elegant and charming speech. And poignant: he tells, for instance, of being an adopted child and he states his conviction that death is just a clearing away of the old so that the new can flourish—out with the iPad, in favour of the iPad 2. In that speech to the graduating students, he gives this polished item of advice, a conclusion drawn from his own life: because work is a major part of one's life, "the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do."

Sounds great. Sounds right. But if Steve is right, aren't we all in deep trouble, given the actual brokenness of this world's institutions, not least government? And yet, maybe he is wrong, and meaning and satisfaction in life and career have their origin and destination outside of our own desires.

The Prophet Elisha and Namaan, the Syrian Public Servant

Consider the story from 2 Kings 5 about Namaan, the "commander of the army of the king of Syria" in the days of the prophet Elisha. Namaan was a "mighty man of valour," favoured by the king because of his military victories. He also had contracted the very un-social disease, leprosy.

Namaan's wife possessed an Israeli slave girl, and that girl persuaded Namaan that he could be cured by the godly prophet she knew was in Samaria, in Israel. Long story short, Namaan, after humbling himself and following Elisha's command to dip seven times into the river Jordan, was made clean, the leprosy all gone. Returning to thank Elisha, Namaan declares his new conviction: "There is no God in all the world except in Israel." And he promises that henceforth he will offer no sacrifice to any god but the LORD. And then he immediately seeks from Elisha absolution for disobedience. For, after he returns home, Namaan knows he'll be required to accompany the king of Syria to worship in the house of Rimmon. When the king, leaning on Namaan's arm, bows down, Namaan will have to bow down, too, to a false god. So he seeks Elisha's assurance: "May the LORD forgive your servant" for this idolatrous act. And Elisha responds, "Go in peace."

But wait, aren't we to worship only the true God, putting away all idolatry? How can it please God that Namaan will return to the service of the king of Syria and there, as part of his job, his career, participate in false worship? How can Elisha brush off the offenses to come with that easy, "Go in peace?" And how can Namaan find it tolerable to return to a job that requires bowing down to a god he now knows is false? Doesn't Elisha's blessing of Namaan's service in a pagan government clash totally with Steve Jobs's advice that we can only be satisfied if we can "believe" wholeheartedly in what we do? That wholehearted commitment, that satisfaction from a job of integrity and creativity, is not too likely to be ours if our career is to serve in a pagan government!

And yet Namaan, as a person called to serve God in an inhospitable environment—an environment where much falls short of glorifying God and honouring his life-giving precepts—is not an oddball or outlier in the biblical story. Remember Daniel and his three companions, involuntarily drafted into the service of Nebuchadnezzar; they won space to follow the true God to a degree and yet this was far from a godly government. Moses was God's means to liberate his people from captivity in Egypt, yet was first divinely sent to be raised in Pharaoh's household. Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers and, after multiple new injustices, raised to be second in command under Pharaoh, was the saviour of God's people from famine, but only because he was serving in the government of Egypt, not in the Promised Land. In the New Testament, remember, among others, Zacchaeus, tax collector for the oppressive Romans, who was convinced by his encounter with Jesus to remedy past unjust exactions and yet did not give up his position in the anti-Jewish government apparatus (Luke 19); or those "saints . . . who belong to Caesar's household," as noted in the letter to Philippi (Philippians 4:22); or Erastus, Paul's brother in Christ, who was the "director of public works" or treasurer for the decidedly ungodly city of Corinth, from where Paul wrote the letter to the Romans (Romans 16:23).

How do we make sense of these careers that fit into God's plan and yet were carried out in governments that were set against God? How can we make sense of Elisha's excusing of Namaan's obeisance to the false god Rimmon? What about you, if you choose to serve in government? (And here's a secret: you cannot escape the dilemma by serving in business, higher education, or even the church).

Not One Square Inch Over Which Christ Doesn't Cry, "Mine!"

This statement about Jesus's sovereignty over all of life is a famous saying of Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch Reformed leader of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—theologian and church-founder, professor and university-founder, politician and party-founder, writer of devotionals and political commentaries, newspaper publisher and friend of Christian trade unions and Christian schools. As Richard Mouw reminds us in his recent "short and personal introduction" to Kuyper (Eerdmans, 2011), this rather self-satisfied reverend was brought to evangelical faith by the bold witness of a young village girl and left behind his rationalistic and watered-down faith for a passionate commitment to all-of-life Christianity. God made everything good, even very good, and though all has been compromised, bent, by sin, by our disobedience to the Creator, God through Jesus Christ is at work to redeem every square inch of his creation. Jesus is the ruler of it all and he calls us to join him in his transformative work, his work to make "all of life redeemed"1—government, culture, and bodies, not just eternal souls.

