Friday, June 26, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Bucking or Buckling?

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

I promised last week we’d talk about this subject some Friday in the future, and there’s no time like the present.

Tom: IC, we opened a can of worms on the subject of authority and just how the Christian ought to respond to it. That’s not something evangelicals have had to worry about too much in the West for many years, but it’s a topic that’s becoming increasingly relevant as governments begin to encroach on the freedoms we currently enjoy in the interest of a “just society”.

So how about it? Got any grenades to lob on this subject?

Pitting Scripture Against Scripture

Immanuel Can: Well, on the surface it may seem a straightforward kind of question: Do we “obey God rather than men” or “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”? Two sides, but pick one and you can at least find some kind of scriptural warrant it would seem — at least at a superficial glance. So, Tom, does that mean we can say that scripture cannot give us any actual guidance on this issue because it seems to warrant both positions?

Tom: Well, you know what I’m going to say next: when two scriptures appear to contradict one another it always turns out they don’t. That follows from the apostolic doctrine that all scripture is breathed out by God and that God, by his very nature, cannot self-contradict or err. So all it means when two verses appear to warrant opposite positions is that our understanding of one or both is flawed or incomplete.

IC: Yes, I agree. But perhaps we need to plug in some particulars to make sure we know which verse applies where, and why. So let’s take a scenario in which the will of the State and the direction of scripture appear to be opposite, and see if we can’t clear up our vision by applying the scripture to it. What would you like to tackle?

The State vs. the Christian Family

Tom: If you live in Brazil, Guatemala, Armenia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Netherlands and numerous other countries, the State forbids home schooling. What are the biblical options for believing parents in those countries who wish to raise their young children without exposing them to anti-Christian propaganda?

IC: Good one. It pits the idea of submitting to authorities against the responsibility to raise children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord”, as they used to say.

Well, the Bible says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God”. So I guess we’ve all got to send our kids to the approved public schools, right? I mean, if we live in one of those countries you named ...

Tom: I agree. I recognize that some Christian parents feel passionately that home schooling is the will of God for them, but even in countries where it’s illegal, it’s only illegal when you insist on doing it instead of complying with the law. What’s forbidden is refusing to send your child to the State school. So Christians there can do both: they can teach their children at home as they see fit (and they’d need to do quite a bit of that anyway to immunize their kids from the propaganda machine), but they must see to it that they comply with the law as well. I think that’s the appropriate response. Parents have never been able to control everything their children are exposed to, but they certainly have an obligation to help them interpret it correctly.

IC: Ah, I see your solution ... you reject the opposition I posed.

Tom: I reject most hypotheticals. J

Live Peaceably With All

IC: You suggest there’s no inconsistency between obeying the governmental demand and fulfilling the parental imperative. Got it.

Tom: I think if there’s a way to do both, that’s the best way. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all”.

IC: Well, I’m okay with that, but I can’t help but wonder if everyone would be. Would you say, then, that a parent who insisted on home schooling in defiance of the State would be guilty of disobedience to God as well?

Tom: Not if he sent his children to public school during school hours, no. The parents remain perfectly free to teach their children anything they like when they are home. So for me the issue is not really “home schooling” but whether the children show for up their mandated “good citizenship” programming between nine and three-thirty. And I’m thinking that’s the most practical Christian response.

Now if the parents refuse to send their children to public school at all because they think the government should never be allowed to teach their children anything? Well, that’s another story.

What do you think?

IC: Hey, no fair asking me the same question I just asked you ... but okay.

Good Effects from Bad Intentions

I see a lot of Christian parents today worried about the effect of the world’s education system on their children. I know a lot about that, and they’re right to be nervous, I think. At the same time, if our government were to behave like those other governments you mention, the Christian parent’s mere fear of indoctrination would not be sufficient reason to keep children home ... though it would be good incentive to improve home spiritual education practices when the school day was over, and to be very intentional about helping children to evaluate the State’s claims critically in the light of scripture.

