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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Two Views of the State

Sep 13, 2020

We need a realistic and holistic view of civil government:

Christians are always to run with the total biblical message, and to proclaim the full counsel of God. They are not to pick and choose those bits of the Bible they are happy with, but are to embrace and present what Scripture teaches in all its fullness. This is true of its teaching on civil government and the state.

When I speak of ‘two views of the state,’ what I really mean is we must take seriously the various aspects or facets of the one biblical teaching on the state. There are all sorts of passages of course that speak to this matter, but two major texts need to be discussed here – and kept in balance.

Romans 13 is almost always tossed around when Christians discuss the role and purpose of the state, and rightly so. But it is not the only key text we need to keep in mind. We also have a very important discussion found in Revelation 13. And it is clear that while Paul presents a basically positive view of government and the state in Rom. 13, John presents a basically negative view in Rev. 13.

Both texts must therefore be held to in any discussion of the state. They must be taken together, even if appearing to offer quite differing points of view. I have often discussed Paul’s passage. See this piece for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2014/12/03/difficult-bible-passages-romans-131-7/

Here I want to concentrate on John’s chapter about ungodly and evil government. Let me preface my remarks by noting that too often Christians want to read the apocalyptic literature (Daniel, Revelation, etc) only with a view to setting dates and pinpointing events on the prophetic clock.

But they can miss the broader messages to be found there, including the big-picture themes like the sovereignty of God and his dominion over the nations. We find timeless truths in these books in other words, good for all believers of all times – not just those at the end of the age.

While seeking clarity on biblical prophecy and particular matters of the end times is important, so too is the broader picture that books like Revelation seek to make. Regardless of which particular interpretative school you happen to belong to regarding this book, let me try to lay out some of these broader perspectives as found in this chapter.

Ian Paul offers us a concise look at the message found here:

John is offering us the anatomy of human totalitarian rule and its defiance of the sovereignty of God, drawing, as ever, on biblical images as his symbolic vocabulary. We can see enough connection with the world of the first century to know how vivid his descriptions would have been to his first audience. But we can also feel the rhetorical power of what he says to find correspondences in subsequent generations, including our own.

James Hamilton offers another big-picture view of this chapter:

There is no neutrality between God and Satan. The kingdoms of the world are not the kingdom of God. “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Satan is “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2; cf. 6:11, 12). The world powers opposed to the gospel get their authority from Satan, and they do the works of their father the devil, whose business is to “steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). They will not all be as bad as possible, but to the degree that they are not subjected to Scripture and submitted to the Lordship of Christ, they are against him. Satan’s beast is depicted in 13:1, 2 as the culmination of all the wickedness at work in the evil empires of history.

Or as Douglas Kelly puts it:

The main point to consider here is the blasphemous pretension of many political systems. When they get enough power, some of them want to put the government into the place of Almighty God. Scripture teaches that civil government is ordained by God, and that believers are to honor it insofar as we can (Rom. 13). The difficulty is, that the evil one gets into civil governments, particularly the stronger they become, so that they want to become like God, replace his laws, and take oppressive action against any who oppose their pretensions to total lordship.

And J. Scott Duvall says this:

When operating properly under divine authority, the state upholds law and order and serves as an instrument of justice (Rom. 13:4). But human institutions may be hijacked for evil purposes, and such is the case in Revelation 13. Satan sometimes works through secular power systems and the wicked individuals who rule those systems. When the state turns tyrannical and demands unconditional allegiance, Christians have no choice but to “obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29).

One last comment. With a continual breakdown of freedom and democracy in the West (perhaps best exemplified right now in the Australian state of Victoria), we need to be aware that often these dictatorial powers are loved and applauded by the masses, making them even more menacing and dangerous. As Richard Phillips comments:

It is a notable fact of history that the most despicable tyrants have often been extremely popular and have elicited virtual worship from their people. Adolf Hitler set himself up as a messiah for the Aryan race and was fanatically revered by many of the German people, even as their cities were being reduced to rubble by Allied advances. The relentless conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte continues to be adored by the French, despite having bled their country dry in his ruinous wars. Steve Wilmshurst writes: “Dictators create their own personal mythology, or have others do it for them. Most of all, they demand people’s unquestioning and unconditional submission – something that only God has the right to do.”

