Science in Christian Perspective



New Testament Christianity
and the Morality of Civil Rebellion

Princeton, New Jersey

From: JASA 12 (September 1960): 66-69.

The political principles set forth in the New Testament have recently been discussed by Peterson.1 He presents the following list of New Testament political principles: (1) the state is a God-ordained institution serving human needs; (2) the sphere of competence of -the state is limited in that it cannot (a) require idolatrous worship, (b) forbid the preaching of the Gospel, (c) encroach on the divine prerogatives given to the church and to the family, and (d) claim divine authority for the performance of acts contrary to justice or morality; and (3) some kind of resistance to a state exceeding its competence is legitimate. It is the purpose of Us paper to amplify some of these conclusions to bring more clearly to light the relevance of New Testament Christianity to the question of the morality of civil rebellion.

In the light of the whole context of the Bible, we need not labor the point that government is a God ordained institution. This tends to run contrary to the popular feelings of -our day; men have seen governments rise and fall by the hands of men. We must see in such changes the sovereign hand of God's Providence. We must see our own government as the authority which God has set up for the control of the affairs of our country. There is, in fact, only one higher authority than that of the government in the affairs of our life, and that is of course the authority of God Himself.

The principle of proper respect for the authority both of the government and of God was set forth by our Lord Jesus. The Pharisees imagined that they had devised a question which would trick Jesus either into apparent disloyalty to God or into apparent treason to the state. They argued something like this: (1) God does not have respect of persons, (2) we ought to serve God rather than men, (3) but men ask us to pay them taxes for the government, therefore (4) is it right for us to pay taxes? If Jesus answered in the affirmative, they would have Him on religious grounds; if He answered in the negative, they would have Him on civil grounds. Jesus, having asked for a piece of money and questioned them concerning whose picture and writing were on it, replied, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's."2

* Dr. Bube is a research physicist at the RCA Laboratory. He is an authority on photoconductivity and is the author of a recent book, "Photoconductivity of Solids."

Now there are several important lessons to be learned from this answer. The government in question was by no means a just and God-fearing government; it was, in fact, that very government which was to persecute Christians and feed them to the lions in the arena. There was no question of whether or not the taxes were just taxes. There was no question of whether taxes should morally be levied without the people having a voice in the decision -of taxation. Any consideration of the fitness of the taxes or the method of taxation was irrelevant to the matter in question. Jesus simply said in effect, "The money was coined by Caesar; you are bound to return Caesar's tax to him." The authority of the government and the response of the Christian to the demands of the government relative to taxation did not depend on whether or not the action of the government was justified.

The Holy Spirit speaking through both Paul and Peter supplements this principle set forth by the Lord Jesus. To the church at Rome, Paul writes, "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of G-od: the powers that be are ordained of God."3 The command is all-inclusive, applying to every soul. The teaching is all-inclusive; no power but of God, every existing power ordained by God. The powers that Paul was referring to in his time were those very Caesars who were to put him to death and who were to scatter the disciples before persecution. Paul goes on, "Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God. "4 It is no small offense, therefore, to resist one's government. (As in all Scriptural teaching, of course, we must not take this phrase by itself to forbid resistance of any kind, but we shall return to this question later as we consider the life of the early church.) "Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also; for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour."5 Paul rephrases the teaching of Jesus. He re-emphasizes that the authority of the government is from God. Peter presents the same testimony, "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of

1. W. 1-1. Peterson, LA.S.A. 11, No. 4, 16 (1959).
2. Matthew 22:15-22. 4. Romans 13:2.
3. Romans 13:1. 5. Romans 13:5-7.

man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.... Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king."6 Peter joins with Paul in beseeching the Christians to accept and respect the ordinances of men "for the Lord's sake," because they are part of the system ordained by God; not only to accept, but to submit to them, which is stronger.

Already in this part of the Scriptural record which we have discussed, we have received enough of the flavor of that testimony to recognize how contrary is the spirit of New Testament Christianity to the temper of our times, indeed, to many of the things which we have been taught all our lives. We have been taught and our children are being taught today, by books and teachers and radio and television and movies, how it is great and noble to fight back against injustice in government. The heroes of history are those who have dared to rise up in arms against their unjust governments. It is accepted as a commendable ideal that it is better to die fighting for freedom in bloody revolution than to submit to the dictates of an ungodly government. We cheer as we rehearse the execution of tyrants by their outraged victims who have risen up to overthrow them.

