One of the most frustrating themes of the debate between progressive powerful government and limited republican government is the indifference of people on the basis of Christian religion. I do not mean this in terms of a religious organization requiring its members to take a certain political stance. However, by the reason and principles of Christianity, each individual Christian ought to have an understanding of and argument for legitimate righteous government as outlined by the scriptures.
Thomas Paine, in 1776, outlined the biblical contention with powerful government, which he referred to as monarchical government. He laid these arguments out in his famed pamphlet Common Sense. Though he argues against the Quakers mixing religion and politics, religion, in context, would have been what I began by explaining I did not mean; That is to say, Paine was disapproving of a religious organization initiating group think rather than individuals reasoning by their own principles, be they religious or otherwise. The principles he applied to the origin and nature of monarchical government still apply to all worldly godless forms of government today. The other founders believed in no uncertain terms that there was, according to the same basic principles Thomas Paine defended, a God-approved method of government, in which the governed are consulted and protected by the governors.
For those who are not familiar with what the Bible teaches in terms of this, I will briefly outline Paine’s arguments as well as give a few of my own thoughts as to how his ideas apply to us and our modern forms of government today.
First and foremost, Thomas Paine’s primary argument is that because the modern race of man was fathered by the first and few in number generation of mankind, we, being not so unlike them in regards to our nature and wants, should live as much like they would have as possible. This is because they would have been the most free and peaceful generation of men to live. Being the same as one another, they would have had no reason to exalt one of them over the rest. Likewise, they would not have wanted to lose their rights to the others so long as it was not essential. These individuals would have collaborated only in the areas which their motivations overlapped, otherwise being independent of one another. Further, they would have considered the freedoms of their children equal to their own and never have made any decision that would disadvantage future generations without their consent.
Paine then explains that only at such a time when mankind’s population had grown such that each individual could not be consulted easily enough to represent themselves would that group of people ever consider appointing another person to represent them. However, in order to maintain order and social compact among a body of people divided by the distance between their dwellings and diversity of their needs, the group would still attempt to install a governing body that would only administrate with the bare necessities of authority to resolve the lowest common denominator of issues pertinent to the security of the individuals in that society.
The reasoning is basically this: Why would they give up any dignity to another person who is of the same blood and nature as themselves? Why would they see anyone as more fit to decide the course of their lives than they? They would never have installed government in order to make their life decisions, but rather, to protect them from the number of vices and malcontents that would arise from a growing population that could not be held directly accountable by town council.
In this way, according to the original race of mankind and how they would have lived and have been happiest as independent individuals, having a king or a powerful government to which all our rights and dignity bends is against our very origin and nature! This is the doctrine that sets all men free: The doctrine that says all men being obviously the same and in so much as it is their birthright that no one ought to or indeed can deny, they should live in every way possible such as allows them not to rule over or be ruled over by one another.
Now, Paine goes on to demonstrate that this reasoning and these ideas were well understood by the Jewish people during the era of judges after the exodus from Egypt. When they attempted to violate these ideas by setting up Gideon over them as a king, not only did Gideon, Paine explains, deny their request, he told them that they did not have the authority to give him what they had offered! Gideon told them that the Lord was their king, not a man, and that the Lord would rule them, not mankind. But, according to their desire to be worldly and wicked, they still came to demand a king from Samuel.
He continues by providing a contrast between the origin and intentions of monarchies, in our case any powerful government, with the society mankind, by his argument, ought to naturally prefer. Not only does he do this, but he dishonors their origin by explaining that by the nature of man, there is no other way than by usurpation that hereditary monarchy could have come about. Because, Paine argues, taking the first king by lot or election would have set a precedent for the next, no man of the original generation needing to suppose that a lot or election would remove the rights of future generations to choose their own ruler. The only way the rights of future generations would have fallen by the wayside to heredity would be if someone had set themselves up in a position to force those future generations to accept it. And Paine demonstrates that this was what happened in the case of England by discussing William the Conqueror, who did just that.
