Politics and the Church

November 2nd, 2008

My church is one in which politics are checked at the door. Some church members wear their politics on their yard, or on their blog — and just about every opinion is represented in the church. But you rarely hear politics mentioned in church. When it is mentioned, it’s issue-oriented rather than candidate-oriented or policy-oriented — we’ll hear updates on efforts to create a peace tax fund, for instance.

But today, hearing about politics is just about unavoidable.

The relationship between Christianity and government has been uneasy and troubled all the way back to the religion’s founding. Many Christians, and I count myself in this, believe that our first loyalty is to Jesus, and on those grounds, refuse to say the pledge of allegiance. What, we wonder, would our word be worth if we were forced to disobey our government because of a law that was unjust or immoral? How could we even say the words “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all” when those words were written at a time when the KKK was active, lynchings were common, and are said today at a time when people treat Muslims and immigrants with modern disdain?

In short, we believe we are called to be citizens of a different kingdom first.

So, today, our pastor deliberately picked a difficult scripture passage for us: Romans 13:1-7, which reads, in part:

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities. . . 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. . . Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

What an extraordinary set of statements. This was written during the time of the Roman Empire, which could hardly be said to have been a just and benign government. It’s hard for me to imagine the Roman Legion being established by God.

In more modern times, it would seem to denounce the American revolution as a rebellion against authority and therefore a rebellion against God. It would also seem to denounce the protests that we see all over the world — striking workers in France, human rights seekers in Burma, war protesters in the United States. Would it even have condemned the protests in the 1960s over civil rights in this country, or the protests against war today?

One commentator notes that “Paul is not stating that this will always be true but is describing the proper, ideal function of rulers. When civil rulers overstep their proper function, the Christian is to obey God rather than human authorities” — a theme Paul mentioned more than once in Acts.

What relevance does this have for us today? It seems that we are to help our rulers act in a just way, even if we disagree with them — no matter who wins the election. It is also a reminder that a superficial reading of the Bible, taken out of context and without a deep understanding to understand the author’s point, can potentially lead to very strange conclusions.

The American National Council of Churches has issued a non-partisan voting guide, which we found in our bulletin today. It is an interesting read, and probably not what you think; it begins with, “War is contrary to the will of God.” Thought-provoking stuff.

I find it interesting that there are a lot of people out there that say that religion is responsible for a lot of ill in this country, then proceed to hold pretty much the same opinions I do for pretty much the same reasons. I just point out that the Bible is deeper than intolerance and submission.

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  1. Derek Elkins

    First, in my opinion at least, protests and even civil disobedience are well within the functioning of the American government. Some may even say they are your civic duty. You can certainly want America to be different while not wanting to overthrow America. The American government was set up to afford a variety of methods for change. I see no conflict at all between pledging allegiance and protesting or disobeying immoral or unjust laws; actually, quite the opposite.

    Secondly and much more subjectively (not that the above was objective), you seem not to give the pledge of allegiance the same treatment as Paul’s statements. To start, the Pledge of Allegiance is a pledge to our government, not to the president, the legislature or the current set of laws. Comparing to the military’s Oath of Enlistment is instructive; it begins: “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend _the Constitution of the United States_ against all enemies, foreign and domestic …” Much as was commented upon Paul’s statements, the Pledge of Allegiance reflects the ideals of America. In fact, the comment on Paul’s statements could be applied to the Pledge of Allegiance almost unchanged.

    [All the opinions above are my own personal opinions.]

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Hi Derek,

    I completely agree with your first paragraph. It is unfortunate that there are those that disagree with it, and some of them are even running for office.

    As to your second paragraph, that’s perhaps the best defense of the pledge I’ve ever seen. And it could be persuasive, but for a couple of things. It was designed (by a socialist, no less!) to be recited by children, and understood by them. I find it hard to imagine that children — who famously have a hard enough time with “indivisible” — would somehow divine that “one Nation, under God. . . with liberty and justice for all” represents a *goal*, not the present state. To me, it seems more of something along the lines of indoctrination than than a stating of shared goals.

    Reply

  2. Anonymous

    I really enjoy reading your blog. I hope I will eventually learn to express my beliefs as crazed-ranting-free as you do.

    > I find it interesting that there are a lot of people out there that say that religion is responsible for a lot of ill in this country, then proceed to hold pretty much the same opinions I do for pretty much the same reasons.

