Reflections of the state, statism, and our response:
Up until recently the Christian could rejoice in the great amount of political freedom, human rights and democracy that we have enjoyed throughout the West. Civil rights and liberties, and basic human freedoms, have seldom been the norm throughout history, so the West with its emphasis on the rule of law, on checks and balances, and on holding governing bodies to account has been a tremendous social good.
But all that seems to be starting to unravel. Certainly what we have witnessed over the past two years is a clear-cut case of this. Some of the most shocking cases of the erosion of freedom and basic human rights, and the massive expansion of state power and control has been occurring all throughout the West. I have written plenty on these matters.
As such it is worth going back to basics on some of these things. And here I speak from a Christian point of view. The believer takes his views on the state, on government, and on earthly rulers – life everything else – from Scripture. While certainly open to things like political philosophy and theory, our starting point is what we find in the Bible. The Bible may not be a political text book as such, but it does have plenty to say about civil government.
The first thing to say is that it is God’s idea. God had ordained the state for a fallen world. The need to keep selfish and sinful people in check and to prevent evil from running amok is part of the duty and purpose of the state, as Romans 13 discusses. I have spoken about this elsewhere, eg.: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2014/12/03/difficult-bible-passages-romans-131-7/
But we must understand that there are different types of government which exist. First and foremost there is the government or rule of God. That is paramount, but humans have different sorts of governance as well. Perhaps the key one is self-government. God wants us to be able to govern ourselves – under him and his authority of course.
And the family is also a type of government, where parents have authority over children, and so on. And then the church also has its own rule. Church government is also important. Then there is the state, or civil government. While all these human forms of government are separate, there is some overlap between them as well.
When it comes to the issue of civil government, one can offer some very quick definitions of some positions along the political spectrum. An anarchist is someone who favours anarchy, which is defined as ‘a society being freely constituted without authorities or a governing body’. The idea of no government might sound good, but as mentioned above, the Christian cannot support this.
A libertarian is one who seeks ‘to maximize autonomy and political freedom, emphasizing free association, freedom of choice, individualism and voluntary association’. This is a more tenable position for the Christian to hold to. And a conservative believes that government is necessary in a fallen world, but prefers limited government, and emphasises individual and group moral responsibility. Freedom is not seen as an absolute, but as a great good nonetheless.
Leftists and statists tend to see the state as the solution to all – or most of – our problems, and they are constantly seeking to expand the size and range of government. Some of these folks are keen to head in the direction of even more control and power, especially in terms of a one-world government.
With those very simple definitions and concepts in place, let me take this a bit further and deal with some objections that can arise, especially from those who really dislike civil government. I deal with such folks now and then in various places, including on the social media.
One person for example is quite clear in his disdain of the state. While I am certainly sympathetic with most of what he says, I do differ with him in some areas, and if he does not mind, I will use a few of his recent remarks to further tease out how believers might think about these issues.
In one comment that he sent through to one of my posts he simply said, “Government is violence. Plain and simple.” Well, civil government can be violent at times – maybe even often – but there is some confusion here between two rather different things: force and violence.
These two things are not at all identical. We can loosely say that violence is the wrong or immoral use of force. But not all force is wrong or immoral. Some force is obviously amoral, such as the force of a raging river. But we are speaking here about force as used by people.
Clearly not all use of force by humans is wrong. We use force all the time in good and proper ways. For example, if a father pulls the arm of a child away as he tries to strike another child, this is a use of force – but it is not violent (although it can become violent).
And it need not be just in parent-child relationships. Let’s say a group of adult friends are out having a night on the town. Some may have had too much to drink and start getting aggressive toward each other. A few others in the group may step in and seek to break up a fight – or a potential fight. They may well use force to do so, but that is not a case of violence as such.