In the very same way, no powerful government that denies the rights of future generations could have come about without usurpation; For neither did our forefathers suppose this to be the natural consequence of their decisions, nor would it have been their right to give away the liberties of their posterity even if they had wished to do so!
Now, more or less at the same time, Thomas Paine explains that those who believe the Bible demands loyalty to a tyrannical government have missed the point of the teaching of the scriptures. I will go by point since Paine’s writing is somewhat out of order according to how the logic seems to follow in my own view.
First, Paine explains, the Lord would have us have no other king but Him. When Gideon speaks against the people for wanting to set him up as a king, this is his explanation. The Lord shall be your king.
Second, giving any man undue authority and honor such as a king has, to dictate what is right and wrong, is idolatry, because those participating in the act would be setting a man in the place of God, which the Lord would clearly disapprove of.
Next, Samuel, when the people next demand to be given a king, tells them that a king will destroy them and take their goods and labor for himself, which would be sin in the eyes of God, both upon them for demanding this form of government, and upon the man who would do it.
Next, in His primary approval given to David, God does not regard David as a king but as a man only. For it is said, “David was a man after God’s own heart. “ There is no king that is after God’s own heart, because God never wanted us to have kings.
Further, though many quote Christ as having said “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”, this is no statement of approval to monarchical or indeed, oppressive tyrannical government, because the Jewish people had no king and were living in a state of vassalage to Rome. That is to say, they were submitting to the authority of a government that was allowing them to continue living their religious values, was no doing evil, at the time, with their proceeds and was not slaughtering their people. They had been consulted as to the needs of their people because their grievances were managed by a governor which the Romans placed over their regency. Christ was teaching, thus, that in as much as it is not evil to obey the authority of a government, to endure it. This would not therefor prohibit, by Paine’s reasoning, those who were under the authority of such a government from breaking away from it or rejecting its authority if it usurped greater powers than those which God had apportioned to government or began to do wickedness, such as those evils of monarchy described by the prophet Samuel, that no Christian could in good conscience support.
I would add myself that were we to submit to government authority absolutely, no matter the evils of that government, that Christ’s life would have never reached maturity and His ministry never taken place, because at the time that Christ was born His mother and father fled to Egypt to protect Him, as Herod had sought to destroy Him by slaughtering every man child in the region at the time of His birth. If God had ordained Herod’s authority to do this, how then would God approve of Christ’s family fleeing this authority to save Him? It is very clear Herod was never ordained such a power and God had never approved of those who usurped such authority for themselves in any government.
I, being more concerned with persuading the religious than Paine perhaps might have been, will go on to address the words of Peter and Paul myself in this context.
Peter says in regards to government in the New Testament, “And chiefly them that walk after the flesh, in the lust of uncleanness, and despise government, which are presumptuous, and stand in their own conceit, and fear not to speak evil of them that are in dignity”, 2nd Peter 2:10. Now, the version I have chosen to quote is the Geneva Bible, as this is the translation that the founders would have read during their time. Here, Peter disdains those that speak evil against dignitaries. Some take this to mean that anyone who speaks out against government is rebellious. Yet, Peter makes two qualifications to the type of individual that he is speaking about in this verse, from it and the verse previous to it. He states first that the person is unjust and second that they despise government. This means that those who despise government because it prohibits them from living their unjust unclean lifestyle at the expense and hazard of those around them, God will judge. This can be more plainly described as hating law and justice in general. This says nothing about a righteous person speaking out against an unjust government or delivering God’s teaching against monarchy to those who are living under an oppressive monarch. In fact, 2nd Timothy 3:16 teaches that all scripture is given for teaching and for giving an argument against the naysayers who argue against righteousness. How then would God contradict Himself by forbidding that teaching be done when it applies to an oppressive regime or dictator? Certainly, this is not what the scriptures teach at all. Before the end of his life Paul preached to King Agrippa. If we suppose all kings to be ordained of God, why then would God send Paul to preach to a man He had already set in authority over Paul? It is a simple thing to understand. Agrippa was not a minister according to God’s purposes for government or law. Agrippa was a king that was a ruler according to his own purposes. And if any government chooses to do or sponsor sinful acts, chooses not to be subject to its own laws or chooses to exalt a man in the place of God, then it is operating according to its own purposes and not according to God’s.
