Reflect back on the first few posts where we learned that Lipscomb and Yoder point out that the Bible says governments will be placed under Jesus’ feet, arguing that in a sense all governments — good and bad — are the enemy of Jesus. Consider, for example —
(Col 2:15) And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
(Eph 6:12) For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
The government sure seems like an enemy of Jesus!
On the other hand, the authorities are also God’s creation —
(Col 1:16) For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
And then, in Romans 13, Paul tells us to obey the government — God’s enemy! This is a truly paradoxical attitude toward the powers and authorities. Why would God make an enemy for himself and then tell his children to obey his enemy?
Now, imagine that the Christian church were finally victorious, having converted every living soul on earth. Assuming that Jesus didn’t immediately return (I’m not inviting posts on millennialism of any kind), would we still need government?
Would we need government to protect us from evil if everyone were truly converted? Even if conversion means the end of sin (and it doesn’t), how would the roads be paved? Wouldn’t we still need a place to record deeds? Wouldn’t we need a law-making body to determine the correct side of the road to drive on? Government would surely be much smaller, but it wouldn’t entirely go away, would it?
And that assumes that the Christians get along — which has never happened. It didn’t happen in Paul’s time, and it’s not happening now. How would we settle disputes between Christians? I would hope the church would (per 1 Cor 6), but it would still need some sort of judicial machinery to pull it off, even if that machinery is entirely within the church.
And although an all-Christian world would surely make things much more pleasant, we have to remember that in Medieval Europe, nearly everyone was either a Christian or a Jew. And at times they stayed very busy killing each other (and it wasn’t the Jews making war). As the old bumper sticker says, we aren’t perfect, just forgiven. And until we’re perfect, we need some system of governance. (Which is why elders are often called on to settle disputes within their churches. Just imagine your home congregation the size of the United States – and tell me you wouldn’t need some sort of government!)
I suppose that the elders of each church could prove some level of governance, but how would they create national standards for street signs? How would they punish speeders? Who would set the speed limit in Tuscaloosa if there are 400 congregations each with its own eldership?
Imagine that, before we convert the world, we converted every soul in the United States. Would we still need the federal government? Or could we shut down the government and let the elders of their churches run the country? Oh, let’s do be serious! Converting every soul in the country won’t make anyone perfect and sure won’t make elderships instantly capable of governing the nation. We struggle to handle even our own churches.
That being the case, I think the reason we see the scriptures being so ambivalent toward government is that (a) government — as imperfect as it is — is a temporary neccessity due to our fallen, sinful state and (b) when Jesus returns, the government won’t make it into the new heavens and new earth because it will no longer be needed. But government will be with us until Jesus returns to rule us all — even if every soul were to be converted before then.
Now, some argue that we should obey the government as commanded, but we shouldn’t participate in government. This was Lipscomb’s position, and many share that view today. But what about a country that is 100% Christian? It wasn’t that long ago that most European nations were all Christian, other than a handful of Jews and gypsies. Should they have given the reins of government over to the non-believers? What about countries such as Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella where non-Christians had been expelled? Who would run the government if not the Christians? Should they have brought non-Christians from the Muslim lands nearby?
You see, Lipscomb, being very sectarian in this thinking, figured the ones in government would be good Methodists and Baptists. But imagine a world where 95% of the country is Christian — all of whom refuse to vote or serve the government — and so the unbelieving atheists among us run the government. How would that be righteous and good?
And this raises a serious issue, as many argue that the government has the power of the sword, as Paul said.
(Rom 13:4) For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
If a Christian is barred from exercising God’s wrath, as Paul had just said —
(Rom 12:19) Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
— and if the government is God’s “agent of wrath,” how can a Christian serve in government?
And it’s important to realize that all branches of government carry the power of the sword, not just the military. The police, FBI, and such are the obvious examples, but the government is sometimes willing to use lethal force just to serve a search warrant. Ask the Branch Davidians. Or to collect taxes on whiskey, as in the Whiskey Rebellion. Most people are sensible enough to voluntarily comply when the government issues an order, but if push comes to serve, the government will use whatever means are necessary to impose its will.
So how can a Christian participate in government? But then, in a nation that is almost entirely Christian, how can the government not be made up of Christians? Who else will run it? It’s easy to imagine Christians staying out of government when you have a sectarian view of the world and imagine that the government will be made up of good Baptists and Methodists who aren’t really Christians at all. But to a non-sectarian, it’s really hard to imagine a government utterly without Christian involvement.
And who would want to live in a country run by atheists? That’s been tried a few times in the last 100 years, and the results were none too pleasant.
That doesn’t at all mean that Christians should run for office to impose Christianity on an unwilling public. That’s not what God created government for. It does mean that if we refuse to participate, we’ll risk visiting great evil on others as well as ourselves (Think of all the governments in recent history run by avowed atheists. How did that work out?)
If God wants us to be ruled by Babylon, Rome, or atheists, it’ll happen. Does that mean he wants us to refuse all participation in government so that his people everywhere are ruled by unbelievers?
Now, we have to also notice that Peter converted a Roman centurion (Acts 10), Philip converted the eunuch who was over the Ethiopian treasury (Acts 8), and Paul converted a Roman proconsul (think “member of cabinet”) (Acts 13:7-12) and a jailer (Acts 16:23-36). Nothing is said of the centurion, eunuch, or proconsul leaving their positions due to their conversion, and the jailer certainly remained in his position after his conversion (Acts 16:36).
On the other hand, there were consequences. As John the Baptist taught,
(Luke 3:9-14) The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
…12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely–be content with your pay.”
John was speaking of the kingdom that was about to come. He told tax collectors (who worked for Rome in civilian service) and soldiers (employed by Rome in police and military service) to do their jobs righteously. They weren’t told to quit their jobs.
It’s tempting to wonder why John, Peter, and Paul didn’t demand more radical action. The Roman government was capable of great brutality and certainly was far removed from Christianity. But they did what they did, and the New Testament writers saw no reason to offer excuses.
I don’t suggest that these examples provide a complete theology, but a complete theology must deal fairly with these examples. Each of these officials was in a position where disobedience to his orders might mean death to someone. That is the essential nature of government — not that government wishes to kill its citizens, but that any government will use whatever force is necessary to see that its laws are obeyed. Some governments use more force than is necessary. All use enough force — or they soon fall.