December 11, 2014

The Mentality of the Christian in Relation to the Civil Magistrate

By In Articles, Politics

I’ve been thinking.  Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the nature of the political theory that I have come to adopt in the course of my studying the nature, the essence, of the State.  It has dawned on me that there is an important distinction between what we might call pure political theory on one hand and practical political theory on the other hand (perhaps in considering this further in the future a better set of phrases can be used to describe this distinction –these work for now).  The division between “doctrine” and “practical” is common enough.  I think that Christianity, being a worldview and being chiefly a system of truth, is primarily focused on the doctrine of things.  All our actions and practices are a result of what we believe.  We are saved by what we believe and these beliefs produce good works and the like. Protestant theology 101.

When Christ tells us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44), we see here an example of how to live our lives in the real world –in the world that despises those who love the Lord.  The doctrine of Christ’s message is not that our enemies are good or that persecution is acceptable.  No, we ought to love and pray for them despite, not because of their wicked ways!  The Bible tells Christians both what to believe and how to act based on those beliefs.  

Pure political theory is the study of the anatomy of the state as it is.  It is the investigation into the very core of the political means, as opposed to the economic means, of social influence.  It considers the way in which the state is different (both ethically and economically) from any other institution in society, why it is this way, and what the effects are of the growing State.  The Reformed Libertarian methodology to analyzing the State is to take the eternal moral law to which all human beings are bound and apply it to the State itself.  I have discussed previously the two most important ways of analyzing the state (economic and ethical), and have stayed clearly that one of the these is foundational; both are vital, but one is more primitive than the other.  This foundational means of analyzing the state is ethical in nature, not economic.

But most of the tools we have in analyzing the state in a pure political theoretical way are arrived at by implication and deduction.  This is because, in my understanding, most of the passages referring to the “civil magistrate” are practical in nature –they tell us how to act and what our attitudes should be here in the real world.  In sum, the most oft-referred to passages regarding political authority are about the mentality that the Christian should adopt in relation to the Civil Magistrate, which may or may not be, and in historical fact usually is not, morally admirable.  Evil men are attracted to positions of power and authority.  And “good men” who are given power are so easily corrupted by this power (therein revealing that if the “good” aren’t so good after all –only Christ is perfect).

In any case, the point of this blogpost is to explain that the main point of politically relevant Bible verses are to explain to the Christian how to live as a pilgrim in a world which will eventually fade away.  Romans 13, which I have analyzed in depth in another place, was written under one of the most horrific regimes against Christianity that has ever existed.  Romans 13 is far too often read prescriptively at the expense of its contextual descriptiveness.  Nothing in Romans 13 was inapplicable to the Roman church.

Let’s assume the pure political theory principles for the moment: all men have rights to their person and property by virtue of that fact that others are, by the moral law, not allowed to murder, steal, and the like.  What then shall the Christian say when the Civil Magistrate acts in a way that contradicts the stipulations of pure ethical theory applied to the political rulers?  Much can be learned from the mentality of the authors of the 1644 London Baptist Confession, who, despite persecution by the civil magistrate, wrote the following:

And if God should provide such a mercy for us, as to incline the Magistrates’ hearts so far to tender our consciences, as that we might be protected by them from wrong, injury, oppression and molestation, which long we formerly have groaned under by the tyranny and oppression of the Prelatical Hierarchy, which God through mercy hath made this present King and Parliament wonderful honorable, as an instrument in his hand, to throw down; and we thereby have had some breathing time, we shall, we hope, look at it as a mercy beyond our expectation, and conceive ourselves further engaged forever to bless God for it.

We don’t deserve even that small amounts of peace, of “breathing time” that we currently have.  The more that we understand about the growth of the State in the 21st century (especially since the 9/11 attacks), the more we understand the extent to which freedoms are being whisked away by a domineering central authority.  And although the State continues to grow and act more and more horrifically, the fact remains: it is by God’s mercy (certainly not the state’s) that we even have the clothes on our back.  If the wages of sin are death, and yet we breathe, we can only attribute this to the mercy of God.