Take a look at the very next verse that Peter offers as an example of this principle! Peter speaks about angels not rebuking those that stand before, or that is to say, against the Lord. They, who will eventually punish the evil doers with the sword, do not speak untruths or angry words to those they will be completely justified in destroying. Were we being taught never to contend with those who do evil or set themselves up in the place of God, this would be a very poor example to present us with, as the angels of the Lord go before the destruction of all evil. A parallel rebuke of those who despise government in Jude 1 illustrates Michael in the very act of fighting Satan but refusing to rail against him. On the one hand, Michael is the example of the principle, and in the other he is physically attacking the very thing he is choosing not to speak evilly about. However, what Michael did say is an example to us as well: ” The Lord rebuke you! ” What I believe this teaches us is that in as much as anyone, including a government, has violated God’s law and done evil, those who are righteous must speak out and stand in opposition to that evil, charging the doer of that evil not according to their own doctrine or interests, but God’s. For these reasons, these passages in Jude 1 and 2nd Peter 2 are clearly reprimands of those who wish to live in willful lawlessness, not those who justly stand in opposition to an out of control government that is doing evil in the sight of God.
And to this point, Paul’s words on government are found in Romans 13. According to Paul, the governor is a ‘magistrate’, or in the original Greek, a ‘dee a ko nos’, the same word from which we get the word ‘deacon’, of God. And in as much as we should submit to God, we should submit to the authority of government because those who fear or hate the rule of law are only those who wish to do evil.
Now, there are a few things to take note of immediately when reading the first seven verses of this chapter.
First, the word deacon is not the same as the word ruler. The word ruler was chosen by the King James interpreters specifically to give the king and the church a hook to hang their hat on when arguing for the rapacious relationship the English government had formed with religion, that is to say, having put state in charge of theology. The Geneva Bible, the translation the founders would have read, translates this word as ‘magistrate’, which I will use going forward. Proof of this is the verses that speak about King Agrippa, as in Acts25, who is referred to by scripture with the word ‘bas il yoo ce”, which is to say, the one who is in charge of a land or a province.
Next, the law enforcer described here is one who seeks to punish evil and not good. The Third Reich, Stalin’s soldiers, Mao Tsetung, the soldiers who guarded the trains during the Holodomor in the Ukraine, and every other murderer or usurper would not qualify as a ‘magistrate’ by the teaching of Paul.
Another of Paine’s arguments falls in line with this point that further explains the relationship: ” There is no power from heaven that must be checked.” That is to say, there is no ill intending or abusive power that comes from God. By this argument we come to understand that when a government chooses to do evil and punish good according to God’s law, what it does it no longer has the authority to do from God but from the men that embolden it to do this evil.
My additional thought to those that might bring up Pontius Pilate would be that Pontius Pilate’s job in administrating was to keep peace and civil order in the area he was in authority over. While he may have personally been a very wicked person, as a government figure, he attempted to release Christ three times and to absolve his authority of the responsibility twice. God gave him power over Christ for a certain time, but Pontius Pilate was never given approval for any of the evil things he did before or after by this situation taking place.. A righteous God never would.
Finally, we must look at Paul’s teaching in context with Christ and Peter’s words and silence in other places to understand what is being taught here.
Christ, when speaking to soldiers who inquired about His instructions to them, told them in Luke 3:14 not to do violence to any person, but this is not a commendation to pacifism. The word used for violence here is ‘dee as i’ o’, which means to terrify someone, to shake them, or to cause them to tremble. It can also mean to commit an act of extortion. This would mean Christ’s first command is related to the third to the soldiers, which is not to abuse their power for their own personal gain or satisfaction. Like tax collectors, soldiers at the time were prone to steal and take things by force instead of, as Christ commanded, being content with their wages. So, Christ here did not disapprove of the profession of a soldier nor prohibit the use of arms for every reason. He did, however, prohibit the use of government power to abuse the people under one’s authority.
