I examine biblical data on the origin and purpose of government and contrast it with the traditional right and left wing outlooks as classically formulated by Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine and carried on to this day, arguing that there is some validity in both approaches, but that the biblical worldview differs in some significant respects. I ultimately seize on the idea that Christians should prefer to live in something more akin to a libertarian society.
The histories of the Christian left and right are also briefly discussed.
I recently came across a small treatise by the 16th century Christian humanist Desiderius Erasmus–the same Erasmus who gave us the Textus Receptus (the New Testament in its Greek printed edition) and The Praise of Folly. The treatise is entitled Against War and I found in it a parallel to the attitude of much of western Christiantiy today. Erasmus speaks of those Christians who desired to blot out the Turks to stop the advancement of Islam upon Christian territories and proposes a different solution to the “problem of the Turk” which he found to be more Christlike:
“Nor to me truly it seemeth not so allowable, that we should so oft make war upon the Turks. Doubtless it were not well with the Christian religion, if the only safeguard thereof should depend on such succours. Nor it is not likely, that they should be good Christians, that by these means are brought thereto at the first. For that thing that is got by war, is again in another time lost by war. Will ye bring the Turks to the faith of Christ? Let us not make a show of our gay riches, nor of our great number of soldiers, nor of our great strength. Let them see in us none of these solemn titles, but the assured tokens of Christian men: a pure, innocent life; a fervent desire to do well, yea, to our very enemies; the despising of money, the neglecting of glory, a poor simple life. Let them hear the heavenly doctrine agreeable to such a manner of life. These are the best armours to subdue the Turks to Christ. . .
“Trow ye it is a good Christian man’s deed to slay a Turk? For be the Turks never so wicked, yet they are men, for whose salvation Christ suffered death. And killing Turks we offer to the devil most pleasant sacrifice, and with that one deed we please our enemy, the devil, twice: first because a man is slain, and again, because a Christian man slew him.”
-Desiderius Eramus, Against War
There seem to be two basic attitudes in the church in regard to the question of how Christians should vote. The first is that politics is a complicated issue and that each Christian should lean purely on his or her conscience to reach a conclusion. The other is that there is one particular party that strongly represents the Christian viewpoint and it belongs to whoever is speaking at the time.
I think that we can take a more thoughtful perspective. There are certain biblical principles that tell Christians which kind of state they should prefer and which issues are central to its proper functioning. And in a country like the United States where citizens can participate in guiding the direction of government, these principles might also inform us on how we should vote.
To begin with, we ought to distinguish ancient Israel from those physical nations which have not been chosen by God to issue laws based on theocratic principles. Though the laws of Israel might at times inform us as to how secular states should work, Jesus’ claim in John 18:36 that the Kingdom of God must be distinguished from geopolitical powers ought to give us pause when it comes to direct application of the laws of theocratic Israel to our present nation’s laws. However, the following principles seem to be applied to all nations universally when the Bible speaks about the role of the state:
1. The state should punish evildoers and reward those who do good.
“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” (Romans 13:3-4).
This passage raises a lot of questions about the relationship between church and state, following as it does after a passage wherein Paul tells Christians that they should not seek to punish the wicked but allow God to avenge either now (perhaps through the state) or in the age to come. Whether or not we assume that it forbids Christians from participation in the state, we must at least conclude that it tells us that a state which functions most properly will punish not those who do good, but those who are doing evil. Indeed, those who do good should have nothing to fear in a state which is living up to its purpose.
2. The state should allow for freedom on matters of conscience.
“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
Paul here encourages Christians living in a pagan state which did not allow open participation in directing its political aims to pray that those in power would allow for Christians to have the freedom to follow their Christians convictions. He follows this up by noting that Christianity can flourish in a state which allows for religious freedom to either accept or reject its doctrines and practices. Christians should therefore desire religious freedom for both Christians as well as non-Christians.
3. The state should be concerned that peace is pursued and justice is done, particularly for the poor and oppressed.
“For three transgressions of Edom, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because he pursued his brother with the sword and cast off all pity, and his anger tore perpetually, and he kept his wrath forever” (Amos 1:11).
