In April of 1942, Westminster Theological Seminary hosted “The Christian World Order Conference,” just a few short months after the United States had officially entered World War II. It was a time of great uncertainty in the world. The goal of the conference was to contrast a biblical view of the world with fascism, communism, and nationalism, which had taken root in Europe, Asia, and beyond. It was a conference dedicated to applying the riches of the Reformed theological tradition to public societal issues.
The conference’s success was evidence of a need for wider distribution of this content. The Presbyterian Guardian, a newspaper founded by J. Gresham Machen, and loosely affiliated with Westminster and the OPC, published nine articles in a series under the heading “The Christian in the 20th Century World” with the same goal as the conference. The content of these articles is striking and, in many ways, as relevant to the 21st Century world as it was for readers in the mid-20th century. Westminster Magazine will be republishing each article, in print and online.
This, the ninth and final of the articles, is W. Stafford Reid’s “The Christian and International Affairs.” W. Stafford Reid was born in Montreal Canada in 1913. He graduated from Westminster with a Bachelor of Divinity before going on to receive his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1941. He then went on to become professor of history at McGill University as well as the University of Guelph. He was ordained in the Presbyterian Church of Canada and served as pastor at Fairmount-Taylor Presbyterian Church. Reid was a member of the Board of Trustees at Westminster for 37 years and was editor at large for “Christianity Today.” The subject of a biography by Alistair Macleod, Reid helped to combat the evangelical impulse to deviate from anti-intellectualism in the post-war period.
In this article, Reid addresses the responsibilities of the State as dictated by Scripture and the duties and privileges that the Christian has by virtue of being a citizen of that State. He uses the spread of Nazism as an illustration of nations abandoning their responsibility before God to restrain evil. He also argues against Marxism for assuming that the State is a mere product of human origins to be dispensed of once each individual is economically equal. He goes on to detail what the responsibility of the State is to those who reside within it as well as it’s responsibility to other States. Ultimately, he claims that the duty of the State is to restrain sin and mitigate its effects. While it is not the duty of the State to preach the gospel, it is required to bound its actions to the principles of Scripture and to promote a state of affairs in which Gospel proclamation is free and unhindered. The conclusion that Reid ultimately comes to, however, is that a truly Christian international state of affairs is ultimately impossible until the gospel is both preached and believed throughout the world. So while some success can be found in a partial manner, our prayer is nevertheless, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” – Brandon. D Smith, Archival Editor
It may be asked by some who read the title of this article: "Why bother with such a question as this? International affairs is not a problem which affects me very closely as a Christian. What importance can it have in my case?" Yet we must remember that international affairs are of the greatest importance to every individual. They affect us all. In these days of selective service, rationing and the like, no one can say, "I have no connection with international matters". We all do. In Europe and Asia where the war is being fought, the individual citizen has an even closer contact with such things. Therefore, we must turn our thoughts towards these matters, and particularly the principles upon which they should be conducted.
The Christian has a responsibility in this regard because he is a citizen of a state. As a citizen, he has both privileges and duties. These involve him in international matters. He cannot help himself. In a democracy especially, the Christian has a very particular responsibility in connection with international relations. He elects those who direct his country's relations and dealings with other nations. Therefore, if he would be a true and proper citizen, a truly Christian citizen, he must understand something of the God-ordained principles which must underly the relations of nations. It is because of the very lack of such understanding among men in general that we have been fighting for the past three or four years. Thus it is imperative now that the Christians should not be led away by every wind of political doctrine. What should be the principles upon which a state acts? When we know the Scriptures’ answer to that question, we then have a firm basis upon which to stand.
The principle object of man in life should be the glory of God. This is necessary not only for the individual but also for the state. The state is ultimately made up of individuals. The fact that they are organized and have a government does not mean that they surrender their responsibility to glorify God in all that they do. Instead it means that they are under obligation to glorify God in and through their state-organization, even as they should in all other spheres of life. Consequently the state, if it is to fulfill its function, must glorify God in all that it does. This includes its dealings with other states.
The state glorifies God in two different ways. In the first place it does so unconsciously. It fulfills the plans of God whether it knows it or not. We have a number of instances of this in the Scriptures. Pharaoh and the Egyptians persecuted God's people, and by that very persecution enabled God to show His power in the earth (Rom. 9:17). Centuries later we have the Chaldeans working out the plan of God, although they did not know that they were so doing. They attacked Israel because of their evil hearts, but at the same time fulfilled the purposes of God (Jer. 25). Then, at the end of the captivity, Persia under Cyrus restored the people of God to Palestine, even though neither the Persians nor their king had known Him (Isa. 45:5). In this way the plans of God are fulfilled and He is glorified, for His will is done.