Peter, in the same way, when he is sent to speak with Cornelius in Acts 10 and 11, does not instruct Cornelius to leave the Roman military, which the very first verse of Acts 10 explains he is a member of. Cornelius was a just man, and yet was a man of war and of the government. Yet, Peter instructs Cornelius in the gospel and how to conduct his business as a military man and as a Christian going forward.
Since neither Christ nor Peter demanded that the soldiers or Cornelius stop serving in the Roman military, God obviously did not disapprove of the Roman mission or what their government was doing in the region at the time. It would be the campaign of Titus and the genocide and persecution of Jews and Christians the Roman Empire was about to engage in following the time of the apostles, beginning with the execution of Paul, that God would condemn, as John foretold in the Revelation. Therefore, neither Christ nor Paul are teaching to be subservient to evil or tyrannical government, no more than God would approve of a monarch in the Old Testament. God is opposed, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament, to powerful governments that commit idolatry and abuse the people whom they are supposed to govern.
Now, here is the crux of the problem for us as Christians: Where do we go from here? We can demonstrate from scripture that God disapproves of powerful, abusive and oppressive government. We can demonstrate from scripture that God never intended for there to be any king but Himself. But we can also demonstrate that God wants us to be subject to the authority of government in as much as it does not violate His laws or His principles. Obviously these beliefs need to play a role in our politics and the way we talk about and understand political issues as we participate in holding our government accountable. But where do we go and what do we do as Christians when a government becomes tyrannical, out of control and violent towards its own people?
Some say that we should lie down and die under any and every oppression presented to us. There are a great many arguments for this point of view, and I will take the time here to take each of them apart one at a time. Then, I will offer my own recommendation based upon a few biblical principles.
Christ told Peter to put away his sword in Matthew 26, telling him that those who take the sword will be killed by it. Consider a few things here: If Christ believed there was never an appropriate time to defend one’s self, why would He have allowed Peter to go armed in the first place? Does anyone believe the disciple Peter would have carried a sword on the road with Christ if Christ did not approve? Peter was one of the Lord’s closest apostles and most ardent supporters. He was the only one to venture near the place where he was being tried when the other disciples fled. He was also the one that Christ gave the benediction to that his confession, that Jesus was the Christ, would be the basis upon which the Church itself would be built. How then would one of the most faithful followers of Christ during His ministry be carrying something Christ would never allow or approve of?
Christ said to be harmless as doves in Mathew 10. Christ was speaking of being innocent of wrong doing or reproach in this verse. The original Greek word used here is ‘ak er ah yos’, which is to say, pure in mind and heart, not mixed up with wickedness, plainly, innocent. This is not a command of pacifism, but purity.
Paul commanded the Philippians to be harmless as well in 2:15. The same word is used here. The word translated harmless here does not, in the original Greek, imply pacifism, but purity of thought, in the same terms that would have been used when speaking about mixing wines or metals. There is no recommendation in this scripture to absolute pacifism either.
Peter commends slaves to be submissive to their masters, both kind and harsh, in 1st peter 2:18. Peter here is speaking to those owned as slaves and the employed. This verse says nothing with respect to government. Peter does go on to say that Christ submitted Himself to the judges righteously, but this is not a parallel example, that is to say, like for like. Christ’s submission is demonstrated in a situation which God would have clearly disapproved of, where as being an indebted servant or being employed to another person is completely different. To say that this one verse requires us to endure the same abuses in the same manner as Christ did is fallacious because the same abuses are not described in both situations. We’re being commended to follow Christ’s behavior as our example in a different eventuality, which is either being a servant or employee of a master.
