Sunday, November 6, 2022

Christians and the State


Tuesday is, of course, election day. As citizens of the world’s largest representative democracy, each of us has the right to speak our minds about our nation’s national issues to those whom we have elected to make the decision. Moreover, in such serious matters as those before us now, I would say we are obligated to do so.

However, who to vote for is not my topic this morning. I am using the issue as a chance to explore what the Bible teaches Christians about living under secular law in relationship to government. For that is how you and I live each day in either times of turmoil or peace. 

In the apostles’ time about three hundred years afterward, how Christians should live under a government that was in no way Christian and was often actually lethal to Christians was a subject of great importance. It is still today a problem for many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. But perhaps the fundamental problem Paul and the other apostles faced is not so different from ours if we think of the world as a larger community: On one hand, how do we live peaceably and godly in a world in which violence is seen by some as an answer to any question, and on the other, how do we live the fullness of Christ’s commandments under laws at home that are arguably sometimes repressive of doing so? 

Here is what I mean. A few years ago in Raleigh, NC, a church ministry called Love Wins was threatened with arrest. Reverend Hugh Howell explained: 

On the morning of Saturday, August 24, Love Wins Ministries, where I am pastor and director, showed up at Moore Square in Raleigh, North Carolina at 9:00 a.m., just like we have done virtually every Saturday and Sunday for the last six years. We provide, without cost or obligation, hot coffee and a breakfast sandwich to anyone who wants one. We keep this promise to our community in cooperation with five different, large suburban churches that help us with manpower and funding.

On that morning three officers from Raleigh Police Department prevented us from doing our work, for the first time ever. An officer said, quite bluntly, that if we attempted to distribute food, we would be arrested. …

When I asked the officer why, he said that he was not going to debate me. "I am just telling you what is. Now you pass out that food, you will go to jail."

What will we do? Simple: we will feed people. I am, after all (however imperfectly), a follower of Jesus, who said himself that when we ignore hungry people, we ignore him.

That situation practically defines the tension Paul addressed in Romans 13:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. 

We may as well admit that Paul’s verses are difficult to swallow without reservations. Within the last century, "a century of unspeakable horror," says New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, “these verses have been [effectively] struck out of the canon, vilified, and blamed for untold miseries.” History poses no challenge to finding governments or government policies that ranged from unjust to evil to downright demonic, whether at home or abroad. 

Paul was not naïve. He knew well the evil that governments do – a main example being crucifying Jesus and persecuting his followers. It seems likely to me that Paul, a well-trained Pharisee, was thinking an old Jewish precept that God requires order in the world, not chaos. Hence, the principle of human governance is a divine principle. He is endorsing the necessity of government in general, but not any government in particular. 

Justice was a high virtue of Jewish thought. The prophets emphasized that one of the cardinal responsibilities of rulers was to preserve justice, the right ordering of the relationship between the state apparatus and the people.

If the rulers were responsible for maintaining justice, then the people had to obey the rules for justice to be served. One of Paul’s themes in Romans 12 and 13, says Wright, is that “justice is served not by private vengeance but by individuals trusting the authorities to keep wickedness in check. Knowledge that the authorities are there to look after such matters is a strong incentive to forswear freelance attempts at ‘justice'.”

Paul knew, of course, that no human system of justice is perfect; the best we can do is roughly correspond our affairs to divine justice. Yet Paul advises the Christians in Rome not to take justice into their own hands. Their identity as the only Christians in town did not give them permission for anarchy. Instead, their responsibility is to work for the Kingdom of God in proclaiming the Gospel until, Paul implicitly hopes, all rulers ultimately pledge their first allegiance to God rather than the state. The Roman Christians must not therefore try to establish themselves as a “para-state” organization but remain under Roman authority even while they work to bring forth the Kingdom of God. 

The Christians in Rome were a small minority. Paul did not think that they should become agents of chaos, attempting to live as if they had no relation to the political world at large. Paul did not desire them to replace the Roman government with a religious cult. The ultimate overthrow of unjust power comes by other means – which is to say, regime change of the ungodly is done by converting them, a theme Paul expounded back in Romans Five.

If we accept that we Christians are under at least a divine principle of obedience to civil authority, what are our obligations to obey specific laws in 21st-century America?  

Let’s look at this issue in a way that almost all of us face every day: driving a car. The government sets speed limits. The majority of Tennessee’s Christians think that the speed limits on our interstates are too low. My proof is daily at 7 a.m. on I-65 to Nashville. It cannot be only the unconverted heathen going 85 or more. Does the fact that “everybody is doing it” make it okay? 

Paul had no experience with a democratic form of government. Americans do not claim that God established our government; our Constitution states that “We the people of the United States . . . ordain and establish” the government. Our nation’s founders believed that the first imperative of government in the first place is to safeguard personal liberty. Liberty requires some degree of order to flourish, yet not too much order, lest it be crushed.

Liberty is not found in chaotic societies. Some places on the globe today fit that description; political analysts call them “failed states,” and life there is truly awful. Neither is freedom found in hyper-ordered societies of control, such as North Korea. 

Liberty is found at neither extreme, but between them. Community and justice require some rules for the common good, but as few rules as necessary, not as many as possible. 

One may argue that our driving environment is too chaotic and is not ordered enough. In Germany, where very high speeds are legal, the drivers are extremely self-disciplined compared to us and much more law abiding in their driving. 

So we might ask whether breaking the speed limit is unacceptably chaotic. That question I leave to each person’s conscience. But the relationship of obeying the speed limit to order or chaos is not the only consideration. Christians are enjoined by Christ to love one another. In fact, just after our passage, Paul says, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. … those who love one another fulfill the law… . Love does no wrong to the neighbor; therefore, the fulfillment of the law is love.” 

Love by definition is directed toward the well-being of others. If breaking the law is justified, it can only be justified in Christian faith for the higher principle of love, and not from selfish interest. 

When my son Thomas was five years old, he suffered an accident in our back yard that gave him a deep cut barely above one eye. He was bleeding profusely. My wife wrapped a towel around the wound and we jumped into the car. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. could not have beat me to the emergency room. Love for my son certainly far outweighed Paul’s injunction to submit to the government during that drive. 

So there’s my answer: if civil disobedience is ever justified for Christian people, it is justified only for reasons of love and justice, not selfishness. “I like to drive fast” or “I’m late for a meeting” are selfish reasons, not loving ones, not just ones. In the meantime, let those who believe the speed limits are too low campaign within the political system to change them. That’s how America works. 

 In fact, Paul’s passage strongly implies that political activity by Christian persons is affirmed and validated. Paul never indicated that Christian faith and political activity by Christians were antithetical to one another. Christians can be involved in the political life of society by voting, campaigning, or holding office without ceasing to be Christians, and may see all such things as part of their Christian service.

Reverend Howell in Raleigh ended his article by listing the email addresses and phone numbers of the Mayor and of the City Council members, then continued,

We encourage you to continue to call and voice your concern. We spoke with the Mayor yesterday, and while she did say that no one will be arrested for feeding hungry people in the park, it's important to continue to make your voice heard. The status quo is not acceptable.

No matter how temporal authority rules, it is God who over-rules. All governments and their ministers, everyone who wields political power, whether Christian or not, are under God’s judgment whether they realize it or not. They are to rule justly and fairly so that freedom of the people may flourish, constraining the conduct of the people only enough to keep chaos at bay. The people are obliged to obey civil laws unless doing so plainly would violate our high duties of divine love in service to God’s kingdom. 

I’ll give Rev. Howell the last word: “Keep in mind that … Anger does not cast out fear -- only love can do that.”


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