Transformation is the watchword. Join with Jesus to make all things new, to unbend what is bent, to bring new life everywhere that sin has brought decay and death. That means to government and public administration. These, too, were originally good gifts, however twisted they now are. Politics, Paul Marshall reminds us, "is not merely a realm of struggle and sin. It is also a ministry, protecting the lives of human beings, God's image bearers. It is a means of bringing justice and dignity."

So here is a great calling for those inclined to a career in government: to bring justice and dignity. In short, to follow the guidance of King Jesus. Not to bow down to false god Rimmon! Was Elisha just wrong to send Namaan back to prop up the Syrian king?

Seek the Peace and Prosperity of the City to Which I Have Carried You into Exile

Among American evangelicals, as the mirage of a Christian America vanishes, the theme of faithful living while in exile has come to the fore. Peter's first letter speaks directly to people like ourselves, living in a culture intent on following a whole pantheon of gods other than God: we are "aliens and strangers in the world." Yet, that should not lead us to despair or inactivity. Rather, Peter says, "Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us" (I Peter 2:11-12). That echoes the advice from God that the prophet Jeremiah sent to the people of God who had been carried into exile to Babylon: "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters . . . Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will proper" (Jeremiah 29:5-7). That is, even when the society is blatantly following a god other than God, even when an institution is off track and knows nothing of King Jesus, we are called to service, and that service can be a blessing in God's eyes.

At the least, such a sobering evaluation of the society in which we live—pagan, not Christian! exile, not the Promised Land!—must tell us that service in a way that pleases God does not require institutions that visibly honour God and that conform in all ways to his norms of justice and flourishing. That possibility has to be a relief. Recall St. Augustine's famous remark that a government that does not pursue justice is but a gang of robbers. To be sure, government truly is a good gift of God—we need it to bring down warlords, invaders, and domestic abusers; to make structures and services for the common good; to provide hedges that enable us to coordinate our lives harmoniously. And yet how easily it acts as that gang of robbers, or even, as we have seen all too often over the past one hundred years, as a machine of murderers. Praise and thank God for the justice we do experience: governments that trend to public justice, to accountability; that protect human rights and honour religious freedom; that are staffed by many public servants who bend their efforts to serve the public. And yet all human government, like all humans, have a bent to disobedience, to injustice; there is none righteous, no, not one (cf. Romans 3:10ff). Governments tend to Babylon; they may set themselves to do good, but often pursue it unjustly.

And so it is in this setting—a broken institution, bent away from God as much or more than intending to follow him—that politicians and civil servants must make a career. We live in exile—no longer in the Garden of Eden, not yet in the City of God.

Steve Jobs claimed that the only way we can be "truly satisfied" with our work, our careers, is to be engaged in what we can regard to be "great work," work that we can "love" to do. But, apparently, being called to public service, to a career in government, is to be called to work that cannot truly satisfy, for it will include much that we cannot love, and perhaps even much that we are convinced is wrong. Even if we do not personally have to engage in flagrantly wrong activities, we will still be complicit in an apparatus where many divisions and offices may well be perpetrating smaller or larger injustices. And in any case, the government for certain will not profess a desire to follow King Jesus!

Proximate Justice: Two Stories

Steve Garber, in a wonderful 2007 Comment essay, pointed out that Christians who work in politics must "make peace with proximate justice." In our time, in our in-between era, we may and must long for the justice of King Jesus, but to be able to stick with our political vocation we must be satisfied instead with an approximation of full justice: "the possibility of proximate justice—of something rather than nothing—knowing ahead of time that it will never be everything on this side of the consummation" of history.

I thought of this sobering truth when, a few years ago, I read in a foreign policy journal about a passionate advocate for justice who had agreed to serve in the administration of a new, reform-minded, leader of an African nation. As is routine in countries where governments have long been corrupt and where there is little history of good civic participation, the new government quickly reverted to the bad old patterns. And now the advocate was reflecting on the choice she had made to take a chance on the leader's promise that his administration would not be like all the ones before. There was, indeed, little reform and much corruption, she admitted. The nation still suffered greatly because of the incompetence and injustice of the government. And yet, as minister in the government she had acted differently than her colleagues. Even powerless people could gain an audience with her, and she resolutely refused bribes from both rich and poor. She could not repair the government but she could treat citizens with dignity. She rendered proximate justice—an example of true public service by a public servant.