Are Christians then to be silent against injustices perpetrated by their government? Certainly not. Are Christians to take part in God-displeasing acts of their government? God forbid, We see the role of Christians most clearly when we actually follow the Christians of the early church and see how they reacted to a hostile government. After their miracle of healing the lame man, Peter and John were seized by the Jewish rulers and committed to prison; later they were commanded not to preach again about Jesus. Peter and John answered humbly, "Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye, For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard."7 Peter and John did not obey the evil command of their government; they held fast to their primary duty of obeying God first. But neither did Peter and John raise up rebellion against their government so that by force of arms they might make the preaching of Jesus lawful; they acted humbly and peacefully, since they recognized that their government represented the authority of God. So the Jewish rulers threatened Peter and John and let them go. They continued to witness with the other apostles and many believers joined them. Once again the Jewish rulers arrested them and put them in prison, but an angel freed them and they were found the next day preaching as before. They were arrested once more and sternly reprimanded. Peter answered quietly, "We ought to obey God rather than men."8 After an argument in the council, the apostles were beaten and freed with the commandmen,t that they should no more speak in the name of Jesus. And we read, "And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.9

Here we have an excellent case history of the spirit of New Testament Christianity in reaction against the ungodly commands of their government. Presumably the reaction of Peter and John embodies the practical operation of Christianity at work. When these apostles found that the commands of their government were contrary to the law of God for their lives, how did they react? (Note that we have here an extreme case. The command of the government was blatantly contrary to the command of God. It was not a case of restricted liberty or the like.) Did they flee to the hills and set up bands of outlaws, armed for robbery of the non-Christians and the staying of unsuspecting Jewish authorities? When the persecutions became more general and Rome itself threw its power behind the slaughter and torture of Christians, did the Christians then run off to form guerrilla bands to prey on the countryside for sustenance, plot the assassination of Caesar and the overthrow of the government? What they did-the most important essence of the spirit of New Testament Christianity-is summed up in those very unpopular words. "They ... [rejoiced] that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name." In his epistle, Peter puts this in his very own words, "For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps."10 It is far more popular today to take the sword and the gun and the bomb, to call forth violence and death in battle, -to become a hero for freedom by leading rebellion. Whatever virtue such sentiments may have, they do not represent the teaching of New Testament Christianity. There we see no heroes of rebellion, but heroes of faith. It is not quite so glorious for men to see themselves as heroes of faith, but how glorious it is to be seen thus by God, ". . . tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: and others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; ... they

6. 1 Peter 2:13-17.
7. Acts 4:19, 20.
8. Acts 5:29.
9. Acts 5:41, 42.
10. 1 Peter 2:19-21.

wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth."11

In-spite of the straightforward Scriptural evidence and'tlfe example of the behavior of the apostles under typical conditions, it is still customary to hear the following argument raised: The Bible lays down certain principles which should guide a government in its actions; when a government is not true to these principles, therefore, it is the right of the people to overthrow it and establish a government which will be true to them. Such an argument fails to recognize the basic difference between the responsibilities of a Christian citizen with respect to his government and the responsibilities of a Christian citizen as an organizer of a Christian government. Actually the citizenstate relationship is just one of many similar ones set forth in the Bible, such as the child-parent, the servant-master, and the wife-husband relationship. Certain principles are given to guide the Christian child, the Christian parent, the Christian servant, the Christian master, the Christian wife, the Christian husband, the Christian citizen, and the Christian state. But it is never true in any ofthese relationships that the failure of one party to live up to its Christian principles absolves the other party of its Christian responsibilities in the relationship. A Christian parent cannot cast off a child who acts in a nonChristian manner, nor can a Christian child despise and scorn a parent who acts in a non-Christian manner. God commands Christian parents, "Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged."12 Likewise God commands Christian children, "Children, obey your parents in all things"13 and "Children' obey your parents in the Lord; for this is right. Honour thy father and mother."14 The fact that a parent may be unkind or unthoughtful does not justify his child's disobedience; a Christian child must continue to give obedience in all things except those which may be contrary to the commands of God. The fact that a child is disobedient does not justify malicious treatment by the parent; a Christian parent must continue to train his child in love. The Bible insists that we rid ourselves of the "if you're not good to me, I don't have to be good to you" attitude. Each member of these related pairs has his own responsibilities which he must live up to regardless of the behavior of the other member of the pair. He must refuse to -obey a command contrary to the command of God, but that is the extent of the Scripturally supported resistance. Christianity demands, not that we be ready to fight for our beliefs, but that we be ready to suffer for thent.

