October 9, 2013

The Christian and His Relation to the State

By In Philosophy, Politics, Society and Culture

I titled a recent post Longing for the Eradication of Evil and Yet Turning the Other Cheek.  My point was this: it is not contradictory to long for a better ideal and vocally oppose the deeds of the State and at the same time adhere to the calls of Peter and Paul in subjecting oneself to “rulers and authorities.”  It would be a great and wondrous world if there were no people striking others on the cheek, and yet, when this happens, let us “turn the other cheek.”

I meant this in consideration of all that the current State has portrayed itself to be.  We can long for the elimination of a State that acts in way that is surely outside the bounds of justice.  Yet, this longing, even though God has sovereignly decreed that the current State exist, is not sinful.  In other words, our actions are not unbiblical when we vocalize our belief that the State is, by its very nature, evil.  Some say that it is a “necessary evil.”  And while I disagree with the “necessary” part, it seems that Christians these days have forgotten completely about the “evil” part.

Many are concerned that we as libertarians are failing to uphold Paul and Peter’s commands when we teach the true nature and evil deeds of the State.  The previously linked post was meant to calm those fears.  On the basis that we ought to “abhor what is evil,” I made it plain that wherever “evil is found, we ought to oppose it and be vocal against it.  Whether murder, rape, or mass extortion.”  Whether in private or public sector.

But this post brought on two more concerns from the opposite direction from two readers of this site.  The first questioned whether or not we, as Christians, are obligated to pay taxes.  And the implications of this were quite clear.  If not taxes, then what about business licenses, mandated certifications, and all the rest of the State edicts that they place over us?  Are we to obey every single law?  Clearly not.

The second concern was that there is a “de facto opposition to violent revolution that seems to characterize TRL [The Reformed Libertarian].”  If even America was birthed in revolution, must we still oppose it at all times?  Is there any place for revolutionary action for the Christian libertarian?

It is on these two concerns that I want to focus in this article: our obligation to the state and whether revolution is acceptable.  After considering these two matters, I have found that they are not separate concerns, but rather, are closer to each other than meets the eye.

Quite typically, the verses which are used in defense of an obligation to pay taxes are these:

Matthew 22:21: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

Romans 13:7: “Pay to all what is owed to them: “taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed….”

The curious thing about these verses is that, to be frank, they don’t answer our question at all.  If you were to ask me whether you should put the crayons in the box, and I answered that you should place the crayons where they belong, you would not have the information needed to help you, unless you knew where the crayons belong before you asked the question.

In the same way, if we do not already know what belongs to Caesar or whether anyone is obliged to our money automatically, these verses does not help our quest to know whether we are compelled to hand over our capital to the State.  But the principles of ethics do informs us that those things which God has given us belong to no other and no one else is obliged to receive those things.

We therefore come to the curious conclusion that to render unto Caesar those things which are Caesar’s means to render nothing to Caesar of that which God has entrusted to us.  And again, to whom do we owe taxes, that is, who is the rightful recipient of our own property?  Surely not the one who threatens to unjustly extort it from you.

It should be concluded then, that from these verses alone, not that taxes should or should not be paid, but rather, that there is no answer.  We must look outside the traditionally utilized verses to determine the way in which the Christian relates to the State in this regard.

Romans 13:1, 1 Peter 2:13, and Titus 3:1 all state that we as Christians are to be subject to “rulers and authorities.”  That word “subject” is in Greek hypotassō.  And hypotassō means to “be arranged under.”  It clear that even now, we as American Christians are certainly arranged under the domination of the United States Government.  But surely Paul and Peter meant more than just a descriptive.  Else why mention it in correlation with how Christians ought to act?  So then, we have a prescription of a goal that we as Christians ought to strive toward: be subject to the authority.  So we should figure out what is meant by this.

Surely it cannot mean that we ought to obey everything that the State commands of us.  For we should “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).  Therefore, where God contradicts the precepts of the State, we obey God.  Where the precepts of God are consistent with the precepts of the State, there is no problem at all.  For by obeying one we are obeying the other.  There is no problem intellectually in these two situations.