Even a morally bad education system can actually end up producing good effects, if parents use it to their advantage.

Delimiting Spheres of Authority

Tom: The penalty may matter to some too. Assuming a parent genuinely believes the government is acting outside its proper sphere of authority, if the penalty for being caught home schooling is a $500 fine once annually, some may feel it’s worth the cost to defy the law, whereas if it’s death or imprisonment that’s at stake, they may be a tad more pragmatic and decide home schooling is literally not the hill to die on.

After all, sphere of authority is a consideration in the Lord’s instruction to “render unto Caesar”, is it not? We are to render to Caesar the things that ACTUALLY belong to Caesar, not necessarily the things Caesar CLAIMS belong to him.

IC: Ah. Very good point. So whose “likeness and inscription” are on our children? In other words, who ultimately owns them by right? Surely that is the One who has a right to say how they are educated.

Acting Outside the Limits

Tom: Well put. Our obedience to the powers that be is not absolute. While we are not to be rebels, we are also not to be stupid. Elijah ran from Ahab. David ran from Saul. Moses ran from Pharaoh. Paul was let down a wall in a basket to escape death. Even the Lord Jesus passed through a murderous crowd to avoid being stoned because it wasn’t his time yet. In all cases, the “authorities” involved had exceeded their rightful sphere of responsibility and intruded on God’s domain. So there is plenty of biblical precedent for outward compliance with over-expanded authority while quietly doing whatever is necessary.

IC: Well, quite so … whenever the authorities impinge on an issue of our relationship with the Lord, there can be no question of our allegiances. But to the extent that we can sometimes ‘get along’ with even an unjust or wicked secular power, we should do so … as much as it rests with us.

And even should a secular system be teaching things that are rather wicked (as the present one is, actually), there is an opportunity there for young Christians to become lion-mettled and strong against temptation. So it’s by no means clear to me that we are always doing a favor to children by sheltering them from contrary ideas. Some exposure to those things is part of their becoming convinced, resolute, confident and articulate Christians. It’s always a question of when and how much, though.

Tom: Agreed. Have you got a real-world situation for me?

Numbering the Not-So-Fighting Men

IC: Okay, how about this: suppose the government requires you to produce and submit to them a written list of your church’s “members” in each year in order to obtain tax-free status. To do so means you have to accede to a definition of “member” that is not biblical — one that is demographic or based on signing some sort of list, rather than spiritual and based on actual association with Christ. Should the local church do it?

Tom: It wouldn’t bother me all that much to see the end of tax-free status, in keeping with not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing. That said, confession of Christ is part of the package for the believer, so if anyone wants to know who the Christians are, I’d be perfectly happy to submit a list with a single name on it: mine. But I would never presume to collect names or signatures for submission to the government or anyone else. That’s up to the other believers to determine for themselves. And I wouldn’t sign a list or “membership agreement” identifying myself on any basis other than faith in Christ.

IC: I like your answer well. I agree. And I rather suspect that if the political worm ever turns against Christians, then these lists of people we’ve provided the federal government will not prove advantageous to us. Our dependence on mortgages and buildings, on lists and procedures, will be the leverage the government is able to use to induce theological modifications if it ever wants to do so.

Things That Can’t Be Said

Tom: Okay, one more then. Let’s suppose it’s not the gospel itself at stake, but another scriptural truth that is unpalatable to a segment of the population — the doctrine of submission of the wife to the husband, the truth that homosexuality or abortion are sins against God, or maybe that we’re all made “male and female” as opposed to gender-fluid. The government decides one day that we can’t teach one or more of those things anymore, even in the privacy of our own gatherings, and there is a significant financial penalty and maybe even a contempt of court charge that comes with non-compliance, maybe some jail time.

Worth fighting over? I mean, these issues are not part of the “core” message of Christianity, are they? They’re not life-and-death for people out there.