In Amos we see the moral standards that God holds pagan nations–those who do not follow Him and perhaps have not even heard of Him–to. We find that God will execute judgment on nations that preferring war and taking advantage of the weak and poor as a means to become prosperous. This tells us that even a secular nation should prefer peace and justice for the oppressed and seek it out whenever possible.
How shall we then vote?
With these principles in mind, what should we expect the biblically minded Christian to do on election day? As many Christians find themselves unable to comfortably support either Trump or Clinton, we find ourselves in a trilemma: do we vote for the lesser of two evils, abstain from voting, or seek out a third party which more closely reflects the core Christians values as to the role of the state? If we choose the lesser of two evils, we have acted in support of evil. If we vote third party or abstain, we may be enabling the candidate which we fear could do the most evil to win the popular vote and perhaps the election itself.
For the Christian, obedience to God and to doing right should be our chief concern. The rest is up to God. However, there is still room for Christian conscience–do you believe that any one candidate is close enough to these core values to earn your support? Alternatively, do you feel that none of them do, or perhaps that the act of a Christian voting in and of itself conflicts with citizenship in the Kingdom of God. Then you must act on whichever conclusion–biblically and politically informed–that you reach.
Though Protestants have in more recent years come around to the principle of separation of church and state, this was not so in the beginning. While petitioning for the freedom to challenge the church and follow scripture as their consciences dictated, they simultaneously believed that it was the duty of the state to inflict punishment upon those they saw as heretics. John Calvin supported the execution of the unitarian Michael Servetus, Ulrich Zwingli saw to it that Balthasar Hubmaier was tortured for his view of believer’s baptism, and Martin Luther will forever be connected to his advocacy of religiously motivated state violence towards Jews and those who took part in the Peasants’ Revolt. In this milieu it was the so-called “radical reformers”–the Anabaptists—alone who, after taking a close look at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, made this idea central to their Christian belief and practice; and it was Michael Sattler who helped to codify this belief into an Anabaptist confession of faith.
John Howard Yoder gives the basic outline of Michael Sattler’s life up to this pivotal event:
“Michael Sattler was born sometime around 1490 at Staufen in the Breisgau. He entered the Benedictine Monastery of St. Peter’s, northeast of Freiburg, where he became — or was likely to become — prior. In the 1520s he came , by way of Lutheran and Zwinglian ideas, to forsake the monastery and to marry, and by March, 1525, had become a member of the Anabaptist movement which had just begun at Zürich two months before” (Yoder).
This summary accounts for all that is known of Sattler’s life save for the last two years in which he bursts onto the scene of history (though Snyder, one of Sattler’s biographers, views even this basic outline to be rather conjectural at a number of points). It was in these last two years that Sattler became “the most significant of the first-generation leaders of Anabaptism” (Yoder).
This significance is due in large part to his central role in framing the Schleitheim Articles, the aforementioned Anabaptist confession of faith which would cost him his life and underline the importance of the doctrine which he viewed as central to the Christian faith. The articles, which included confessions on Anabaptist principles such as believer’s baptism and oaths, also spoke very clearly on the distinct roles of church and state, noting that Jesus and the Apostles seemed to forbid those tools of violence which magistrates viewed as essential to executing their duties:
“the rule of the government is according to the flesh, that of the Christians according to the Spirit. Their houses and dwelling remain in this world, that of the Christians is in heaven. Their citizenship is in this world, that of the Christians is in heaven. The weapons of their battle and warfare are carnal and only against the flesh, but the weapons of Christians are spiritual, against the fortification of the devil. The worldly are armed with steel and iron, but Christians are armed with the armor of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and with the Word of God” (Schleitheim).
Shortly after the confession was unanimously endorsed by a meeting of Swiss Anabaptists, Sattler, along with his wife Margaretha and other Anabaptists, was arrested for his alleged heresy. Snyder summarizes his fate briskly:
“The trial lasted two days, at the end of which Michael Sattler and his codefendants were found guilty. Sattler was sentenced to have his tongue cut off, to have his body torn seven times with glowing tongs, and finally to be burned to death. This verdict was carried out on May 20, 1527” (Snyder).
