Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Christians and the Government

As I mentioned last time, my recent article on the various translations of the Bible led to some follow-up questions. This one, though, has less to do with translating Scripture and more to do with Christian political philosophy. A translation issue just happens to be the impetus of it.

The question had to do with the translation of Romans 13. You can see the full comment and my reply by checking out the comments section of the original article, but to summarize, there are some noticeable differences between the New Living Translation (NLT) and the King James Version (KJV) when it comes to Rom. 13:1–7. You can find the NLT take here, and the KJV here in order to compare.

Comparing Versions

To boil it down even further, the main issue seems to be with a phrase in v.1. Is there any difference between the “higher powers” of the KJV and the “governing authorities” of the NLT? The comment suggests that there is. The argument is that “higher powers” suggests a hierarchy of submission. We owe allegiance and obedience to those who are at the highest end of the scale. It does not mean that we have to blindly follow the orders of every government official. Speaking in the American context, the highest of all powers is God Himself, who should be obeyed above all else. Beneath Him is the U.S. Constitution. Everything within the framework of the Constitution is to be obeyed by Christians, but those who act in defiance of that framework can, in turn, be defied.

If the hierarchical element is removed, as it is in the NLT, then (according to this argument) Rom. 13 becomes more of a blanket statement demanding submission to any and all governmental officials. If that is the case, then people reading the Bible will be deceived into placidly accepting any authority, even that of the Antichrist, as though it is installed by God.

In my initial response to this, I stuck to the issue of translation. For the NLT to be invalidated, we have to be able to show that it does not follow the original Greek. As it happens, “governing authorities” is just as legitimate a rendering of the Greek as “higher powers” is. They are synonymous terms. Both convey the same meaning and both are in keeping with what the Apostle Paul meant to convey. So this does not represent an argument for the superiority of the KJV.

Obeying the Government

That leads us to the more important question. Whether we are talking about powers or authorities, are there limits to Christian submission to the government? Or are we being told to obey no matter what?

For the record, 1 Pet. 2:13–17 is even more explicit than Rom. 13 and makes it clear that Christians ought to heed their rulers at every level. The Bible, then, does not allow for making distinctions between the Constitution as the “supreme law of the land,” and those ordained under it (or under the various state constitutions).

Remember that the Bible was not written with the Constitution in mind. It was actually the other way around, which makes our governing charter a uniquely enduring one. However, Paul and Peter were writing under the auspices of the Roman Empire. They had no illusions that the ultimate form of Roman rule was made up of pure concepts, or that government officials serving in it were to be obeyed or not on the basis of how they followed those concepts. Rome was constituted as a theocracy that existed to please the emperor as a god and that sought to placate a pantheon of false gods. It was corrupt to its core, but the apostles still instructed Christians to submit to it.

Defying the Government

This is where things get interesting, though. The Bible certainly teaches a hierarchy of obedience, just not in Rom. 13:1. For that, we have to look to Acts 5:27–32. In that incident, the Apostles John and Peter explicitly and boldly refused to do as they were told by the chief priests, rulers that had been established directly by God since the time of Moses. They explained their refusal by saying, “We must obey God rather than people.”

To understand the words of Peter in Acts in contrast with what he wrote in his first epistle, we need to take the proper view of government. Government, as a concept, is universal. All human societies have some form of it because all human beings have a concept of the moral law. Government is our attempt to uphold that moral law. As a human institution, it is never perfect. But it aspires toward the perfection of God, who is the author of the moral law. The order of the state, however imperfect, is an attempt to reflect the justice and peace of the Creator.

More than that, government has the Lord’s direct imprimatur. The very first law appears in Gen. 9:6, where it says,

I will require a penalty for your lifeblood; I will require it from any animal and from any human; if someone murders a fellow human, I will require that person’s life. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans his blood will be shed, for God made humans in Him image.

This verse is saying that God holds people accountable for their crimes, i.e., the ways by which they rebel against His perfect character. At the same time, it explains that His way of enacting this accountability is through other human beings. In other words, government exists because it is the way God designed for the evil to be punished and for the innocent to be protected and avenged. To carry out this mission, it must have the right to kill and to tax. That, I think, is a decent summary of Rom. 13, as well.

So yes, God ordains government authority. Furthermore, every form of government authority exists because God allows it to do so for certain periods of time. In that strict sense, then, God ordained Emperor Nero because Nero briefly held the leadership role in government. But here is the important distinction. God does not give anyone the right to sin. We all have the ability, that is an element of free will, but it is not therefore a right (or made right). Nero was only ordained to the extent that he carried out the ends of government for which it was properly established. The empire did things like punish murderers, punish theives, protect its citizens, and establish commerce. That was its calling. It also did things like command Christians to stop evangelizing and then kill them when they refused. At those times, it crossed the line and became something totally different.

Thomas Aquinas gave one of the best formulations of this concept in the 13th Century. When a government ceases to do the will of God and instead does its own will, it ceases to be a government in that regard. Instead, it is a tyranny. Tyrannies, as self-serving, are ungodly by definition. Christians therefore have the right, even the responsibility, to defy them in the ways that they are tyrannical. Those are areas in which governments have no authority, and ought not to be obeyed.

Wisdom in Resistance

But what form should that defiance take? I think that is a matter of individual evaluation. In the New Testament, Christians showed defiance by accepting unjust punishment rather than submitting to unjust commands. In a situation where we have no power to change the government, that is usually the best we can do. Our nation was founded under different circumstances. Tyranny was able to be confronted directly, though regrettably, it was a violent resistance made necessary by that tyranny. In the United States of today, violence is not necessary. We have a system of government, and enough influence within it, to meet tyranny through legislation and litigation. The Christian response to unjust rule is always a matter of circumstances, but it is always to be a matter of doing God’s will first.

It is also important to mention prudence here. As I said earlier, no government is perfect. There will always be aspects of its system, or actors within it, that do things wrong. An overly-broad definition of tyranny might see each and every one of those errors as a reason to disobey the government. Doing so, however, would make even the good work of government impossible. As the Declaration of Independence puts it, we should “suffer, while evils are sufferable.” We have to put up with as much as we can for the sake of peace (Rom. 12:8). It takes wisdom to decide when enough is enough.

Looked at this way, we see that submission to government has nothing to do with the type of English that is used in Rom. 13. In fact, these questions have been asked since before the English we know existed as a language. Instead, it is the more subtle issue of understanding what God has commanded and what He has not. Even in the “New World Order,” if there were to be such a thing, it would not be right to drive on the wrong side of the road. But it would be right to resist anything that attempted to put itself in God’s place or to command that the gospel of Jesus Christ no longer be spoken. That is not where government belongs, and so it can be rightfully resisted. We can know that, but it takes more than picking a translation to figure it out.

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