In the book of Daniel we see our central protagonist serving God and Babylon faithfully under Nebuchadnezzar. When we arrive to chapters five and six we see that a regime change is brought about and Daniel is now serving under the government of the Medo-Persian Empire. I thought it might be interesting to discuss a little bit of how Christians are to live and flourish under various governments and systems as the sands of time continue to fall.
In a previous essay we discussed the role civil disobedience1 in the life of a follower of Jesus. The Scriptures are clear that we are to relate to government in an orderly fashion and even pray for our leaders. A quick summary:
- Government is given by God to give order and punish evil (Romans 13)
- We are to pray for those in authority over us-even those with whom we disagree (1 Timothy 2)
- We are to respect and honor those in authority while keeping God as the highest authority in our lives (1 Peter 2:13-17)
- We are to obey God and not people when human authorities require us to sin against God. In such cases, non violent civil disobedience is our pathway (Exodus 2, Acts 4)
Governments have taken diverse and variegated forms throughout history and it seems some governments might be easier to live under than others. After all, humans have been governed by monarchies of Kings or Queens, aristocracies where lords and landowners held power, oligarchies where small groups govern the many, socialist schemas where the state owns the means of production, fascist dictators have roamed the earth, communist have offered classless utopias and free market democracies have raced around the world. Let it be known that I do like freedom, democracy and representative republics; I am not a fan of big brother or a massive centralized government.2 I am also for the separation of church and state (more on that later) and not for any sort of theocracy until the Kingdom comes and Jesus is the fully reigning King. In this essay I have no interest in advocating for a particular system of human government. Furthermore, the question as to how politically involved those who belong to God's kingdom should be I will also save for another time. My goal here is much simpler. I only want to demonstrate that followers of Jesus can and should seek to follow the above commands of Scripture under whatever government they live.
Jesus was clear that the human state and the Kingdom are not the same thing when he told his disciples to "give to Caesar what is Caesars and to God what is Gods." In other words, we should obey just laws, pay taxes and seek to be good citizens in all the places God sends us. Furthermore, we should seek to act justly and follow Jesus as the highest authority in whatever circumstance at whatever costs to our lives. To demonstrate this I want to briefly survey a few different political settings in which God's people have faithfully lived out these principles. The final government will be our own American situation. In discussing our own cultural situation I want to hit a few issues. First, an understanding of state/church separation. Second, some of the deep blessings afforded to us in our historical situation along with some risks we face living under our system in the 21st century. In closing I want to encourage us in our sojourn here in New Jersey to live in light of the gospel so that God is glorified and our communities are blessed.
Examples of Christians under Governments
Under Roman Imperialism - Perpetua and Felicitas
The person of Jesus was born the son of carpenter in the middle east. This area of the world was under the vast and powerful rule of Rome and much of early Christianity was birthed in this context. The gospel took root among both the poor and the titled in the urban contexts of the port cities of the Empire.3 Both slaves and nobility became worshippers of Jesus and lived gospel life together. At the dawn of the 3rd century, a noblewoman named Perpetua lived in the North African city of Carthage with her husband, son and a slave who was named Felicitas. Under the edict of Emperor Semptimius Severus in AD 202,4 Roman power sought to suppress the Christian movement and aimed its efforts at the growing Christian community in North Africa. Perpetua and several of her friends were cathechumen, new believers studying the faith to prepare to be baptized. They were arrested and imprisoned under imperial rule and given opportunity to worship the emperor by sacrificing to him. Her father begged her to say she was not a Christian but she could only confess that she was indeed a follower of the risen Jesus. Her words to here father are instructional to our understanding of living under oppressive governments:
It will all happen at the prisoners dock [her trial] as God wills, for you may be sure that we are not left to ourselves but are all in his power.5
Perpetua and Felicitas were put before wild beasts to be attacked and then ultimately publically executed by the sword. Under a state that persecuted them, they lived and then died as faithful followers of Jesus.
Under Clans and Kingdoms - Patricus in Ireland
After the sack of Rome by the Visigoths under the leadership of Alaric I much of the western Roman empire was in disarray. The church brought stability and eventually the barbarian conquerors were converted to the Christianity of those they befell. Yet in the outlying areas of the British isles, much of the government was based on clan affiliation, power landowners which were small Kingdoms unto themselves. North of Britain were the pagan Celts of Ireland who were nothing like the "civilized" continentals of the Roman way. A young 16 year old boy from Wales named Patricus was ripped from his home and made a shepherd-slave by Irish raiders. For some six years he labored in isolated servitude and it was during this time that he met deeply with God and was formed spiritually. After such years he escaped back to his homeland only to be called by Christ to return. Patricus recounts a vision where a man from Ireland appeared to him begging him "to come and walk among us once more." The visions continued and Ireland would not leave him. At this point Christ began to speak within him "he it is who gave his life for you, is he that speaks within you."6 Patrick would go establish a mission in Ireland to bring the gospel to the clans and Kingdoms of the Celts. A barbaric people who once cut their captives heads off to wear them dangling from ropes around their waists, would soon tie books and Bibles to the same. Patrick brought the gospel to a people who lived under a clan-like government structure brought many into the Kingdom of God.