The Martyrs Mirror, a 17th century collection of the stories of martyrs (particularly Anabaptists), gives a more dramatic account. It begins with Sattler answering the charges against him with boldness. After being accused of taking the side of the enemies of the faith by not being willing to take up arms against the Turks, Sattler responded:
“If the Turks should come, we ought not to resist them; for it is written: Thou shalt not kill. We must not defend ourselves against the Turks and others of our persecutors, but are to beseech God with earnest prayer to repel and resist them. But that I said, that if warring were right, I would rather take the field against the so-called Christians, who persecute, apprehend and kill pious Christians, than against the Turks,was for this reason: The Turk is a true Turk, knows nothing of the Christian faith; and is a Turk after the flesh; but you, who would be Christians, and who make your boast of Christ, persecute the pious witnesses of Christ, and are Turks after the spirit” (Martyr’s Mirror).
As can be imagined, this response did not lead to his immediate acquittal. The town clerk, in attendance at the trial, responded to Sattler, “You desperate villain and archheretic, I tell you if there were no hangman here, I would hang you myself, and think that I had done God service” (Martyr’s Mirror). He seemed to be speaking for the judges as well. The sentence they passed read:
“In the case of the Governor of his Imperial Majesty versus Michael Sattler, judgment is passed, that Michael Sattler shall be delivered to ‘the executioner, who shall lead him to the place of execution, and cut out his tongue; then throw him upon a wagon, and there tear his body twice with red hot tongs; and after he has been brought without the gate, he shall be pinched five times in the same manner” (Martyr’s Mirror).
The men who were with him were later executed by the sword and the women, including his wife, were drowned. His chief crime was believing that Christ’s Kingdom was not of this earth, and that because it is not His disciples do not fight. In an age where Christians are exceedingly obsessed with gaining and maintaining power to protect our social interests, and where various religious radicals use violence to terrorize civilians and governments, Sattler’s approach stands out. It seeks to conquer not by violence or threats of violence, but by refusing to compromise on the non-violent, non-retaliatory faith that Christ once for all delivered unto the saints.
Martyr’s Mirror. Retrieved June 11, 2016, from
Schleitheim Confession. Retrieved June 12, 2016, from
Snyder, C. A. (1984). The life and thought of Michael Sattler. Kindle edition.
Yoder, J. H., & Sattler, M. (1973). The legacy of Michael Sattler. Kindle edition.
Fresh from the theater after having seen Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, I have been reflecting upon one particularly fascinating theme within it. In a far more thoughtful and sophisticated manner than the vast majority of overtly “Christian” movies, this film promotes a theology–even a gospel.
Warning: some spoilers ahead.
From the outset, I want to point out that this isn’t a theologian finding theology where it wasn’t intended. Indeed, Lex Luthor (of all people) reiterates explicitly and repeatedly that what transpires in this film points to something greater–the problem of evil and man’s relationship to God.
Luthor provides the viewpoint of the unrepentant cynic. Superman is odious because he resembles God and God cannot be trusted. If God couldn’t prevent the suffering of a young, abused Lex, better for God to die (or at least his proxy). Luthor therefore attempts to orchestrate deicide against Superman, first by the hands of man (Batman) and then by the hands of the devil (Doomsday).
The answer to Lex’s supposedly unsolvable problem of evil comes out of left field. How does a seemingly omnipotent and omnibenevolent God respond to evil, particularly when it results in free human beings who want to kill him despite His desire to save them? He identifies with their humanity and gives his life in order to defeat him who has the power of death (in this case, Doomsday). In doing so, he inspires conversion in men (represented here by Batman) who for the first time see God as loving–and pure love means being willing to suffer for the good of the beloved even though the lover doesn’t have to.
If God is willing to suffer with us, maybe our suffering isn’t as meaningless as we think it is. This seems to be the catharsis of Bruce Wayne. When Wayne sees Superman as powerful and alien, Superman (like God) seems quite dangerous. But when Wayne realizes that Superman has taken on humanity and even feels a love for his human mother as great as Wayne did, this changes him. Suddenly Wayne is overwhelmed with compassion–with empathy even–and helps Superman to rescue his mother from the clutches of Luthor. One can hear echoes of Jesus’ words to John on the cross to take care of Mary: “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:27).
