This is part 1 of a 4 part series on a Biblical Theology of Human Authority and Civil Government. This first post sets up the latter posts by introducing the topic and then laying some ground work. Please stay tuned for the next installments.
I’ve found myself roped into several debates lately over political issues in which I have needed to defend my position as a Libertarian. This is partly because of my nature to debate things. I hope that nobody perceives me as an argumentative person, or as one who is arrogant or condescending. I suspect, however that such is the unfortunate case. In truth, while I do have to fight against these temptations, the stronger forces that drive me to debate are the strong conviction I have on these matters and the fact that I’m an optimist.
Yeah, I’m a bit of an optimist. I generally have a positive outlook on the nature of human discourse. I truly believe that if we can discuss things rationally, we can come to an understanding of the truth. This is not to place too much faith in human reason or ability, but rather in the authority of Scripture, which ought to be our rule, and in the power of the Holy Spirit to guide us in the process. That being said, when someone engages with me, I assume that they are genuinely curious and that they are truly interested in hearing my side of things. On that assumption, I seek to explain myself as fully, clearly and accurately as i can. I refuse to project ill will on another, insisting that the benefit of every doubt be given. When a question is asked, I assume an answer is expected. I therefore strive to give the best one I can.
However, things very often devolve, as is the nature of the Internet. Sometimes intentions are not noble. Sometimes discussions get hijacked. Sometimes we are limited by time and media. Whatever the reason it seems that I am rarely able to give a full and well-reasoned defense of things. This is what drives me here. I maintain my hope that when believers discuss these things and when their discussion is guided by the Word of God, they can come to a better understanding of the truth, and a better bond with each other, regardless of whether the go away agreeing. For our sure hope is founded not in the correctness of our political platform, but in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, his resurrection, and his promise of future glory.
To that end, I seek to lay before you my treatise on all things political.
I need to begin by framing my post in the proper context. There are many different views of politics that various Christians hold. The ones I have been interacting with the most lately are all held by people who believe them to be founded on Scripture. My goal in this text is to examine what the Scriptures really say with respect to civil government and what that means for our involvement in politics. It is not my intention to rebut every specific argument of every competing theory. It is simply my intent to lay out what I believe to be the fundamental principles and Biblical instructions that ought to inform this discussion for us as believers, and then to lay forth the application that I draw from it to our context. I mean this to be nothing less than a Theology of Human Authority and Civil Government. But this is not exhaustive, for there is more that must be added later.
I feel it is therefore necessary to begin by acknowledging the common ground I have with my opponents. They are brothers and sisters in Christ and I love them dearly. More than that I respect them. I respect them because they disagree with me, not as a concession to their position, but as praise to their diligence to seek these things out from the Scriptures. They have a high view of God, a high view of the Scripture, and take seriously our responsibility to honor the Lord in all areas of our lives.
We stand united in our belief that God is Sovereign over all creation, including all human interaction, which includes civil government. We stand united in our belief that God has given us his Word to be our rule of authority for all areas of life, and that it is sufficient for us to derive the whole counsel of God on any subject, including civil government.
Because of this common ground, I am sure that we can have a productive, iron sharpening iron discussion on these issues. It is never my intention to sow discord, strife or division in our ranks. I seek only mutual edification as we interact with the Scriptures on these issues. It is my hope that they will sharpen my iron as much as I will sharpen theirs. I have firm conviction that what I will say in this post is accurate and a right dividing of the Word of Truth. And the more I study these things, the stronger my conviction grows. However, if there is some significant error in my thinking, then I must be put right, especially if it is a matter of my handling of Scripture. This is why I put it out in the way I do. I welcome, nay I am seeking constructive criticism. For I do not wish to instruct another in obedience to an incorrect interpretation of God’s Word!!! When I stand up and say, “This is what God’s word says,” I am taking a load of responsibility onto my shoulders. I better get it right! For that reason, if you find any flaws in anything I say, please graciously point them out to me, and please let your rebuttal be grounded on the Scripture, for that is our only rule and authority on all matters.
