slavery, the bible, and submission to governing authorities, part 1

This is the first of a two-part series that can also be found online at the Libertarian Christian Institute here.


Christian libertarians are probably the last people in the world who need to hear how the Bible has been used in the past to defend and all sorts of evil. Because of this, Christian libertarians have a difficult task in using the Bible to explain our unique political outlook. We believe the Bible to be God’s inspired Word, inerrant and binding on our lives. That being said, Christian libertarians should not be confused with literalists or antiquated fundamentalists who believe that every word of the Bible means exactly what it says. When Jesus says in Matthew that if we have faith as small as a mustard seed we can move mountains, should we take this to mean that we can literally move mountains? Was Jesus saying in the Gospel of Luke that in order to become a disciple we must literally hate our mother and father?


Of course, we know that the Bible, while inerrant, is not always black and white. It is not always literal, but it is not always figurative; it is sometimes descriptive and sometimes prescriptive; it is sometimes the result of faulty translating, and on and on we could go. We bring all sorts of innate biases and experiences into our reading of the Bible, and these predispositions color the way we find application for our lives. But the fault is with us as fallible beings, not with the Bible or with God. Because of this fallibility we should all the more endeavor to read the Bible and apply its message in the way God intended. And how do we know what God intended? This is not always easy to discern. We have the Holy Spirit, the church, pastors, mentors, logic, spiritual discernment, Godly revelation, and other faculties and means to aid our understanding of the Word. And even still, sometimes we are far off the mark in understanding what something in the Bible means. Consider, for example, the way many church leaders cheer America’s wars and those perpetuating war as if this were Biblical or God’s will.

Though we could explore endless examples of church leaders in America favoring and supporting sinful politics and politicians, the most obvious should be the mass killing involved in modern warfare. For every major conflict in the United States there has been a chorus of Christians pounding the war drums right alongside their unbelieving countrymen. Most egregiously, the rise of what some have termed the “Religious Right” has led to seemingly unqualified support among some Christians for America’s aggressive wars against Communism and Radical Islam.1 This is quite a sad indictment of American evangelicalism that the Republican Party is conceived, rightly or wrongly, as both the Christian party and the war party. Whether fighting Communism during the Cold War or Islamic extremism today, the Christians supporting the State’s wars see the U.S. government and military as the means to a righteous end. Many Christians see the United States as the embodiment of Winthrop’s “city on a hill,” except instead of Puritans stamping out vice, the U.S. military is dropping bombs in the name of democracy. Recently when John McCain passed away, even many Christians joined in lamenting the passing of a “hero” and “true American.” One prominent leader in the Southern Baptist Convention said on Twitter that McCain was a “hero … [and] has stood up for the ideals of democracy and freedom at home and around the world.”2 Christians should surely offer grace to others as it has been given to us, but this does not mean we should remain silent while church leaders endorse a man who supported violence and warfare most of his life.3 Christians should know better than to support someone who consistently fought and advocated for unjust, unconstitutional, evil wars. The Psalmist asks God to “Trample underfoot those who lust after tribute,” and to “Scatter the peoples who delight in war.”4 Sadly, too many Christians delight in war. Their tribute is a false sense of Christian activism; instead of sharing the gospel they are sharing support for death and destruction on a massive scale. Conceivably, either these warmongering Christians have not read the Bible closely enough to know that those who take the sword will die by it5, or they have read the Bible and have grossly misinterpreted its call to be peacemakers.6 The former is perhaps ignorance, while the latter is a trap all too many Christians have fallen into at one time or another when we use the Bible to justify our sin.

Uncritical support of war is but one example of wrongly applying the Bible to suit our personal or political agenda. In an even broader sense, cheering the State’s wars is simply one of many ways some Christians support the State because they believe we are called to unequivocally obey the government. Christians, from St. Augustine to today, misapply passages of the Bible to mean that we should always support our government no matter what. If our governing authorities want to tax half of our income, we should support it; if they want to launch a war on drugs which incarcerates tens of thousands of people for victimless crimes, we should support it; if they want to send our young men and women off to fight strangers in the Middle East, we should support it. But submission to governing authorities is not a blanket commandment. There are numerous instances in the Bible of men and women acting in accordance with their faith in a way that was either disobedient or disruptive to the government. Even the Apostle Paul, the one writing about Christians’ duty to be submissive to the governing authorities, was himself ostensibly contradicting this message when he continued to preach the gospel in defiance of Roman authorities. We must remember that the Egyptian government enslaved God’s people. Herod’s government killed babies. The Roman government put Jesus Christ to death at the behest of his own people who rejected him when he didn’t fulfill their conception of an earthly Jewish kingdom.

We are called to obey Christ first, no matter what. All other authorities in our lives—family, spouses, employers, and the government—come after our allegiance to Christ. We may logically conclude then that if any earthly authorities in our lives are doing something which is contrary to God’s law, or if they are asking us to do the same, we are not under an obligation to obey. In fact, we are called to resist such ungodliness.

The difficulty in challenging the status quo is in breaking down Americans’ active and/or passive allegiance to the State. We Christian libertarians must educate others of the evil being perpetrated by the State and show how this is incompatible with our call to serve God and love others; we cannot serve two masters. If our brothers and sisters claim to be in Christ, then their highest call is to God. Their faith comes before politics. Christian libertarians, for example, are Christians first and libertarians second. In attempting to spread a libertarian message to Christians, then, I think it is useful to appeal to this primary allegiance to Christ. In other words, we persuade others to let their faith inform their politics, not the other way around. If non-libertarian Christians agree that their first loyalty is to Christ, then it becomes a matter of convincing them that peaceful interaction and voluntaryism is what God intends for our lives.

Whether they would admit it or not, most Americans and even American Christians have made an idol of the State, replete with pledges, anthems, and forced tribute in the form of taxation. They may disagree with the man or party in charge at a particular time, but would never question the holy legitimacy of the State as an institution. They combine their belief in original sin with the need for a monopolistic watchman. Like the Israelites in 1 Samuel, many Americans prefer the king they can see, to God whom they cannot.  

Returning to the topic of war once more, many Christians believe that since God sanctioned wars in the Old Testament that He must, at the very least, permit them as some sort of global retribution today. While it is true that He allows modern wars (just as He allows us to freely choose sin), this does not mean He approves of wars or sanctions them as a righteous cause. Of all issues today imbued with a semi-divine impetus, it is hard to imagine a Biblical defense for the mass murdering that is modern warfare. Our Biblical understanding of war, and consequently our attitude toward it, must be updated. By “update,” we do not mean literally changing portions of the Bible. As we have said, God’s Word is inerrant; it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”7 However, inerrancy does not mean that popular understanding of a Biblical topic is inerrant. In other words, just because many Christians interpret a Biblical concept incorrectly, the original text remains infallible, it is just that the application has been distorted. For example, our understanding of slavery has of course been updated since the Apostle Paul wrote on the topic two thousand years ago. In Part II of this piece we will explore the issue of slavery in more detail, and make a case for updating our attitude toward “submission to governing authorities” just as we update our attitude toward slavery.  



  1.  For a study of the Religious Right see Daniel Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (New York, Oxford University Press, 2010).
  4.  Psalm 68:30.
  5.  Matthew 26:52.
  6.  Romans 12:18; Matthew 5:9.
  7.  2 Timothy 3:16.