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How Are Christians to View Government?: Lessons from Church History, Part 11


BonhoefferIn the previous article, we examined the question of how Christians should respond to unjust laws and regulations from the government. The first option in a republic is political engagement: to work within the system to prevent injustice and to correct it if or when it occurs.

Our Second Option: Civil Disobedience

What happens if political engagement fails or if we are cut off from the political process by, for example, a Supreme Court decision that makes legislation impossible? Leaving aside the questionable claims of supporters of state nullification, the next step is passive resistance. Put simply, we answer to God first (as does the government), and if or when the government demands that we obey it rather than God, it is our responsibility to disobey and to accept the consequences. This includes being driven out of business, bankruptcy, fines, or imprisonment.

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How Are Christians to View Government?: Lessons from Church History, Part 10


Sir_Thomas_Lawrence02Where We’ve Been

Over this series of articles, we have looked at one aspect of the historical ideas within Christianity about government. We focused on St. Augustine’s argument that human government inevitably tends toward corruption and abuse, since it is made up of fallen human beings. This means that government cannot be trusted with absolute power, and therefore that there must be limitations on governmental authority, as well as a system of checks and balances to prevent anyone from accumulating too much power and thus becoming tyrannical.

We also noted that from the earliest days of Christianity, church and state have been different institutions. Christianity originated as a persecuted minority religion and stayed that way for nearly 300 years, establishing this idea. Much of Western political history and theory has been a tug-of-war between church and state to try to figure out the proper balance of authority between the two.

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How Are Christians to View Government?: Lessons from Church History, Part 9


MLK_mugshot_birminghamThe last several articles in this series have dealt with Protestant Resistance Theory, which deals with the questions of when does a legitimate king turn into an illegitimate tyrant, and under what circumstances are we justified in actively resisting government. But active resistance and overthrowing governments are not the only options available for resisting unjust laws and violations of human rights. From the earliest centuries of the Christian era, believers have engaged in passive resistance as an appropriate response to unjust government.

Passive resistance is nonviolent resistance to the government. It can take many forms, such as fasting, peaceful protest, refusal to cooperate with the government, or refusing to obey laws. For Christians, the foundation of passive resistance is found in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells us that those who are persecuted are blessed, and instructs us not to “resist” (in context, fight back against) those who abuse us (Matt. 5:10-12; 38-41).

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How are Christians to View Government?: Lessons from Church History, Part 8


ThinkstockPhotos-518899548As discussed in the previous article, the principles underlying the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were built on ideas coming out of the Christian tradition, including Augustinian pessimism about government, the concept of unalienable rights, Protestant resistance theory, and Calvinist social contract theory. These ideas were frequently mediated by John Locke, who was himself part of this tradition, but in some ways the American Founders departed from Locke.

The Bill of Rights

In order for the Constitution to be ratified, the Founders had to append the Bill of Rights to the document as the first ten amendments to the Constitution. They were reluctant to do so, since they feared these would be interpreted as the only rights that we have, but some states insisted on their passage, and so they were drafted and then ratified along with the Constitution.

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How are Christians to View Government?: Lessons from Church History, Part 7


Constitution_of_the_United_States_page_1The Declaration of Independence: Self-Evident Truths

John Locke, whose political thought we examined in the previous article in this series, was a major influence on the Declaration of Independence and thus on the theoretical foundations of the United States. While not explicitly based on biblical ideas, Thomas Jefferson’s preamble to the Declaration of Independence built on earlier ideas developed by Christian theologians, particularly Protestant resistance theory and Calvinist contract theory, as systematized and passed down by Locke. Thus, even though Jefferson was far from an orthodox Christian, his thought needs to be placed into the context of the English and Protestant political tradition.

Jefferson begins with what he describes as self-evident truths. The first is that all people are created equal. This is anything but self-evident in most contexts. Some people are more intelligent than others, stronger, faster, or more powerful than others, better leaders than others, better looking than others, and so on. In fact, no culture in history had believed in the fundamental equality of all persons prior to the advent of Christianity. The New Testament explicitly states that race, ethnicity, class, and gender do not matter before God. Human worth in the Bible is based first on the Image of God that we all share, and our spiritual and moral equality before God is further affirmed by the fact that we all are sinners and we are all saved the same way, by the work of Christ.

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Christian Character: What Is It? Part 5


backhuysen-paulus_grtSuffering and Character

We live in a culture that seeks to avoid pain at all cost. We Christians often fall prey to this false, worldly, and demonic tendency by being certain that God wants to shield us from all anguish and misery. But God, through the Apostle Paul, informs us that He has a God-given ministry of suffering for many of us, and that this ministry is often essential in the formation of our character. Paul in Romans 5:3-5 describes this ministry:

. . . We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Paul spoke from experience. He was beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, and also in danger from storms, wild beasts, and robbers while on the road (2 Corinthians 11:25). He suffered. All of this trauma strengthened his character.

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