IC: Not life-and-death? Abortion certainly is. So let’s go with the other group of issues, which are not, and present more ostensibly “borderline” cases ... stuff about sexuality and gender roles, and what can be taught in public. Those aren’t life-and-death, for sure.

Measuring the Spiritual Stakes

But are they spiritual life and death? Well, the Word says this:
“Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
So suddenly that starts to look life-and-death after all, doesn’t it?

Tom: Oh, certainly. But you wouldn’t consider backburnering those subjects just a little to avoid an ugly situation?

IC: Would I? Maybe, since I suppose I’m no less prone to making moral compromises in the face of conflict than anyone else, I would think. But should I — isn’t that the real question?

Tom: Absolutely. And maybe there’s a temptation to the opposite reaction among some believers. You have the quiet ones who would be inclined to go along with the government and say, “Well, we’re supposed to be subject to authority”, and they’d find scriptures to defend their position with. Then you have those who dispositionally are inclined to poke the bear who might say, “Here’s the line in the sand, let’s cross it”, and they’d have their scriptures too. One danger is that under pressure we use scripture to back our natural inclinations, rather than developing our response to a crisis from the word of God. Is there a balance to be struck in a case like this?

Avoid the Unprincipled Compromise

IC: I think what we need here is a spirit of discernment. We need to ask ourselves questions like:
  • “What, ultimately, is at stake here?”
  • “Are my natural inclinations actually backed by scripture?”
  • “Am I just seeking to avoid conflict at all costs?”
  • “Am I posing as tolerant when really I’m just forsaking principle?” and
  • “Am I making a bigger fuss of this than scripture would warrant?”
In our consciences we have at least a semi-reliable fire-alarm that may well alert us to unprincipled compromises. So when that internal alarm goes off, we need to respond. Whatever is against conscience is sin.

Tom: Right. Whatever we do, we need to be able to proceed with spiritual confidence, not just bluster.

IC: At the end of the day, each of stands or falls only to our Master, not to what others think — or we feel — that we should do (after all, that is the true Authority from which all other authorities derive their warrant). But in the Word we have the way to know whether or not on that day we are likely to stand or fall.


  1. What you are suggesting in your discussion is actually quite disturbing. Let me explain how. Assume there was a capital crime committed in your immediate neighborhood, e.g., murder (or in any other neighborhood in the nation). In that case, living in a decent democracy, you have certain expectations of what should happen next.
    You fully expect of the authorities to search for and pursue the criminal even to the end of the globe (via Interpol, e.g.). And if caught you expect the criminal to be brought to justice. Now, assume that the criminal is not caught but instead is able to hide even while in the public eye and eventually even is able by deception to rise through the ranks as a politician and become leader of the country he/she escaped to. Being a criminal he continues to devolve into a cruel and murderous despot, similar to what we had or have in current times in many nations.

    Now based on what you said, such persons are allowed to be in place by God since their authority, like any other, can only derive through acquiescence by God, the author of all authority. Hence, the earthly authorities, after learning that they now have to deal with this person as a head of state, are relegated to impotence and are unable to pursue justice (in the form of a drone strike, e.g.). Including myself I think most people will consider this (basically accurate) scenario to be completely unacceptable. At the same time in a dichotomous way, if something were done about it, as with Saddam Hussein, many will oppose applying justice. Hence injustice is allowed to flourish with the consequence that it can rear its ugly head anywhere in any society including our cherished democracy as it is beginning to do so now especially against those who follow Christ. So the answer is not as you suggest to practice and teach your justice in private while going along with public injustice.

    1. Not so, Q. Scripture teaches that Christians are to be subject to the authorities that are over them. Just as my kids are not subject to my neighbour's whims, a head of state in another country has no authority whatsoever over a Canadian. For example, Barack Obama is not MY president and I have no obligation to obey his edicts or the edicts of the U.S. government unless I put my foot on U.S. soil.

