On government authority and Christian responsibility


From the e-mail archives: Thought I’d revisit a response I gave to a thoughtful discussion starter back in 2004. I should first say that the writer of the original comment regularly provides fair-minded, well-thought, balanced answers to many difficult questions and actively encourages others to think things through and not just take his word as gold. It was in that spirit that I wrote this response. Here it is:

I have a comment about your answer to the question at this link:

http://www.seriousfaith.com/question_detail.asp?questionid=718 (“A Jehovah’s witness told me that they do not vote or do anything with the government. Does the bible teach us not to vote?…”)

It’s very important, when dealing with scriptural questions, especially on matters of some controversy, to keep in mind some principles, and proceed accordingly. I’ve never forgotten an old saw that I heard many years ago: “A text without a context is a pretext.” This cautions us from being too free with pulling isolated texts from different places, stringing them together in support of an idea, and calling the result biblical doctrine. Closer to home is an Old Testament principle that is affirmed in the New Testament: “By the mouth of two or three witnesses let every word be established.” A strict application of my first principle above will quickly reveal that this has to do with what constitutes valid testimony (on the part of an accuser) in a court of law, but I take it that this is also helpful in biblical understanding, since “in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.” Thirdly, we learn from the Revelator that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy,” and from Peter (in his sermon to the household of Cornelius) that “to him [Jesus] all the prophets give witness.” and as Jesus says concerning the scriptures themselves, “It is they which testify of me.” I give you these principles, Brent, just so you can have at least an inkling of where I am coming from and on what basis I am thinking about these scriptural matters, since I will be disagreeing with you on certain things even though I also agree with you on many things and enjoy reading your devotional.

Now, in your response to the questioner, you provide a serious and reasoned answer with regard to voting, and bring in, additionally, some material of your own that the questioner did not ask about. Nevertheless your way of framing the question is legitimate and open-ended: “”what is our duty to the government and the authorities as Christians?” What I want to get you to think about more closely is whether or not a single answer covers all of the categories that you then identify: voting, saying the pledge of allegiance, serving in the military and general civic issues. You cite three passages (Romans 13:1-7, Matthew 22:21, and 1 Peter 2:13-17) to make your point (fulfilling the “two or three witnesses” requirement; good for you!); all of them deal with general issues of whether or not to submit to what is a clearly unjust, pagan government that is persecuting or oppressing the people of God. We know this by applying the context test: in this case, the historical context which is known to us. It is within this same context that you provide yourself a bit of balance with a fourth reference (Acts 5:29). I want to look at the textual context of each of these, one at a time, and draw some observations.

The Romans passage is immediately followed by the following, which is relevant for a full understanding of the nature and limits of Paul’s concern for the people of God to submit to higher authority:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10, NRSV)

Hence the law of love is supreme, and can easily be understood to form the broad backdrop for the fourth passage you cite, where it is said, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” So it is easy to ask:

Does voting wrong my neighbor, or as KJV would have it, do him harm? No? Then go ahead and vote.

Does saying the Pledge of Allegiance harm my neighbor? No? Pledge away (Although some sincere Christians do see a parallel issue here with the pagan requirement of burning a pinch of incense to Caesar, I do not, at least until the day comes when the pledge becomes a required, not a voluntary act, and the flag becomes officially a holy item whose “desecration” is declared a punishable offense. I would then have to rethink my position, but for now, I participate in the Pledge when appropriate.)

Does serving in the military do harm to my neighbor? Ah, here we might find us in the shoes of the lawyer who asked Jesus to define, please, who is my neighbor. Taxes, customs, fear and honor are all to be paid, all for the sake of love, even to an immoral emperor who sets himself up as God and demands worship, as Caesar did. Paul was cautioning the church not to participate, as some of them may have thought it right to do under such extreme conditions, in thoughts of armed rebellion. But even these evil rulers are subject to God, and insofar as they perform the legitimate functions of a ruler including taxing, policing, judging —even should they do so unjustly, as Nero, Saddam Hussein, Stalin, Hitler did— the Christian, for love’s sake, the love of enemies that Jesus taught, should submit. But the question of whether this means remaining silent about the one who taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, has a different answer: We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29); we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20). So too, the answer might be different if the question was whether the believer is to participate in violence against fellow humans. Which brings me to the second passage you cite, if you’ll have patience to read on.