And, though the "proximate justice" article was not yet written, I thought of Francis Schaeffer's similar idea of "substantial healing" when I was invited in 2001 to join President George W. Bush's new White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The administration was an imperfect vehicle for perfect justice, without a doubt. Not corrupt and incompetent in the blatant way of the African government but nonetheless an imperfect mechanism. The Republican Party is as little dedicated to following King Jesus as is the Democratic Party. President Bush is personally pious and yet his administration was filled with people of diverse convictions, and, in any case, pursuing a politics of justice requires more than personal piety. The Bush administration had a broad agenda, as any modern government must have, and not all of it fit closely with my own political philosophy, with my (fallible) sense of a biblical politics.

Yet I was, and am, sure that one of President Bush's top priorities—reforming the federal government's ways of regulating and collaborating with faith-based organizations (schools, adoption agencies, drug treatment centres, hospitals and clinics, overseas development programs)—was a worthy and vital mission. Indeed, his reforms and the faith-based offices he established have been carried forth by President Barack Obama. (And, to my surprise and delight, I was invited to advise President Obama's faith-based initiative, though I had been employed by President Bush's administration.) President Bush did much else, some of it not good at all. But by joining the administration I was able to foster justice in one area of the federal government's functioning. Proximate justice.

It Isn't All About You

Hebrews 11 is the great roll call of people of faith. Here are listed prophets, great leaders, unsung heroes, martyrs, including some who "administered justice." They are called in the next chapter "a great cloud of witnesses." And yet they were not successful in worldly terms; they "did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance." They had to regard themselves to be "aliens and strangers on earth." They had no secure home here, no place of full flourishing and personal satisfaction. "Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one" (Hebrews 11:13-16).

Steve Jobs in his commencement speech was right, in a way: created in God's image to flourish in this world, we naturally do seek work that we can consider to be "great work," work that is an expression of "love for what you do." And yet, this is a world marred by sin. Its institutions, government notably, are twisted, prone to bad action as well as good. They are not perfect instruments; our work and our careers will not be pure examples of bliss, of honouring God, of satisfying our hearts' desire for meaningful and innovative and wonderful action.2 To expect a career in government to be a fit vehicle for following Jesus in all ways is to head directly to deep disappointment.

And yet, the reality that our careers and our human institutions are made of clay, not lasting gold and silver, is no reason not to see them as means through which to experience the satisfaction of serving God and contributing to the wellbeing of others in this place of exile. We see an example of honouring God and serving neighbours right in the story of Namaan. For Namaan, powerful Syrian military commander, only learned of Elisha and received healing from his leprosy because of the faithful witness of a little girl who had been captured by a military raid into Israel. An unpromising career, to be sure. Yet she is remembered in the Bible for her obedience.



You can find more on this subject in these books: Bradshaw Frey, et al., All of Life Redeemed: Biblical Insight for Daily Obedience (Jordan Station: Paideia Press, 1983); Albert Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2005); Paul Marshall, with Lela Gilbert, Heaven Is Not My Home: Living in the Now of God's Creation (Nashville: Word: 1998; Gabe Lyons, The Next Christians: How a New Generation Is Restoring the Faith (New York: Doubleday, 2010).


In his new and very good book, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2011), Miroslav Volf points out that, although the pervasive idea in our time is that the good life is one filled with satisfying experiences (challenging work, exciting vacations, an enticing spouse, etc.), the biblical idea (the idea also of most religions and also classical philosophical systems) of a good life is one that fits with God's design for the world and for people, a design that is being recovered through Christ the Redeemer and Lord. It isn't crazy, then, to accept martydom in order to remain faithful to God, or to regard as satisfying a life dedicated to serving the destitute and neglected with Mother Teresa, or to put up with many wrongful restrictions in order to be able to do acts of justice as a public servant in a government.

Stanley Carlson-Thies
Stanley Carlson-Thies

Stanley Carlson-Thies is founder and President of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, a Washington, DC-area nonpartisan think tank that focuses on safeguarding the religious identity and faith-shaped standards and sevices of faith-based service organizations. Until the end of 2008 he was Director of Faith-Based Policy Studies at the Center for Public Justice, where he remains a Senior Fellow. He is the convener of the Coalition to Preserve Religious Freedom, a multi-faith alliance of social-service, education, and religious freedom organizations that advocates for the religious freedom of faith-based organizations to Congress and the federal administration. He is a consultant to the Department of Labor’s Beneficiary-Choice Contracting project and has consulted on the removal of barriers with the Department of Health and Human Services Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and several states, including Ohio, Texas, and Virginia.


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