All of us live under some kind of authority. How can we do so in ways which glorify and honor God in Christ?
God has ordained government to uphold justice and given its agents power; governments are empowered by Satan to advance the purposes of the powers and principalities of this age. These statements seem contradictory, and yet are both revealed in the New Testament and operative at the same time. We do well to consider the fraught nature and challenges of the relationship between Christians and civil government.
The Western world is in a crisis of authority. We are skeptical of all authority except our own. It has not always been so, but the way authority has been used and abused is an age old story. A way out of the crisis exists, but it is surprising and not very easy.
Satan; the Devil; the Evil One. From beginning to end of the New Testament he is the Adversary of mankind. We learn much about his temptations and deceptions in the New Testament, as well as how to stand firm against his devices.
Life “under the sun” seems to be all about getting and maintaining power for one’s own benefit. The Lord Jesus insisted on the way of service and suffering to overcome the powers and principalities over this present darkness. The church has no business lusting for power; it must follow the path of its Lord.
And when [Jesus] was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority doest thou these things? And who gave thee this authority?” (Matthew 21:23).
The chief priests and elders did not their questions of Jesus in sincerity; nevertheless, the questions themselves are most valid. Society may seek to neglect the question, but if we want to live faithfully before God, we must grapple with the question: by what authority do we think, feel, speak, and act as we do? And who gave us this authority?
Peter wrote to Christians in Asia Minor as “elect exiles”. He wrote from “Babylon”. The theme of life in exile pervades his letter; we do well to learn from him how to live as exiles in a strange land.
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the elect who are sojourners of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied (1 Peter 1:1-2).
And if ye call on him as Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to each man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning in fear: knowing that ye were redeemed, not with corruptible things, with silver or gold, from your vain manner of life handed down from your fathers; but with precious blood, as of a lamb without spot, even the blood of Christ: who was foreknown indeed before the foundation of the world, but was manifested at the end of the times for your sake, who through him are believers in God, that raised him from the dead, and gave him glory; so that your faith and hope might be in God (1 Peter 1:17-21).
Beloved, I beseech you as sojourners and pilgrims, to abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; having your behavior seemly among the Gentiles; that, wherein they speak against you as evil-doers, they may by your good works, which they behold, glorify God in the day of visitation. Be subject to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as sent by him for vengeance on evil-doers and for praise to them that do well. For so is the will of God, that by well-doing ye should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: as free, and not using your freedom for a cloak of wickedness, but as bondservants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king. Servants, be in subjection to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward (1 Peter 2:11-18).
Christians and Society: Communism
Christianity was established during the days of the Roman Empire with the claim that God had made Jesus of Nazareth Lord and King, declaring Him the Son of God through His resurrection (Acts 2:36, 17:6-9, Romans 1:4). All Christians, therefore, recognized they were part of the great spiritual and trans-national Kingdom of God in Christ over whom Jesus rules as Lord (Philippians 3:20, Colossians 1:13, Revelation 1:12-20). Meanwhile they still lived within the Roman Empire, obeyed civil authority whenever possible, and strove to live by their faith while existing in Greco-Roman culture (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Corinthians 5:9-10, 1 Peter 2:11-15). The Roman Empire has come and gone as have many other successive states, powers, societies, and cultures, yet Christians continue to strive to live as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven while existing within their societies and cultures on earth (Philippians 3:20-21, Colossians 3:1-11).
Ever since the middle of the nineteenth century many people have hoped to establish or live in a society ordered according to the principles of communism. “Communism” is a term that can mean many different things depending on one’s scope and reference. In the broadest sense of the term “communism” refers to a society in which all things are held in common (from the Latin communis, “common, universal”). In the middle of the nineteenth century the term became associated with the political and economic philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who claimed that society was presently ordered into two classes, the “proletariat” (the working class) and the “bourgeoisie” (the middle and upper classes). They claimed that the class struggle between the groups would eventually lead to the victory of the proletariat who would then abolish money and class distinctions, the reason for government, and thus lead to the ultimate “communist” society where all things are held in common. Such is also called Marxism. In the twentieth century communism became associated with the Comintern of the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, a totalitarian government run by one party, highlighting certain elements of Marxist thought while dispensing with others. When most people think of communism they still have in mind the government and socio-economic systems of the former Soviet Union, North Korea, Cuba, China, and Vietnam.
