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SBC Life Articles

Sinful Silence: Ignoring God’s Demand for Civil Morality


The November elections are only weeks away. They provide the opportunity for God’s people, through their vote, to make a sweeping contribution to our government’s moral direction. Yet, if this year’s turnout among evangelicals mirror’s past years, the prospect for significant improvement looks dim indeed. Consider the voting record of those who claim to be members of evangelical churches. According to the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, on average less than half of all eligible voters among evangelicals have voted in the last three elections. At best, this reflects ignorance of God’s expectations in the civil arena. At worst, it reflects apathy or defiance.

When God’s people are silent at the polls we should not wonder at the immorality and corruption that so often characterizes our civil leaders. In light of such silence and civil immorality, we should consider God’s priority on His children’s participation in the civil arena. Could it be that our failure to vote is “no big deal” in the eternal scope of things? Or, does failure to fulfill these civic duties actually grieve our Father and in some way hinder our relationship with Him? On a larger scale, is it possible that the spiritual stagnancy in so many churches across the land stems from Christians’ inactivity at the polls?

Perhaps it seems overly simplistic to imply such a link. However, Isaiah 1:10-17 indicates that failure in our civil responsibilities has a negative impact on spiritual life. When we examine these verses, we find God’s moral expectations of government and citizens, and the consequences of ignoring them.

Shared Responsibility, Shared Guilt (Isaiah 1:10)

For 200 years following the reign of Solomon, the Jewish people experienced an unparalleled time of peace and prosperity. Israel to the North and Judah in the South were secure in their borders and successful in their industry. Tragically, their national security and prosperity led to preoccupation with self-centered goals and rejection of God’s priorities. As God prepared to pour out judgment on the Northern Kingdom, He issued a “wake-up call” to the people of Judah. Through the fiery prophet Isaiah, God declared to His people what He expected of them and their leadership.

Our first glimpse into God’s view on this issue is in verse 10, where Isaiah declares, “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah!” (NIV) The Lord, in this scathing rebuke, equated the rulers of Judah with the rulers of Sodom. Such a claim was extremely harsh, and He revealed the basis of His accusation in verse 17 when He said, “… learn to do right. Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” (NIV)

The concept of justice in Isaiah’s day was not restricted merely to judicial proceedings. It included clear standards of right and wrong, truthfulness, sexual morality, and the sanctity of human life. However, the leaders in Isaiah’s time redefined right and wrong, were notoriously deceptive, were grossly immoral, and participated in child sacrifices to the pagan deity Molech.1 Rather than championing God’s moral standards for government, they not only allowed such atrocities, but gave them legal sanction and led the nation in violation. Hence, they stood guilty before God.

Though they were declared guilty, the indictment was not restricted to the leaders. Isaiah likened the people of Judah to the people of Gomorrah, linking the sins of the leaders to the citizens. Furthermore, in verses 19 and 20, God threatened judgment on the entire nation because of their leaders’ failures, saying, “… If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” (NIV) He made the same connection between the leaders’ failures and judgment upon the citizens in verses 24 and 25. God held the citizens of Judah accountable for the sins of their leaders.2

If it seems unfair to hold the people accountable for the sins of the leaders, consider their civil structure. As God prepared the people to enter the Promised Land, He established standards for the selection and character of their leaders. In Deuteronomy 16:18-20, Moses told the people that when they settled in Canaan, they were responsible to: “Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, … Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the LORD your God is giving you.” (NIV) Further, he said in 17:14 and 15: “When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, ‘Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,’ be sure to appoint over you the king the Lord your God chooses … .” (NIV)

This system of appointment should not be equated with modern democratic elections.3 Yet, as Kalland points out, God placed the responsibility for these civil expectations squarely on the shoulders of the people.4 And there is no evidence that God had canceled or rescinded this design for the Jewish nation during Isaiah’s time.

We conclude that God placed the responsibility for the leaders’ sins as much on the people as on the leaders themselves. The leaders were guilty because of their actions. The people were guilty because they either placed immoral leaders in leadership, reflecting their own corrupt desires, or they allowed them to be appointed and to continue in those positions, reflecting their own apathy towards the things which concern God.

