Sunday, November 29, 2015

ET5. God calls us to respect our governments.

This is the fifth post on Christian ethics in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. The third set was on sacraments. This final section is on Christian ethics.
God calls us to respect our governments.

1. So Christians respect authority over them in honor of God the Father. We mentioned Romans 13 in the previous article: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment" (13:1-2).

Since we know that Paul would not have approved of everything the Roman government did (e.g., put Jesus to death), this is not a rubber stamp on everything a government does. Indeed, the emperor at the time Paul wrote this letter would eventually put him to death (Nero). Paul is not saying that God has predestined every decision a government authority makes.

Similarly, Acts tells us that the earliest Christians did at times disobey those in authority because of a higher command from God. When Peter and John are before the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, they are told to stop telling the good news about Jesus. Since God has given them a contrary command, their response is, "Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge" (Acts 4:19). [1]

2. So the principle to obey governmental authorities is a general principle, not an absolute or a divine right of kings. But it is not to be discarded lightly. Most Western governments are far more just and fair than the Roman empire was. Yet 1 Peter can say to "Honor the emperor" (1 Pet. 2:17). Indeed, 1 Peter says much the same as Paul: "For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors" (1 Pet. 2:13-14). Again, it is ironic that Nero would put Peter himself to death, just as Paul. [2]

Has your government put you to death? The level of injustice and persecution that the Roman Empire visited on Peter and Paul suggests that we are whiners when we complain about our governments today. Indeed, it makes the protests of the colonists at the time of the Revolutionary War in the United States seem rather paltry.

We must think critically about our governments and those in authority over us, especially in a democracy. But we do so for the common good. We do so out of love of our neighbor. However, it is biblical to show respect to those in authority over us, even when they are unjust or seem incompetent. We keep our thoughts to ourselves and express them with discretion to others.

Or we express them when we are working for change, for the greater good, out of love for our neighbor. It is the great privilege of a democracy to be free to speak our minds in public. But we should do so with respect for authority, for the positions of authority are deserving of our respect even when the people who sit in them are not. We may be free as Westerners to speak, but we are slaves to righteousness as Christians (Rom. 6:18-19). Our identity as slaves to Christ is the higher calling.

3. There are Christians who complain about the level of taxes in the United States. Yet our taxes are nothing in comparison to the taxes of the Roman Empire. Paul says, "Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due." (Rom. 13:7). So Jesus says about taxes, "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" (Mark 12:17).

So it would be hard to find a biblical basis in general for not paying taxes. It is not the tenor of Scripture to think, "This is my money that the government is taking from me." Rather, Jesus treated coinage itself as a matter of Caesar. Give back to Caesar what is his, as if money itself was somewhat foreign to the kingdom of God. [3]

4. Both Romans and 1 Peter give the restraint of wrong-doers as the primary function of government in their day. Paul says, "Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval" (Rom. 13:3) and "Authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer" (13:4). [4] 1 Peter similarly says that governors and emperors are "sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right" (1 Pet. 2:14).

So early Christians saw the primary purpose of government as that of restraining evil and punishing the wicked. This function need not be the only function, since Paul says that the government is "God's servant for your good" (13:4). We cannot limit "good" to what was "good" or what was possible in "that time."

Indeed, we can broaden the ethical principle of love from the individual to the societal level and say that we can evaluate governmental structures by whether they facilitate the principle to love your neighbor as yourself. The ideal government would treat all humans as valuable because all individuals are created in the image of God. Therefore, rules that benefit the many would not overrun the value of any one individual.

Yet true benefit to the many is desirable out of love for our neighbors too. This fact suggests that a structure for society that maximizes benefit for the many is a good structure, as long as it does not overrun the value of the individual.

5. Modern, constitutional democracies are arguably one good expression of these principles. We do not insist that all truly Christian governments will be monarchies just because most of the governments in the Bible were monarchies of a sort. Israel had a tribal structure when the broader culture was tribal. Israel had a monarchy when the broader culture had monarchies. And the early church lived out its beliefs and practices within an empire.

