Submission to the State: Thoughts on Public Policy - Pt III
Paul Dean Dr. Paul J. Dean's Weblog
- 2005 Jul 21
On one of our "Calling for Truth" radio broadcasts recently, I made the comment that imposing Christian morality through the U.S. government is a complicated issue as America and ancient Israel are viewed in different ways by God. This statement raised questions, some of which have been answered in the first two installments of this article. A final question has to do with Christian submission to the state.
Francis Schaeffer argues that when a state does not rule in accord with the principles of God's law, then that state must be resisted, even with armed rebellion if necessary. Following Samuel Rutherford, he asserted, "First, since tyranny is satanic, not to resist it is to resist God--to resist tyranny is to honor God. Second, since the ruler is granted power conditionally, it follows that the people have the power to withdraw their sanction if the proper conditions are not fulfilled. The civil magistrate is a 'fiduciary figure'--that is, he holds his authority in trust for the people. Violation of the trust gives the people a legitimate base for resistance." While Schaeffer's argument is logical, it is not biblical as he offers no Scriptural support for his assertion.
While I am reluctant to disagree with a giant like Schaeffer (whom I respect and appreciate tremendously), his logic does not square with Romans 13. Paul commanded the Roman Christians to submit to Nero. There is no doubt that Nero did not rule in accord with the principles of God's law. Yet, Paul said submit. He did not say submit because the king is law (Rex Lex). Indeed, the law is king (Lex Rex) and no king is above God. But, God will allow godless tyrants to rule his people for a number of purposes, not the least of which is their sanctification and His glory as they display Christ in the most difficult of circumstances.
God commands Christians to submit to the state (Romans 13). Now, the question as to whether or not Christians submit for the sake of expedience, that is, to avoid being harassed by the state, or for the sake of conscience, that is, to avoid sinning against God, has often been raised. The answer to that question is a both/and according to Romans 13. Yet, some object to that position and claim that disobedience to the state is not sin per se (including Schaeffer). For example, is it sin to break the speed limit? I take the position that indeed it is sin to break the speed limit. Yet, one commented to me: "on speed limits, there is no way to say that the rules of an evil state are divine. They carry no moral force in and of themselves." While the objector is correct in his statement, he is incorrect in his implication, which is to say that it is not sin to break the speed limit.
The issue has to do with God's command. When God says submit, to not submit is to disobey God, and that indeed carries moral force. This is why Paul says, "Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves (Rom. 13:2)." Further, "Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience' sake (Rom. 13:5)." Again, with love, I believe persons who take this position (submission for expedience only) have created an unbiblical theology which ignores the plain meaning of Scripture because of their abhorrence of tyranny. I too abhor tyranny. The problem lies in the fact that God uses tyranny to point out and put down rebellion in our hearts. When we resist the state, we resist God (Romans 13). Obviously, there are exceptions: whenever we are told to violate a biblical command or principle, we must obey God rather than men. I am sorry this position seems close to the Divine Right position (Rex Lex - the king is law). While I reject the Divine Right position and affirm Lex Rex (the law is king under God because God is King), I do take God's commands seriously and I take them to be above any system.
Our objector further commented: "Work out the logic from the presuppositions above (my previous articles with reference to the role of the state as protector). Fresh water does not come from a salty spring. The reason you obey them is expedience, avoidance of wrath, not wanting to bring shame on the Lord by getting caught or being a poor steward by paying money, etc. While I respect your thinking through of your formula for determining when a Christian sins, it is ultimately inconsistent with the foundational principles." The principles to which he refers have to do with the role of government as parenthetically noted above and the fact that the state is evil.
I do not know why the objector says "my formula" is inconsistent. It is not. In fact, the objector has come up with a formula and projected it on me. If a foundational principle is incorrect because it is not drawn from Scripture, then it must be rejected. The foundational principle of submitting to the state for expedience sake only is incorrect. It may be consistent with natural law and principles of liberty and freedom. It may sooth one's conscience when one wants to rebel (even as we all do from time to time, that's human nature) against something one doesn't like that is handed down by the evil state. But, it is exegetically untenable and in the end brings reproach upon Christ.
The objector continues: "Theonomists say that nothing the state does has morally binding
implications unless it happens to coincide with God's law." To which I respond that Theonomists are wrong as well. The primary reason is that they would implement God's law only through the government. They would implement all of it including the civil law of the Old Covenant and some would even implement the ceremonial/dietary laws. They get around Romans 13 by saying the text only applies to a righteous government. Our objector even disagrees with that position as Paul was talking to Roman Christians about the Roman government. The Theonomists mishandling of Scripture at that point not only highlights a rebellious heart under present conditions (even as we all have rebellion in our hearts) but it contradicts their sound hermeneutic grounded in historical and grammatical exegesis. Their position is untenable on several grounds including that of confusing the covenants, applying Romans 13 to a righteous government only (what about Nero and Paul's command?) or a golden age with no textual warrant, and applying a hermeneutic to one text that would contradict the hermeneutic they apply to the rest of Scripture.
It was pointed out that "the divine righter says what [I] do but without qualification. 66 in a 65 is always sin. [My] view lands closer to divine right on this piece because [I]
believe that the Bible cannot support Liberty of Conscience consistently." First, regardless of the Divine Right position, 66 in a 65 is sin unless one has a biblically compelling reason to drive faster than the posted limit (saving the life of another for example).
