Saturday, January 16, 2010

How should a Christian respond to tyranny?

As we move on in 1 Peter on the theme of how we relate to other members of society, I want to deal with Romans chapter 13 which is Paul’s take on the subject that Peter is dealing with.

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

On first reading this appears to give the state carte blanche to do what it likes and gives Christians a duty of obedience. Indeed this passage was used to justify the divine right of kings and for hundreds of years it was used to decree that those who rebelled against the state also rebelled against God.

But it is necessary when interpreting Scripture to have regard to the whole Bible, and to see this passage in relation to other passages.

For example we have Peter in Acts 5:29 telling the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God, rather than men!” and Jesus himself telling his disciples, “Give to Caesar, what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

In the Old Testament, although Kings were anointed by God, they could not take his continued support for granted. The prime example was the first king of Israel, King Saul, who forfeited his kingdom to David because of his disobedience.

But, remember how King David reacted to the news of the death of King Saul. In II Samuel chapter 1 we are told that he tore his clothes and wept and fasted until evening. When he confronted the young Amalekite who claimed to have killed Saul, he said to him, "Why were you not afraid to destroy the LORD's anointed?" and had him put to death for the crime of regicide. It is quite clear, therefore, that the Bible takes kingship seriously, but to what extent can the reverence for the LORD's anointed be extended to other leaders.

In Jeremiah 21:7, 10 and 27:5-7 we read of God's sovereign, purposes as he works through the Babylonian nation and King Nebuchadnezzar to bring judgment upon his people Israel. In turn, Babylon was brought to book by the Persian leader, Cyrus. Isaiah clearly says that God is the one who will raise up and appoint Cyrus to the task of serving him, in order that YHWH's purposes with Israel might be served—that Israel would realize that there is only one true God and He is YHWH.

Thus says the Lord to Cyrus His anointed, whom I have taken by the right hand, to subdue nations before him, and to loose the loins of kings; to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: I will go before you and make the rough places smooth; I will shatter the doors of bronze, and cut through the iron bars. And I will give you the treasures of darkness, And hidden wealth of secret places, in order that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name. For the sake of Jacob my servant, and Israel my chosen one, I have also called you by your name; I have given you a title of honor though you have not known me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no God. I will gird you, though you have not known me; that men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun that there is no one besides me. I am the Lord and there is no other, the one who forming light and creating darkness, causing well being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these.

Even though Cyrus didn’t know the YHWH he was used as God’s instrument. No doubt the Israelites in captivity had prayed for release from their subjugation. They had been told by Jeremiah to settle in the land of their exile and to raise families there. It was a 70 year stretch, but no doubt they were itching for release. Their redemption had been promised even though they were powerless to make it happen themselves. So perhaps the rescue of Cyrus was an answer to payer.

Recently, I saw a television program in which Matthew Pinsent, winner of three Olympic gold medals for rowing, traced his ancestry to English Kings of the fourteenth century. He found a document which purported to show that the old English kings believed that they were descended from King David of the Old Testament. This may explain why Charles 1st believed in the divine right of kings and subsequently had his head removed. It is said that monarchs as recent as King George VI were British Israelites, tracing their ancestry to the ten lost tribes.

This belief was very popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth century and was propagated by such cult leaders as Herbert W Armstrong. However, it was all a bit of wishful thinking and it has largely disappeared with the British Empire.

The British National Anthem pleads, "God save our Gracious King! Long live our noble king!" yet atheists proclaim it as proof that prayer does not work since English monarchs are not noticeably long lived. Even though his spouse lived to be over 100, George VI died at the age of 56. The British monarchy, no more than any other ruling power has special protection by the Almighty.

However, my first reading of Romans 13 is that the prime purpose of a government is to ensure law and order. Anarchy is nowhere commended in Scripture; indeed it is condemned at the end of the book of Judges: In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.

For Paul, Roman law and order suited his purpose. It enabled the gospel to be spread wherever Rome held sway. Good roads and peace were prerequisites for the missionary journeys.

But there is more to say on this question, so watch this space.

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