Indeed, as I have just recently posted on the social media:

In Germany in the 1930s there emerged at least two responses to the regime:
-the majority who supported it, who thought it could do no wrong, who defended it to the death, and who hated on anyone who dared to question it;
-the minority who said, ‘Wait a minute – this is going way too far. This is not right. There is a law above the law. The state is not god. We must not allow this tyranny. We must not allow all opposition to be silenced.’
Hmm, why am I increasingly seeing this very thing happening in Victoria? 

Image of Revelation (Reformed Expository Commentary) (Reformed Expository Commentaries)
Revelation (Reformed Expository Commentary) (Reformed Expository Commentaries) by Array Amazon logo

So we must keep the entirety of the biblical view on civil government together here. Romans 13 gives us important truths about the state. But so do other passages, such as Revelation 13. We need the full Scriptural picture of how God views the state.

The biblical Christian cannot support anarchy and total hatred of civil government. But the biblical Christian must also not worship or blindly support the state, refuse to ask questions, and refuse to hold it to account. Both are faulty and unbiblical positions to hold to.

In part, where you live may well determine what emphasis you run with. if you live in some Democrat-controlled cities in the US at the moment, you would be right to stress Romans 13. But if you live in Victoria right now, the emphasis will likely be on Revelation 13.

I close by offering a bit more present-day application to these matters, this time with a just-released column by English commentator Peter Hitchens. He writes:

The Government has no legal right to impose the severe and miserable restrictions on our lives with which it has wrecked the economy, brought needless grief to the bereaved and the lonely and destroyed our personal liberty. This is the verdict of one of the most distinguished lawyers in the country, the retired Supreme Court Judge Lord Sumption. He said last week in a podcast interview: ‘I don’t myself believe that the Act confers on the Government the powers that it has purported to exercise.’

He was referring to the Public Health Act of 1984, the basis for almost all the sheaves of increasingly hysterical decrees against normal life which the Health Secretary Matt Hancock has issued since March. I promise you that it is not usual for a retired senior judge to use such language in public. This 1984 Act was drawn up mainly to give local magistrates the power to quarantine the sick. 

Nothing in it remotely justifies these astonishing moves – house arrest, travel restrictions, harsh limits on visiting family members, interference with funerals and weddings, closure of churches, compulsory muzzles, bans on assembly and protest. English law just does not allow an Act of Parliament to be stretched so far. 

And he goes on to say this about Victoria:

The most terrible warning of what lies ahead of us – if we cannot smash the Government’s lies – is in Melbourne, Australia, where a vain little despot called Daniel Andrews has locked his subjects in their homes, banned demonstrations against this policy, and unleashed heavy-handed police against protesters and dissenters.

At this rate, Melbourne will soon be twinned with Minsk, capital of Belarus. The treatment of protesters on the streets of both cities is remarkably similar. I was most struck by what happened to a young woman demonstrator at the hands of Melbourne police, after they had grabbed and restrained her, so that she was powerless. An officer actually put a covering over her mouth. It was not the only such incident that day and it explains, to those who object, why I call these things muzzles.

They are there to humiliate, to cancel individuality and to indicate assent – forced or otherwise – to the crazy policy of trying to treat a virus with naked state power. If U.S. police forced handcuffed Left-wing protesters to wear Trumpoid “Make America Great Again” baseball caps it would be about the same. www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-8726051/PETER-HITCHENS-Government-wading-swamp-despotism-one-muzzle-time.html

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14 Responses to Two Views of the State

  • Amen! And the really concerning thing in Victoria is that it’s not only the police but the Victorian courts and judges who are also complicit with the immoral Labor government. How is it possible that any judge would have made a court order like the one given to seize not only the Ballarat woman’s computer and phone but everyone else’s in the house as well? These people are not only immorally enforcing wrongful ideas and completely impinging on people’s fundamental rights but are apparently so stupid as to not realize the woman’s post could have been made from any computer or phone. Do they think this, therefor, gives the courts in Victoria the ability to seize any computer or phone in the state to attempt to prove their case? How many times do the authorities in Victoria have to be shown and be seen, worldwide, to be immoral, unjust, stupid, deceitful and corrupt before something is done?

