Ken Brown essay

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The Christian’s Relationship to the State

By Kenneth L. Brown

What does the Bible say about the Christian’s relationship to the state? Actually, attitudes within the Bible vary widely, from the crusading identification of God and Israel to the condemnation of Rome as “Babylon” in the book of Revelation. The testimony of scripture does not easily answer our question.

1. The Old Testament

Much of the language of the Old Testament identifies the aspirations of Israel with God’s purpose, despite frequent warnings by the prophets to the contrary. The books of conquest, Deuteronomy through Judges, identify Israel’s battles as God’s divine activity. Israel’s wars were God’s crusades. “The Lord says to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool’” (Psalm 110:1). Similar beliefs assured medieval crusaders and Muslims in their slaying of each other; Calvinists in their wrath against Catholics and Catholics in their vengeance toward Protestants; Germans in their war against the Allies, and the Allies in their opposition to Kaiser Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler. The crusader sees his government not only as a restrainer of evil but also as the major instrument for bringing the Kingdom to earth.

2. The New Testament

New Testament writers teach that the individual Christian should recognize the legitimacy of the governing powers, but they differ as to the degree of obedience owed to the state by the disciple of Christ. Such differences are understandable, given the rapidly changing circumstances of the first Christians. The early church initially enjoyed Roman protection, then suffered persecution and martyrdom, and finally itself became part of the social structure as the accepted religion after Constantine.

One of the most frequently-quoted passages from the New Testament about the Christian’s responsibility to government comes from Jesus himself: “Render …. to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). This statement was in reply to a trap set by the Pharisees over a hotly disputed issue. The Pharisees were neither revolutionaries nor fraternists toward the Roman occupation. And they were divided as to whether they should carry coins which proclaimed the emperor a divine son of divine parents. Jesus’ reply might be paraphrased: “If you already have compromised yourselves by carrying the coins, it seems you could use them to pay taxes to the ruler they represent. But remember that your first allegiance is to God!” No sweeping command to obedience to governments can be found in this specific reply. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” leaves unanswered our question, “Which things are Caesar’s and which God’s?”

We do know that Jesus was not a revolutionary Zealot who wanted to overthrow the empire by force. Yet he was radical enough that he found himself at odds with the people of power in his society and, like Socrates, was executed as a political subversive.

Another passage from the New Testament is often cited to call the Christian to obedience to the state. Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 13, reads:
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. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.

That counsel in itself hardly sounds like a slogan for revolutionaries. It is often used to admonish support of government activities. Consequently, it is a favorite text on national holidays.

Paul is saying here that government is one of God’s instruments for order, which must be maintained among sinful men so that the redemptive task of the church can be pursued. But Paul’s admonition to obedience is not an absolute always to be followed. Note the last sentence. Legitimate government, ordained by God, is known by its support of good conduct and its repression of evil. A ruler who encourages evil and terrorizes good people cannot be considered legitimate in the same way; nor would the same counsel to obedience apply.

Paul wrote during a period when the Christian enjoyed Roman protection from persecution. The empire represented not only domestic order, but other existing community services as well. Do you think Paul would have counseled the same obedience if the situation had been radically different, as when emperor-worship brought severe persecution upon dissenting Christians only a few years later? Would he say that Nero, Hitler, Stalin, and countless other governments were forces for good conduct? The book of Acts makes it amply clear that the Apostle Paul was not exactly a Chamber of Commerce “Citizen of the Year” in most towns he visited. “The Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me” (20:23). The Holy Spirit was not in error. Paul often found himself in jail and at odds with the police.

Christians after Paul saw their rulers in different roles, as Revelation amply testifies: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! … Come out of her, my people” (18:2, 4). Following the test of political legitimacy that Paul himself provided, Christians revised their opinions accordingly. Sometimes they cooperated. Sometimes they did not.

Subsequent Views

The diversity of biblical interpretations as to the Christian’s duty to the state has been expressed throughout church history. Through the Middle Ages it was thought that the structures of society themselves were ordained of God. The individual, consequently, served God through obedience to the state just as he served God in spiritual obedience through the church. Church and state were two aspects of a whole, and obedience to both powers a Christian’s duty.

In the Reformation era, opposing attitudes were echoed once again. Luther regarded the state as necessarily ordained of God to repress evil. The Christian’s responsibility, he taught, is to wield the sword for the sovereign, whoever he is, in defense of the natural order that the state upholds. Presbyterian Calvinists followed Old Testament writers in enthusiastically regarding the state as a crusading force to be used for righteousness.

The Swiss Anabaptists, on the other hand, came to reject all participation in government, not because they denied the need of government or its right to wage war, to execute, and to imprison, but because they felt that the Christian has a special calling outside the political realm. The Christian he is called to create a community of love and to live as though the Kingdom has already come. Government to restrain the sinful can be left for others. The Christian takes another path and by example invites all to follow. Mennonites and Brethren are the major groups stemming from this tradition. Since the seventeenth century, people have increasingly questioned whether governments are divinely ordained at all. Nevertheless, those who call themselves Christian have generally continued to understand the “powers that be” as part of God’s plan for his world and to obey rulers accordingly.

1 See Roland Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace (New York: Abbingdon, 1960), page 58.

This essay is excerpted with slight adaptations from Kenneth L. Brown’s “The Christian’s Relationship to the State,” Six Papers on Peace: A Symposium (Elgin, IL: Church of the Brethren General Board, 1969), pages 58-62.