But our concern comes alive when we discover that the State has made a command where God is silent.  Example: “for every sale you make, you must pay a sales tax.”  Or another: “for every business that you create, you must file for a business license.”  As Christian libertarians, we have already come to the conclusion that the State is outside its jurisdiction in commanding these things.  The State is wrong when it orders its subjects to do these things –this we do not deny.  But the question is, how should we respond to this wrongful edict?  Does “subjecting oneself to authority” mean that we ought to comply with unjust (that is, outside their authority) edicts when these edicts pertain to actions about which God is silent?  This is the great contention.

It should be noticed that in Romans 13:1, 1 Peter 2:13, and Titus 3:1, all are connected with good behavior.  I submit that this connection exists because the State’s responsibility is to punish those who do evil and praise those who do good.  (I must be careful here.  As I have discussed in the past, this in no way is a permission slip for the State to itself commit evil (like theft) and breach the rights of the individual, and it is restricted to punishing coercive crimes, not unethical activity [like lying].  Further, this is not to give it a monopoly on these services at any level.  Some would call these principles anarcho-capitalism.).  Our role is to do good so that we do not get in trouble with the State, which is supposed to punish those who do (coercive) evil.  This is our relationship with the State.  It should therefore be concluded that, unless we disobey God in our actions, we are not held morally accountable for disobeying a State who makes laws beyond its rightful authority.

The scenario now looks like this:

A). If the State’s command agrees with God’s command and we disobey, we are accountable to both the State and God.

B).  If the State’s command contradicts God’s command and we disobey the State, we are in trouble with the State (obviously), but not God.

C).  If the State’s command is to do something about which God has remained silent and we disobey the State, we are in trouble with the State, but not God.

D). If the State has no command regarding something that is commanded by God and we disobey God, we are in trouble with God but not the State.

If the State commands us to file a business license and we disobey, will this be added to our judgement when we face the Great Judge?  I do not believe so.  For we are not bound morally to the precepts of the State.

Therefore to be in subjection to the authorities does not mean that the State’s precepts are our rules to live by, but rather, to be subject to the authorities simply means to recognize that we as proponents of the Kingdom of God are not to establish this kingdom here on earth by overthrowing the State.  Contextually, the concept of hypotassō, to be arranged under, was mentioned for the reason that the Roman Empire was fearful that the Christians were seeking to overthrow it (a typical phobia for those in power –even today).  States everywhere, especially those that have become empires, are constantly fearful that their power will be stolen.  Peter and Paul were therefore very clear: we are not trying to establish the Kingdom of God coercively by eradicating the Roman Empire.  Just as many Romans wrongly feared that Jesus intended to provoke a Jewish rebellion, Peter and Paul were wise to warn against this as would create even more trouble for a newly created movement.  We as Christians, while on this earth, are arranged under various jurisdiction and authorities and we are not going to overthrow them or aggressively seek to threaten their power.  Therefore, for Roman spies reading these letters (and NSA spies reading this post), it should be clear: we as Christians do not aim for the throne.  And for the Christians: focus less on earthly kingdoms and more on the eternal Kingdom of God.

Obviously this leads clearly to the second concern that was mentioned after last week’s post.  What place does revolution have in the libertarian methodology, especially for the Christian?  More on that momentarily.

So therefore since we as individuals have no moral obligation to hand over our money to thieves at the State, should we even pay taxes at all?  Well, considering that the State has the guns, we don’t want to die, our ministry is more powerful if we are free, and we are not disobeying God in doing so, my response is a pragmatic yes.  While we should not condemn so-called “tax evaders” for protecting their own private property, I do not think it is in our best interest to be one ourselves.  At least this is my own personal policy, for me and my family.  As Paul writes in Romans 13, I do this “for the sake of my conscience.”  I don’t want the IRS breathing down my neck with constant threats and “friendly reminders” in the form of offensive letters.  Neither do I want my business to be shut down –for this is how I financially sustain my family.  (Why did Jesus pay taxes in Matthew 17:27?  For a similar reason: so as “not to give offense to [the tax collectors].”)  This goes for all commands that the State makes where to comply is not necessarily to disobey God.  We are not bound on judgement day by our adherence to legislation qua legislation.  But beware the temporary power of the State!