These passages reveal a principle that has direct bearing on our own civil government. When citizens have a voice in the selection and direction of their civil leaders, God holds both the leaders and the citizens accountable for the civil sins of the government.

Judah was a theocratic monarchy, and the United States was established as a democratic republic. Though there are significant differences in the organization and function of the two civil structures, that does not negate the principle and its relevance for us. The Lord declares that He has absolute authority over and moral expectations of all governments.5 Scripture demonstrates God’s judgment on secular governments that violated His standards of righteousness: protection for the oppressed, truth, sexual morality, and the sanctity of life.6 Our government, indeed all human governments are subject to the same expectations, authority, and judgment of God.

Ours is a government “… of the people, by the people and for the people.” In our nation, the burden of choosing and placing political leaders rests upon the citizens. When their actions conflict with God’s standards, we have the ability to influence or replace our elected representatives. Because of our corporate participation, or lack of it, in electing officials to office and holding them accountable while in office, we ultimately bear corporate responsibility for their actions and decisions.

Finally, those of us in the United States who claim to follow the Lord’s teachings bear a higher level of responsibility. Though we are citizens of God’s Kingdom first, we still are expected to function as citizens in this earthly kingdom. We know God’s moral standards for our civil government and through our vote we have direct access to the decision making process in our nation.

Furthermore, He expects us to act as ambassadors on His behalf, representing His interests and expectations in our dark world. These interests include demands for civil morality. Therefore, if we are irresponsible in our voting or if we fail to vote, we cannot escape accountability before God. If we don’t make our best effort to hold officials accountable for civil immorality after their election, we, too, share the burden of their guilt.

The principle of shared accountability does not apply in a totalitarian regime, for in such a setting the people have no voice in the selection and actions of their leaders. But this is not the case in our nation. Christian citizens have the legal ability to impact the civil arena in a positive way, not just through evangelistic witness, but also through our vote and access to elected officials. As they use this ability, they reflect God’s standards of morality in their society. When we fail to do so, we stand alongside our leaders, accountable before God for national sins, and thus, subject to national judgment.

Impact on Worship (Isaiah 1:11-16)

Verses 11-16 reveal a second principle regarding civil immorality. We find that when God’s people neglect their civil duty and abandon His moral priorities in civil government, He considers it sin and rejects their worship. In verses 11-15, God refused the sacrifices, assemblies, and prayers of His people. In refusing them, He used harsh and graphic language which should have shocked the listeners. He revealed that His rejection was based on the leaders’ and the people’s failure to keep His most basic moral standards in civil government (vs.17, 23). In verse 16 He revealed the gravity of their neglect, declaring it was ”evil” and “wrong.”

Both the leaders and the people knew God’s moral standards for governing, yet they failed to maintain them. In this they sinned, and consequently God rejected their worship. The concept of sin hindering worship is not unique to this passage. In 59:1-4, Isaiah declared that the people’s neglect of justice, specifically in the shedding of innocent blood, rendered their prayers useless. In numerous passages the Scriptures indicate that continued, unconfessed sin obstructs worship.7 Such was the case with Judah.

Once again, we must ask if this passage is relevant for us today. We don’t follow the same pattern of worship. Because of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice we don’t offer blood sacrifices or participate in the same kind of assemblies they did. Nevertheless, we are expected to participate in individual and corporate worship and prayer. Moreover, ongoing, unconfessed sin obstructs our prayer, worship, and fellowship with God even today.8

Therefore, because we know God’s moral standards for our government, and because we have the ability to elect and influence our elected leaders accordingly, when our elected leaders continually defy God’s moral expectations, and when we fail to respond through our vote and contact with our elected leaders, we sin.

The admonition of James 4:17 is instructive here: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” So if we know the Lord’s moral expectations of government, and if we allow civil immorality to continue through our silence at the polls, we should not be surprised when our prayers, worship, and assemblies bear little fruit.

