Commentary for the March 1, 2014 Sabbath School Lesson
“‘Do you refuse to speak to me?’ Pilate said. ‘Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?’”
“Jesus answered, ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above…’” John 19:10-11, NIV
Christians have long struggled with how to relate to the powerful. In the first centuries after Christ’s incarnation, the authorities often represented persecution, at times seeing the church as a seditious sect needing to be extirpated. This was because religion was closely intertwined with government and that religion was typically expressed through the worship of the pagan deities of Greece, Rome and even Egypt. In practice, any religion was tolerated that did not challenge the cult of the Emperor which venerated him as divine.
While paganism was polytheistic, including the Emperor in the pantheon was easily accommodated so the various pagan beliefs of countries accreted to the Empire were not a problem. However, the monotheism of Judaism, and later Christianity, was problematic because the only deity they would recognize was not the Emperor. The record of the Jews long struggle against the pagan societies that surrounded them and eventually Rome is well documented by Josephus in his “The Antiquities of the Jews” and “The Wars of the Jews.” Because of this long history, the Roman Empire granted a grudging toleration of this Jewish idiosyncrasy as long as they did not openly rebel. However, Christianity had no such long history.
At first they were perhaps simply considered a sect of Judaism by their Roman overlords. But after several Jewish revolts and subsequent persecutions of the Jews by the Romans, the need for Christians to separate themselves from that identity became apparent. But that separation became a two-edged sword. By establishing themselves as a separate and new religion, they were delivered from the problems the Jews faced, but their theology, previously recognized as simply part of that strange Jewish thing, now began to appear seditious, perhaps even being a rebellion dedicated to overthrowing the emperor. Some of the Christian rhetoric about serving kings and kingdoms who were neither Caesar nor the Roman Empire may have served to further the suspicion. Little wonder that some rulers would require a loyalty test or oath to alleviate such suspicions. This was a trying period for the early church. Many lost their lives over these issues, with the church often seeing such tests as a matter of proving faithful to God and the government seeing it as a matter of patriotism.
In the early fourth century, this relationship underwent a sea change. The Emperor Constantine came to power, assisted, he believed, by the Christian God.[i] Naturally, he began a policy of toleration and even governmental nurturing of the previously outcast religion. Because the long period of persecution and disfavor had resulted in many disparate dioceses under relatively independent bishops presiding in cities scattered throughout the Empire, discrepancies in doctrine and scriptural canon had arisen. In an effort to resolve these issues, Emperor Constantine called for the first empire-wide council of bishops at Nicaea in Bithynia in 325, AD.[ii]
While many welcomed an end to the persecution of Christians, this close relationship between church and emperor essentially placed the church in exactly the same position the pagan religious authorities had occupied previously, and they began to turn the government power to persecute against not only the pagans who had previously persecuted them, but also against those with theological perspectives not endorsed by the bishops who were closest to the Emperor. Arius and Meletius are two examples of bishops who found themselves at the wrong end of the government’s rod of authority. As a result, although doctrinally distinct, they joined forces and became a major source of opposition to the imperial church.[iii]
The reason all of this history is significant is that it helps us to understand the church’s strange relationship to governmental authority. In its earliest incarnation, the Christian church had to understand how to be good citizens under a government that was trying to destroy you and considered you seditious. Paul tried to address this in his letter to the Romans.[iv]
Since Rome was the seat of empire, this question was perhaps more apropos there than anywhere. In spite of denying the deity of the Emperor, Paul nonetheless recognized that his authority was divinely derived. Therefore he encouraged obedience to the duly constituted authorities of the state. Perhaps this is where the concept of the “divine right of kings” to rule originated.
This doctrine, no doubt encouraged by the various emperors in Rome and Constantinople over the years, perhaps became most firmly established from the time of Charlemagne’s coronation by the Bishop of Rome, Pope Leo III, at the end of the eighth century as Holy Roman Emperor[v] and on down through various dynasties to Louis XVI of France and other similar potentates who met their end as the result of populist revolts beginning during the “Age of Enlightenment”[vi] and continuing to some degree into the present.
