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In a 2012 post, I discuss the questions “Was America a Christian Nation?” and “Is America a Christian Nation?” In the context of that discussion, I offered several possible definitions of what, exactly, it means to be a “Christian nation.” The one that has the most relevance to our country’s history—the definition under which we came closest to being a “Christian nation”—is “a nation based on the legal system of Scripture,” or, perhaps, “a nation based on Biblical principles.”

In the last 2,000 years of human history, few societies have attempted this. Eventually, each of these societies either ceased to exist or abandoned Biblical principles. If nations governed according to Biblical principles are God’s ideal, why do they not last?

There are thousands of interconnected factors. It would be reductionistic and simplistic to narrow them down to a single cause. However, as I’ve pondered this notion over the last couple of years, one factor has stood out with increasing clarity.

What exactly are the Biblical principles on which a nation should be based? Let’s start with the New Testament. Most discussions of the principles by which lives should be lived are specifically for how Christians should live. There are a few discussions of the role of civil government, most notably Romans 13’s comment that the civil government is responsible to bear the sword to “execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” In the context of Romans 13, what is evil? What evils should government be policing?

The answers are far too complex to answer in a blog post. Yet I suspect that incorrect answers to that question have been a central part of the downfall of numerous Christian societies.

Matthew 25 relates the parable of the sheep and the goats. Every society in human history has had and will have goats. It is the responsibility of civil government to preserve the peace, to keep the sheep and the goats from killing or harming one another. It is not the responsibility of civil government to make goats act like sheep in every respect.

There are certain things that neither goats nor sheep should do. But Christians are called to a higher standard. Should Christians keep the Lord’s name holy, observe a day of rest, submit ourselves to the leadership of our local churches, pray without ceasing, and meditate on God’s Word day and night? Most certainly. Should we be surprised when unbelievers do not do the same? Ought unbelievers be forced to do the same?

The central sin of the unbeliever is rejecting Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Everything else is secondary. In fact, a case could be made that we do unbelievers a disservice if, through cultural pressure or Government imperatives, we reform their conduct so completely that they think that they are “a good person” despite an unregenerate heart.

Civil government has a role: To preserve the lives and God-ordained liberties of its citizens. Its role is not to camouflage goats as sheep; it is not to hide the unregenerate heart of a goat in the wool of a Christian’s conduct.