In Romans chapter one Paul clearly sets out the course of human apostasy and its inevitable conclusion. He tells us there that the whole of created reality bears witness to the glory of God. But men refuse to accept this. They deny the God of creation and seek to find the meaning and purpose of life somewhere else. But the only place that men can turn for such meaning beside God is the created order itself. Therefore they elevate some aspect of this created order to the level of an ultimate principle of explanation. In other words they place some aspect of the created order in the place of God and seek to explain the meaning and purpose of life in terms of that which takes the place of God. This is what idolatry is. It matters little whether such idolatry is of the gross superstitious kind, or the more pseudo-intellectual kind such as evolution, the basic principle is the same, namely the belief that the cause, meaning and purpose of the whole cosmos is to be found in the created order itself. This is so for all forms of paganism as well as modern apostate philosophy and science, since the gods of the ancient and pagans worlds were themselves aspects of the cosmos itself, which was considered eternal. The gods that the pagans believed had shaped the world were further up the chain of being, to be sure, but they were essentially still part of the same substance, the same reality as mankind and all other things. This world is all there is. There is no totally transcendent being who created the cosmos out of nothing. Therefore the meaning of the cosmos is to be found in itself.
As a result of this idolatry, this search for meaning in the created order itself rather than in the one who created it out of nothing, men became fools and exchanged the truth of God for a lie (Rom. 1:25). Therefore God gave men up to their own sin, to their own degraded passions, i.e. the lust for homosexual relations, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness, envy, murder, deceitfulness etc. (Rom. 1:26ff.).
The prevalence of homosexual sin in society, therefore, is not the cause of God’s judgement upon men for their sin. Rather, it is the judgement of God upon men for their sin. The very fact that society is afflicted with this sin of sexual chaos points to the judgement of God upon society for its idolatry and apostasy. Homosexual practices were common in the world of ancient paganism, and it seems that this pattern is repeated wherever society is in the grip of idolatry and apostasy. The blight of homosexuality upon society is God’s judgement against men for their idolatry, an expression of his wrath, not what initially provokes that wrath. The homosexualised culture is the end product of a society that has abandoned the God of Scripture and turned to idolatry in order to find the meaning and purpose of existence, and therefore the consequence of men being given up to their sin, to their own desire to be free of God and his will for their lives.
If as Christians we wish to see our society free of the blight of homosexuality, therefore, we must seek to understand the causes of God’s judgement upon the nation. Merely remonstrating about the evils of homosexuality will achieve nothing (though this does not mean we should not disapprove, and declare our disapproval, of such sin.) We must seek to understand what led to such a judgement being visited upon our society. The cause will be found in the nation’s spiritual apostasy from God, not in the gay bars of the homosexual underworld. And the remedy will be found in the repentance of the nation for that spiritual apostasy, not in the passing of laws proscribing homosexual activity. Of course this does not mean that we should not have laws proscribing homosexual activity. Homosexual acts are crimes in the Bible and our own legislation should reflect this fact. But merely re-criminalising homosexuals acts without seeking to remedy the national apostasy that led to God’s visiting this terrible judgement upon our society will not on its own solve the problem. We must take seriously the argument of Paul in the first chapter of Romans. Shutting our eyes to the truth he there expounds will not help us.
What light can the story of Sodom and Gomorrah shed on our situation. A great deal in fact. The Scriptures are given us that we might learn and understand God’s will for our lives and for our societies and nations, because as Jesus commanded, we are to disciple all nations to Christ, i.e. teach them to live in conformity with the will of Christ as revealed in his word, the Bible. That is our Great Commission from Christ himself (Mt. 28:18:–20. cf. 5:17–20).
What then was the reason for Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction? What was their sin? We are told quite explicitly by Ezekiel that the sin of Sodom was fourfold, namely pride, excess, idleness and neglect of the poor and needy (Ez. 16:49). And to this is then added that the people of Sodom were “haughty” and “committed abominations” before the Lord (v. 50). Furthermore, we are told that the sins of Jerusalem were greater than those of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Isaiah likens Jerusalem to Sodom, saying to the rulers of Jerusalem, “Here the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom; and give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah . . . Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgement [i.e. justice], relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Is. 1:10–17)—i.e. make sure justice prevails and that the orphan and the widow are not oppressed in their affliction. In these Scriptures the sins of Jerusalem and those of Sodom, against which the comparison is made, are not exclusively sexual sins, e.g. the perversion of homosexuality, but the sins of pride, excess, idleness, injustice perpetrated against and a lack of regard for those in society who are least able to defend themselves against oppression, e.g. the poor and needy, orphans and widows.