  • Perhaps, rather than making a distinction, you could also make a case that as the Age progresses towards events described in Revelation, the state, as described in Romans 13 has become more corrupt and that these two texts hold the present in tension? From that base, warnings issue, as it surely has become obvious that the jury is no longer out on whether the alienation of the church by the state was for other purposes, rather than to allow freedom of religion and freedom from religion. ‘Reality’ is interpreted by those who prefer the state over the Christian reality or their own religious belief. John’s version is looking more likely .

  • The Reformers and many Protestants in the past centuries have understood that Revelation has a relevance to Christians in history. As such, there is much to commend notions in Revelation such as the Lamb’s victory over anti-Christian powers as being effected by the people of God within history, as well as the obvious end of history fulfilment. The major thrust of Abraham’s message, as well as the Great Commission of the Gospel is the impact that the Gospel should have on a national level, that nations should be blessed. Therefore, the tendency of Romans 13 should be in light of Christian-influenced governance. This in turn means that it is also right to politically and spiritually resist little dictators like Daniel Andrews. It also puts responsibility onto Christians to act, both in regaining the spiritual high ground (i.e. repentance etc) and also the necessity for Christians to engage in politics in a largely hostile environment. In fact, the enemy is at war with the idea of Christian values having any place in civil society. Even worse, there are people who claim to be Christians in politics who are detrimental to the advance of the Christian faith. It is also not helpful that so many have taken a pessimistic view, as though the current demise of Christianity in our culture cannot be reversed.

  • Thanks Bill for tying together Romans 13 and Revelation 13. Also, the Public Health Act of 1984 reminds me of the book ‘1984’ which I haven’t read but heard about.
    The first Beast mentioned in Revelation 13 is out of the sea – meaning multitudes/peoples/nations and is supposed to be an unbeatable monster with its political, military and economic powers – something like the EU, UN or WHO only bigger and stronger,
    I agree with J Scott Duvall, this organization may start out just and law-abiding but will be hijacked by those wanting their own agendas. I believe we are seeing the reemergence of it today and it may be something like the coronavirus that starts it off so that all the world obeys its rules to eradicate the virus. We won’t be able to buy or sell (run a business or work for a business) receive benefit/pension payments unless we have been vaccinated or have the mark of the beast. The second Beast out of the earth seems to be the Antichrist Rev 13:11 in which Satan enters because he has been kicked out of Heaven for good in Rev 12:9-12 and he pretends to be like Christ or in place of Christ. I know it is not good to predict a time for all this but Jesus Christ started His 3.5 year ministry approx 27AD and maybe the Antichrist will start his 2000 years later.

  • What you said about the vast proportion of the people thinking that Daniels is doing are wonderful job protecting them from this so-called virus, is so correct. First put the fear there, then proclaim yourself their Savior and protector. I think we can all agree that the devil is a liar so clearly what is operating through Andrews is not of God. This is a piece out of the Wikipedia that I think you should see.
    “Andrews is a practicing Roman Catholic. As Health Minister during the passing of the Abortion Law Reform Act 2008, Andrews sought counsel from senior church clergy who advised him that the act was contrary to Church teaching. Andrews replied that he “… did not intend to be a Catholic health minister. It was my intention to be a Victorian health minister”
    So there you have it, the man has no moral grounding what so ever. He has been hiding under the Roman Catholic Church and he is now hiding under this virus.
    How do you fight the devil and his lies? You fight him with the truth. The truth is this man has betrayed his people and has been selling of their state to the Chinese. He did that when he signed the Belt & Road Deal with the Chinese. He is the only leader in Australia that has done this to date. Not only has he done this wicked thing, he has been hiding the truth about the deal that he did with the Chinese even from the Federal Government. Except for are few close associates no one else has sighted it, he is keeping it close to his chest. The Federal Government is up in arms about this. Just prior to the virus hitting he was being heavily confronted with this, through both the Politicians and the Media. He was even avoiding Parliamentary meetings so that he could not be questioned. So maybe what we all need to be asking ourselves is just what is he hiding, because maybe just maybe that is why he has been carrying this pandemic lock down for so long and for so hard.

