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Christianity, the State, and Blind Obedience

May 5, 2020

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/

And here: billmuehlenberg.com/2019/12/21/further-reflections-on-government-god-anarchy-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.

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17 Responses to Christianity, the State, and Blind Obedience

  • With regard to King David and his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband, Uriah, the prophet, Nathan’s challenge against his wicked behaviour was only possible because, the King acknowledged an absolute power, greater than himself and to whom he was ultimately answerable. But what do we do when governments do not recognise the absolute laws of the Ten Commandments (which despite of the New Testament age are eternally binding) and become God themselves.? What do we do when a government wages war on its own people and especially its children, its families and unborn infants to the point that the nation begins to die?
    We speak of justified wars, thinking that this mean against an external enemy. But what if that enemy is the government itself? How long one wonders will the statue of Oliver Cromwell stand as a a warning to all would be tyrannical governments, especially when we remember that the corrupt and treasonous powers whom he had decapitated, returned and after digging up his body and hanging it at Tyburn had his head stuck on a pole at Westminster?
    Since 2012 there have been at least three petitions accepted, though admittedly failed, by Parliament to have his statue removed. Meanwhiile in America, which owes much to Cromwell, there are rumblings of an impending civil war. https://youtu.be/ri_5KtgkVn4?t=56

    David Skinner UK

  • Martyn Ilys speaks of “the app” in his latest Truth of It, and it sounds pretty harmless (link below).

    The thing is, what he says is based on what the documentation he has says it does. I wrote programs for decades and in a couple I put things that no one else knew about. Nothing harmful, in one case a hidden game, but things that weren’t in the documentation. I have heard of some beauties though.

    See the app should only send the details on your phone to the server if you specifically tell it to. It would only take a couple of lines of code to change that, and, as has been done in the past, those lines of code may be nowhere near the code that does the actual send. Would you know your data was being sent? I doubt it.

    Video: https://email.createsend.com.au/t/r-l-jhuhutjk-iteqlkld-i/
    Blog on the same topic: https://www.acl.org.au/blog_mi_covidsafeapp

  • Adrian’s comment is especially interesting in light of the fact that News.com.au has published 2 articles by Angela Mollard in a mere 4 days attacking people for not installing the app. From memory the first accused people of being lazy, selfish and\or ignorant or somesuch, and that they were choosing to risk the lives of their families. Her second piece equates ‘anti-appers’ with anti-vaxxers – hysterical anti-science folks who endanger the community and whom the government punishes financially. The thing is hysteria seems more appropriately applied to the ‘pro-appers’ who appear to believe we’re all going to die if we don’t use ‘The App’. Pointing out that not everyone has a cellphone, has a smartphone, has network coverage, wants to risk their security by leaving Bluetooth enabled etc is all ignored. I’ve tried posting comments myself but never seem to get past the mods. What’s the agenda? What’s inspiring this group think which will not tolerate rational dissent?

  • Thank you Adrian. Loved hearing Martyn counselling caution when we are tempted to gloat on the downfall of the many Hamans who end up hanging on the very scaffold they have designed for us.
    David Skinner UK

  • Sati was the law in India and it was socially acceptable. It is illegal now. I think that this law should have been broken. I realise that we still have to show respect for other cultures but this law should be still be broken. I am a married woman and I would not want to be burned to death if my husband died!

  • Suppose today you were made the premier of a state where the Covid-19 epidemic is raging. What policies would you adopt relevant to the epidemic?

  • Thanks John, but given everything I have said in over 50 corona articles now, you should have a fairly good idea of that by now! And I am not a fan of loaded questions. The actual numbers (versus the hype and alarmism) is STILL the only thing that matters here. So I once again repeat: the real numbers are these:
    -There are 25.5 million Australians
    -There are 6849 confirmed cases of corona
    -5889 Australians have recovered
    -The recovery rate of closed cases is 98.40%
    -96 Australians have died
    -The nation is in lockdown

    So I of course do NOT buy the emotive, unhelpful and unfounded “epidemic is raging” rhetoric.

    But it partly depends on which state one is speaking of. Most are now thankfully easing their restrictions. Others like Victoria are still insisting on being overly restrictive. And the destructive consequences of those policies are now being felt. For example, we have 1.5 million Australians who are unemployed nationwide, with around half of the workforce on government benefits. The highest rate of job losses has been (surprise, surprise) here in Victoria!