Now it is clear that modern Western society, including Britain, is afflicted with the plague of homosexuality. The comparison with Sodom is therefore pertinent. But the comparison is not limited to this sexual sin, as is clear from Paul’s listing of many other sins that plague an idolatrous culture. The pride and arrogance of modern Western society in its rejection of God and his word, the satisfaction with which it trusts in its own wisdom, and the ridiculing contempt in which it holds the law of God,—and such ridicule and contempt for God’s law is even to be found in the Church—is as heinous in the sight of God as the pride of Sodom, for which it was destroyed. The excess of bread, the satiety, to which reference is made by Ezekiel is explained in the book of Proverbs: “Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me: Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord? Or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain” (Pr. 3:8–9). There is nothing sinful in riches per se, and prosperity is not a sin. Indeed God promised prosperity to his people if they would obey his law (Dt. 28). We are told that the Lord takes pleasure in the prosperity of his people (Ps. 35:27). But the problem with the sinful human heart is that it tends to forget who the author of that prosperity is. Men congratulate themselves and refuse to give the glory to God. They come to trust themselves and believe they have no need to turn to God. What has God done for them? Their own industry has brought them the wealth they enjoy. It is their hard work that has led to their prosperity, not the grace and gift of God. And so God is forgotten. Men trust in their own power. Both of these sins, pride and excess, condemned by Ezekiel as sins that brought the judgement of God upon Sodom, are characteristic sins of modern Western society. We should do well, therefore, to heed the lesson that the story of Sodom provides.
Next is mentioned by Ezekiel the sin of idleness. At this point it would be difficult and erroneous to say that this sin is characteristic of Western society generally, though doubtless it is characteristic of some elements within Western society (see below). The Protestant work ethic has had a significant influence in the Protestant nations in this regard. But it has not been retained in its original form. Instead this ideal has been secularised, emptied of its Christian meaning, so that it exists now more as an idol, a symbol of materialistic gain for its own ends. In this sense it is part and parcel of the culture of excess that characterises modern Protestant nations. British people, for example, on the whole work a good deal longer than most other Europeans. Indeed, the long working hours demanded by many professions has led to these professions being called “totalitarian”—and there is some truth to this because this has been achieved at the expense of other important and God-ordained social institutions, e.g. family life. But the goal and purpose of work is not the glory of God for most people. It is the excess of material benefits, the pursuit of leisure, stripped of all constraint by the moral law of God. The meaning of life is reduced to the mere satisfaction of human appetites: excess! The net product of human industry thus does not contribute to the glory of God and the building of his kingdom on earth. Instead it contributes to the culture of excess in which individual self-satisfaction is exalted as the highest human ideal, the chief aim of man. In this self-centred culture those virtues and social institutions that are necessary for the preservation and amelioration of human society in terms of God’s will for mankind are forgotten and lost.
Take for example the Christian ideal of the family. In Britain now the traditional ideal of the family is in the minority. There are now more childless and one parent families than there are heterosexual two parent families. A marriage is judged to be successful or unsuccessful on the basis of what each partner can get out of it. If one party decides that the marriage is no longer offering him the best satisfaction of his wants and desires, and someone else is found who can offer more or make him happier, the marriage can be dissolved easily. Indeed marriage is being abandoned altogether by many as an unnecessary bind. The plight of children traumatised by the loss of one of the parents when a marriage breaks up is seen as a secondary issue and divorce is justified by all kinds of specious rationalisation. But the consequences are usually devastating and long-lasting. It is much harder for the children of broken homes to make successful and lasting marital relationships when they become adults than those who have had a happy and stable family background. This is in part at least what Scripture means when it says that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children to the third and fourth generation (Ex. 34:7). It will take generations for our society to escape the socially destructive effects of the divorce culture that is now developing in our nation. As a result of the abandonment of stable family life society has become dysfunctional. The Christian ideal of the family is the foundation of a well-ordered society. If the family becomes dysfunctional society as a whole will become dysfunctional. And this is just what we are seeing increasingly.
But what about the sin of disregard for the poor and needy? Of all the sins listed by Ezekiel this is the one that most provoked God to anger in the Old Testament. The people of Israel are condemned for this time and again. Relief of the oppressed, the rendering of justice due to the poor and care for the needy were more important to God, and therefore constituted a more pure expression of true religion, than all the sacrifices and ceremonies of the Temple cultus (Is. 1:11–17 cf. James 1:27). Surely this sin cannot be imputed to modern Britain with its high cost welfare State. The poor are provided for more than adequately in this system, are they not?
Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not so simple. There is of course a sense in which the answer to this question is yes. But there is also an important sense in which such an answer would miss the point and fail almost totally to take account of the issues that the Bible sets before us.