      Still less do other heads of state around the world have any kind of obligation to allow a tyrant to continue to rule another nation, especially non-Christian heads of state, which is most of them (though they may elect to respect a nation's sovereignty for other compelling reasons).

      Thus I'd suggest the problem you're concerned about doesn't exist for the Christian anymore than it does for the pagan.

    2. One of the distinctions between Christian "justice" and secular "social justice" is that whereas the latter looks to human ingenuity -- in particular, to rebellion and to the seizing of the tools of government -- to force its conception of justice to become reality, the former takes into account the sovereign authority of God.

      Inability to wait for some conception of "justice" is the hallmark of those who do not believe in God. The bowing to the choices made by God is the hallmark of the believer. If Paul could enjoin Christians to obedience when Nero was in power, and Christ could to it in regard to Caesar, we know that Christians do not need to contest political power with despots. Instead, they pray, since they know that God is able to raise up and depose powers at will.

      Only when a matter pertaining to God Himself, and to our prior obedience to Him is implicated do we refuse an evil ruler. Knowing when to bow and when to fight takes the discernment of the Spirit. Good thing He's real too.

      So do we believe God is real, and do we believe His Spirit is there to give us the discernment we need? And do we really believe the ultimate justice of God is coming, or do we feel we need to assure our justice happens now?

      I guess one of the ways we find out is how we respond to authorities with whom we have reason to find fault.

    3. I was not suggesting that any foreign heads of State has any influence or authority over you but rather that we should exert our authority over them if they are the criminal kind. Their Heads of State status should be ignored as sham and they should meet the fate of any criminal. Ideally all persons and nations should cooperate in that endeavor. This is all within accepted rules and expectations of the human legal system. There is no compelling reason to abdicate any of that under any circumstances. However, because that can endanger people if they live under such a ruler or government Christ suggested that to some extent we still cooperate where feasible. I do not interpret that as a card blanch for evil rulers or a prohibition against a call to arms against those individuals when justified. I also do not see this as a call by God to not implement our judicial norms if they conform to the Judeo Christian ideals. Your presentation
      struck me as not offering to implement human justice as a viable and often necessary option given the right circumstances. If you feel that such an option is never justified or feasible for a Christian then we would have a big disagreement.

    4. Everything we were discussing had to do with how a Christian ought to respond to the government of the country in which he lives, which is what both the Lord and Paul were speaking/writing about.

      None of it has to do with how the heads of state of one sovereign nation decide to respond to the head of state of another sovereign nation. I don't believe either the Lord or the apostles ever commented on such a thing.

    5. "Their Heads of State status should be ignored as sham and they should meet the fate of any criminal. Ideally all persons and nations should cooperate in that endeavor. This is all within accepted rules and expectations of the human legal system. There is no compelling reason to abdicate any of that under any circumstances.*

      I mean for this to apply especially to your current ruler (government), not only rulers of other nations. And it should apply equally to all nations since everyone deserves a chance at a decent government. I interprete Christ's exhortation therefore to be universal and not only local.

    6. And yet we follow the Man who said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”

      If you recall, He was standing before Pilate and the religious authorities, about to go to the cross.

      There never was a greater injustice perpetrated by less-admirably authorities than that one, I think you'd agree. And still, we have his example as our direction on the matter. And I don't think I, or anyone else, has ever suffered injustice on that scale, so I think we should be content to wait for true justice as administered by the Judge of the World when He comes again, don't you? For then it will all be set to right.

      And that is why we don't panic now, don't take up the sword on our own behalf or claim that justice must be served this minute.

      Moreover, are you sure that justice is really what you want? After all, you and I are still depending on His mercy, aren't we? So what is the cost to us of insisting on justice this minute, on our own terms? As Hamlet said, "Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

      We really don't have the credentials to set up our own conception of justice today. Nor do we have authorization from the ultimate Authority. So let's not.

