Monday, December 26, 2005

Is limited government in accordance with the Bible?

[I updated a little at the end, 12:05 a.m. Eastern Time.]

[Update #2, Tuesday, 8:35 p.m.: I forgot to include the second and third times Christ identified himself as God.]

A few days ago, I again brought up one of my favorite Jefferson quotations: "The care of every man's soul belongs to himself. But what if he neglect the care of it? Well what if he neglect the care of his health or his estate, which would more nearly relate to the State. Will the magistrate make a law that he not be poor or sick? Laws provide against injury from others; but not from ourselves. God himself will not save men against their wills."

Then I received an e-mail from someone, Daniel, who discussed it with a friend. Daniel's questions about the Jefferson quote were, "Is this scriptural? Does it correctly limit the role of government according to scripture?" His friend's take:
1. The care of all men's souls does belong to themselves -"The fool hath said in his heart there is no God" and, "Fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee." The fool neglects his own soul and is accountable.

However...

God saves all men against their wills - There is not a righteous man, not even one; there is not the man that understands, there is not one that seeks after God.

2. Romans 13:1-7 sets the role of government. It's limited by Acts 5:29.
Well, I have to disagree. God wants all men to come to Him, and God will draw people to Himself, but ultimately people must choose to accept God. One of my problems with predestination, even in its mild forms in some Christian denominations, is that it denies free will. When I first attended college in Utah, I was part of the local Baptist Campus Ministries (called the Baptist Student Union elsewhere). A few weren't Baptist though still Christian, including one acquaintance who attended a church that's known for an emphasis on predestination. I could never buy into that concept of God, not because some would be saved and others would not, but because God deliberately choose to damn certain people no matter what. Not only do I find that arbitrary (and I should add I'm far from a universalist), I find it destroys the very purpose of God creating people.

Romans 3:10-18, the passage about there being "none righteous, no, not one," is actually quoting Psalm 14. The original psalm and Romans' expansion tell us that, apart from God, it is the nature of people to sin and follow their own wicked desires. God, however, draws people nigh. Christ said in John 6:37, "All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out." Then in verse 42, "No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day." But that still doesn't mean God saves people against their wills -- in fact, if that be the case, why did Christ say He would not reject people to came to Him? That should be irrelevant if the people are coming against their will.

Many Christians, including some college friends (fellow Baptists, too), take that first portion of Romans 13 in a very dangerous way. The belief that all governmental authority originates with God is precisely what gave us such dangerous concepts as the divine right of kings. And who are these "powers"? Passages like Ephesians 3:10 refer to "principalities and powers" that are actually angelic in nature, if we examine early church writings that clarify the angel hierarchy. So we shouldn't always take "powers" to refer to earthly ones.

If it is true that all earthly authorities, i.e governments, derive their power from God, and that their rulers are acting as God's ministers, then God was responsible for instituting murderous tyrannies like Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany and Red China. So should we take Romans 13:6 to mean that it was good for Germans to dutifully pay taxes to Hitler's Third Reich? And why does Ephesians 6:12 refer to Christians' proper struggle "against principalities and powers" if we are supposed to obey them? Instead, I take it how Romans 13:7 tells us to deal with anyone: "Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour."

George III deserved no tribute, nor honor -- thus it was perfectly proper for Jefferson to assert in the Declaration of Independence, "That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

It is worth quoting Acts 5 more extensively than just verse 29. Verses 25 through 33 give a better illustration:
Then came one and told them, saying, Behold, the men whom ye put in prison are standing in the temple, and teaching the people.

Then went the captain with the officers, and brought them without violence: for they feared the people, lest they should have been stoned.

And when they had brought them, they set them before the council: and the high priest asked them,

Saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man's blood upon us.

Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.

The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.


Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.

And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him.

When they heard that, they were cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay them.
There's a perfectly Locke-like quality to this. The Jewish priests demanded to know why the apostles continued teaching at the temple in defiance of the council's order. Peter retorted "We ought to obey God rather than men" because the council was directly infringing on the apostles' natural rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Now, the temple was originally built by a theocratic government, but it was meant, with the exception of the "holiest of holies," to be a true public place.

Then Peter nailed them (no pun intended). He reminded the council that they were the ones who illegally arrested and tried Christ, then handed Him over to Pilate for summary execution. We should remember that Christ wasn't crucified for being a heretic. The members of the Sanhedrin trumped up charges to arrest Him, but they admitted that they had no authority to execute Him. All they could do was drag Him to Pilate, then to Herod, and back to Pilate. Pilate finally acceded and had crucified Christ as a political dissident, though he found no evidence to any of the charges: fomenting sedition, fomenting tax evasion, and claiming a kingship (i.e. equal to Caesar in authority).

I take the King James Version phrasing quite literally: "saying that he himself is Christ a King." The name Christ comes from the Greek word Christos, meaning "annointed" (the same as the Hebrew word mAshIah, which we anglicize as "Messiah"). So what Christ's accusers were saying was, "saying that he himself is annointed a king." This multiplied the severity of the charges, to both the Romans and Jews, because this wasn't a kingship taken through physical force: Jesus was claiming kingship by divinity.

Jesus had previously implied his divinity on three (I originally said two) occasions. He identified Himself as the same God who spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai by using the same name "I am" (YHWH, literally from the verb "to be," which became Yahweh, and then Jehovah). In Exodus 3:13-14, Moses asked God what he should tell others is God's name, and God replied, "I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you." Later, in John 10:30, He said, "I and my Father are One." On both these occasions He was threatened with stoning. The third time, possibly earlier chronologically, was related in Matthew 9:2-7 and Mark 2:4-12. A man "sick of the palsy" was brought to Jesus to be healed, to whom Jesus said, "thy sins be forgiven thee." This appeared to be blasphemy, for as the passage in Mark clarifies, "who can forgive sins but God only?"