As evidence, in this situation the master is never referred to as a king or government figure, as God, even back in the Old Testament, never intended for anyone to be a slave to a powerful government figure or monarch, disapproving of them loudly and clearly. The word used for master here is ‘des po ta is’, which means, literally, an owner. Yet God never gave government the authority to own anyone. This cannot be our commendation to be subject to any authority, even a wicked and murderous government, since neither Pontius Pilate nor the master of Peter’s teaching presents a government figure that is disobeying God’s law. Again, it was not Pilate’s prerogative to seek to put Christ to death. If that were the case Pilate would have ordered Christ crucified immediately.
The most compelling argument for being a pacifist, both in terms of government and participating in the military, would be Christ’s teaching in Matthew 5. In verse 39 Christ teaches “But I say unto you, Resist not evil; but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” This would parallel the teaching “Render not evil for evil,” in 1st Peter 3:9.
I would answer those who would suggest that these scriptures are teaching us to be pacifists that these words were spoken by the two people who, in my earlier point, were perfectly ok with Peter carrying a sword. Christ Himself threw the money changers out of the temple by force in Mark 11! Anyone who would suggest that the words of Christ or Peter promote absolute pacifism set the scriptures and Christ at odds with themselves and Himself.
The truth of the matter in terms of war, self-defense and protecting one’s self is this. In Ezekiel 33, God explained the terms by which morality is to be applied to armed conflict and protecting one’s family and community. In fact, in this verse, it is already common knowledge that God is referencing which is already understood by Ezekiel, but this allegory God uses when speaking with Ezekiel serves as our enlightenment. He says that when a man is made a watchman, if he sees the enemy coming and he blows the horn, all of those who do not heed the warning, their blood is on their own hands. Yet, if the watchman does not blow the horn when he sees the enemy coming, if anyone dies because the enemy invades, their blood is on his head. So it is with us today. While we ought turn our cheek to rebuke and persecution, while we ought to “as much as is possible, as depends on you, live peaceably with all men”, Romans 12:18, while we ought to put our sword in its place, we *must* protect our families, our churches and our neighbors or their blood will be on our hands.
Christ, at the time of His ministry, and the apostles after His teaching, were teaching that the Kingdom of Heaven, that is to say, the Church, was not being established to fight an earthly war. Christ says in John 18 “if my kingdom were of this world my servants would fight”. The stress of peaceful demeanor and love for one’s enemies they expressed was to serve as direction both to the Church and we as individuals in our personal lives. But this does not absolve us from our obvious and God-given responsibilities to fight to abolish murderous and wicked rulers, invaders of our lands and those who break the law. Such is not the violence described by Christ when speaking to the soldiers, but is righteous, in as much as it has tried for peace at every turn and found no resolution but to flee or to stand one’s ground.
Remember that America was founded by millions of people who fled the continent of Europe where they were facing, primarily, religious persecution. Many of these people were very close to what I would consider Bible believing Christians. Yet, today, there is not always a place for Christians to run if their government becomes tyrannical. We cannot always protect our families or our country by fleeing from our oppression. We must, as briefly and as infrequently as humanly possible, stand and fight for God’s law and for peace.
Further, many wars are prolonged and evils allowed when we choose not to speak or act. Paine argued that to allow England and the colonies of America to continue to be basically at armed conflict with no resolution rather than vying for independence was the most immoral choice anyone could make because such a conflict would continue indefinitely and cause the most heartache, bitterness and bloodshed. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in Ireland, where there is still a great bitterness and resentment between the loyalists and those who wanted independence from England, even today. This has caused several more wars since the original and always there is a fear and feeling of unease when bombings and shootings take place that a war is about to begin. This is ungodly behavior and ungodly government, according to the laws and principles God sets forth in the Bible.
