Christianity and the state

I have, as well as many others, noticed some well documented inconsistencies in the Bible regarding the relationship between Christians and the state. These inconsistencies revolve around the Christian's relationship to the state; the state's influence on the Bible; and the implications of such relationships in the context of the "Christian ethic," or the ideals espoused by Christ's commandments (here are a few):

1) John 13:34-35 - "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another."

2) Matthew 7:12 - "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the law and the prophets"

3) Luke 6:27-28 - "But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who abuse you."

4) Matthew 22:39 - "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

The main controversy revolves around the inexplicable pro-state passages in the Bible, which by nature of the state as a coercive, violent institution of oppression seem to be in direct conflict with the Christian ethic, as well as the words and actions of many apostles—even Christ himself.

Consider Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-17:
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, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection not only to avoid God's wrath, but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are the ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to who revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed and honor to whom honor is owed.
If Paul's words in Romans 13 are correct, then shouldn't Jesus' works be considered "bad?" Paul said that rulers are "not a terror to good works, but to bad," didn't he? Then, since the rulers murdered Jesus, Peter, and Paul himself, they (Jesus, Peter and Paul) must certainly have been “bad.” What’s worse, “(The ruler) is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.” If that's true, then not only must Jesus, Paul and Peter be bad, but they are “wrongdoers"! Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Nero, and the like were authorities, and thus servants of God, avengers who carried out God's wrath on the wrongdoers; wrongdoers like Jesus, Peter and Paul, not to mention the Christians they gruesomely “purged” during their reigns. If this is true, then the Bible is contradictory to the point of absurdity. Nowhere in these passages is there a qualifier stating that those regimes were wrong for any reason. The wording in Romans 13 is broad and without exemption.

The author of this passage was a living contradiction of his very own writings. Paul was a man arrested numerous times and eventually beheaded for his service to Christ by the very same entity that he had claimed was a Godly institution. In fact, before his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul found favor with the authorities as he carried out his persecution of Christians. If Romans 13 is correct, then what he was doing to Christians should have been considered "good." Once Christ appeared to him and he converted, Paul (as his ministries progressed) lost favor with the authorities—to the point where he was eventually beheaded, as previously mentioned. Therefore, if Romans 13 is correct, persecuting Christians is "good" and teaching the word of God is "bad," as was demonstrated by the very author of the passage. Nero, the “servant of God,” carried out God's wrath on this “wrongdoer”, Paul, by executing him.

Peter makes the same claims (1 Peter 2:13-17):
Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by Him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you can put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.
This the same man who, when arrested and tried by the Sanhedrin and specifically told not to preach in the name of Christ again, went directly out and did the very thing he was explicitly instructed by the authorities not to do, citing, "We must obey God rather than men" (acts 5:29). How does this fit with his words in 1 Peter? The court of the Sanhedrin was a human institution. Yet, even for the Lord's sake, Peter refused to be subject to it.

One of the more well-known episodes of the Bible was Christ's time spent in the desert with Satan, being tempted. In one instance, this exchange took place (Luke 4:5-8):
...and the Devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to Him, "To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you then, will worship me, it will all be yours. And Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'you shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve'.
Jesus didn't deny Satan's authority over the kingdoms of the world but rebuked him by saying that we should serve "Him only." Paul and Peter seem to disagree. Paul says, "For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God" in Romans 13, but compare that with Satan's words in Luke 4, "I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will." Christ's non-denial of Satan's words doesn't necessarily make them true, and one can reconcile the two verses by saying that Satan's authority came from God. But if this is so, does that mean that Christians should be comfortable with assisting in evil, complying with it, or doing anything other than separating themselves from Satan's authority? Paul, following the logic of Romans 13, says no—that you should comply with Satan's authority, because it is really authorized by God.

This seems impossibly circular. Assuming Satan is evil, should Christians embrace or reject evil? Does the question of evil have any relevance to a Christian? The answer to this question seems to be an obvious "yes," considering the heavy moralization of Christ's teachings and Paul's own words in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-22, "Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil."

At this point, one must consider the question of universal ethics. Because there are, typically, no qualifiers in the verses mentioned, one has to wonder if the ethics of the Bible are meant to apply to all people, or only to certain people. Because the state is nothing but an organization of people, do the ethics of Christianity not apply to them? Are they allowed to disregard the commandments of Christ by committing robbery (through forced taxation), murder (through war), or any other of the depredations of the state against society?

What is a governing authority but one or a group of individuals asserting themselves as rulers over others? Should Christians regard anyone who does this as appointed by God—including anyone they meet with a gun in a dark alley; any home invader; any foreign occupying government; or anyone claiming authority over others?

Christians must consider that there is a standard for evil that applies to all men, regardless of position. If what is “evil” for the farmer is “good” for the president, then no such standard exists. If this is true, and evil is defined only by explicit reference from scripture, then any action not explicitly determined by scripture to be "evil" therefore cannot be determined by Christians. Even Christ's own actions can be classified as evil, since he did not first receive the approval of the state, as Romans 13 requires. But according to Paul in Romans 12:2, we should "not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." Paul's supposed words in Romans 13 seem to indicate that there is no standard by which to judge evil from good, though he explicitly says in the previous chapter that we should be able to tell the difference.