It should now be clear that we are not commanded or obliged to obey the State’s precepts but we are to be “arranged under” the authority of the State rather than aim to tear it down. And thus we consider our final concern.  It is my stance that Christians are never to revolt.  But what does it mean to revolt?  As I note here, “Oxford dictionary defines revolution as, ‘a forcible overthrow of a government or social order.’  The French revolution was indeed a revolution.  The American “revolution” on the other hand, was a secession.”  I continue by noting:

The French revolution aimed to overthrow the government.  They aimed to end the aristocracy.  They aimed to achieve the collectivist ideals of “liberte, egalite, fraternite.” (Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity).  The Americans in the late 18th century sought to overthrow nothing.  They only wanted to be left alone.  The leftists in France would cry “tax the rich so that we might be equal to them!”  This was not the American sentiment.  The American sentiment was against the idea of a centralized state taxing the people.  The Americans wanted to be left alone.  Their “revolution” was not revolution.  It was a secession.  They told Britain to back off.  Britain moved closer.  Then the Americans defended their property.  Catch the difference?

I oppose revolution by definition but affirm the use of secession as a moral means by which liberty may be accomplished.  Again though, pragmatically, the timing must be right.  It is suicide to stick out the tongue against the impending drone.  The primary difference between the secessionary method and the revolutionary method is that secession is consistent with the doctrine of self-defense, whereas revolution, as defined by Oxford, is not.  For more on revolution vs. secession, see my post (here).

These are tough subjects.  They have been debated since the time of Christ since the State has also existed since that time.  Hopefully, after this post, our position has been made more clear and we can better understand how we ought to live in light of the fact that the State will most likely be present until the day we die and we enter the presence of God: a truer freedom than even the most libertarian society could ever be here on earth.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • Thanks for another article, Mr. Engel. However, I still haven’t exactly bought your thesis on revolution. If I have the time, I will try my best to reply to you (and to your post “Against Revolution”).

    However, I will give this brief rejoinder: revolution doesn’t have to be destructive but it can indeed be defensive as the American Revolution was. For example, overthrowing the British government allowed Americans to defend their property (and to establish the first classical-liberal republic, which NEVER existed during the pre-revolutionary period) and yet create something new out of the ashes of the revolution. So in this sense I support revolution.

    Now, violent libertarian revolution might not be practical as of now, since we have a democratic state unlike the Old monarchist order that existed before the democratic era. But an intellectual, non-violent, Misesian-Rothbardian-Paulian libertarian revolution is. You know, the revolution launched by Ron Paul, the Mises Institute, Lew Rockwell, and other libertarians. A revolution like Gandhi did, a non-violent one that successfully booted the British empire out of India. A revolution like La Boetie proposed in “The Politics of Obedience,” where he advocated mass civil disobedience in the destruction of tyranny rather than violent tyrannicide per se.

    • cjayengel

      My point is that revolution, by definition, is offensive rather than defensive. So if we stick to definition, seceding using violent means (physical self-defense) is more consistent with the libertarian method. Americans did not overthrow the British government, rather, they kicked them out of their lands. To overthrow would be to go over to Britian and conduct our fight there. In the same way, for us here in this time, to overthrow would be raid Congress in DC and establish a “libertarian” government. And I do not think this is the proper libertarian method. Rather I think that each State within the Union should declare independence, each community should declare independence from each State, etc. This is secessionary. Violence is present in each but by definition only one of them is proper. Revolution, that is, overthrowing a government, is the Marxist methodology. And I don’t think we should participate in that.

