Wednesday, April 9, 2014
Christians and the State
On the issue of the Christian, and the role of government, I have friends on both ends of the spectrum and most points in between. I am probably going to leave out various important nuances in their positions, inadvertently constructing straw men. This is not my intent. but here goes.
I have friends that consider themselves stateless libertarians or will even go so far as to call themselves anarchists. Their position (perhaps oversimplified) is that liberty is a gift from God and that since governments tend to curtail liberty, the government cannot also be a gift from God. These anarchists will say that ,scripturally, the kingdoms of this world are satanically run, and satanically owned. The state, they would say, is the very citadel of Satan, and as such so we owe it no allegiance. They would point to the power grabs and abuses of the state (regardless of who is in charge) as proof of this malfeasance, and say that government power is the enemy of humanity. They oppose the initiation of force against any individual, and since that's pretty much all government does is make people do things by force, they must oppose the government. That's one extreme.
I also have friends that consider themselves 'minarchists'. They hold that government is a necessary evil and begrudgingly support some basic government functions as long as those functions support and protect their natural God-given rights. I personally think that Thomas Jefferson would probably qualify as a minarchist.
I have friends who consider themselves 'constitutionalists' and think that a person who opposes the government opposes God. There is some pretty significant scripture for this position. And rounding out the spectrum, I have friends who cite Romans 13 as their proof text that whatever the government says goes, and we ought to be happy about it. Pay your taxes with a smile on your face and thank God it isn't any worse. There is a subset of this group that don't even vote, since, by their logic, a vote against an incumbent is in itself an act of rebellion against the power God has placed in your life. That would be, in my estimation, the other end of the spectrum.
Perhaps its an intellectual glitch of mine that I can experience a certain amount of sympathy for all these positions. It's an issue I think about quite a bit, as a public minister, and by the time I get done exploring this, you may be as confused as I am about what I think, but here goes:
Governments are instituted by God. Scripture is clear on this, and the pattern, in scripture appears that bad government is a punishment for a wicked populace. Liberty is indeed a gift from god, and when that liberty is misused, that liberty is withdrawn. In the meantime, barring some sort of national repentance, we are commanded to submit ourselves unto every ordinance of man for the gospel's sake. The world systems and world governance are at the moment, satanically controlled, but even under those conditions, the Holy Spirit wrote to the churches to obey them and pray for the human representatives. It's a complicated idea, with tricky applications that must be universal to be of any use whatsoever. What in the world is a freedom-loving person who wants to obey the scriptures supposed to do?
I wont be doing a blow-by blow dissertation of Romans 13, which was the original idea for this post. I won't claim, as some have, that Romans 13 is mistranslated, but rather that Romans 13 must be understood in light of other scriptures. I won't waste one minute of your time ( at least not today) bogging down into the nuances of what is and is not legitimate government. Instead, I want to highlight three principles that should help establish what exactly our attitude and actions should be as citizens of heaven who are, for the time being, stuck here.
The First Principle: Non-Distraction
I think the first principle that needs to be covered is the principle of non-distraction. I am a stranger, and a sojourner here; a pilgrim and an alien. As the old song says "This world is not my home, I'm just a passing through". That doesn't relieve us from obligations to our fellow man, but you must understand that the world is horribly broken, and has been for quite some time. Our emphasis has to be on the spiritual since our ultimate accountability to God won't be based on whether we got this ordinance passed or this law repealed; it will be based off of what we did with the the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no crown given out at the Judgement Seat of Christ for 'sticking it to the man'. Whether you live in North Korea, or Hong Kong, or the United States, Jesus still saves, and long after the empires of the world have crumbled to dust, he will still be all that he claims to be. Hundreds of thousands of Christians have lived their entire lives under tyranny and have fulfilled the Great Commission and led very successful Christian lives despite never having owned an AK-47. We cannot lose our focus squabbling over the things of this world. I could campaign to dismantle the TSA and succeed, but if that's all I ever did and my neighbor never gets the gospel, I have wasted my time. That's not a cop-out, that's a matter of keeping perspective, and keeping that principle in view will give us a way to keep our perspective amidst the clamor of application..
