Saturday, July 03, 2004

Christians and the State, Some Initial Thoughts

The first thing Christians need to realize about the State is that it is not sovereign. Only God is absolutely sovereign. All human agencies have limited degrees of authority. Scripture tells us that all power and authority reside in the resurrected and ascended Christ who is enthroned at the hand of God (Matt. 28:18) and that it is in Christ that all things are held together (Col. 1:17).

Indeed, God has created numerous institutions aside from the State to serve His purposes. The family, for example, has been given control over children, authority over property and inheritance, and control over education. The family is also the institution preeminently responsible for social welfare. Paul says that the failure to care for our own marks us as “worse than an unbeliever” (I Tim. 5:8) and James says that “pure and undefiled religion…is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble” (James 1:27). The early church did not depend on the Roman civil authorities to meet social needs. Likewise, we see Jesus on the cross with His dying words ensuring that His mother is taken care of by John (John 19:25-27).

Secondly, God gave us the Scriptures as an authoritative and infallible guide (II Tim. 3:16). It is in the Word, rather than reason or natural revelation that we ought to begin when constructing an overarching theory of the State and politics.

So what does Scripture say is the role of civil authorities? Are they to educate children, cut social security checks, and provide cheap prescription drugs? On the contrary, the magistrate is a servant of God (Rom. 13:4) who is responsible to enforce justice. The Biblical role for the State is limited to the administration of just laws to defend life and property, punish criminals, and defend the innocent. In other words, the State’s role is to exact negative sanctions and is not a redemptive institution.

What are our obligations to civil authorities? Quite simply we are to pray for our leaders (I Tim. 2:1-2), honor their God-ordained office (I Peter 2:17, Rom. 13:7), pay taxes (Rom. 13:6-7, Matt. 22:15-21), and obey their lawful commands (Rom. 13:5, Titus 3:1).

Does Paul’s command to submit to lawful authorities mean we are never to resist the State? Some state-worshipping Evangelicals seem to think so. Prior to the invasion of Iraq, noted Baptist theologian Henry Blackaby said that based on his reading of Romans 13, those opposing George Bush’s Mesopotamian excursion were courting the judgment of God. Similar ravings could be heard crossing the lips of other conservative Evangelicals who shall remain nameless.

Since Scripture is our authority and guide, perhaps the Evangelical statists could explain just a few of the references to civil disobedience in the Bible. In Ex. 1:18-21 we the account of Pharaoh commanding the Israelite midwives to kill every Jewish boy. They disobeyed and were counted blessed by God. Daniel 3 gives the account of Shadrach, Meschach and Aded-Nego, who defied Nebuchadnezzar. When the disciples were arrested for preaching the Gospel, Peter’s reply record in Acts 5:29 was, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” Needless to say, they continued to preach (Acts 4:18-31, Acts 5:17-29). What of Daniel’s defiance of King Darius’ decree (Daniel 6:1-17) or Rahab’s deceit in protecting Israel’s spies?

In short, there are times when disobedience is justified, nay, demanded by Scripture.

So how is the Christian to approach politics? More on that later…

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