      So in summary, I don’t define revolution as being defensive and I do not think America overthrew the British government. If you want to say that you advocate a defensive revolution, you are simply defining your terms differently than I am. But I think violent secession is what you are looking for.

      • I will try to reply to that when I get the time to do so.

      • However, I will say this. Murray Rothbard noted in “Left and Right; The Prospects for Liberty,” that the revolution in permanence was not a Trotskyite idea but rather an Actonian idea. For Acton said, “Facts must yield to ideas. Peaceably and patiently if possible. Violently if not.”

        He also said, “Liberalism is essentially revolutionary,” meaning that the libertarian creed is a revolutionary creed.

        I will do my best to give a little more detailed response to you and to your post on revolution

        • cjayengel

          None of the above show that it is good to offensively overthrow. Even Rothbard opposed a violent overthrow, he never wanted the libertarians to declare armed war against the State –he wanted it to be an intellectual revolution. He was very clear on that.

          Before you give a detailed response, consider whether you are talking about offensive or defensive on the one hand and overthrow or secede on the other hand. You can’t offer a response unless you define your words. Or otherwise we will just talk past each other. If you are referring to defensive physical action, I tautologically deny that this is revolution. You can’t respond to me by saying that revolution is defensive, because then we are not on the same terms. So rather than a debate, let’s have a conversation.

          In your mind, I would first like you to differentiate between revolution and secession. Historically, my submission is that revolutions are almost always a means by which to take over a government. So therefore, I am not comfortable with identifying with America as being born in revolution proper. To be honest with my definitions, I have to say it was a secession from Britain. Let’s define our words and seek an agreement here.

  • john lind

    Mr. Engel, I have a question with regard to letter c above in the context of violating speeding ordinances. God is silent on what the speed limit should be. As a Christian, I try to follow the speed limit as by doing so, I am not violating any law of God. If I speed, am I not saying my law is above somebody elses (the State’s) law, which is a form of rebellion? I know there are verses in the bible that condemn rebellion. How am I not sinning (to be judged by God) as your conclusion in letter c concludes? I contrast this to a law that the State makes that clearly violates a higher authority such as the Constitution. In other words, in my mind, speeding is sin but disobeying a law that infringes on my right to political speech would not be sin as this type ‘law’ would clearly be violating my first amendment rights under the Constitution. Thanks again for your great website!

    • cjayengel

      Hi John sorry about the delayed response. Things have been busy around here.

      Good question. I try to follow the speed limit as well. It may be unsafe to others for me to drive recklessly. It is also unsafe for me. There are also the dangers of simply getting pulled over and having to pay a fine. Further, it seems that it is a bit stupid to go out of our way to disobey the State.

      But more to your point(s). First, what are the verses against rebellion that I did not address above? Your assumption is that your failing to perfectly adhere to the laws of the State is a sin which God will hold against the you. “Saying your law is above somebody else’s” is exactly what is meant by freedom. In other words, there is no sin in saying this unless that “somebody else” is God. (Of course the State pretends to be God, so they will try to get you in trouble if you act against their laws).

      Allow me to further my argument. Let us say that the road is private and you are allowed to drive on it under the assumption that you pay a monthly fee and adhere to the rules (including no speeding). This agreement would be in a contract that you and the road provider agree to. Now what if you do speed here? In this case, you have breached the contract and have driven on someone else’s property with adhering to their established rules. This breaking of a contract is a sin because it is a lie. A lie is against the law of God. But the speeding is not. The speeding and the break of contract do have other, civil and judicial, consequences.

      Our problem is that things become confusing when we talk about “public goods” and State-services. Partially because they are so artificial. They are forced upon society and it is difficult to deal with them ethically and physically.

      I hope your question was answered. If not, I’ll try again.

  • Tim D’Arcy

    Excellent article. Good to find another reformed Christian with anarcho-capitalist beliefs.

  • Have you come across any similar readings (avoiding revolt vs obeying all the laws)?

    • reformedlibertarian

      Not from a Christian point of view.