The recent changes in the leadership (such as it is) composition in the U.S. give the Evangelical community an opportunity for a serious “reality check” in their idea regarding the relationship of Christianity with the state. So let’s take a serious look at what the New Testament really says, instead of what everyone else says it does. Start by considering the following:
Let every soul submit himself unto the authority of the higher powers. There is no power but of God. The powers that be, are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth power, resisteth the ordinance of God. They that resist, shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not to be feared for good works but for evil. Wilt thou be without fear of the power? Do well then: and so shalt thou be praised of the same. For he is the minister of God, for thy wealth. But and if thou do evil, then fear: for he beareth not a sword for nought; for he is the minister of God, to take vengeance on them that do evil. Wherefore ye must needs obey, not for fear of vengeance only: but also because of conscience. Even for this cause pay ye tribute. (Romans 13:1-6, Tyndale)
In an American context, this passage has been taken to mean that, since the state is ordained of God, it must be good. This is an important underpinning of the entire “religious right;” it sets up the state as an important instrument of righteousness. That’s why today many Christians look to the transformation of the state as an important tool in the revival of the nation. Unfortunately, if we look at this and other passages in light of what believers in New Testament times were looking at, the view is very different.
Let’s take a look at this:
I exhort therefore that above all things prayers, supplications, petitions, and giving of thanks, be had for all men: for kings, and for all that are in preeminence, that we may live a quiet and a peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty. For that is good and accepted in the sight of God our saviour, which would have all men saved, and come unto the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4, Tyndale)
There’s no doubt that we should pray for those who are in authority. But why? “…that we may live a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty.” What would interrupt that peaceable life? There are three possibilities: external attack, including attacks such as 11 September 2001 and natural disasters, internal assault by thieves, murderers, and other criminals, and of course assaults on our persons and property by the government itself. The last one is the one many Christians forget to pray for, but for those in the Roman Empire, it was an important problem.
When John the Baptist went into the wilderness to preach repentance, he exhorted the following:
Then came there publicans to be baptised, and said unto him: Master, what shall we do? He answered unto them: require no more than that, which is appointed unto you. The soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying: and what shall we do? And he said to them: Do violence to no man: neither trouble any man wrongfully: And be content with your wages. (Luke 3:12-14)
The publicans, or tax collectors, were private contractors which were commissioned by the Roman government to collect a certain amount of taxation. Anything beyond that was theirs to keep, so they generally took all they could, knowing they got all of the excess. Little wonder sinners and tax collectors were routinely lumped together. As for the soldiers, John wasn’t urging them to go on strike for higher wages from Rome, but not to extort additional income for themselves from the local population.
The fact remains that life in the Roman Empire was one continuous shakedown. So why did people put up with this? It was the “price of civilisation.” (Think: the inscription on the IRS’s building in Washington is “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.”) Life in the ancient world was an uncertain business, interrupted by barbarian invasions and people caught between power holders and power challengers. A strong, stable government allowed for protection from external enemies and internal criminals. Most people were willing to put up with the continuous extortion from that government in exchange for some peace and quiet. When the Bible speaks with passages such as “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn,” (Proverbs 29:2) moral issues that dominate today’s scene weren’t high on the list; people knew what havoc a group of unprincipled thieves could reek when in power.
All of the New Testament passages above must be understood in that context. When the “bargain” was unbalanced, i.e, the government’s take was higher than the perceived cost of anarchy or foreign rule, the government was either overthrown or the civilisation collapsed. Paul’s exhortation in the first passage was that Christians should be party to neither. But that doesn’t mean that Christians are required to give slavish love to their government as many insist on today.
Just because the government is ordained of God doesn’t necessarily make it the morally ideal instrument that people make it out to be. We discussed in our posting last week on the judgement of God that events such as hurricanes, earthquakes and other disasters can be instruments of God’s authority. In the Old Testament, brutal states such as the Assyrians were termed to be God’s instruments towards the punishment of the Israelites for their sins. Man is a poor student and frequently needs a hard lesson to learn. Modern people profess to be shocked by this, and ascribe this to a Judeo-Christian world view, but in the ancient world the pagans felt even more strongly about this. The Roman historian Tacitus, hardly a fan of Christianity, said that “the gods care little for our well-being, but greatly for our chastisement.”
Our Founding Fathers didn’t have a very high view of government either. That’s why, after years of taxation without representation, quartering rude British troops in their homes and other indignities, they fashioned a government with a multitude of checks and balances within and the check of federalism and a people endowed with rights by their Creator without.
Unfortunately today we have too many people on both sides whose view of government is just too high. On the left, this is understandable: government coercion is the only way their agenda will be carried out, so they have no choice. On the right, the legacy of World War II, which raised the image of government within the population, is a powerful one, even with people who should know better.
When Our Lord Jesus Christ comes back, He will establish perfect government on the earth. Until then, we must live with trying to keep from being fleeced by those on high while praying for them to do what God put them there to do and not follow their first inclination. Anything else is second best for the Christian.
Originally written September 2005. Updated May 2009.