There are at least two applications for our nation. The first regards our elected and appointed officials. When a leader claims to be a Christian believer but consistently defies truth, justice, morality, and the sanctity of human life, his walk with God and his prayers are blocked. That leader’s prayers for wisdom, direction, and national blessing will be utterly in vain. A leader who knowingly and continually abandons God’s moral standards in governing is living in sin, and worships in vain.

The second concerns our worship in local churches. We can’t escape the impact of these truths on corporate prayer, worship, and fellowship with God. If members in a local congregation are knowingly and continually involved in sin, it hinders worship.9 If failure to employ the vote according to God’s moral expectations of government is sin, and if a significant number of members are guilty, it must impact corporate prayer life and worship. Now, consider the time, energy, focus, and preparation that go into our worship. Because failure to maintain God’s moral standards for our government through our vote and input is disobedience, when Christian people disobey God through their civil silence, the impact on our churches is monumental and tragic.

We should understand that these consequences are directly connected to our knowledge of God’s priorities in governing and our support of leaders who will keep these priorities. If we even attempt to be obedient in these areas, these specific consequences would not apply. However, when we consider our nation’s condition it is obvious that many, if not most, of us have not been faithful in voting for leaders who will uphold God’s standards. Beyond voting, how many of us actually voice our moral convictions to our elected representatives?

This is not to suggest that the ultimate solution to our nation’s ills is political. It is not. Our nation’s primary ills are spiritual and can only be healed by salvation through Jesus Christ. As Cal Thomas has rightly observed, “… national revival will not arrive on Air Force One.”10 However, if we do not attempt to choose her occupants and influence their policies, and if we do not do the same for other elected positions, we sin and our hopes and prayers for revival are futile. God will only bring revival if we are willing to obey Him. If we refuse to embrace and reflect God’s civil priorities, at least through our vote and contact with elected officials, we need not annoy Him with prayers for nationwide revival.

 

1. The standards of justice were established for the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. For a thorough discussion of mishphat, consider Herntrich’s article, in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. III, especially page 927, and Buchsel’s discussion on page 935. For examples of these violations see: Is. 1:29; 5:8,9; 65:3; 66:17; Micah 2:1,2,9; 3:2-11; Amos 5:7-15. For information on child sacrifice to Molech, see Lev. 18:21; 20:1-5; II Kings 16:3 (Ahaz reigned during the early years of Isaiah’s ministry). Also consider Culver’s article in the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. 1, pages 509, 510; and Waltke’s article in Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4, page 269. The “shedding of innocent blood,” linked to the era and referred to by the prophets, is often identified with child sacrifices to Molech. Compare the sins of Manasseh in II Kings 21:10-16 and 24:3,4 with Jer. 7: 6, 30-31; 19: 4,5; and Ps. 106:38.

2. Isaiah’s address in 1:17 is not directed primarily to the leaders but jointly to the people and the leaders. Also, the accusation of vs. 23 is directed toward the people, chastising them because their rulers and leaders were corrupt. Isaiah further addresses this connection between the people and the sins of the leaders in 3:13-15; 5:7; 5:14; 5:23, 25. This clearly indicates a shared accountability on the part of the people for the civil sins of their leaders.

3. However, Patrick Miller, professor of OT Theology at Princeton uses the term “election” (Interpretation — A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching, Deuteronomy, John Knox Press, page 142)

4. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 3. Deuteronomy, pg. 112.

5. Ps.106:3; Prov.8:14-16; Rom 13:1-7; I Pet. 2:13,14

6. See Amos 1:3-2:3; Jonah 1:2;3:1-9; Nahum 3:1-4,19; Habakkuk 2:1-15

7. See Ps.66:18; Zech.7:8-13; Matt.5:23,24; I Pet.3:7

8. I Pet.3:7; Matt.5:23,24; I Jn.1:6,9; Rev.3:16,20

9. Consider Revelation 2 and 3, especially 3:15,16,19,29

10. Speech at the Southern Baptist National Pastor’s Conference, June 14, 1993 in Houston Texas.

    About the Author

  • John Revell