    A lot of people out there are regularly accused of satan worship or some other nonsense for advocating pretty much the same opinions you do absent exactly one reason.

    It is an unfair treatment of Christianity, but informed by the personal experiences of many. Even many liberal Christians that I know exhibit a faster defense of the Tribe Of The Self-Identified Christian than the spirit of the teachings Christ.

    This analysis of Romans reeks of fundamentalism. Is it so unthinkable that he was just wrong? Why couldn’t he say what he meant? Is there an appropriately nearby countervailing passage where Paul advocates rebellion against injustice, without which I do not think you would interpret any non-biblical passage in such a light?

    Reply

    Anonymous Reply:

    But as an afterthought, maybe I should spend more time talking to my liberal Christian friends. Maybe I fear unfairly their reactions.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    What’s the “one reason” you are talking about?

    But yes, the explanation of this was given by Paul just a few pages prior in Acts 5:17-42, but especially v. 29; “We most obey God rather than men”, advocating disobeying the religious authorities of the day. It is also stated less forcefully in Acts 4:19 (“Judge for yourself whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God”), spoken to captors.

    I am curious also what part of my post you think is fundamentalist. I don’t usually associate myself with that label.

    The analysis I quoted was from a note in Zondervan’s NIV Study Bible attached to Romans 13:3. They also clarify that when v4 states “he is God’s servant”, they understand it to mean that the ruler is God’s servant for the purpose of doing good.

    I had this discussion with my wife, even. Either Paul just didn’t write this passage well (since he clearly means to defy authority that contradicts God, given the Acts passage), or perhaps it was *so obvious* to readers in the Roman Empire of the day that he could not possibly be suggesting to follow Caesar instead of God, that we have perhaps lost sight of how that thought may not have even occurred to someone back then.

    Or perhaps the passage got muddled through the ages.

    We’ve got to give Paul the chance to be not completely eloquent on occasion ;-)

    As a final comment, regarding the “informed by the personal experiences of many.” I understand that, and I think it is one of the great failings of the Church in America right now — and perhaps much more common in some areas than in others. It saddens me that certain people believing themselves Christian are giving this country and the world a highly distorted view of one of the world’s great religions of peace, tolerance, philosophy, and theology.

    Perhaps what is going on has an element of fear — if they admit that the Bible is not always literal truth, or that there have been disputes over which version of text should be authoritative, then they feel that God they believe in is called into question. In reality, what is called into question is the superficial, unquestioning belief — it is a plea for a more scholarly approach, one free of fear, one that embraces the shades of gray that exist in almost everything in this world. One that recognizes that answers are rarely easy or certain in anything.

    Reply

    Anonymous Reply:

    The one reason is identifying as a Christian.

    The fundamentalist thing is more tricky. It is this sort of logic that I have witnessed, which starts with the premise that every biblical passage is correct and consistent with some doctrine, and attempts to “solve” the passage to make it conform.

    I guess I’ll be spending some time on bible study after work this evening.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I suppose I may have short-circuited the analysis in the posting. When looking at a passage like that, which appears at first to be oddly contradictory with what I thought was the general position given, I suppose there are these possibilities:

    1) It is oddly contradictory

    2) I am misunderstanding this passage

    3) I am misunderstanding the other

    4) One passage or the other has not survived intact from antiquity

    I did actually consider all those options (and in church, the pastor at least considered #1-#3). It seems pretty clear to me what the intent is, after looking at it more closely.

    drblanco Reply:

    You might like “The Good Book” by Peter Gomes. It’s sort of Bible interpretation 101. What makes it interesting is the accounts of how others have read the bible in the past, on issues like temperance and slavery, and justified positions that aren’t strictly spelled out in the bible.

  3. Bob

    [B]“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities. . . The authorities that exist have been established by God. . .”[/B]

    The problem with this statement is that the author contradicts what is clearly lain out by Jesus as to how we should treat the authorities, which is to say that an individual cannot serve two masters.

    See Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God is Within You” for a more eloquent and exact treatise as to how the religious person should be treating earthly governments and laws if they wish to follow their religion.

    Reply

  4. michael schurter

    “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

    Just a great old quote the founder of Beliefnet mentioned on NPR yesterday. :-)

    Reply

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