Once one accepts that all authority is divinely constituted, any idea of usurpation of authority by any human means comes into question. Therefore, since patriotism becomes by definition an act of faith, any act of rebellion against the government must of necessity become a tossing overboard of that faith as well. This was well illustrated in the French Revolution,[vii] were faith was ostensibly replaced by reason in order to provide justification for revolt. The Reign of Terror that ensued, sending 40,000 or more to their deaths[viii] caused many to realize that reason alone could not ensure morality and compassion. In the end, the populace was so disenchanted with the results that they soon regressed to imperial rule under Napoleon Bonaparte, a regression that had implications not only for France and Europe but even impacted Mexico and other lands in the New World.
So in view of all this, where should the Christian stand in relationship to governmental authority? What will be the best witness of our faith to those in such authoritative positions? If we take Paul’s counsel in Romans, chapter thirteen, then we will become model citizens, obeying the authorities, paying our taxes willingly, and showing respect and honor to those ruling us. However, anyone who has even waded slightly into the arena of political factionalism will see that some who profess the Christian faith do exactly the opposite of this advice from Paul.
Christians sometimes freely excoriate those who happen to belong to the political faction that opposes their own. Sadly some of the vilest insults and slanders are presented as though they were truths from the Holy Scriptures themselves. Gender, race and religious orientation are often viciously attacked as though the incumbent, the candidate, or their supporters were the Devil incarnate. The rhetoric at times becomes so violent that some individuals even advocate for armed insurrection and assassination of public officials. All of this, they advocate in order to deliver “god fearing” people from slavering heathen in the form of communists, Muslims, socialists, Nazis or any number of other bogeymen that threaten our supposedly Christian nation. And to add icing to this questionable cake of fear, it is urged that every Christian arm themselves with enough personal firepower to overcome this phantom menace.
Perhaps this whole scenario would not seem so strange if we did not understand that Paul wrote his counsel at a time when the government truly was a threat to Christians everywhere. However, instead of advocating revolt and overthrowing the Emperor, he urged loyalty and honor. If anyone would have been justified in urging a survivalist mentality and a resistance to government, he might have been. Perhaps instead he took the model of Jesus, who meekly submitted to execution, knowing that divine providence overruled the affairs of men.
Some might consider this a “pie in the sky” type of Christianity that isn’t practical when faced with the immoral actions of modern governments. However, Paul was not a stranger to these issues. Not only was he wrongfully executed in Rome, but he had early on witnessed the unjust execution of Stephen in Jerusalem for simply being a Christian. He himself had been stoned, arrested and imprisoned unjustly. Yet, he could still in good conscience write those words in Romans.
When we encourage resistance to governmental authority, where do we draw the justification from? Do we assert a higher morality than those who rule over us, even knowing that we too are moral failures?[ix] While it may be true that rebellion originated in heaven,[x] it did not originate with God. Whenever we encounter that spirit, whether directed at elected officials or duly appointed governmental authority, perhaps we should sincerely question its derivation. The idea of Jesus with an assault rifle leading an attack on the Whitehouse to establish a supposedly Christian government is not only repugnant it is ludicrous. Why then would those who are supposed to be His followers even hint at such a behavior for Christians? It staggers the mind.
While I am not an advocate of creeds beyond what Jesus lived out every day of His thirty plus years, perhaps these few verses in Romans should be a measuring stick for us each to measure ourselves by to determine if our lives model a Christ like behavior or the behavior of someone who fell from heaven long, long ago and is still recruiting for his army. When it comes to that army, maybe we all should be conscientious objectors.
[i] "Battle of the Milvian Bridge," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Milvian_Bridge
[ii] "First Council of Nicaea," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Council_of_Nicaea
[iv] Romans 13:1-7
[v] "Charlemagne, 'Coronation'," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlemagne#Coronation
[vi] "Age of Enlightenment," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_enlightenment
[vii] "French Revolution," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_Revolution
[viii] "Reign of Terror," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reign_of_Terror
[ix] Romans 2:1
[x] Revelation 12:7-12