Under 20th century Communism-Richard Wurmbrand
Communism was founded on the philosophical and historical political theories of many thinkers, most prominently Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marx once wrote that religion is the opiate [drug] of the masses7 which kept them subservient to the power brokers and rulers of a culture. If people only cared for the life to come they would endure any misery in the here and now. Communism was in no way friendly to the Christian faith. In fact, communist regimes have systematically sought to suppress and eliminate faith to set about its atheistic, secular agenda to create a classless society. Dictators of all stripes have never liked followers of Jesus who found his rule and reign higher than that of government commissars. Jesus told people he would set them free no matter what situation and government they lived under; communists typically did not like this sort of thinking. Yet as the Soviet power of the 20th century seized power in Romania, one Richard Wurmbrand, would choose the freedom of Jesus in jail cells over the oppression of a godless society. Wurmbrand was a preacher who continued his work in the underground church in Romanian despite communist oppression. He was arrested and jailed in 1948 and spent over eight years in various prisons and labor camps. He resumed his work in the underground church in 1956 only be arrested again in 1959. During his imprisonments he was tortured and suffered greatly spending years in solitary confinement. Upon his release he began to speak for the persecuted church and founded Voice of the Martyrs a ministry which continues to this day. Wurmbrand was a Jewish Christian who knew that Jesus was a good king who would guide him through his darkest hours. He faithfully served under communist regimes and then lived in freedom before finally going to be with his Lord in February 2001.8
Under American Democracy
Our own situation is one in which we currently have freedom of religion. We assemble in our homes, rent public meeting spaces and have every right that any one else has regardless of our religious beliefs. This is a rare occurrence in the history of the world and one for which we need to be thankful. This country was founded by those seeking religious freedom and many of them argued to keep it by desiring the church to be free from state control. The first clause of the first amendment to our constitution reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
There is no state church for our country and we have no official religion. Yet in recent times some have began to interpret this clause to mean that it demands a public square free from all religion and only a strict secularism is to be permitted for citizens when they are relating to "public" issues such as education and law. Spiritual beliefs and philosophical opinions should be kept a private matter and not be brought up in public company. It is with great joy that we live in a culture where we have such great freedoms for our faith, yet I'm not sure that we can assume that it will always be this way.
Today our culture can see evangelism as invasive and intolerant. Today many seek to silence teaching about Jesus and relegate it to the private halls and houses of worship. It is not by force of arms or rule of law but by intellectual and social pressure and ridicule that Christians are subtly urged to keep quiet in the streets.
Our freedom also brings great risks as we live under our current government. It is easy to value Americanism and its values over the Kingdom and what Jesus wants for his people. We can value riches and political influence over the gospel and loving others. We can be seduced to thinking that America is somehow a divine nation rather than simply a nation that God has ordained for this time and place. Please don't misunderstand me, I love this country and our systems of government. Yet America ≠ The Kingdom of Heaven. Nancy Pearcy, in her book Total Truth, even has a chapter with a revealing title "Christianity met America and Guess Which Won?"9 We must not confuse Christian faith with a particular political party, system of human government or nation. We must always remain citizens of two realms, our own nation and the Kingdom of Heaven. As Paul told the Christians in the ancient city of Philippi our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our call has been clear in sojourning in Babylon with Daniel and his posse. They lived in a culture in which the structures of power were profoundly not in submission to the creator God. Their media, art and educational systems were in honor of false gods and human potentates. Yet like Daniel, we too can walk with Jesus, remain faithful to God, be humble in our service to others and work diligently for the transformation of our culture. We are not called to be powerful oppressors pushing our will upon others, but citizens of an in breaking Kingdom where we stand for justice, seek mercy and hold out the saving gospel of God as the only hope for all people. Jesus suffered unjustly under a governor named Pontius Pilate even though he was the rightful ruler of the universe. As we follow him we are reminded that our weapons are not of this world but rather comes through the powerful truth of the gospel. God forgives, makes new and justifies the wicked through the work of Jesus Christ. All who come to him are set free from sin, death and hell and will inherit eternal life. We now live as sojourners in light of the cross, living for the glory of God and the good of others. This is our way.
1. Essay on Civil Disobedience available online here: http://www.powerofchange.org/blog/2009/02/to_obey_or_not_to_obeythat_is.html
2. UVA Sociologist Brad Wilcox recently discussed in the Wall Street Journal how a growing state usually corresponds with a shrinking church-http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123690880933515111.html
3. For more on the early spread of Christianity see Rodney Stark, Cities of God-The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (HarperOne, 2006).
4. Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity (HaperSanFrancisco, 1984) 83.
5. Perpetua, in Mark Gali and Ted Olson 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Broadman and Holman, 2000) 363.
6. Summary of the account in Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (Anchor Books, 1995) 105, 106.
7. In the introduction of Marx's Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, 1843.
8. An interesting historical video on Wurmbrand is actually online at http://www.persecution.tv/media/tfc/player.html
9. See Chapter 10 in Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth (Crossway, 2004) 273.