It is so often thought that the welfare State is the best method of providing justice for the poor and needy because it ensures that there is an ongoing wealth redistribution programme run by the State. In Britain on the whole it is believed that this is how a caring society should behave, how it should provide for the poor. And it is believed by many Christians that State redistribution of wealth, i.e. the welfare State, in some form at least, is the closest approximation to, indeed the very incarnation of the Christian ideal of caring for the poor and needy that is set forth in Scripture as essential to the practice of true religion.
But it is precisely this notion that I want to challenge. The welfare society is not a caring society. It is a society that has abdicated its responsibility to care for the needy to the anonymous State. And the welfare State simply does not work, not only on the level of delivering real help for the poor, but in the way that it attempts to deliver that help. Indeed, in the very pursuit of this anonymous welfare State the function of the State, namely the administration of public justice, what the Bible calls doing judgement, is compromised, and the failure of the rulers to do justice is as severely condemned in Scripture as disregard for the poor. In fact it is the very failure to deliver justice that is condemned in the Bible as oppression of the poor. Such injustice may affect all classes in society of course, but those who are least able to defend themselves against it are the poor and needy, the orphan and the widow, i.e. those without economic power. For such people injustice is also oppression because they have no means of defending themselves against it. The redress for such oppression, the Bible tells us repeatedly, is the pursuit of justice: “seek judgement, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Is. 1:17). But in Scripture the magistrate is never given the responsibility of establishing a welfare State or of pursuing enforced wealth redistribution programmes within society. Why? Because such practices are unjust, and it is justice that the Bible commands. In other words, two wrongs do not make a right. We may not overturn the justice due to one person in an attempt to secure the justice due to another. It is the job of the State to do judgement, justice, and it is the job of society at large, individuals, families and communities, to care for those who are genuinely in need. The responsibility of the State to provide justice may not be abdicated in order to usurp the responsibilities of individuals and families, nor may the responsibilities of individuals and families be abdicated to the State.
Yet this is precisely what has happened in our socialist welfare State. In this process justice has been turned on its head. The guilty are set free to pursue their reign of terror and violence in society, which is held accountable for the evil that criminals do, while the innocent are continually oppressed economically to provide for the lazy. Society is constantly fed the lie that “poverty causes crime,” and this mantra is deemed to justify the continuous wealth redistribution programmes that constitute the fraudulent virtue known as “social justice.” But such a system does not merely fail to do justice—i.e. righteousness (in the Bible justice and righteousness mean the same thing). Neither does it help the genuinely poor, i.e. the deserving poor. It merely creates an indolent underclass who are able to live off the sweat of others and enjoy their lifestyle of idleness and irresponsibility as a “human right” because it is supported by a perverse and politically correct human rights industry funded by its victims, the tax-payer. The result is a kind of perverse slave society, but one in which all the usual norms of slavery are stood on their heads. It is not the rulers and the middles classes who live off the slave labour of the underclass but rather the underclass that lives off the benefits provided by taxation of those who create the wealth in society. Those who work labour at least two days each week (possibly a little more) in order to pay the taxes that fund the government agencies that provide this iniquitous system of handouts to the new leisured class in our society. The suggestion that the idle beneficiaries of this system should be made to do some work in return for their keep will bring down the wrath of our politically correct and tax-funded human rights industry. In this sense, therefore, there is in our society a significant measure of the sin of idleness condemned by Ezekiel as one of the causes of Sodom’s destruction. The welfare State has overturned the basic principle of biblical work ethics, namely that if a man will not work, neither should he eat (2 Thess. 3:10).
The welfare State is at the heart of our national decline. It is not merely that the State-run welfare system is experiencing the adverse effects of the de-Christianisation of our culture along with other institutions. The welfare State is itself a substantial cause of this deterioration of our culture, which is at heart a process of de-Christianisation of society. It is not the only cause. But it is a major contributing factor in our decline. For example, the welfare State is responsible in large measure for the decline of the Christian ideal of family life, for the loss of the responsibility of parents for their children, and particularly for the loss of the father’s headship of his family, which has been transferred to the anonymous welfare State. Here again we see the loss of those virtues that create and sustain family life because responsibility is abdicated to the State. Such abdication of responsibility is not the characteristic of a caring society at all. The welfare State is an expression of a people’s desire to rid themselves of the virtues that characterise a caring society.