What should a Christian’s attitude be toward a communist society?
In the New Testament we do not see a particular socio-economic theory specifically commended; Christians may live under many different types of governments and in many different socio-economic systems and are called to remain faithful in such environments (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Corinthians 5:9-11, 1 Peter 2:11-15). In terms of the culture of the local church the New Testament provides an example of “communism” in the most general sense in Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-37, in which all Christians had everything in common and had no need among them. While such a culture has Apostolic commendation it was not imposed on all Christians: we read of Christians who had greater wealth than others (e.g. Romans 16:1) and of Christians of different classes assembling with each other without the expectation that everything would be held in common (but to be sensitive so as to not allow class distinctions to divide the Body; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). The Bible is full of exhortations to care for the poor and to provide justice for the widow and orphan and excoriates those who accumulate wealth by oppression and to the hurt of his fellow man (e.g. Psalm 10:1-10, Isaiah 1:10-17, Amos 4:1-3, 5:24, Matthew 25:31-46, James 1:27, 5:1-6). God is very concerned for the welfare of the poor and dispossessed.
Nevertheless, in practice, communist societies have proven impractical and quite hostile to Christians and the Christian faith. Humans are sinful and seek their own advantage (Romans 3:11-23); government is established for a reason and has its purpose (Romans 13:1-7). No society has been able to practice pure communism, for some will labor diligently and others will not, and there is no mechanism by which to censure those who are not diligent in their effort (contrary to 2 Thessalonians 3:10). All remaining “Communist” societies have either accommodated with capitalistic market forces (China, Vietnam) or have been impoverished and ever more firmly under dictatorial rule (Cuba, North Korea). Meanwhile, communism in modern practice took Marx’s dictum that “religion is the opiate of the masses” (a condensed version of a quote in Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, February 1844). To Marx religion, especially Christianity, was escapist, a means by which the bourgeoisie controlled and manipulated the proletariat to accept their lot in life. Communist societies attempted to do away with religion and those who maintained adherence to them. The Soviet Union sent many professing Christians to the gulag and before the executioners; to this day Christianity is not fully legal in any Communist society and Christians continue to be persecuted for their faith in them.
Therefore a Christian cannot fully affirm allegiance to the Kingdom of God in Christ while identifying as a full Marxist or Communist since Marx and those who later claimed his mantle were atheists and hostile toward God in Christ. Nevertheless many Christians continue to live in communist countries and societies; they do well to seek to remain faithful to the Lord Jesus, working in their jobs as to the Lord, promoting the Gospel, ready to suffer persecution from the authorities if need be to uphold God’s work in the Kingdom of His Son (Ephesians 6:5-9, 1 Peter 1:3-9, 4:1-19). All Christians do well to pray for these saints so that God may strengthen them (1 Peter 5:8-9). Let us ever affirm Christ, remain rooted in Him, and maintain our allegiance to His Kingdom!
Ethan R. Longhenry
Christians and Government: Civil Disobedience
Christianity was established during the days of the Roman Empire with a radical claim: God made Jesus of Nazareth Lord and King, declaring Him the Son of God through His resurrection (Acts 2:36, 17:6-9, Romans 1:4). All Christians, therefore, recognized they were part of the great spiritual and trans-national Kingdom of God in Christ over whom Jesus rules as Lord (Philippians 3:20, Colossians 1:13, Revelation 1:12-20). Yet subjection to God in Christ in the Kingdom did not automatically mean rebellion and resistance against the earthly Roman power: Paul explained how earthly authorities have been empowered by God for their purpose, and both he and Peter encouraged Christians to honor the Emperor and remain subject to civil authority (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17). Early Christians were therefore expected to maintain primary loyalty to Jesus, the King of kings, while remaining subject to the Roman Emperor. But what was to happen if and when a Christian would be forced to disobey the commands of God through the Lord Jesus in order to obey the decree of Caesar or his appointed local or regional authority?
