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Doctrinal Matters: Difficult Passages

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The Politics of Submission

by  Alden Bass

There is no God-established Christian government in this world; as a result, all Christians live under some other type of authority. In the West, this authority is primarily secular, allowing individuals to pursue their faith as they choose. In other parts of the world, however, Christians live under less-tolerant political systems that often discriminate against and persecute the family of God. More than 200 million people in over 60 nations currently suffer because of their love for Christ. This is not a new situation; rather, it is something that has been an integral part of Christianity since its inception on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). It is imperative that we as Christians understand our duty to this earthly authority that reigns over us, even those of us who are free from oppression right now. Fortunately, the New Testament presents exactly the instruction we need.

Water baptism represents a new birth. We do not understand this to be a physical birth, but a spiritual birth that introduces the believer into a new “kingdom” and a new, spiritual family (John 3:5-7). Paul distinguished between Judaism and Christianity, using this relationship of the spiritual family to illustrate a primary difference between the two religions: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28). To become a Christian is to slough off the “old self,” the “sinful body,” and to be free—free from sin, most obviously, but also free from the oppression of earthly constraints. Arguing again for the removal of ethnic and social barriers in Christ, Paul wrote: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free…” (1 Corinthians 12:13). This is to say that to belong to Christ—to literally be in Christ—is to lose a former identity, whether ethnic, sexual, or social. A Christian is understood to be part of a collective, variously described as a kingdom or a family throughout the Scriptures.

This vocabulary of family and kingdom took on a completely new meaning in the transition from the Old Covenant to the New. The Jews were born into the physical family of Abraham, and the physical nation of Israel (as well as the Jewish faith). Conversely, Christians are “born anew” into a “spiritual house” and “a holy nation” (1 Peter 1:3; 2:5,9). This implies a certain freedom from the former, corporeal relations of family and nation, and a new allegiance to the spiritual—i.e., the church. Throughout the New Testament, statements differentiating the brotherhood of Christ from the brotherhood of humanity crop up in many different contexts. For example, Paul encouraged Christians to “do good to all men” but especially to those who are of the “household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). Similarly, Peter admonished believers to “honor all people,” but to “love the brotherhood” (1 Peter 2:17). These passages not only demarcate the two groups, but also emphasize the priority of the sacred over the secular.

Despite this new allegiance to the authority of a spiritual King (Christ), and a spiritual kingdom (His church), Christians still operate in a material and temporal world—a world that in the first century consisted of hierarchies of domination in various power relations that were usually unpleasant (if not physically harmful) to the subordinate party. Slaves were abused, women were considered chattel property of their husbands or fathers, and even private citizens sometimes were persecuted by those above them. First-century Christians generally found themselves at the bottom of these political hierarchies under Roman rule, and often were harassed by the government (or with the government’s consent) for certain harmless, but misunderstood, practices. The close fellowship and secrecy (necessary because of persecution) of the early Christians made them suspect, as well as the subject of various distorted rumors about sexual deviance and cannibalism—rumors originating from perverted accounts of the Christians’ practice of taking the Lord’s Supper and greeting one another with a holy kiss. Such persecution and political pressure had forced the Jews to revolt against Rome only a few years earlier, and now circumstances were ripe for a Christian revolution. Christians no longer needed a physical government, much less a harsh and oppressive physical government, for Christ was their King. The early Christians had two options it seems: to remain in the current power relationships, or to revolt.

While the latter option undoubtedly appealed to some, as history reveals, the canonical writings of the New Testament, for differing reasons, unanimously advocate a continuation of the societal norms practiced before conversion. The primary passages supporting this conservative position are Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-17, but evidence also can be drawn from the Revelation of John. The principal argument revolves around authority. To the subordinate Christian who was being oppressed, the authority must have seemed to reside with the oppressor—whether that be husband, master, or government official. Yet the New Testament writers agree that all authority belongs to God, not only in spiritual matters, but also in the terrestrial realm. The theme of Divine sovereignty over earthly matters frequently is mentioned in the Old Testament as a backdrop to Israel’s confrontations with the surrounding nations (cf. 2 Chronicles 20:6; 2 Kings 19:15; Psalm 22:28), and is revisited in the gospel of Matthew when Jesus, directly before ascending into heaven, assured His disciples that “all authority in heaven and on earth” had been given to Him (28:18). Paul introduced his argument in Romans by establishing once again God’s complete sovereignty over the nations: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (13:1). Because God is in control of everything, including kings and rulers, Christians must obey earthly authority just as they obey God. To obey the king, is to obey God. This reasoning must have been as startling to persecuted Christians as it was subtle; it is the main thrust of Paul’s argument.