Such Unconscious fulfilling of the will of God, however, is proper only to heathen nations. The secret things belong unto God and He works according to His will among the inhabitants of the earth. Yet at the same time He has given specific commandments by which men and nations are to be governed. It is the obligation of every nation which has God’s revelation to obey that law. Some will doubtless contend that law applicable to the individual cannot be said to have authority over a nation. We must remember, however, that a deed is wrong whether performed by an individual or a nation, unless the latter does it as a nation on God’s authority, as in the case of capital punishment for murder. Robbery by a nation is as wrong as robbery by an individual; and a nation is as responsible for the well-being of fellow nations as is one individual for the well-being of his fellow-man. It was the denial of these basic facts which enabled Hitler to go as far as he did before anyone was willing to take action against him. The nations must obey the law of God. Only when they do so will they be able consciously to glorify Him.
Let us turn from general principles to the law of God as it relates specifically to the state. The state is a divinely ordained institution. It does not rest upon mere human sanctions. The dominant theory of the state for the last two centuries has been that the state is of human origin, devised by man to preserve order, and the welfare of those fortunate enough to get control. Marxism regards the state as a means to an end. It is to be used for the purpose of reducing all to a common economic level, after which the state will be unnecessary. Men will then be able to live in perfect harmony and peace without any government. The Scriptural teaching concerning the state is in direct opposition to such an idea. “The powers that be are ordained of God” (Rom. 13:1). The state is thus a divine institution.
The function of the state is that of restraining sin and of mitigating the effects of sin. This seems to be the reason for the form of the state as we know it today. Its duty is to restrain the conflict of individual with individual and of sphere with sphere. These conflicts come from the sinfulness of man who refuses to abide by the law of God for human conduct. The state thus becomes, and is, one of the great means by which God keeps sin from working out to its logical end—chaos. But it performs its function ultimately by means of force. It is not the duty of the state to preach the gospel. That is the duty of the church. True, the state should, if it fulfills its duty properly, hearken to the teaching of the church and endeavor to conform its actions to the true principles of the gospel. But it does so only in order to fulfill its own duties properly and honestly. Its means of restraining sin is its coercive power, by which it also protects its citizens from the social effects of sin.
While this is not the place to discuss the obligations of the state towards its citizens, we must take just a glance at them if we would understand the state's proper relations with other nations. The two cannot really be separated. The state must preserve order within itself for the benefit of its nationals. Violence must be kept down, if necessary by the infliction of the death penalty. But sin is not solely manifested by physical violence. The state has the right to keep one part of its citizens from exploiting the other part. It must maintain equity amongst its citizens, making certain that a man receives that which is his due. It is not enough to say merely that it must keep order, for there are many ways of exploiting men and bringing them into bondage apart from using a gun or a lash. On the positive side also, the state has certain duties. One is that of making sure that its citizens are properly trained to take part in the work of the state. Under this would come such matters as insistence upon at least elementary education, although we cannot here deal with the method by which these matters should be handled. Suffice it to say that in these various ways the state must endeavor to counteract the effects of sin in the body politic.
Because of its obligation to restrain sin within, the state is also involved in international relationships. No state can live unto itself and at the same time flourish. There must be trade relationships with other nations, and cultural contributions to and from other nations, if it would survive. At one time in the history of both Europe and the United States, it was believed that a nation could be self-sufficient. This is indeed the Nazi view at the present time, but it is erroneous unless there be one super-state, for no nation on the earth possesses all things necessary for its own existence. Therefore, nations must come into contact with each other whether they wish to or not. International relationships are inescapable.
What then is the duty of the state in international affairs?
First of all, it is the duty of the state to maintain its own domestic peace. This implies the ability to defend its citizens from external aggression. The duty of the state is that of keeping other nations from exploiting its citizens to their detriment, whether by force or merely by economic means. The state must not become subservient to some other state for the profit of that foreign nation. This becomes particularly clear in the matter of armed aggression. The state has been entrusted with the sword which it must use to defend its own integrity and the freedom of its own citizens. In order that it may fulfill its duties within its own borders, it must restrain foreign interference.