Similar situations prevail with respect to the other related pairs. God commands masters, "And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven"15 and "Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven."16 To the servants, He commands, "Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God,"17 and "Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ,"18 and "Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully."19 The Christian master must treat his servant with love, justice, and equality; the Christian servant must obey his master in all things even as he would the Lord Jesus Himself. But the Christian master must continue to treat his servant with love, justice, and equality, even if his servant is a worthless scoundrel. The Christian servant mustobey his master in all things, even if his master is hard and unjust.

So also God commands wives, "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord"20 and He commands husbands in turn, "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it."21 Again each member of the related pair has his own particular responsibility as a Christian, regardless of whether the other member of the pair lives up to his responsibility or not.

We have already discussed those passages which deal with the related responsibilities of citizen and state. The command, "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers," does not carry with it the proviso, "if the higher powers are behaving as Christian higher powers ought to." The Christian has a dual responsibility. As a citizen and a participant in the government, he has the responsibility -of working toward such a government as will embody Christian principles. As a citizen and a subject of the government, he has the responsibility -of yielding obedience and service to that government. He cannot say, "Because the government is not behaving in the way that it should behave according to Christian principles, therefore, I have the right to overthrow it, i.e., to withdraw my obedience and my service." If the government acts in such a way as is clearly a violation of the commandments of God, then the citizen must indeed withhold his obedience on this point, but only on this point. And in withholding his obedience even on this one point, he must not be surprised if he is called upon to suffer in some way for his consciencedirected commitment.

It is of some interest that the Bible describes a man who fulfilled the earthly expectations of a hero. He was a man who plotted and fought to free his people

11. Hebrews 11:35-38.
12. Colossians 3:21.
13. Colossians 3:20.
14. Ephesians 6:1, 2.
15. Ephesians 6:9.
16. Colossians 4:1.
17. Colossians 3:22.
18. Ephesians 6:5.
19. 1 Peter 2:18, 19.
20. Ephesians 5:22.
21. Ephesians 5:25.

Israel from the yoke of Roman oppression. He was a man who took to arms and to rebellion to bring his people freedom. When he was captured he was referred to as "a notable prisoner,"22 one "which lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection,"2-3 and as "a robber."24 This man, who followed the way to freedom most often espoused today, is set tip as the direct antithesis of our Lord Jesus Christ. His name was Barabbas.

It would not be proper to leave this subject without making a few comments on the relevance of this discussion to the significance of our own American Revolution. Let it be plain at the first that we ought to be thankful to God for the wonderful blessings which have come to our country directly or indirectly as the result of its emancipation. Surely this is the result of the working of God's Providence, which is able to bring good from evil, so that all things work together for good for His people. But it does not obscure the basic fact that the American Revolution-like any civil rebellion-was not in accord with the principles of New Testament Christianity. The Revolution cannot be justified on the basis of the violation of human rights; the Christian is guaranteed no earthly right except the privilege of suffering for the name of Christ. The Revolution cannot be justified on the basis of taxation without representation; the duty of proper payment of taxes is clearly set forth in the Scriptures with no reference to representation. The attempt to Christianize the Revolution because of the blessings it has brought to our country has obscured the very spirit of New Testament Christianity. Christianity did not come with a sword of steel to transform the world. Christianity came with the sword of the Spirit and the convictions of consecrated men, who were willing to die as martyrs that what they knew to be true might become established, not by the blood shed by their hands, but by their own shed blood in the outworking of the purpose of God. Only after Constantine made the unholy wedlock of Christianity and armed force has the Christian world been confused, weakened, and disabled by this departure from its historic foundation. If the church was built on the blood of the martyrs, it was bound by the swords of its earthly soldiers. To return to the first teachings of the faith is not easy, and it certainly goes contrary to our human natures and our upbringing, but there is no other alternative if we would trust God more than men. In thanking God, therefore, for the freedoms of our own country, let us not fall victims of a movement which would make Democracy our state religion, with the Revolution as its Passover and Exodus.

22. Matthew 27:16. 23. Mark 15:7. 24. John 18:40.