Delwyn X. Campbell
John 19:6-11 ESV When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, "Crucify him, crucify him!" Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him." (7) The Jews answered him, "We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God." (8) When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. (9) He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, "Where are you from?" But Jesus gave him no answer. (10) So Pilate said to him, "You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?" (11) Jesus answered him, "You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin."
Act 5:26-29 ESV Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but not by force, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people. (27) And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, (28) saying, "We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man's blood upon us." (29) But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than men.
Rom 13:1-7 ESV 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. (2) Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (3) 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, (4) 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. (5) Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. (6) For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. (7) Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
1Pe 2:13-17 ESV Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, (14) or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. (15) For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. (16) Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. (17) Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
These four passages cover what I see as the basic New Testament positions regarding the Christian in relation to the Government. Summarizing them, it is clear that the coming of Jesus as the Messiah did not give Christians the right or authority to raise an insurrection in His name, any more than He chose, when tried by Pilate and Herod, to free Himself from their control and re-establish the Davidic kingdom apart from fulfilling is role as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. At the same time, Peter’s answer to the Jewish Sanhedrin, the recognized legal authority, at least in things pertaining to the religious culture of Judea and Galilee, indicates that Christians cannot refuse to obey God’s will by hiding behind the dictate of the State. Believing, in accordance with Scripture, that God is the author of the Law, Christians are expected to obey the laws of the land insofar as such obedience does not force us to disobey the Word of God.
Thus, as we look over the generations of Christians prior to the 4th Century, the general posture in relation to the governments of Rome and Jerusalem was one of submission in terms of civil authority, but not in terms of spiritual authority. During the 4th Century, Roman Emperor Constantine requested that the leaders of the Catholic Church meet in order to set certain ecclesiastical and doctrinal issues in order, most notably, that of the nature of Christ in relation to the Father, and, that of the Godhead as a whole. Known to us as the Council of Nicaea, this Council drafted and ratified what we now know as the Nicene Creed. Constantine did not dictate the outcome, but accepted it as the will of God. As the civil authority, he supported the decisions made by the church leadership, backing it with the civil power of the sword as requested for the removal of certain church leaders from office. Later, of course, some of those who had proved successful, such as Athanasius, experienced the power of the sword when Constantine became convinced that the Arian position was legitimate.
Between the 4th and 16th centuries, the eastern and western branches of Christianity in Europe went in different directions regarding Church/State relations. In the west, the Church became dominant to the point that kings had to be crowned by the Pope in order to be recognized as the rightful ruler, while in the east, the church was a servant of the State. Martin Luther developed the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms and Two Governments. Distinct from the biblical teaching that places God and the World on opposite sides, Luther recognized that Scripture also shows earthly government as being under God’s authority, yet not part of the Kingdom of Christ. This is because there are aspects of earthly governmental function that existed prior to the advent of Christ and the preaching of the Gospel, yet these functions manifest the goodness and love of God as He preserves His creation through the agency of Government.
Luther said, “If anyone attempted to rule the world by the gospel and to abolish all temporal law and sword on the plea that all are baptized and Christian, and that, according to the gospel, there shall be among them no law or sword - or need for either - pray tell me, friend, what would he be doing? He would be loosing the ropes and chains of the savage wild beasts and letting them bite and mangle everyone, meanwhile insisting that they were harmless, tame, and gentle creatures; but I would have the proof in my wounds. Just so would the wicked under the name of Christian abuse evangelical freedom, carry on their rascality, and insist that they were Christians subject neither to law nor sword, as some are already raving and ranting.” Thus, he recognized that the presence of the Gospel would not lead to the cessation of Government as a necessary preservative presence in the world.
What about the situation found by the colonists in America under the authority of the British Crown? Did Luther have an opinion about our submission to the State when it involved disagreement? In 1525, as peasant and princely forces fought over a variety of grievances, Luther wrote Admonition to Peace, in which, while he acknowledged that the peasants had legitimate grievances, he argued that force was not the proper way to get changes instituted by the governing authorities. Then, after a violent massacre by peasant forces in the town of Weinberger, he wrote Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, in which he declared that the rebellion deserved to be crushed violently because the rebels are “are starting a rebellion, and are violently robbing and plundering monasteries and castles which are not theirs... they have doubly deserved death in body and soul as highwaymen and murderers... they cloak this terrible and horrible sin with the gospel... thus they become the worst blasphemers of God and slanderers of his holy name.”
Luther viewed Romans 13 as upholding the authority of the State in largely the same way that the 4th Commandment upholds parental authority. Just as poor parenting does not give children the right to rebel, poor exercise of government authority does not give the citizens authority to rebel. The only exception to this position is that given by Peter in Acts 5 (see above), which is in no way contradicted by his words in 1 Peter 2, or, for that matter, 1Pe 3:14-17 (ESV): But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, (15) but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, (16) having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (17) For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil.
Luther did not share the perspective expressed by Thomas Paine in his pamphlet, “Common Sense,” which began, “Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise.” Instead, Luther saw Government as God’s left hand, and the Church as His right. To have Christians rebelling against government would be akin to having one side of the body attacking the other. In resisting immoral government actions, it would appear that Luther would have supported the nonviolent actions of the man who bore his name, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and he would have supported the actions taken by the Danes in World War II who, in the face of Nazi occupation, hid and enabled to escape over 7000 Jews to Sweden. Out of the entire Jewish population of Denmark, only 500 were apprehended by the Nazis, and 90% of those made it back home at the end of the conflict. All of this without any acts of violence.
In the end, the American Revolution was a political, rather than a theological action. The writings in defense of it were political statements, not theological or exegetical explanations. They were intended to strengthen the wills of the colonials who were going to war, not to persuade the British to repent and treat them differently. Most estimates indicate that there never was a majority of the population in support of the War, nevertheless, Washington and the political leaders understood that time was on their side, and that Britain could not fight against them forever, for there were other players with whom the Crown would have to contend, particularly the French, who would gladly take advantage of Britain’s being bogged down in North America, as she did. To say that God blessed it because they succeeded would be to say that “an ought is defined by an is.” Such a case could be made equally well by the governments of North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and Iran, although not with our concurrence.