In such situations, if we who are Christians and believe in God will not stand up and demand leadership that is interested in a final end to conflict, God will not hold us guiltless. In the same way, those who were Christians in Nazi Germany that chose not to fight to save the lives of the Jewish people and right the wrongs of their fellow countrymen, God will not hold them guiltless. This harkens back to the quote of the honorable man, Dietrich Bonheoffer, who said “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” This good man gave his life to try to unseat a tyrant that was murdering millions of people and fighting an unjust war. To him, he believed if he had not acted that God would have punished him for being indifferent in the face of evil. However much we may not think of it in this manner, this does follow the principle both of Ezekiel 33 and of James 4:17, “He who knows to do good and does it not, to him it is sin.” In this way we understand that the evils of men and government that fall to us to resolve, we cannot be indifferent towards. In some situations, the right thing may be to run, but there are some situations in which the right thing is to fight to protect the innocent and end conflict.
David did the same when he was in exile. While he chose never to take the life of king Saul, he knew the king was a tyrant and an ungodly man, and he resisted his power at every turn with his own military might. He only chose not to take the life of Saul because he believed, in his loving heart, that God would give him a way to become king without taking the life of a man that was once his dear friend. Even though Saul had lost the approval of God and presented David with a great enough threat for him to be justified to take Saul’s life, David chose to wait for the Lord. However, armed conflict did finally end the reign of Saul. And in every situation where evil outside of Israel presented itself, David did not hesitate to fight to protect his people and restore peace. He never initiated a war with the enemies of Israel, but he did fight to end them. Today, if a government begins to violate its own laws, to slaughter its own people, or to sponsor things that are wicked, we must resist that evil to the degree its extremity justifies, speak out to rebuke it and as the only final alternative, should it be one of violence and slaughter, take up arms against it. God approved of this in the Old Testament and the New Testament, even as much as the Lord allowed Peter to carry his sword as his final alternative to allowing his wife, children or fellow disciples be murdered by the thieves, bandits and corrupt soldiers of their time.
Now, that brings up the final question that needs to be resolved, which is, if this were the case why didn’t the apostles resist being arrested, imprisoned and in many cases put to death? That is very simple. They believed that God would protect them. God has never issued a command that would have us allow our friends, families or neighbors to be killed by those who intend evil. We are not apostles with the protection of providence. While God has provided us beforehand the things we need to live our lives, we cannot expect God to intervene on our behalf for the sake of the gospel in the manner that He did to preserve the message of the apostles. The apostle Paul, in one situation, actually was let down a city wall in a basket and did flee from capture at one point during his life. In as much as it was within their power and they understood the threats that they faced, the apostles did flee the power of fire and sword in the lands that they lived in. We must assume they also defended themselves or others when it was necessary, if they felt at any time God expected them to do so. The Bible does not tell us about enough of their lives to assume that they simply did not or never needed to. Neither does it teach us to assume that we simply should not or will never need to ourselves. The apostles, ultimately, were destined to be martyrs. But not every Christian is ordered to be a martyr for the sake of Christ. Those who are martyrs are glorified in the book of Revelation, but the word martyr does not even imply that one did not fight or defend themselves as the original martyr, Stephen, did not. If Stephen knew he would be slaughtered, it could be argued that he might not have done what he did, and that decision would have been completely justified, as his ministry would have been very valuable to the Lord and the early Church. So long as we do not begin violence and we do our utmost not to take the lives of others unless absolutely necessary, our military service, self-defense and fleeing the powers of wickedness are all approved by God. As in the case of so many genocidal regimes and dangers that beset our families and our neighbors in the course of our lives, not to do so would, itself, be evil.
So, as I’ve discussed above, to neither speak nor act in the face of evil government is itself evil. When rebuked and beaten by the Sanhedrin, the apostles answered them “We ought to obey God rather than men.” And then they went on their way rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer for the cause of Christ. Even so today, if it will not cost us our lives, we are obliged to speak out against and even participate in government in order to stay, if at all possible, the course of evil in the world around us. If it will cost us our lives, we must choose whether or not to speak, to fight or to flee best protects our family and our neighbors as well as best fits our duty to the principles of the scriptures. This one thing is certain: If we choose to do nothing, God will surely punish us.
Pray for God to save our Constitution and our republic,