So there is no one, Christian form of government, nor can the Bible be used to endorse tribal or monarchical forms of government. Ultimately, the assumption of the New Testament is that we can be Christians in any land because no land in this world is our true home. We are "strangers and foreigners on the earth" (Heb. 11:13). We desire a better country, a heavenly one (11:16). As Paul says, "Our citizenship is in heaven" (3:20).

6. While we are to imitate Christ as individual Christians, you might argue that the ideal government would imitate God. When it comes to the discipline of wrongdoers, this suggests that the three reasons for God's justice would apply equally to the restraint of evil in society.

First, a loving government would discipline wrongdoers in the sense of rehabilitation. If the wrongdoer can be changed into a good citizen, that would be ideal. Second, a loving government separates wrongdoers from society so that they cannot do harm to others. In the case of a reprobate, someone whose heart is so hardened that they pose a permanent harm, the separation can be permanent.

Finally, there is the question of a structure that promotes the good of society as a whole. For example, the punishment of wrongdoing can be a deterrent from others committing such crimes. The punishment of wrongdoing is not just an individual matter, but the law must consider the effects on society as a whole.

Good laws move beyond the situations of individuals and consider the effects on future lawbreakers. Societal order is a factor beyond individual cases. For this reason, governments sometimes have to emphasize justice over mercy.

7. There is a time to disobey government. This is when a higher value is in play. If God has commanded me to affirm Jesus as my Lord, then I must disobey any worldly authority that commands me to reject or curse Christ. Indeed, we must disobey the government when the government commands us to do something that God has definitively forbidden us to do.

But there are also opportunities in our world to disobey authorities in non-violent ways to work for a greater good, for love of our neighbors. At the time of the New Testament, there was little possibility for societal change. The approach God gave the earliest church was to acquiesce to and accommodate Roman rule. The approach of 1 Peter to its world was one of conformity, not conquest.

There is a time simply to submit to injustice, and 1 Peter models how to live under such a world. There is also a time to fight against injustice, especially when that injustice harms others. [5] While we will consider the question of war in a subsequent article, it is possible in our world to work for societal change through dispassionate disobedience of unjust laws.

Our world has opened up the possibility of non-violent protest. This can be done in love for those for whom we are protesting. Many disobeyed the government in the days of slavery, when the laws of the land were oppressive toward a minority that had been created in the image of God. In the days of the Civil Rights movement, many Christians non-violently protested the government's unjust laws toward the African-American. Many Christians have non-violently protested abortion as the killing of the unborn.

Such disobedience can be done without hate and out of love of one's neighbor. In many cases, such disobedience has led to positive change for the good.

8. God has called us to respect our governments out of respect for him and as we look for a world that values all individuals and demonstrates love to all its people. There are exceptions, but they should be done because a higher command from God is in order or as we are lovingly working for the greater good.

Next Sunday: ET6. God calls us to respect our parents and spouses.

[1] Luke may have worded this statement so that it intentionally echoed the statement of Socrates to the Athenians when he was on trial in 399BC: "I will obey the god rather than you" and "this is to disobey the god and that because of this it is impossible to keep quiet" (Apology 29D, 37E). The fact that there are exceptions to this rule shows that not all Christian principles are absolute. Most have exceptions.

[2] Imagine the power these words had for Christians reading it who knew that Nero eventually put Peter to death!

[3] We have to remember that the ancient world was not, by and large, a monetary economy. It was an agrarian world more comfortable with bartering and trading than the exchange of coinage.

[4] Since capital punishment was such a common form of punishment in the Roman Empire, we must consider Paul implicitly to endorse it as a form of punishment.

[5] There is a difference between fighting to protect others and fighting because others are "breaking rules." The first can have the Spirit of Christ. The second has more the spirit of the Pharisee.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

This was before I joined Facebook, and I'm glad it was, or I might have "liked" or re-posted some things that I shouldn't have. One kind of disrespect is to mock whoever is in authority. For example, Gary Trudeau of _Doonesbury_ had George W. Bush represented by a frayed empty helmet with a question mark hanging over it. I used to laugh at that sort of thing. I shouldn't have. For me, at least, it was approving of disrespect.

Currently, I often see Facebook portrayals of President Obama as a monkey, or an idiot. He's not the only important leader to be mocked, of course.

Thanks for your post.