For example, let's say I'm opposed to taxation, which I am. Let's say that I believe taxation to be theft, which I do. Let's say that I believe there to be scant difference between the highwayman and the Congress, which I do. I do not gloss over that the state is stealing from me, but the same state is stealing from my co-worker who is lost. My attitude should be that, as abhorrent as the theft is, I may need to tolerate it for the bigger picture. In other words, it is better to have had a portion of your income consistently and systematically stolen from you, than to rail against it and lose your testimony. As a reviewer of this post pointed out, life very rarely is an either/or scenario. If you can do both, then by all means proceed.
The Second Principle: For the Lord's Sake
But in the meantime I do still have to live here and I do have to function under a government that is increasingly restrictive and hostile. It's a common mistake in Bible exposition to quote only part of verse, but the oft cited "submit yourselves to every ordinance of man" isn't the whole verse, and it certainly isn't the whole sentence. Looking at the whole sentence gives us our second principle.1 Peter 2:13-16 says "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme ; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God" There are caveats and qualifiers given for your obedience to wit; you are to do it, not for your own sake, but for the Lord's sake. Paul in 1 Corinthians 9 goes into various inconveniences and restrictions he put on his own life "for the gospel's sake". You are required to obey the government and treat it as if it was performing it's legitimate functions if doing so gives you more opportunities to put the gospel out. If obeying the government hinders the gospel , it seems clear to me that you are free to disobey, and the Acts 5:29 principle ("We ought to obey God rather than men.") comes into play. Paul went to prison and never once complained that he was wrongly imprisoned, even though he was. He suffered, and suffered well, and that put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. Paul understood that his imprisonment enabled him to reach men with the gospel that couldn't be reached any other way, so he endured tyranny for the Lord's sake.
Here is an application. I despise the TSA. I believe them to be wicked, and a violation of all that used to be America. I have, on purpose avoided flying because of them. But soon I hope to be traveling to the Philippines to preach. I will probably have to submit myself to their degradation, but I do it not because I think they are right or legitimate; I do it for the Lord's sake, and for the gospel's sake. I honestly can't see any way around it. I also maintain that , as I will give an account to how I handled it as his representative, they will give account for being perverts and horrible instruments of a corrupt state.
The Third Principle: Prayer
Moving on to another oft-half-quoted passage of scripture, we arrive at 1 Tim 2. It is often said that we are to pray for those in power, but looking at the whole passage ,we see once again, conditions and caveats. 1 Tim 2:1-4 says "I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved , and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.". I am not obligated to pray for Mr. Obama's drone warfare to succeed or for the continued inculcation of socialism. I am supposed to pray specifically to God that Mr. Obama will leave me alone. Left alone, I can live a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. Why would I want this? According to verse 4, I should want this so that the gospel can be put out! There obviously are some other benefits to being free, but the main advantage of being free is not that I am free to do wrong, but that I am free to do right!
There are obviously many facts to this, and I don't purport to be smart enough to explore them all, but let's take these three principles and apply them to an extreme scenario.
You are a Christian living in Nazi Germany in the the early 1940's. You are commanded by the government to turn in your Jewish neighbors. Are you obligated to obey? They are, after all, the government. If they take your neighbors and haul them off to a death camp, they will probably never hear the gospel. You are obligated by the gospel to disobey, and when the men come with stick and guns to thump you in the head you will be suffering for righteousness sake.
This same Nazi regime is taxing you to pay for the death camps. I think you are justified in hiding your income from them by any means possible without lying, committing fraud or losing your testimony. If you do any of these things, be aware that the men with sticks and guns may come for you and put you in jail. You must weigh out if it is worth it and if you are going for the right reasons. If you must go to jail, go to jail for the gospel, not for tax evasion, but if a mugger tells you to empty your wallet, you are under no obligation to tell them about the money hidden in your sock.
You are also allowed scripturally to flee persecution if possible. If Jesus' mom and stepdad can skip town to avoid being killed by Herod, rest assured you can too.
In the meantime you are to pray that God will turn the hearts of the Nazi overlords and that they will leave you (and your neighbor ) alone so that you can continue to get the gospel out.