    7. Not being British I am easily confused when someone quotes Shakespeare. To me he is almost totally obtuse and I prefer straight talk. I do like some of my desert with whipped cream but that is probably not what he means :).

      Could not disagree more and we'll have to leave it at that. As I see it Christ was on a very special mission completely outside the norm of human conduct where not demonstrating superior force and abilities was very important and really needed, something completely outside the box. Again, to me that does not translate to abdicating normal human conduct and management of human affairs, because life must go on, And yes, part of the latter is definitely to go after the bad guys and as hard and fast as you can. Unfortunately, that's where individuals and societies often go wrong. I am all for preventing Pol Pots, Hitlers, Stalins, genocide in Africa, Kurdistan and so on. And I do value a reasonably decent human judicial system (always imperfect) that implements human justice as best as it can be done. Nevertheless I understand where you are coming from but think that it has only limited applicability here, up to a certain point depending on the situation and no more than that.

  2. So, just to clarify, Christ came and he was “special” and all that, but his followers are (a) not to emulate him in his submission to authority (John 19:10-11) and (b) not to obey his words or the words of his apostles about submitting (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17).

    That about cover it?

    1. Please also review the Just War Doctrine here:

      From that:

      The Episcopal bishop of New York, William Manning said the following:

      "Our Lord Jesus Christ does not stand for peace at any price...Every true American would rather see this land face war than see her flag lowered in dishonor...I wish to say that, not only from the standpoint of a citizen, but from the standpoint of a minister of religion...I believe there is nothing that would be of such great practical benefit to us as universal military training for the men of our land.

      If by Pacifism is meant the teaching that the use of force is never justifiable, then, however well meant, it is mistaken, and it is hurtful to the life of our country. And the Pacifism which takes the position that because war is evil, therefore all who engage in war, whether for offense or defense, are equally blameworthy, and to be condemned, is not only unreasonable, it is inexcusably unjust."

  3. Tom, I developed my point the way I did precisely to answer that question. Please review my previous comment on how such heads of state (authority) are no better than common criminals who simply managed to get into a position of authority. Again,

    "Hence, the earthly authorities, after learning that they now have to deal with this (criminal) person as a head of state, are relegated to impotence and are unable to pursue justice (in the form of a drone strike, e.g.). Including myself I think most people will consider this (basically accurate) scenario to be completely unacceptable."

    Are you seriously suggesting that Christ was recommending to let criminals rule societies and we are to be patsies, and submit to their shenanigans? I for one consider that interpretation to be incorrect. His recommendations were clearly with concern about the safety of the fledgling church and followers at that time and not a fixed set of rules to have every criminal who happens to get into power willy-nilly lord it over you.

    1. "Criminals in power" mean like Nero, Caesar or Pilate? Or like those manifest hypocrites, the Pharisees and Sadducees? Were not those the very cases in hand when the Lord (and the apostle Paul) spoke of these things?

      Let's put it another way, Q: do you believe that God is telling the truth when He says, "Vengeance is Mine...I will repay." (Rm. 12:19) And do you believe that the Lord is telling us the right thing to do when he says that His Kingdom is not of this world, or that the Father has given to the Son all rights to judge? (John 5:22)

      You see, if we don't really believe that justice is in the hands of God...if that's just a nice, religious phrase, a warm thought with no reality standing behind it, then I guess you're right...human beings have to create their own justice, because no higher power exists to do it. And then we would also have to say that no authorities are ordained by God, despite Romans 13:1 saying that they are. So it's up to us, end of story. And, of course, that is exactly what the common-sense view of (perhaps democratic) humanity tells us on the subject.

      But if we now we have actually decided that we believe that no Higher Power exists, or that He is ineffectual, and justice is in our own hands, or if we conclude that authorities exist only by our permission so we have every right to raise them up and cast them down ourselves, or worse -- that the Lord didn't really mean what He said -- then we must wonder in what sense can we possibly call our view "Christian" anymore.

      I can think of none.