Charles Colson's fear and trembling

By RONALD N. NEFF

 

Charles Colson's answer to the proposition "The government of the United States of America no longer governs by the consent of the governed" is the most objectionable of the First Things symposiasts' treatment of that proposition. By armoring the obvious answer with many qualifications he castrates the proposition entirely:

"Only the Church collectively can decide at what point a government becomes sufficiently corrupt that a believer must resist it," and then it must do so "with fear and trembling." I pause here to remark that he has appropriated that last phrase from Scripture, where it has nothing to do with the legitimacy of states. It has, rather, to do with how we are to work out our salvation (Philippians 2:12). That Colson should apply the injunction to this context is breathtakingly audacious.

Colson never argues for his assertion that "only the Church in some corporate capacity, not the individual Christian, has the authority to answer the question of our allegiance to the present regime." He knows perfectly well that there is not one denomination in the country that has the corporate structure for arriving at such a conclusion; still less is there a structure from which the church, the mystical body of Christ, may speak as with one voice on the subject. (That the body of Christ, who is the Word of God, should be without a corporate body to speak for it does not seem to strike Colson as at all ironic.)

The mainline Protestant churches lose more members every time they undertake to pronounce one way or the other on a dogmatic, moral, or social issue, the Episcopal Church being the primary example. The fundamentalists would never accept a charismatic's inspiration, and the charismatics, by their own theology, would be pretty much barred from turning to anything less. The Orthodox churches claim the authority to hold an oecumenical council, but they haven't exercised that right at any time since their break from Rome, and it is not at all clear that they could ever put aside their various arcane and internecine squabbles long enough to even decide who was entitled to sit in such a council. Only the Catholic Church has such a structure, and it is international, not confined to this country. Moreover, Popes and their councils have been reluctant to declare any governing body illegitimate (i.e., place a country under interdict) ever since Elizabeth I — with a ruthlessness that easily equaled that of her sister and predecessor, Mary I — crowded the Catholic kalendar with hundreds (perhaps thousands) of martyr saints.

Much of Colson's case, such as it is, depends on his view of abortion — especially the partial-birth abortion — as infanticide; yet of the mainline churches only those with international governing bodies — the Catholic and Orthodox churches — have unqualifiedly condemned abortion. A few of the evangelical bodies have done so, but the reason they exist apart from their mainline forebears is that their members were a minority voice (or a poorly organized majority voice) that could not keep the mainline bodies from departing from what they saw as Biblical teaching on dogmatic and social issues; in short, when it came to actually governing the larger ecclesiastical bodies, they were ineffectual.

To say that "the Church collectively" is the only organ through which Christians can determine when their allegiance to the state has expired is to say that Christians have no way of determining when it has expired. To offer this solution, which is so patently no solution at all, is easily the most shameless evasion of the symposium.

But even that's not enough for Colson: "Our discussion ... must be conducted with care, in a manner that is formal rather than intuitive, deliberative, rather than spontaneous, regulative rather than pragmatic."

Can anyone really imagine that such a diffident undertaking could ever conclude that the state is illegitimate?

It comes as no surprise that Colson doesn't have much use for the likes of Tom Paine. But apparently he would also have little use for Leo Tolstoy, who wrote, "From the day when the first members of councils placed exterior authority higher than interior, that is to say, recognized the decisions of men united in councils as more important and more sacred than reason and conscience; on that day began lies that caused the loss of millions of human beings and which continue their work to the present day."

 

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