Likewise, Peter instructed Christians to “submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13) for such is the “will of God” (2:15). He actually began his argument by making reference to the fact that believers are not truly citizens on Earth, but “sojourners” and “pilgrims” (2:11). By prefacing his words on civil authority with this disclaimer, Peter placed the Christian duty to the government in perspective. He acknowledged that in Christ, all are “free,” but he discouraged Christians from using this freedom “as a cloak for vice” (2:16). Instead, they were to submit to authorities, not for their own sake, but that “by doing good” they might “put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” (2:15). By living quietly under the existing civil government, Christians showed themselves to be obedient, law-abiding people, and provided a positive example for others. This same reasoning seems to be behind Peter’s instruction to wives and slaves to remain in their positions (2:18; 3:1), although this teaching also can be found in other New Testament writings (Ephesians 5:22; 6:5; Colossians 3:18,22).

The Revelation of John is perhaps the strongest case of all for the pervasiveness of God’s control in mortal affairs, though not the most direct. The book is apocalyptic, and often alludes in that context to the fast-approaching end of time (Revelation 1:3; 6:11; 12:12). John frequently used dualities to emphasize his message, such as the dichotomies of the spiritual and the corporeal; however, the distinction between the physical and the spiritual sometimes becomes blurred by the graphic, and often confusing, symbolism that permeates the narrative. Nonetheless, after all the complex cycles of seven, and the battles between good and evil, one message pierces through the darkness—no matter what happens, Christ is in control.

The book begins with an affirmation of His power, describing Christ as “the ruler over the kings of earth” (1:5). John also acknowledged the spiritual kingdom to which all Christians belong, above and beyond the terrestrial kingdom (1:6,9). It is clear from the language of “enduring” and “overcoming” in the letters to the seven churches that the intended audience was undergoing severe persecution (2:2,10; 3:5,10-11,21), presumably at the hands of the government for reasons already described. The message in these letters is to endure until the end (2:10). John did not incite these churches to rise up against their tormentors, nor to revolt against the social mores of their day; he merely encouraged them to endure. Even though many terrible tribulations fell on the believers pictured in the Revelation, all events are presented as being ultimately under God’s control. It was God Who released the four apocalypse horsemen sent to conquer, kill, and bring conflict and famine (“power was given to them…” 6:8). When the seventh angel blew his trumpet, it was announced that “the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and His Christ” (11:15)—viz., all authority is possessed by Christ. Furthermore, it is always God Who sits on the throne (3:21; 7:10; 20:11), which is a symbol of power, control, and authority.

Knowing that God was in control of the nations and rulers must have comforted the Christians who suffered persecution under those authorities. Coupled with this theme of complete sovereignty is an overarching principle of justice. Those who are suffering now must endure, and if they do, God will avenge their wrongs; they will one day share in the ruling of the nations (2:26; 5:10).

Today, Christians in the West are blessed with the opportunity to worship freely, and without fear of persecution. But we have no guarantee it will always be that way. The lesson to be learned is much larger than simply endurance of persecution however. The New Testament gives instruction on the Christian’s attitude to all earthly authority, and that attitude is to be one of submission. God has dominion over both worldly and heavenly spheres. Even though Paul, Peter, and John acknowledged that Christians belong to a heavenly kingdom first and foremost, they also recognized that homage (and taxes) must be paid to earthly rulers, who are God’s agents and mere puppets in the much larger battle between good and evil. The spiritual freedom to be found in Christ through baptism is real, but absence of suffering and the actual freedom from oppression will occur when this world physically undergoes the same transformation as the believer does in baptism (Revelation 21). Until that time, we must submit.




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