Christians are almost universally taught to believe that the Bible is the unquestioned word of God. They are uncritically convinced that the Bible is infallible as if it, in its current form, descended upon the earth from above. Well, it didn't. The Bible, as we know it, was assembled through many centuries and hardly existed in any recognizable form until well after the death of Paul. It has passed through the hands of many political leaders, like King James 1 and the pagan Constantine 1. It has been disputed over the years by virtually every biblical council or scholar that has attempted to consolidate it and was never fully agreed upon in its current iteration. If we are to assume that God is perfect then the Bible must reflect this perfection. It cannot contain such contradictions as are shown above. When Paul made his statements about testing to see what fits and what doesn't (1 Thessalonians 5:20-22), there was no Bible to speak of, and all that could be done to decide evil from good was to consult the ethic of Christ.

I can show absolutely no evidence to suggest that the Bible has been manipulated, even unintentionally—only a compelling argument suggesting that it requires further revision. It can't be denied, however, that the scriptures in question are contradictory, at least in their literal and contextual forms. Not only did the authors of the scriptures refuse to adhere to their own words and make other statements that either undermine or directly contradict pro-state verses, but they paint a picture of all of the great New Testament martyrs as wrongdoers, including themselves and even Christ himself.

Regardless, for Christians, it is best to distance oneself as much as possible from evil institutions, the state being the greatest of all. Paul says in Romans 12:9, "...abhor what is evil, hold fast to what is good." I think it's best to take the overarching theme of the Christian ethic and apply it universally. Nothing bad can come of rejecting the state—the spiritual risk lies in accepting it. If you were to stand before God and answer for your life, after living a life of rejecting the state (yet you had lived in accordance with the Christian ethic), and you were to discover that Romans 13 (and similar verses) were accurate, I can't imagine that your life would be scorned as would a life of accepting the depredations of the state, with its wars of aggression, its massive thefts and impoverishments, its tortures and corruption, and even the purges of Christians as "... sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good."

Christians are, generally, unwilling to confront this. It seems far more important for most Christians to frantically perform the mental and philosophical gymnastics necessary to reconcile the state with "goodness." It is a testament to the nature of modern, propagandized Christians: that the one true god is the state and that the secondary God, the Christian God, must be conformed to the state's implied righteousness. I see no evidence to suggest that, after numerous revisions, the content of the Bible is beyond critique. Where the taboo against questioning the Bible's current form emerged is beyond me. It was assembled by men who were subject to the same temptations, biases and ignorance that plagues us all. Isn't it possible that they still don't have it quite right?

Christians have a choice to make: accept Christ's ethic of peace and love, or accept the supposed words of Peter and Paul and accept the rule of the state as if it is "good?" In terms of Pascal's Wager, I think it's clear which one holds the risk and which one the reward.


Matthew Advent said…
Good post. But I think you make one error. In order to explain seemingly statist tendencies in the bible, you resort to saying the Bible was compromised in some fashion. If you do some research, I think you'll find this is (as far as can be told by biblical scholarship)not the case. Rather, I think it is a much better idea to remember the what Paul's focus is. Paul is trying to prepare people for the imminent return of Christ!! They don't have time for political revolutions! Remember Paul thought Christ was coming within his lifetime, so spending time and energy getting involved in politics was a waste in his view. I think this is a relevant notion to us today, because there is a risk of becoming to involved in politics and forgetting that ultimately justice will be served by Christ Himself.
zrated said…
i wouldn't say that i "resort" to saying that bible was compromised, but it's a logical conclusion for which i admit in the article that i have no evidence.

that said, there are only two possibilities that i see: 1) God is perfect and the bible isn't, therefore men screwed it up somewhere, or 2) God is impossible to understand if the bible is perfect due to the contradictory messages like those referenced in this article.

this article is not about politics. i'm not interested in politics, only philosophy and science. i agree that Christians should not be involved in the evil of politics. they should, however, have a clear understanding of evil and seek to avoid it, especially in such obvious examples as government.

so, the point of the post is to shine a light on paul's credibility when he endorses evil and refers to Christ and all Christians as wrong-doers and help Christians to understand why they should avoid political entanglement and all other forms of evil, regardless of the mistakes made by biblical authors.
parkerd said…
"One has to view Romans 13 in isolation if one wants to make of it Biblical support for any and all earthly government authorities. But it is even worse than this:

Whereas some English translations use the word “governing” in verse 1, the Greek text does not. It reads “Let every soul be subject to the superior powers.”

Who, or what, are these “superior powers”? The Romans? Or God? Paul seems to answer this implicitly, certainly if one respects the context provided in the preceding chapter of Romans: “Do not be conformed to the world…” Instead, conform to God’s will.

There is nothing in Romans chapter 12 or 13 to suggest that the beginning of Romans 13 be interpreted as unconditional support for earthly government. There is little, if anything, in all of Scripture that supports such an interpretation.

When Paul has written about submitting to leaders in other books of the Bible, he has referred to Church authorities. Is it possible that in Romans 13, he was writing of earthly authorities – the same authorities that were persecuting members of the faith? In Romans 13, Paul writes of those wearing the sword, do we not elsewhere read of putting on the armor of God?

When Paul writes of paying taxes, did not Jesus also command to pay the tax so as not to raise unnecessary trouble? In other words, not out of righteous obedience, but out of the need to focus on a higher calling?

Was not Paul writing to specific Christians in the Roman Empire at a specific time and a specific place? Can we not today also look at taxes in the same way – paying them not out of respect for authority but out of a desire to allow us to focus on a higher calling?

Is it really possible that Paul is suggesting that we respect and obey all rulers no matter the demands? To ask the question is to answer it. Hitler, Stalin, Mao. I rest my case."
zrated said…
I cross reference Romans 13 with other verses in the post. This isn't just about Romans 13. Most of the questions you're asking were answered in the very blog post you're commenting on.

No, Jesus never said to pay taxes. I've written about that too, on this blog.

Popular Posts