And if I am right, I hope to spread the knowledge of this truth and the conviction I have with others. For the implications of this are monumental. I hope that through persuasion and speaking the truth in love, I can convince others to see as I see. But mostly I have sure hope that no matter whether we go away agreeing or disagreeing, we can go away stronger brothers at the end of it for having grounded our discussion on the Word and have been guided by the Holy Spirit. It would grieve me to know that my efforts in this regard have been used by the enemy to drive believers apart in conflict. I have great vexation over this every time I open my mouth. It is the last thing that I ever intend to happen.
These common principles I have laid out are the bedrock on which we stand together. My optimism leads me to believe that we share more common ground, though some of these may be disputed. Nevertheless, I believe that we stand united in our recognition that the Scripture does not always address each topic directly, and that at times principles must be drawn from seemingly unrelated teaching that would guide our understanding in these things. The Scripture does not directly address smoking marijuana, but we would be remiss to deny that the Bible contains the whole counsel of God on pot! The task is, therefore, somewhat difficult at times. But I am sure that we all stand united in the conviction that where the Scripture speaks, we are obligated to obey, and where the Scripture is silent, we are free to obey conscience provided that we are not violating some other command of God or causing our brother to stumble.
I think if we’re honest, we’ll recognize that there is a large degree of silence in the Scripture when it comes to this particular issue. The New Testament believers lived in a vastly different world than ours, and the privilege to participate in civil government did not arise until recent centuries, long after the canon was closed. Thus, gleaning the mind of God from the Scriptures regarding how we ought to engage in civil government is an indirect task. There is no “Thou Shalt Vote Republican” in Scripture. We must apply principles we find in Scripture to the context of civil government. Despite the difficult, and indirect nature of this task, I believe there is clear Biblical teaching that can guide this discussion.
Last, but not least, I think we all recognize that there are some hermeneutical challenges that we face when dealing with these principles. We all believe that the Bible speaks clear principles, but we disagree on many specifics, and much of this stems from hermeneutical differences involving, for example, the Law of Moses. It is my hope to lay out the Biblical principles that should be foundational to our understanding no matter what our particular hermeneutical interpretation of the Mosaic Law before we even discuss it.
So what are these principles that I hold?
Before I get into that meat, I must complete the framing of my treatise. This discussion will of necessity involve Romans 13, 1 Peter 2 and Titus 3. No Biblical analysis of civil government would be complete without them. But I must make some cursory observations about them in general before we dig into the meat. On the whole, these three state that we are to submit to government. Lest it be mistaken, I do not disagree with this teaching, nor do I advocate disobeying it. By all means, obey the law, even if it is an unjust law. For God is your authority and has placed the civil magistrate over you. I pay my taxes even though I believe it to be theft.
But there is more to say, and this is the critical issue. If we are to properly engage with these texts in this debate, we must understand the perspective from which we are approaching it. We are discussing the counsel of God from Scripture as it pertains to our involvement in civil government through voting. Because of this, we must approach Romans 13 from the perspective of the civil magistrate (Caesar) if we are to understand what it says for this issue. Commands to submit to government are relevant for what to do with the law as it stands. However, just like reading Ephesians 6 as a father brings about a different perspective than reading it as a child, so too reading Romans 13 as the civil magistrate brings about a different perspective than reading it as a citizen. When we stand in the voting booth and punch a ballot, we are standing in the place of the civil magistrate. We must ask ourselves, “How would God have me to rule?”
For that reason, I need to back up and lay a more general foundation for human ethics that is based on Scripture that we must understand before we delve specifically into Romans 13. Fear not, we will deal with Romans 13. But I need to lay some ground work first.
So I hope you stay with me over the next two posts. In Part 2 I will discuss the foundational principles of all human ethics and how I believe they are relevant to our discussion of civil government, and then in Part 3, I will dig into the meat of Romans 13. Please stay tuned.