This theology addresses what bothered so many fanboys about this movie–Batman’s willingness to kill. In this reading, it makes sense for Batman to kill for most of the movie–life is ultimately meaningless to him, so he creates his own purpose. It is Superman’s love and sacrifice that changes Batman, not a cold, deontological ethic grounded in passionless conviction. Despite what the enlightenment deists affirmed, it is not philosophy which makes us good but love. After seeing Superman’s self-identification and self-sacrifice to save humanity from death, Batman is determined to be a better man. This is the reason why he decides not to brand Luthor in prison, a brand which we are told sets inmates apart for death by the hands of fellow prisoners.
Though it has to be teased out, there is a rich theology in this film which is frankly unparalleled by what the Christian film industry is producing. It presents a gospel which is somehow more moving and more compelling despite not having to be spelled out.
A recent article about John Kasich, the governor of my home state of Ohio, noted his opposition to providing asylum to Syrian refugees. Kasich’s reasoning is also that of many of my conservative friends and family members, though admittedly more polished:
“‘The governor doesn’t believe the U.S. should accept additional Syrian refugees because security and safety issues cannot be adequately addressed,’ Kasich spokesman Jim Lynch said in a statement. ‘The governor is writing to the President to ask him to stop, and to ask him to stop resettling them in Ohio. We are also looking at what additional steps Ohio can take to stop resettlement of these refugees.'”
Kasich’s concern is that in seeking to take in Syrians whose lives are threatened by radical Muslims, some of the aggressors might tag along with them. In light of the attacks in Paris, this concern has come to the forefront of the minds of many.
Setting aside the fact that the 9/11 hijackers went through the proper legal channels to receive tourist and work visas, and that Islamic radicals have also come about within our own country (see, for instance, John Walker Lindh), it must be admitted that we are far too unrealistic when it comes to the threat of death or violence. While we should always do our best to stave it off, Americans have a tendency to think that it can be quarantined in some place where it can’t reach us. As such, any risk of danger is not a risk worth taking, even if the payoff is extraordinary.
This is the American civil religion: America is a holy nation, set apart for its own works and meet for its own purposes. Our apostles proclaim the gospel of American exceptionalism to the American first, and secondly to the rest of the world, though ritual circumcision would be an easier obstacle to overcome to become part of the covenant community of God than the process of seeking asylum.
This attitude is America at its worst, though it would be unfair to deny that there are compassionate Americans who would love to help Syrian refugees, but who also want to minimize the risk of spreading radical violence to their own nation where their families (the people they are most responsible for) would be in danger. There are practical concerns here which aren’t inappropriate to raise.
However, for American Christians, who often identify as conservatives, there ought to be more balance in how we talk about this issue. The Bible is not silent on this topic, and the Parable of the Good Samaritan provides us with at least one important moral teaching which ought to inform how Christians should think about this problem.
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
Luke 10:25-37 (ESV)
The scene is a road beset by violent robbers. An innocent man falls to one of them and will surely die if no one intervenes. A priest and a Levite both walk by him, ignoring his plight. These are two men who view themselves as having a privileged position due to their nationality and their place within their own society. Why did they fail to stop to help someone so clearly in need? Apathy may be part of the reason, but perhaps the threat of violence was the greater concern. Jesus had already established that this was a dangerous road, and there may have been a genuine fear that the apparent victim was merely bait to draw them in so they could be more easy prey. Better to just walk on. This man wasn’t any of their business, really, and there’s no good in risking their lives for someone who might not really need their help after all.
This is the same rationale that informs the anti-asylum/America first position, and according to Jesus it carries a great danger: you put yourself at risk of forfeiting eternal life because you shut yourself off from loving your neighbor as yourself.
If other equally valid moral concerns eventually lead us to determine that we cannot take these refugees in ourselves, we must still do what we can so that we can say, with all sincerity, that we looked at the example of the good Samaritan and sought to go and do likewise. To do otherwise is to demonstrate that Christian America’s faith is one without works, and is therefore dead.
When Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire in 380 (after being granted the status of an approved religion by Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D), believers found themselves responding in one of two ways. Some basked in their new found power and luxury, holding it over the now disenfranchised class of pagans. We’ll call them the Constantinians. Others, the monastics, sought to check out of this new institutionally supported Christianity which they saw as sensual and double-minded. These extremes ignored a third option–to simply participate in society as one group among many and allow evangelization to happen through freely established relationships instead of coercion which mitigates against sincerity on the part of the coerced. This model was at least implicitly affirmed by the New Testament writers who demanded no revolution but only asked for toleration and freedom to worship and evangelize.