At the same time, it has the duty of protecting its citizens from unfair treatment when they are outside its limits. It is true that this duty has sometimes been employed as a pretext by nations for the purpose of seizing other nations’ property. Sometimes nations have used it also as an excuse to protect their nationals from the consequences of unlawful acts. Therefore, it must not be improperly applied. But it is only right that a nation should see that its citizens are given fair treatment by others.
The demand for fair treatment of nationals, however, implies the responsibility of a nation to give fair treatment to those foreigners within its own boundaries. It is not fair for the British or American governments to protest against harsh dealing meted out to their nationals in China, if they treat Chinese citizens in their own lands in much the same way. “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” is a good principle to follow even in international affairs. A state therefore is under obligation to see to it that foreigners are not, exploited, injured nor otherwise damaged by its own citizens.
In this connection it must also be pointed out that, as a partaker of the comity of nations, no state can ignore the condition of another. If one nation is overtaken by a disaster, it is the duty of the other nations to help the stricken one, as was done in the case of Japan during the Yokohama earthquake. This, however, would seem applicable also to the matter of the aggression of one nation against another. If one nation rises up in the world with the idea of wantonly attacking another, then it would seem to be the duty of all nations to oppose aggression by common action. In this way peace can be preserved both among nations and within nations. Yet precautions must also be taken against allowing a group of nations to exploit another nation, even though it be the defeated enemy in a war. Unfair treatment of this kind will only breed hatred and cause further wars. To an aggressor nation defeated in war, punishment must be meted out, but it must be a punishment which does not attempt to destroy the defeated nation's life. While just punishment is necessary, cruelty or vengefulness must not be permitted.
If these principles are followed, a really permanent peace can be established when this war has come to an end. They are simply the practical application of the basic ideas of morality laid down in the Scriptures for the guidance of both men and nations. But can they be made effective? It would seem that it is possible to make these Christian principles at least partially effective in international affairs. It can be done for instance in the matter of economics. Nations should endeavor to use to the best of their ability the natural advantages which God has given them. But at the same time, no nation should attempt to make itself the economic controller of the world. Tariffs, for instance, should be kept within bounds and not used for the purpose of forcing the industries of other countries into liquidation. Economic policies of nations should be adjusted not merely for the selfish advantage of themselves, but with due regard for the well being of the nations as a whole.
Another means through which Christian principles can be made effective is by the cooperation of the nations. Again this cooperation should not be for the damage of any other nation or group of nations. It should be rather for the welfare of all nations. Such cooperation can take essentially two forms: economic and politico-military. Enough has already been said about the economic side, but a few words must be added concerning politico-military cooperation. Such activity would seem to be quite proper and right as long as it is not used for aggression. It is for mutual assistance against aggression, and could properly be expressed in some form of alliance. Yet it must always be kept in mind that no state has the right to surrender its sovereignty either to an international security commission, an international police force, or a super-state. God has established the state as a political entity in the world. Therefore it has no right to surrender its existence even for the chance of peace. If it does, it will soon succumb to external aggression, usually developing into an attempt at international dictatorship.
Finally a word about imperialism. Is it wrong for a nation to have colonies? To this we can but say, “It all depends". If the colonies are obtained and used for the exploitation of the natives, then imperialism is wrong. If, on the other hand, the colonies are properly treated, enabled to develop economically, supplied with means of education and above all given the gospel in its fullness, there does not seem to be any objection to imperialism. We must add the one condition, however, that when the colonies have come to the position where they can support and govern themselves, then they should be given their independence. The great danger is that imperialism shall become simply a synonym for the exploitation of backward peoples who are to be kept in a backward condition for easier exploitation.
In the foregoing, an attempt has been made to point out some of the true Christian principles in international affairs and how they may be applied. In closing, however, we must emphasize one thing. While we may endeavor to put Christian ideals into force, we cannot and shall not succeed until "the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth as the waters cover the deep". We cannot bring forth Christian fruits from non-christian hearts. By the common grace of God, we may succeed in a partial manner, but before true Christian international relations can be established, the gospel must be both preached and believed throughout the world. This of course is true of Christianity in every sphere of human existence. The only one who can bring such a situation into existence is our Lord and King Himself. Therefore let us pray, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth even as it is in Heaven". And "He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so come Lord Jesus".