You say:

We are to pay our taxes, even if we don’t like them, or they are too high. We are to respect our authorities and honor those who serve.

Matthew 22:21 They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (NKJV)

Jesus Himself said in effect, “do what you have to do as a citizen, and do what you have to do as a Christian”. If Jesus was against things like taxes, voting and military duty, He passed up a perfect chance to say so.

Again, the context is very specific. He was not being asked about voting (which was not an option) or military duty. He was being asked about taxes, even, dare I say it, about taxation without representation. I’m sure you remember the whole story: He asked to be shown a coin, and asked “whose image and inscription” was on it. Sure enough the image and inscription on the coin was that of Caesar. Government has the power to issue money, and government has, “therefore,” as he says, the right to ask for it back. Please bear with me on the following point, which touches on the matter of the government’s authority over human life.

Whose image, whose inscription, is found on a human being? Are we not made in the image of God? Is it not he “from whom every family in heaven and earth is named” (Ephesians 3:14)? So there is a distinction to be found between paying taxes and taking human life, either through war or by way of execution (as well as, you will no doubt agree, abortion). Render to God the things that are God’s. Caesar, and Washington, has no right to a human being’s soul. Government gives no life, and therefore, unlike the case that arises with regard to money, cannot demand it back.

Now I should point out that this by itself does not necessarily exclude all military service. There are noncombatant roles, that would allow one to wear the uniform. I was approached some years ago by a Navy recruiter who wanted me to serve as a chaplain. While my conscience did not then let me go that route, it did provide me the occasion to question whether a person of conscience must always reject such a path. But I know few people so pure of heart that they could pray for the peace and well-being of those persons whom they were seeking, at the command of the secular authority, actively to kill.

There is much more I could say on this, but let’s move to your third passage. In 1 Peter 2, again the historical context is a time when the believing community is under severe persecution from governing authorities within portions of the Roman empire. Any excuse would do to put them under suspicion, and there was certainly no need to add to that by any active declaration of rebellion against the authorities, which could easily be seen as plotting a violent overthrow. Now the moral rightness of the government in question, or its polices, is not being endorsed here any more than is the moral rightness of slavery by the passage immediately following; in fact, the admonishment to slaves to suffer unjustly rather than do evil applies also to those who are being exhorted in the portion you cite. V. 15, “For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish” is expanded and explained when right-doing is fleshed out as imitating the example of Jesus in, for example, v. 23: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.”

This sort of exhortation would probably be more meaningful, for practical purposes, for a Christian living in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or in today’s Saudi Arabia, than for us in North America, where Christians are (nominally) in the majority. Fact is, there is not much guidance given in the New Testament for how to be in charge of a government, though the OT does have some pointers along the lines of a king’s responsibility to take up the cause of the poor and needy, plead for the fatherless and the widow, not to grind the faces of the poor or sell the needy for a pair of sandals, etc. It would be good if the sovereign in this country, namely “We the People” would see our royal responsibility in such a light, when we go to vote. But from the time of the Exile through the final pages of the New Testament, the challenge is seen more as how to live in the presence of ungodly governments. Still, if we, through our representatives, have a say in how things are run, I can think of no better advice for leaders of a nation than that given as part of the context of this same passage from Peter (1 Peter 3:9-17, NRSV):

Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing.
It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. For
“Those who desire life and desire to see good days,
let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit;
let them turn away from evil and do good; let them seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.
Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?
But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.
Do not fear what they fear; do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.
Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is in you;
yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear,
so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.
For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.
For Christ also suffered…..

You see, Brent, the argument from silence, which you make, that Jesus passed up an opportunity to speak against military service, ignores the fact that in that passage military service was not in the conversation. He did speak, on other occasions, about the appropriate response to violence. But here’s another silence, much louder: if you can show me in the New Testament any instance, after the Resurrection, when a believer upheld his cause, or indeed any cause, by violent means, I’d like to see it.

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