It is frightening how Christians can twist the biblical teaching on the role of the state:
The biblical Christian knows at least two things about the state: one, God created government to bring about order and a modicum of justice in a fallen world; and two, the state is not absolute, but must be under the rule and reign of God. As such, biblical Christians cannot be anarchists, and they cannot be blind supporters of the state either.
I have often discussed the former matter, as I take on radical libertarians and the like – even Christian ones. See here for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/06/15/christians-and-the-state/
But as the corona crisis drags on, we see the opposite error far too often throughout the West: the rise of ugly statism and blind submission to the state. We see so many governments usurping their role and overextending their powers, all at the expense of individual freedoms. Liberty is being trashed as the state grows in power and control.
I have written about this often now. But I keep getting rather clueless and naïve Christians attacking me, claiming I am somehow encouraging rebellion and treason and being unbiblical. Consider just two of many rather bizarre statements made by my critics.
One of them replied to my legitimate concerns with these words: “This is garbage! The government has authority to protect its people, authority from Heaven!” And another one made this claim: “most of these (mostly Christians) are so lacking in trust of the Government’s motives, which to me is in clear contrast to Scriptural injunctions to obey the governing authorities”.
Good grief. It is just plain scary to read these sorts of comments. “My country right or wrong” is the idea being pushed here, not biblical Christianity. Hitler of course would have loved the first comment. After all, he too simply wanted to protect the Germans: ‘So sit down, shut up, and submit – it is for your own good!’
As to the second criticism, I have to say, you betcha: I sure don’t implicitly trust the state and its motives. Why should I? Only God should have my complete and undivided loyalty, trust and obedience. No state ever deserves that. Indeed, it is idolatrous to do so. No state is above criticism and accountability. The biblical Christian – of all people – should fully understand that.
Sadly, some of these critics who have such a faulty view of what Scripture says about the state have come from the Reformed camp. So let me offer some Reformed thinkers as they provide the biblically balanced word on all this. R. C. Sproul is one of these men.
Way back in 1994 he contributed a chapter on statism to a book on welfare reform (Welfare Reformed: A Compassionate Approach, P&R). He began the chapter with these words: “A number of years ago I shared a taxi with Francis Schaeffer in St. Louis. During our cab ride I asked Dr. Schaeffer: ‘What is your greatest concern for the future of America?’ Without hesitation or interval given to ponder the question, Schaeffer replied simply, ‘Statism’.”
Sproul went on to say this:
Statism involves a philosophy of government by which the state, or government, is viewed not only as the final ruling authority but the ultimate agency of redemption. In this sense the state does not simply coexist with the church. It supplants the church. Statism can never function under God. If the state is deemed to be under God in the sense of being under God’s authority and accountable to God for its actions, then the state cannot be the ultimate authority. In the philosophy of statism, the government is conceived of as autonomous. It may take shape in an autonomous king, an autonomous dictator, an autonomous committee, or an autonomous democratic populous.
Or as Francis Schaeffer put it in How Shall We Then Live?,
If we as Christians do not speak out as authoritarian governments grow from within or come from outside, eventually we or our children will be the enemy of society and the state. No truly authoritarian government can tolerate those who have a real absolute by which to judge its arbitrary absolutes and who speak out and act upon the absolute. This was the issue with the early church in regard to the Roman Empire, and though the specific issue will in all probability take a different form than Caesar-worship, the basic issue of having an absolute by which to judge the state and society will be the same.
Others could be mentioned here. Wayne Grudem puts it this way in his very helpful 2010 volume, Politics According to the Bible: “A Christian view of government would never endorse a kind of ‘blind patriotism’ according to which a citizen would never criticize a country or its leaders. In fact, a genuine patriotism, which always seeks to promote the good of the nation, would honestly criticize the government and its leaders when they do things contrary to biblical moral standards.”
And in his 2018 book, Christian Ethics, Grudem says this about Romans 13:4 which speaks about government officials doing ‘good’:
But this does not at all mean that we should think of everything that a ruler does as good! John the Baptist rebuked Herod “for all the evil things that Herod had done” (Luke 3:19). Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar, “Break off your sins by practicing righteousness” (Dan. 4:27). Old Testament history contains many stories of kings who “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” (1 Kings 11:6). Therefore, we should say that governmental rulers do “good” when they carry out their responsibilities in a just and fair way, following God’s principles for government.
I have already looked at length on how we should seek to understand the words of the Apostle Paul on the state in Romans 13:1-7. See here for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2014/12/03/difficult-bible-passages-romans-131-7/
I urge you to have a read of that piece. But let me offer a few more quotes on this. John Stott in his commentary on Romans says this:
The state is a divine institution with divine authority. Christians are not anarchists or subversives. We need to be cautious, however, in our interpretation of Paul’s statements. He cannot be taken to mean that all the Caligulas, Herods, Neros and Domitians of New Testament times, and all the Hitlers, Stalins, Amins and Saddams of our times, were personally appointed by God, that God is responsible for their behaviour, or that their authority is in no circumstances to be resisted. Paul means rather that all human authority is derived from God’s authority, so that we can say to rulers what Jesus said to Pilate, ‘You would have no power [exousia, authority] over me if it were not given to you from above.’ (Jn. 19:11). Pilate misused his authority to condemn Jesus; nevertheless, the authority he used to do this had been delegated to him by God.
And as Michael Bird writes in his 2016 commentary on Romans:
It is worth remembering, though, that 13:1-7 does not give governments a license to do whatever they want to whomever they want and the citizens just have to take it. Stanley Porter believes that 13:1-7 should not be seen as teaching unqualified obedience to the state. Paul thinks authorities can be called to account because they are exercising divinely given powers and disobedience is warranted when this power is misused…
Samuel Rutherford’s seventeenth-century political tract, Lex Rex, contested the idea that Christians have to swear absolute fealty to oppressive governments. Rutherford gave a theo-political reading of Romans 13:1-7 that showed that resistance, even violent resistance, to tyrannical rule could be warranted. So there are occasions when opposition to government is not only required but even demanded by discipleship. Just as we have to submit to governing authorities on the basis of conscience, sometimes we have to resist and rebel against governments because of the same conscience.
As always, we need to get the biblical balance right. A refusal to acknowledge that God has ordained human government for a fallen world is not how biblical Christians should operate. But neither should they take the view that government is absolute and must be absolutely obeyed at all times.
The truth is, there are far too many petty dictators milking the present corona crisis for all its worth. Power sure does corrupt. And there are far too many clueless Christians who have implicit faith and trust in the State, instead of in God where it belongs. Both are extremely dangerous to freedom and democracy, and to the biblical worldview.