Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed… Romans 13:1-2
Has God established tyranny? This is the question that was suggested for a blog last week, based on Paul’s words above.
I replied that in Romans 13 Paul is setting out a general principle: as Christians we should be good citizens. But that doesn’t mean we should be doormats, simply toeing every line laid down by governments, if that would mean going against our conscience.
That is the general principle, but I thought it would be helpful to come back a second time in order to share various further thoughts thrown up by this topic. So here we are again...
1. How does God intend us to read the Bible?
It’s one of the vital principles of Bible-reading that we should never pluck single verses out of their setting and treat them as if that is all there is to be said. Read the whole Bible! That is why, last time, I pointed out that while Romans13 is true, it isn’t the whole truth. I pointed to other places in the Bible where we do in fact see God’s people resisting authority.
This principle applies in all sorts of areas. A good example is the ten commandments. We look to this passage in Exodus 20 as a bedrock of God’s law to his people Israel, and that’s quite right. It contains certain laws which are absolutes - no ifs, no buts, no arguments, no discussion. We are not to commit murder. End of. We are not to commit adultery. End of.
But what about honouring your father and your mother? That too sounds a vital principle, of course. But suppose you’re a fifteen-year-old boy and your father is a drug-dealer or career criminal; and suppose he decides it’s time to get you started on the family business? What then? Are you still under an obligation to “honour” your father? What would honouring him actually mean in practice?
Certainly, you would want to pray for him - and to ask for God’s grace to keep loving him. But surely you aren’t under an obligation to obey him.
2. Are Christians ever justified in using violence to resist a corrupt government?
I pointed out last time that Paul may have had in mind that any resistance to Roman tyranny would be futile - it would be crushed without delay. But this may not always apply. What if there is a real chance of overthrowing a tyrannical government by an armed uprising? Could a Christian ever be implicated in that?
A good example is the famous failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in the Second World War. How many lives might have been saved if that attempt had succeeded! How much misery prevented! How much shorter the war might have been! There were Christians who asked these questions, and supported the plot, in spite of their Christian beliefs. Were they right to do so?
True, they were acting as German citizens caught up in a terrible national tragedy; they were not acting specifically on behalf of the church. But did that make it right?
Opinions will differ. But certainly most Christians would agree that using violence in defence of Christianity as such is ruled out. Jesus rebuked the disciple who defended him in Gethsemane: “Put your sword back in its place... For all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 27: 52). And he specifically told his followers not to “resist an evil person” (Matthew 5:38).
His own example, of course, speaks volumes to us. He preferred to suffer and die rather than call down angels from heaven to defend him (Matthew 27:55). In the light of that you might think there really is nothing more to be said. And that leads to...
3. Is it better to risk paying the ultimate cost?
We must never wriggle out of a solemn fact: Jesus warned his followers of the need to “take up their cross” in order to follow him.
And this is often the story of God’s loyal people, both in the Bible and since. Think of Naboth and his vineyard: Naboth dared to say No to King Ahab (1 Kings 21). Think of John the Baptist: John dared to denounce the immorality of Herod the tetrarch (Matthew 14). Think of Stephen: Stephen dared to stand against the Jewish council (Acts 7). They all died. And history is full of further examples, even to this very day.
Which leads to a thought to finish with. Those of us who live in relative peace and security have the luxury of tackling this issue from a largely theoretical point of view. But there are many fellow-Christians for whom this is not the case. Many are suffering untold horrors while I am writing this.
So, to be practical, I would suggest this. Let’s not go on endlessly debating difficult, tricky questions like this, important though they are. Better, let’s do everything we can by prayer, by financial giving, and by any other means we can lay our hands on to support and encourage such suffering believers.
There are various charities and other organisations which are devoted to this: Open Doors, Barnabas Fund, British Pakistani Christian Association are just three that come to mind.
Personally, I have a link with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, an advocacy organisation that works on behalf of persecuted Christians (and others, incidentally). One thing they encourage is the writing of messages to imprisoned Christians in different parts of the world. Why not look them up on the internet and see how you could get involved?
And here’s a further verse to finish with: “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow-prisoners and those who are ill-treated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews13:3).
Take that seriously and it will open up a whole new world!
Lord God, I pray for all who suffer for conscience’ sake, especially those who love Jesus. Give them courage, comfort, strength and hope. And help me to do anything in my power to support and help them. Amen.