  • @ Matthew Verschuur. Rather than take a pessimistic view of reversing the current demise of Christianity in the West, my post was a brief meditation on how to bring non-Christians, including those of other religious beliefs, to the Cross without unpackaging the eschatology of Revelation. The demise of truth and ‘moral relativity’ in our culture has many non-believers concerned. Whether they can give up their beliefs for the truth of the Scriptures is cogent.

  • Ingrid Hall has hit the nail on the head. Unfortunately it is not just Daniel Andrews who has the idea that we need to keep God out of politics. Unfortunately that is exactly what Paul’s prophecy in 2 Thes 2 is all about. You take God out of things and what ends up occurring is delusion but nowhere in the rules of secularism is there the idea that we have to make laws based on the belief that God does not exist. None of our founding fathers had that idea. It is a lie that, unfortunately, many people have swallowed, however.

    That lie is actually establishing atheistic religious belief, but because people have not woken up to the fact that atheism is a religious belief, we not only now have laws based on atheist religious belief but public organizations, most notably the ABC and SBS, are functioning based on that religious belief and politicians are deliberately hamstringing themselves based on those atheistic religious beliefs. Under these circumstances it is inevitable that delusion will result.

  • I agree with Ingrid. It seems Dan Andrews is hiding something and not caring about the economy as his deal with China, he thinks, will get the economy going again. Other Labor premiers also seem to think money grows on trees or in China. How many of our farms, waterways, airports, seaports, developments are owned by China? I think Clive Palmer tried to show us what was happening up north in WA or NT at the last Federal election. Someone called it Blue tape and it seems our government cannot do anything about creating new waterways or nuclear power, nor stopping renewables like wind and solar farms etc because of blue tape agreements signed by our politicians. We will not have a ‘free to worship’ country if we get sold out to China but will be persecuted instead for our faith.

  • Bread and circuses! As long as people are fed and entertained they will accept any hash measures the government dishes out. Keep people comfortable and they will be lulled to sleep and you can do what you want. Done “properly” the people won’t wake up till it is too late. Unfortunately too often Christians have been good little sheeple going along, ignoring (just sing louder) and even helping. (The darkness spreads like fear with lies no-one can hear all sense is twisted)

    This didn’t happen in a vacuum. It has taken a long time to get here. A good thing to look at is the Overton window. This has been over a century in the making. Charles Finney saw this problem back in 1873 in his speech THE DECAY OF CONSCIENCE Dec 4 1873 about 2 years before he died. That 147 years ago for anyone counting. It had probably already been declining for some time then.

  • My apologies for being pessimistic. I guess the over-riding emphasis of Revelation’s tribulations and the downward slide of the West in terms of morality and truth have caused me to take an essentially negative view of the outcome of this Age, at least for most. You are essentially correct in saying that we should continue to fight for the Gospel, so that some would be saved and Governments held to account.

  • I agree about the outcome of the age but also agree as soldiers for christ until our commander calls us off the battlefield we still have to do our duty. I’m don’t consider myself a pessimist but a realist. What little good there is I see and am glad for but I see the bad and how things are going. I read the signs and portents that surround us. I feel the darkness pressing at our backs. A pessimist won’t see any good, an optimist won’t see any bad but a realist see both and access which is stronger and has the upper hand.

    I think world view is important and not just christian vs atheist but pre vs post millennial. Which you have can dramatically alter how you see the present and future. I won’t go into the whole deal but as a pre I see things getting worse prior to Christ’s return and post’s see things getting better. So you can see that can affect how you feel about the situation and how dire you find things to be. Even among pre’s some feel we are close to the second coming others a generation or even a century away. That too can impact how dire you think things are and how this will play out.

  • From what I understand, the 1984 Public Health Act is solely for the UK, as implied in Bill’s article.
    For those wanting a dynamic reference for Australia refer to the following document list, and note especially the emergency powers sections, which are the ones with the new rules.
    Perhaps a “legal eagle” in the CultureWatch family might like to expand this with more pertinent details.
    https://covid19-law.com.au/index.html

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