The authors of the 1644 underwent mighty persecution for their refusal to act contrary to their convictions, and the doing away of that “tyranny and oppression” was considered as a merciful action by God.  And these Baptists continued to pray for even more mercy, that the Magistrates’ hearts would be inclined to “tender [their] consciences.”  But perhaps, they realized, it was not in God’s will to “incline the Magistrates’ hearts” in that direction.  Perhaps, even though by any application of ethics and “pure political theory” the Magistrate was acting wrongly, God in his divine will had another plan in His mind.  The Confession continues:

But if God withhold the Magistrates’ allowance and furtherance herein; yet we must notwithstanding proceed together in Christian communion, not daring to give place to suspend our practice, but to walk in obedience to Christ in the profession and holding forth this faith before mentioned, even in the midst of all trials and afflictions, not accounting our goods, lands, wives, children, fathers, mothers, brethren, sisters, yea, and our own lives dear unto us, so we may finish our course with joy: remembering always we ought to obey God rather than men, and grounding upon the commandment, commission and promise of our Lord and master Jesus Christ, who as he hath all power in heaven and earth, so also hath promised, if we keep his commandments which he hath given us, to be with us to the end of the world: and when we have finished our course, and kept the faith, to give us the crown of righteousness, which is laid up for all that love his appearing, and to whom we must give an account of all our actions, no man being able to discharge us of the same.

God may have persecution ahead of us.  We pray for peace and also for acceptance by the State that they act wrongly in stifling what liberties God has granted to us.  And yet, if God has something else in mind, we must continue to walk in obedience to Christ.  This is the difference between pure political theory and practical theory.  On one hand, we know what is right and wrong, and on the other hand, all good and evil only come to pass by the authority of God’s sovereign hand.  If God so desires, trials and afflictions may continue but “our goods, lands, [family], and our own lives” are nothing compared to the joy that is set before us in finishing the race.  Religious liberty surely exists in this nation, if only by a thread.  And if God so desires, the central government will cut that thread.  Does this nullify the promises He has made to us regarding our glorious future as members of Christ’s covenant?  By no means!

If we don’t consider the Biblical mentality of the Christian in relation to the civil magistrate, and only consider the pure theory, we might be tempted to have the wrong reaction to Statist wrongdoings.  That is to say, if we never consider how we ought to respond to those that strike us in the face, and only consider the fact that it was wrong for the attacker to strike us, we might be tempted to have an unbiblical reaction to the wrongdoings of our enemies.

The State is acting wrongly in continuing to centralize and bureaucratize the health insurance industry; and to be clear, this is not a sudden revolution, this trend has been pursued by both party establishments at the state and federal level for many years. Obamacare is merely a continuation of the trend.  But though it is wrong in doing all these things, even this is not outside the ordaining and sovereign desire of God.  It is in his good pleasure that the State destroys the health insurance market, despite the fact that their doing so contradicts the moral law of God.  This is the mentality of the Christian in relation to the Civil Magistrate.

The State has grown to proportions unthinkable to the Baptist authors of the 1644 Confession. I do not think they could have ever conceived of the mighty nature of the 21st century statist empire.  And yet, I am convinced that their words are still proper and fitting today.  Nothing is outside of the hand of God and if this is His will, we must suffer through it with all joy!  For no amount of statist destruction, which may produce food shortages in socialist central planning efforts or death and injury by its lust for domination via war, can compare to the weight of glory which awaits those who by faith remain to the end.  See my God Glorified in the Evils of Statism.

Although religious liberty still exists in this country, there are a vast many other liberties which simply do not.  Often the conservative Christian will express fear in his anticipation of a coming socialistic path taken by the government.  They may fear the the Federal Government is beginning to become socialistic, that a socialist revolution is on its way.  This is quite wrong.  The fantastic essayist and journalist of the “Old Right,” Garet Garrett explains in 1938:

There are those who still think they are holding the pass against a revolution that may be coming up the road. But they are gazing in the wrong direction. The revolution is behind them. It went by in the Night of Depression, singing songs to freedom.