Second, the Bible supports Liberty of Conscience consistently. The issue is whether or not a particular issue is a liberty of conscience issue. We do not have the liberty of conscience to steal. The Bible calls stealing sin. We do have the liberty of conscience to drink wine or not to drink wine in public as the Bible does not say that drinking wine is sin per se. It is the Bible that determines what is and what is not sin or what is or what is not a matter of liberty of conscience.
Because we are commanded to submit to those in authority over us, it is sin if we say that we only submit for expedience sake. To say that submission to the state is only a matter of expedience and to persist in doing what one feels he should not be hindered from doing, is to twist the Scripture so that one can continue in sin (we all do that in one way or another). To say that submission is a matter of expedience only so that one doesn’t have to have a guilty conscience about driving 66 is also sin.
Part of the of the expedience argument that some offer is that one would be too burdened down with sin if speeding, for example, was sin. The problem is that these individuals do not look at sin or grace properly. While we may never have a cavalier attitude toward sin, it is far more pervasive than we know. Simply failing to glorify God is sin. Thus, we sin all day long in a variety of ways. We should strive to be holy because it is our delight to be holy. Of course, grace covers our blind spots. At the same time, when we sin, we look to the cross of Christ for our rest and assurance even as we repent of our sin and strive to do better next time as a matter of joy in Christ.
We must also point out the passive nature of submission (based upon grammatical considerations in Romans 13) which, for example, relieves us from the legalistic burden of looking up every piece of legislation when we cross state lines to avoid sinning. If I take a vacation in Florida, I will not worry about legislation of which I am unaware as I have no positive obligation to discover such (for example there may be a law against putting a McDonald's cup with coke still in it in a public trash receptacle as added weight causes the trash bags to break when picked up). Issues of stewardship of time and enjoying God's gift of a vacation among other issues would be compromised as well if I were to search out every piece of Florida legislation. If I am breaking a Florida law unawares and a local individual informs me of such, my immediate response will be to confess it to the Lord as sin and repent. But I can tell you it will not burden me or my conscience in any way. It's part of being ignorant and living in an unredeemed body (Romans 8). The real issue to worry about is whether or not rebellion resides in my heart. If I were to have no care about being confronted with that law, then I indeed would have a problem.
The point is that we need to rid our hearts of sin as we are made aware of it. At the same time, we do not seek relief for our consciences by declaring something that is sin not to be sin. We find relief for our consciences in confession and repentance. Ultimately, we will never know how much we sin. Thus, ultimately, we seek relief for our consciences in the cross of Christ. In fact, grieving or being burdened over sin after it has been confessed is sin itself (if I worry, after I've confessed it as sin and received forgiveness, about the fact that I drove 66 in a 65 yesterday). The Lord Jesus said that if we would come to Him, He would give us rest. I'm resting in Him, not in twisting Scripture to make it seem that I'm not sinning if I don’t submit to an authority to which God commands me to submit. Does a wife sin when she does not submit to an arbitrary request of her husband's? Of course she does and most who disagree with me on the speeding issue would agree. But, to say differently of our submission to the state is to apply two different hermeneutics to Scripture, even as the Theonomists do.
Hear the assertion of one who holds the expedience position. "All of my public policy theology can be ascertained axiomatically by setting forth a few simple principles about the nature of the state, the use of the state for Christians, and the sanctifying use of the
state in the world, as well as the reason why we would have government. Start making the distinction between states and government more. Think it through before you comment.”
I appreciate the words offered here. First, I agree with the statement regarding public policy and simple principles. At the same time, there are some biblical principles that will alter one's public policy philosophy. For example, I may agree with certain political principles if God were not in the picture. I would be in favor of tax protestation if not for the Scriptures. The difference is the Scriptures. While burdensome taxation is fundamentally wrong, I gladly pay taxes because God commands me to pay taxes in Romans 13. I will agree with the public policy of Walter Williams until his worldview is in conflict with the Scriptures. The state is evil; Christians use the state to provide things the free market cannot more efficiently provide; God uses the state to sanctify His people; and the purpose of government is to protect natural (God-given) rights of all people. At the same time, just because the state is evil does not mean we have no obligation to submit. God tells us to do so. We are happy for the military to defend our borders. We are happy for police to protect us from criminals. And, the authority of the state over us shows us the rebellion in our hearts. As we put that rebellion down, we are sanctified.
Those who argue for submitting to the state for expedience sake alone believe in the sanctifying purpose of the state. Yet, they do not benefit from it because they do not view non-submission as sin. Thus, they do not see and put down the rebellion that drives them (the same rebellion that drives me and all other human beings). These individuals are on the same page in their philosophy with those libertarians who don't know Christ. Why? Because they don't want shackles either. But the Christian must see the shackles in light of Scripture. The reprobate is free to rebel until his life is required of him.
Further, I understand the distinction between the state and government. In the same way that regeneration and conversion are two different things but may be used as synonyms in the proper context, so it is with the terms state and government.
I want to thank the objector for his comments. I thought I would clarify some of my method and thought in response. The critique does cause me to continue to think through the issues. I am simply more and more convinced of the need for liberty, the position that we cannot bind another man's conscience in religion, and that we must influence public policy from our worldview with all biblical and legal means. At the same time, I am more and more convinced that rebellion is sin. Our home is not in this world. Our home is in heaven. To talk of submission only for expedience and to call for overthrow if we had the ability is to put too much emphasis or stock in this life. If there is no resurrection, then let's put the justices who stole our property in the recent ruling on Eminent Domain on the streets at gunpoint, for this life is all we have. But if there is a resurrection, and there is, then let us find our ultimate joy in Christ and the heavenly country (Heb. 10:34).
[Scroll Down for Parts One and Two]