The truth is, the state HAS been given the right to use force to maintain peace and order, and to prevent wrongdoing. That is clearly what Romans 13:3-4 teaches: “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
So there is a legitimate and God-given use of force. The state in various ways (judges, courts, police, armies, etc.) can use force to keep evil in check and to punish those doing evil. Of course these powers can easily be abused and misused, so great care is needed. And the desire of politicians and rulers to want ever more power and control is always with us.
That is why God has given us the right balance here. Because we are ALL fallen and sinful and selfish – including rulers and magistrates and political leaders and cops and those in the military – we must always recall that all human authority and power is delegated to us by God.
The state is under God and is to be subject to God. As Rom. 13:1 puts it, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Exactly because the state is not absolute nor perfect, there are times when rulers must be resisted and disobeyed.
The state can go wrong, and at times the right recourse for people – whether Christians or non-Christians – is to defy the state. While that also is a contentious matter, and we need to be careful and prayerful as to when and where we are to disobey, it is still part of our rights as citizens. See more on this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2008/11/02/christians-and-civil-disobedience/
Indeed, not only can there be a place for things like civil disobedience, but there can also possibly be a place of just revolution, as I discuss here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/07/11/is-revolution-ever-justified-part-one/
But all this can be put under the broad subject heading of ‘resistance theory’. This in fact happens to be the 66th piece in my series on this issue: https://billmuehlenberg.com/category/politics/resistance-theory/
One further comment from this social media friend can be presented here. He said this not all that long ago: “Anyone who wants to control the lives of others has mental issues to begin with. This is why I abhor politicians no matter how much ‘good’ they claim to be doing or what flag they fly under. They’re still stealing your money and forcing their ideas on the population.”
Again, the Christian would disagree for various reasons. There is a place for control. Divine control is obvious for the Christian, but as I said above, God has delegated various forms of control and authority. Families should be able to control and discipline their own children – and not the state. Churches should be able to exercise some control and discipline over their members. And the individual should of course practice self-control.
So control as such is not wrong. But it can become wrong. And again, it can become wrong rather easily. But we are not to throw out the baby with the bathwater here. Do some parents abuse their power and control over their children? Yes. So should we outlaw parents and parenting therefore because some misuse and abuse their position? No.
Do states abuse their power and control? Yes. And it seems that they are doing it even more of late in the West. But that does not mean we jettison all civil government, or declare it all to be illegitimate and evil. We instead seek even further to reform it, to keep it in check, to deal with power-hungry rulers, and so on.
And this too can take different forms. Sometimes you just patiently wait for the next election and seek to vote the bad guys out of office. Sometimes as in American states a recall election can be attempted, as with Governor Newsom in California recently (which failed unfortunately). And even US Presidents can be impeached if they go too far off the rails.
Many other ways are available, including people power, such as peaceful mass protests on the streets, as Australian cities have seen so much of this past month. Seeking to withhold part or all of one’s taxes as a protest against unjust policies and the like is another option. There are plenty of options here.
The point is, politicians can often be corrupt, laws can often be unjust, and governments can often stop serving the people. In all these cases – at least in theory – the rule of law and the democratic process should allow for various ways to deal with this.
Yes sadly it does not always work, and sometimes corruption and arrogant leadership can get so bad (think of the state of Victoria here in Australia), that it appears that the normal means of cleaning up the mess are no longer available to us. So that may be when we start thinking about just revolution as a last resort. And of course the Christian will also be heavily involved in prayer and spiritual warfare as additional means by which we seek to clean up or drive out bad government and bad leaders.
Finally, the bit about ‘government stealing our money’ is also something a text like Romans 13 addresses. Verse 6-7 say this: “For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
So yes, there is a place for taxation, and no, taxation is not necessarily theft, as some folks claim. I have discussed that matter elsewhere as well, so see this piece: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/09/23/taxation-and-the-bible/
This has been all too brief and sketchy, and much more can and should be said. But hopefully a few broad biblical principles have been laid out here to help us as we think about how we are to react to governments and the state.