Socialism has existed in this country since the Progressive era.  For the uninitiated in political theory, you should know that our so-called capitalism is not at all capitalism, nor is it freedom.  It is socialism in the fascistic sense, as opposed to socialistic in the communistic sense.  For the differences between the two, read here.

The point is that, although we live under a dangerous regime that extends throughout the entire state-complex and in both “political parties,” God’s sovereignty has not been overcome by the messianic state.  Pure political theory, the application of ethical principles to government, tells us the nature of the state and where it is wrong in its activities.  And practical political theory tells us how we should respond to the state in the “here and now.”  Practical political theory tells us that we ought to pray for rulers, despite whether or not they are good.  Practical political theory tells us to pay taxes, despite whether in our estimation those taxes should have been levied.  Practical politic theory tells us to honor everybody, even thieves and swindlers and emperors and congressmen.  Pure ethical theory tells us where these folks act wrongfully.  The balance is in speaking the truth about the wrongfulness of deeds, whether they take place in the “private sector” or the “public sector,” on one hand; and speaking this truth in love and respect, even if passionately as William Wilberforce in his fight against the slave trade, to those who it doesn’t seem deserve this respect.

In the end, it is about setting an example of Christ, living as a light in a world of darkness, exemplifying why we have hope although in hopeless world, and making it known that despite all sorts of evils conducted by the state, Christ has achieved victory and we await is return.

By deduction from the fact that others are not allowed to steal, we have a right to our property.  And yet still, the State so often breaches these very rights! But “indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” (Phil 3:8). 

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
  • Bobby Crenshaw

    Great article! If Nero was on the throne when Paul wrote Romans, then that says a lot about our needed response to evil governments.

  • Trey Smith

    This is really good! I think the Biblical example of Peter asking Jesus about paying the temple tax is also a good example of what you are talking about here. Jesus asks Peter who does the King tax, his own people or those he has conquered? Peter responds that the people who are conquered are taxed. Jesus agrees and acknowledges that the the king’s people are free. But so as not to offend, Peter was to catch a fish which would have a silver coin in its mouth and to pay the tax, for him and Jesus. Doctrinally Jesus did not have to pay the tax. Practically, He paid it.

  • echelon

    I agree with a good deal of this, but one problem I consistently see is that, while on one hand we shine the light on the fact that Romans 13 was written in a time of a brutal regime that literally conquered and ruled other peoples, we, on the other hand say that we should just “joyfully” submit to any and everything the State throws at us!

    I believe this completely blinds people to the simple fact that most people are not bound to their country – at least in a literal sense. Now there may be reasons why people will still choose to suffer those things and be bound to the State; those things are clearly voluntary and not forced by the State, such as what Rome did.

    Therefore I believe we, as Christians, should also seek to live a life that leaves us free to move about the world and flee what persecution we can. If the US taxes are egregious and are used for things that are against your conscience and God’s moral law I would hold that practically, if you are not hard bound to stay, then it is also your right and possibly duty as a Christian to leave.

    Instead of being bound to the Kingdom of Heaven we are still too bound to the kingdoms of the Earth and so are left shackled by our own sins. We are still too clearly “of” the World and not just “in” the World…

    Matthew 24:17-20 suggests that Christ was telling believers in Jerusalem to watch and pay attention and when they see certain things happening in the real world to flee. So one cannot suggest that if these Christians in Jerusalem heeded Christ’s words and fled that they were somehow less holy because they didn’t stay and “joyfully” suffer under the yoke of tyranny, theft, death, etc.

    Since our Lord has already warned us of these things in advance I think it also behooves us to consider all options available to us, not just turn the other cheek. Always. Joyfully. Because you have to.

    “Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath.”

    Matt. 10:16;23

    “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

    “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another…”

    1 Corinthians 7:21

    “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so.”