The New Testament provides two examples of such circumstances. In Acts 4:15-18 and Acts 5:27-28 the Jewish Sanhedrin, a recognized authority for intra-Jewish matters, commanded Peter and John to no longer teach in the name of Jesus. Had Peter and John obeyed the Sanhedrin they would have proven disobedient to the Lord Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:18-20. In both circumstances Peter responded by indicating that he and the others would obey God rather than man and could not stop speaking of what they had seen and heard (Acts 4:19-20, 5:29). Peter and John would go on to absorb the threats and beatings of the Sanhedrin but remained faithful to Jesus (Acts 4:21, 5:40-42). In Revelation John, in figures, speaks of the Roman authority persecuting Christians to the point of death (Revelation 2:12-14, 13:1-8. 15:2). Later documents make explicit what the Christians experienced: they would be sought out by the Roman authorities or denounced as Christians before them, told to curse Christ and offer sacrifices to the genius of the Emperor, or to suffer execution (ca. 111-113 CE; Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96-97). Christian literature from the first three centuries are full of martyrdom stories of Christians who preferred to suffer death rather than deny the name of the Lord Jesus.
We can see from these examples that there are times when civil disobedience is justified. Nevertheless we do well to recognize that a spirit of disobedience or rebellion is never commended or justified in the New Testament: Peter, John, and others did not wish to disobey the authorities nor were they fomenting insurrection against the regime, but instead exhibited greater loyalty to the Lord Jesus and obedience to His purposes. In Acts 5:29 Peter does not speak explicitly in terms of disobedience or rebellion but of obedience: he must obey God rather than man. In every other respect Peter obeyed the civil authorities and exhorted others to do likewise (1 Peter 2:13-17); throughout Peter and the other early Christians respected the civil authorities, not resisting the punishments imposed as the consequence of civil disobedience, even if it meant death (Acts 4:21, 5:40-42, Revelation 12:10-11). Paul frequently insisted on his rights as a Roman citizen and strenuously disputed false charges against him, yet even Paul proved willing to suffer the consequences of the state if he had acted wrongly (Acts 25:10-11). Both Peter and Paul would be executed by the Roman authority for holding firm to their faith (John 21:19, 2 Timothy 4:6-8).
Many in our modern world maintain a strong skepticism of inherited authority and government. Yet there is no room among servants of the Lord Jesus Christ for spirits of disobedience, insurrection, and rebellion. Civil disobedience is only justifiable when Christians would prove disobedient to the commands of the Lord Jesus if they obeyed a given decree of the state (Acts 5:29). Civil disobedience should never be the goal; whenever possible Christians should seek ways of obeying both God and “Caesar”, for both have been commanded (Acts 5:29, Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17).
Christians have also been commanded to respect the civil authorities, and Peter speaks of the duly empowered people and not institutions (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17). In times past it has been fashionable to interpret Romans 13:3-4 so as to justify Christians rising in rebellion against what is perceived to be an unjust government, yet such an interpretation runs contrary to the commands and examples of the Lord and His Apostles. New Testament Christians suffered under the undeniably unjust and cruel regimes of Caligula, Nero, and Domitian; in Revelation John spoke of the Roman authority as having been empowered by Satan to persecute the people of God (Revelation 13:1-18); yet we have no commands, examples, or inferences from the New Testament to suggest that early Christians took up the pen or arms so as to try to overthrow the Roman authority and replace it with another. Christians do well to remember Romans 13:1-2: all authorities that exist have been ordained of God, and when God believes that a given authority is to be overthrown or toppled, He will see to it that it comes to pass. Nowhere in the New Testament has it been given to Christians to judge the earthly authority; instead they are to obey and respect no matter how the authority is disposed toward them (1 Peter 2:17).
Peter exhorts us to use our freedom not as a cloak for unrighteousness but as slaves of God in Christ (1 Peter 2:16). Let us take this exhortation to heart and prove willing to obey and respect earthly authorities, and practice civil disobedience only when necessary to obey God!
Ethan R. Longhenry