    I have said all along that both crises must be carefully dealt with: the virus, and the political/economic consequences of lockdown policies. One should still target the at-risk populations (the elderly, those with other underlying conditions, etc), but as the national medical experts have said, opening schools and getting businesses going are now clearly sensible measures. Yet little tinpot dictators like Dan Andrews (with his cosy ties to China) are very much enjoying all their newfound powers and control. So it is not too important what I think about these matters. People should be asking folks like Andrews these sorts of questions! But as a citizen I have every right to keep raising concerns, asking questions and keep holding the State to account.

  • We must obey the law of the land as long as it doesn’t contradict the law of God. (Acts 5:29). E.g. If the government says you have to sanction same-sex marriage that goes against God’s law and you can ignore it.

    Also, in the USA the ultimate authority is the citizen, not any government authority. Which is why by our Constitution we can protest and rebel against unconstitutional laws.

  • “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”.”

    yes just sit down, shut up and sing louder!

    “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”

    Nowadays you have to burn that pinch of incense to the rainbow flag.

    Often you will find state approved churches in these authoritarian states preaching nothing offensive and obedience to government is obedience to God. So all churches won’t disappear after the game over just the faithful.

    Just as some Christians blindly follow government some will follow the anti Christ either believing him to be Christ or because he is the world leader so God must have put him there and we can’t question God.

  • You are correct, of course. Even leading the Hebrews out of Egypt was a rebellion against human authority and the seven heads of the Beast of Revelation are related to kings in the text. In Acts the apostles were often directed by the authorities to stop preaching.

    True Christians, however, are almost always the most law abiding of citizens. We don’t believe in murder or oppression nor theft nor lying nor even covetousness, so if governments are reasonable at all we should not have any problems.

    On top of this we believe in the existence of sexual sin, the rights of parents, that people have the right to a day of rest and, above all, that any idolatry is wrong. We believe in truth, justice and mercy and that leaders are meant to serve, not oppress. All these beliefs are what set Western society on the road to greatness and the undermining of these values is what is now undermining that advancement. Unfortunately it is the two additional areas of Judaeo/Christian belief, relating to sexual sin and idolatry, which have often been at variance with civil authorities, that are now being relentlessly criticized by the media and which are now used to oppress Christians and others.

  • Dear Bill, Thank you for your very wise words regarding the authority of governments. I am wondering if Australian parliaments both state and federal still adhere to the tradition of saying the Our Father before each session. It wouldn’t surprise me if they have given that up.

    Also people who do not have a clearly defined and strong belief in the authority and wisdom of a Father God will look to government for leadership and guidance instead. They have to have something to believe in. Many ordinary Germans put their faith and trust in Hitler but should have known better.

  • Some shops and businesses are refusing to accept cash, despite every banknote stating “Legal tender throughout Australia”.

    “Legal tender” means you cannot refuse to accept cash in payment of a debt, so surely businesses refusing to accept cash are breaking the law. If the government will not enforce the meaning of the words “legal tender” on banknotes it has issued, then nothing the government says can be trusted.

    Also, the Tasmanian parliament has extended without limit, the terms of the two Upper House members who were due to face elections last Saturday. Polling booths could have operated with appropriate physical distancing. Premier Peter Gutwein even rejected a postal vote.

    Surely no democratic parliament can choose its own members!

  • I had an interesting example today of things being made easier, (but what could it lead to) and also in conditioning.

    A local shop has car park gates. We used to take a ticket to open the gate to get in and present it to open the gate to get out.

    Today I drove up, wound down the window, but the gate opened and there were no tickets. So I just drove in.

    There’s a notice on the wall explaining what’s going on so no worries. But to the conditioning. I’d always: wound down the window; taken the ticket; wound up the window, but with no ticket to take I didn’t wind up the window. I only noticed when I got back to the car.

    Obviously I was let out, but if this can be done in car parks with rego numbers what’s to stop it being done in other places bases on your face etc.?

  • Wasn’t it over Romans 13 that the church in Germany split during Hitler’s time in power–those who blindly submitted to the State and those, like the Confessing Church, that didn’t?

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