The one question we haven't asked yet is, was Jefferson a Christian? Perhaps not. Clearly he believed in some sort of deity, though he was strongly against organized religion (mostly because of what he and I perceive are problems with a dominant priestly caste). His writings indicate that he really didn't believe in Jesus Christ as the divine Son of God, i.e. the one who performed miracles, spoke of Himself as "the way, the truth and the life," and lay down his life and took it back up on the third day.

Still, I could not know the man's heart, no more than I could know any of yours. What we do know is that throughout his writings, Jefferson effectively said that his religious beliefs are none of anyone's business. In one of his letters to John Adams, he wrote, "Say nothing of my religion. It is known to my god and myself alone." I have learned this the hard way when younger and didn't know any better: it does not profit anyone to keep pestering others about their religious beliefs, when those beliefs cause no harm to others. It shouldn't surprise us how it is easier to cause harm instead of good when trying to save another person's soul according to our own fashion.

Jefferson knew this well, and he often criticized entire Christian sects for intolerance and even attempts at religious domination. He was a man who, more than anything, simply wished to be left alone with his friends and his books. While I sometimes talk with people about Christ, I share his sentiment: "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." I think it fits quite well with Christ's admonition to "shake off the dust of your feet" and move on, when the intended recipient of your message is unwilling.

Jefferson's religious beliefs still do not inhibit me in the least from sharing his beliefs about the proper role of limited government. I believe in a God who commands me to live as peaceably as possible with all men. I believe in a God who wants liberty for the flesh so that it may join the spirit in worship, but if you wish to worship Buddha, or a tree, or no God at all, that is your right too. Just do not deny me the liberty to worship mine. One of the foundations of my "libertarian Christianity" is 1 Corinthians 7:21-23:
Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather. For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord's freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ's servant. Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men.
And most importantly, how am I harming any of you in your rights to life, liberty and property? Is it not the essence of real freedom and real tolerance (unlike what Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton call "tolerance") to allow anyone to believe what he would, i.e. pure freedom of conscience, so long as he causes no injury to others?

Let me add a final thought. I disagree with my fellow Christians who believe in complete submission to our persecutors, including government. God does allow bad things to happen to believers, and Christ commanded to turn the other cheek, but I say some take that to an extreme. It's the same extreme that some claimed we should do no labor at all on the Sabbath day, of whom Christ asked in Matthew 12:11, "What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?"

Some quote Hebrews 13:17: "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves." But the verse says right afterward, "for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account," and verse 7 makes it more clear: "Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God." These are leaders to whom God has given a spiritual entrustment, which does not apply to purely political leaders like Pontius Pilate, Thomas Jefferson and George W. Bush. Furthermore, if we examine the word in context, we see that "obey" is far from slavery or servitude. It's no more servitude than "Wives, obey your husbands," which sadly has also been taken to an extreme. One half demands full "obedience"; the other half questions the Bible for something taken the wrong way. And both halves forget the following verse, "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it."

We are commanded to pray for and bless our enemies, but that doesn't mean willingly having our heads cut off, or to accept a big government stealing our property. Christ did command, "he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one." If complete submission was the way, wouldn't Christ have long since forbidden Peter to stop carrying a sword, when Peter cut off the ear of the high priest's servant? A complete rejection of self-defense lacks pragmatism, if anything. There was also a purpose to Christ's lack of resistance: "resistance was futile" because man had to be redeemed. But if it were as simple as that, why did Christ escape several times when crowds attempted to arrest or stone Him, and why did Christ live an essentially covert life during His ministry?

The simple answer is in Matthew 26:56: "But all this was done, that the scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled." Indeed, "That it might be fulfilled" is a recurring phrase throughout Matthew's Gospel.

6 Comments:

Blogger Nehemiah said...

Wonderful essay, well researched and scholarly. I agree that Jefferson is an appropriate role model for present day advocates of self-government (excuse the plug)and that the Bible promotes selg-governance.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005 6:54:00 AM  
Blogger HolyInheritance said...

Good post. The Holy Spirit is training me to listen inside to His Voice rather than try to prove things using the Bible, but the overall point is men and women cannot learn to spiritual self-government if something outside themselves is forcing something on them. The two blogs which help in this respect are The Holy Inheritance and Christian Prophet.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005 11:40:00 AM  
Blogger PlacidPundit said...

Coming in late, but I just discovered your blog. I like it. :-)

There may be a misunderstanding about the doctrine of free will and predestination. Calvinism, properly understood, fully admits that man as a free will. But it posits that man's free will is naturally corrupt and neither willing nor able to "accept Christ." This is spiritual blindness. But God, as a first mover, opens the eyes of the blind and heals the will, emotions, and intellect, which are thereby enabled to embrace Christ.

Thursday, March 30, 2006 11:40:00 PM  
Blogger PlacidPundit said...

Oh, one more thing: it's amazing to find someone else who describes himself as a "libertarian Christian." I don't think there are many of us. :-)

Thursday, March 30, 2006 11:43:00 PM  
Anonymous bpm said...

A faithful Christian could hardly be anything but a libertarian.

The whole of the Christian faith is about the liberty of the believer.

Though I wish you explore Rom. 13 a bit deeper as it is not even in reference to secular government - to understand, you must ignore the arbitrary chapter divisions and look to the beginning of the passage in chapter 12.

Saturday, July 01, 2006 11:45:00 PM  
Blogger Rod Smith said...

Thought provoking post - thank you!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008 7:46:00 PM  

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