This false dilemma was recapitulated at the time of the Protestant Reformation, during which time the Roman Catholics and Magisterial Protestants sought to crush religious dissent via the power of the state while the Anabaptists went into hiding and designated Christian participation within the larger society, and particularly in politics, as sinful.
Fast forward to the summer of 2015 in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that same sex marriage is a civil right. Prior to (and precipitating) this ruling, the majority of confessing evangelicals and Roman Catholics had demanded that their government maintain in the law a Christian value judgment on marriage which they were not willing to replace with a more pluralistic non-religious entitlement such as civil unions. After the ruling, with one new view of marriage backed by the force of the state, Christians are increasingly anxious that this new entitlement will lead to government discrimination against Christians.
For these Constantinian Christians, politics is a zero-sum game. If a non-Christian group gains something, this means Christians have lost something. The debate over gay marriage was set up intentionally to be this kind of arrangement, but the risk of becoming a displaced special class was considered worth it if it meant that their side might prevail.
That the debate over gay marriage was nothing more than a power play can be demonstrated by comparing how conservative Christians compare this ruling with other, more egregious ones. For instance, the Dred Scott Decision which came down from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857, declaring that slaves did not have the same rights as free persons and thus undermining the Christian belief in human equality before God, is not generally considered to be a loss for Christianity because Christians as a group lost no political power. But as power has now been wrested from the hands of Constantinian Christianity, American Christians are saying, as one evangelical writer did, “I am horribly grieved that a lifestyle that is so contrary to Christian morality is being celebrated in a country that once honored Christian values.”
It is, of course, not Christian values which America has honored, but Christian hegemony, even if it comes at the risk of sacrificing Christian values. As such, American Christians generally believe that there are two options open to them in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision–fight for the return of their political power or remove themselves from society.
May I humbly suggest that we still have a third option?
When reformed apologist James White took a call on the topic of annihilationism on on his June 25th, 2015 webcast, he showed a surprising degree of sympathy for those who hold to an annihilationist or conditional immortality position, though he still gave reasons as to why he wouldn’t hold such a view himself.
For those who are unfamiliar, annihilationists believe that the unredeemed will not suffer eternal conscious torment but will finally be destroyed. While there is much that could be discussed in White’s comments on annihilationism, he emphasized one point in particular and has done so many times in the past when discussing this issue. As such, it seemed worthwhile to discuss this one point.
Dr. White seemed to think that the central issue in the debate is this:
“Is the punishment of the ungodly limited in its time span so that the punishment is a finite punishment, which assumes a cessation of sin? …From my perspective the only way anyone can stop sinning is through an extension of grace and divine power and a changing of their nature.” (quoted from the webcast)
In other words, how can sinners ever stop being punished for sin if they never stop sinning? So long as someone has not been redeemed by grace, they remain in a state of rebellion and are thus still deserving of the wrath of God.
There are, I think, some misapprehensions of the annihilationist position on Dr. White’s part that support his criticism. To begin with, he seems to assume that the punishment for sin is conscious torment, and is thus unintentionally begging the question. The annihilationist does not believe that punishment for sin is conscious torment, but utter destruction. As such, once this punishment has been applied, there is no sinner left to engage in rebellion against God, and thus no continuation of sin.
When Jesus died as our substitute, He died as our substitute. It was His death that was efficacious. According to Paul, this is part of the key proclamation of the gospel message:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 5:3, ESV)
If the punishment that Jesus took for us is the punishment that we would have been forced to bear ourselves, then this punishment is death and not eternal conscious torment.
White also seems to assume that the difference between the traditional view and the annihilationist view is that the latter supports a belief in finite punishment. Not at all. The annihilationist believes that the damned will be utterly destroyed, never to return to life. This punishment is therefore of infinite duration, even if it isn’t experienced by the damned consciously for all eternity.
Dr. White would probably point to other reasons why he couldn’t hold to this perspective, but his central objection simply fails to address the annihilationist position.