For example, the welfare State has to be funded by taxation. Taxation on the scale necessary to maintain the welfare State confiscates the resources that the family needs in order to care for its own members properly, let alone care for others who need help. Such a system plunders the family’s financial resources to such an extent that the majority of families become dependent on the State in some measure. This in itself weakens the family, which is foundational to the whole structure of society. Indeed it makes the Christian family obsolete. The family is replaced by the ever bountiful State—bountiful to those who are its dependants that is, not to those who have to fund the tax bill for the irresponsible lifestyle of those who are dependants of the State. Increasingly the State takes the place of the family. Families that are taxed to pay for all the services that the State provides from a supposedly amoral, religiously neutral perspective are not able to provide for those in need in terms of Christian principles. (Of course such neutrality is impossible and the supposed amorality is immorality from the Christian perspective—witness the abandonment of Christian ethics in the spheres of education and health care, e.g. the crusade to abolish Clause 28 in schools and the growth of the abortion industry in the NHS).
The practice of the Christian faith is intimately bound up with care for the poor and healing of the sick: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). We are commanded not only to preach the gospel of the Kingdom but to heal the sick also (Mt. 1:7–8; Lk. 9:2, 10:9). But care for the poor and healing of the sick that disregards God’s will for the individual, the family and society at large is not really care at all, nor is it healing. It is idolatry, and idolatry enslaves men rather than freeing them. Welfare and health care that is stripped of all reference to God’s will for man is ultimately cruel.
What then is the answer to this situation? Christian work ethics must be brought back into our care for the poor. Christian charity should not be divorced from Christian work ethics. The separation of charity from Christian work ethics is the legacy of our godless State welfare system, which is, as a result, subject to massive abuse. The provision of welfare, education, health care etc. in our society must be restored to those God-ordained institutions responsible for these things—the family, the individual, and the Church, which can apply the biblical principles necessary for these spheres of life to function in a godly way. The amelioration of our society requires the practice of the Christian virtues. Such is not facilitated by State funding and organisation of welfare. Rather the reverse is true. State welfare has a deleterious effect on the practice of the Christian virtues and therefore on the practice and influence of the faith in society. We must begin replacing the welfare State mentality with a Christian understanding of what it means to be a caring society, i.e. with a perspective that links care for the needy with Christian work ethics, because both are essential to man’s well-being. Christian ethics must also be restored to the practice of medicine. This means not only that abortion, euthanasia etc. must be opposed and made illegal, but that the model of human nature that is used in the diagnosis and treatment of illness should be a Christian one, that we should start with an understanding of man as God’s image bearer and vicegerent and work from these principles in seeking to heal men. These developments will not take place in the godless welfare and health care programmes run by the modern secular State. Christians and Churches must, therefore, begin their own welfare and health care programmes that function in terms of Christians ethics, a Christian model of man as created in God’s image and a Christian model of the social order that God requires of our society.
The welfare State is not a system of justice, and therefore it is not consistent with righteousness. It is a denial of the righteousness that God demands of individuals and of society because it negates the responsibilities required of the individual, the family and the community, thereby rendering virtue obsolete. Thus in the Church, for example, virtue has been replaced by “piety.” The good Christian is the one who behaves piously, not the one who practises the Christian virtues, since these are largely now obsolete in our society. The State has usurped our duty to act virtuously. It cares for the poor and needy on our behalf, provides education for our children and health care for the sick, takes in the orphans and provides hand outs for widows—all of which were at one time functions of the individual and the family, and where these were unable to provide, the Church. But that was when this nation was a Christian nation. We no longer look to God for these things any more. The all-powerful State has taken the place of God. It is our new religion. Our idolatry is virtually complete. The State has claimed for itself a position and an importance in our lives and society that belongs to God. But unlike the Christian God, it cannot deliver what it promises. The growth of the State has gone hand in hand with the decline of the Christian faith, increasing breakdown of order in society and the growth of the culture of irresponsibility and crime described above.
The godless, indulgent, proud and immoral culture in which we live is a modern Sodom and Gomorrah. And the judgement of God is already upon us. Our society has been given up to its own sin. The plague of homosexuality and the pervasive immorality and crime in society is testimony to that fact. It is time that the Church woke up to the reality of the situation and faced up to the spiritual apostasy that has provoked God to pour out his wrath on our society. Instead a kind of deadening slumber has fallen upon the Church. What will it take to waken the Church out of this deep sleep, to impress upon her once again the high calling of the Great Commission and the social and political responsibilities that this commission entails? I do not know the answer to this question. But whatever it is, it will most likely be, given the current state of our nation, a rude awakening.
[This essay is an excerpt from my book Common-Law Wives and Concubines: Essays on Covenantal Christianity and Contemporary Western Culture (Taunton: Kuyper Foundation, 2003), available from www.kuyper.org/books.]