Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Christians and government

In 1527, the early days of the "Radical Reformation", the Anabaptists wrote the Schleitheim Confession. This brief confession is somewhat unique in this period because it is one of the few formal statements by the Anabaptists. Whereas the magisterial Reformers had plenty of time and opportunity to write lengthy creeds and confessions, safe and secure for the most part, the Anabaptists were typically on the run, being persecuted, imprisoned and martyred often by the same people writing the magisterial creeds (not the actual authors of course). Of course many of their leaders ended up on a stake being burned alive or tortured in a dungeon or in hiding, so writing confessions was not really a priority.

One of the most fascinating sections of the Schleitheim Confession has to do with the sword and the magistrate. The sword conversation is a pretty well-worn topic but the issue of Christians as magistrates, agents of the state, is a whole other story. Here is the applicable section, it is fairly long and archaic in language but worth the read....
Thirdly, it will be asked concerning the sword, Shall one be a magistrate if one should be chosen as such? The answer is as follows: They wished to make Christ king, but He fled and did not view it as the arrangement of His Father. Thus shall we do as He did, and follow Him, and so shall we not walk in darkness. For He Himself says, He who wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. Also, He Himself forbids the (employment of) the force of the sword saying, The worldly princes lord it over them, etc., but not so shall it be with you. Further, Paul says, Whom God did foreknow He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son, etc. Also Peter says, Christ has suffered (not ruled) and left us an example, that ye should follow His steps.

Finally it will be observed that it is not appropriate for a Christian to serve as a magistrate because of these points: The government magistracy is according to the flesh, but the Christian's is according to the Spirit; their houses and dwelling remain in this world, but the Christian's are in heaven; their citizenship is in this world, but the Christian's citizenship is in heaven; the weapons of their conflict and war are carnal and against the flesh only, but the Christian's weapons are spiritual, against the fortification of the devil. The worldlings are armed with steel and iron, but the Christians are armed with the armor of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and the Word of God. In brief, as in the mind of God toward us, so shall the mind of the members of the body of Christ be through Him in all things, that there may be no schism in the body through which it would be destroyed. For every kingdom divided against itself will be destroyed. Now since Christ is as it is written of Him, His members must also be the same, that His body may remain complete and united to its own advancement and upbuilding.
That is pretty archaic like I said but the gist as I understand it is that serving as a magistrate (basically an officer of the government, whether President, police office or dog catcher) is inherently a conflict of interest between serving the interests of the world and living as a citizen of the Kingdom. By serving the state, you are in conflict with serving the Kingdom. I am not sure how far you take that, for example by working at a "secular" job am I entangled with the world? It certainly seems that human government gets different treatment in Scripture compared to having a "regular" job. Perhaps this is because of the inherent function of government that uses compulsion or even force to exert its will. If you don't pay your taxes, the IRS can put a lien on your house. If you don't properly license you dog, the dog catcher can take your dog to the pound and compel you to pay a fine. If you are in the middle of committing a crime and are interrupted by a police officer, there is a chance that you will be forcibly detained or perhaps even shot. A President as part of his duties must be ready to use military force to defend his country (Which is why no one who is a pacifist should seek that office. Ever.)

When I look at how entangled Christians are with politics, even the vast majority of us who do not serve in any sort of government office, I have to think that the authors of the Schleitheim Confession might have known what they were talking about. Everything about government seems antithetical to the Kingdom of God. More cynically, the way that so many public officials make vulgar appeals to people of faith for political support is hugely troubling.

The allure of doing what we see as God's work by the methods of the world is seductive. We look to government and think that we can pass laws making sinful, unregenerate men into saints or at least constraining their behavior. Who among the followers of Christ doesn't want to see abortion end and marriage affirmed? Still. If we ban gay marriage, will we have a more "moral" society? If we outlaw abortion will that make the unbelievers around us less ungodly? If we smite the Iranians, are we doing God's will? Is there anything at all we can accomplish via the governmental and political process that advances the Kingdom? If not, should we be joining with the magistrate that is an "...avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer." (Romans 13:4)? I have a friend who is a police officer and we have had some discussions regarding what this means to him, namely that in his role as a police officer (and formerly as a soldier) he might be called upon to use force, even deadly force, in the execution of his duties. It is pretty deep stuff, very hard to work through.

It is interesting to look at the Scriptures and see the reaction of Jesus to the tyrannical rulers of that day. Jesus didn't seek to overthrow Caesar or demand societal rights for His followers. He didn't rail against unjust taxes or military occupiers in Jerusalem. He actually taught His disciples to expect hatred and persecution from the world. The first century Christians didn't form legal defense funds, they expected to preach Christ and Him crucified and perhaps pay for it with their lives. American Christians not only want the freedom to worship, we want a seat at the table in the halls of earthly power.

Lower taxes or higher taxes. Green energy jobs or manufacturing tax credits. On and on. For all of our altruistic notions, I am starting to really think that we should avoid being an agent of the state because in so many ways being an agent of the state, a magistrate in 16th century lingo, invariably requires us to engage in behavior that is contrary to what Jesus and His apostles taught and exhibited in their actions.

What do you think?


Robert Rouse said...

Not an easy question to answer, but well worth asking. I've thought a lot about what a "biblical" form of government would be and have arrived at different conclusions over time as I've kept studying. At the moment I see no inherent conflict with engaging in governmental functions as a Christian, but not in every context.

One major reason I left the military is because I began to recognize that I was less involved in preserving our Constitution and more involved in supporting a system which persistently undermines that foundation. Plus, our American values (Including those that are explicitly Christian) are under far greater threat from our own apathy than from the zealousness of our enemies. Better to use the Sword of the Spirit than guns and endless laws.

MikeSnow said...

Very glad that you posted that excerpt from and link to the Schleitheim Confession. I have never read it.

Would you be interested in reviewing my book, Christian Pacifism: Fruit of the Narrow Way ? I would be glad to send you the word doc.