This is the second of a two-part series that can also be found online at the Libertarian Christian Institute here.
In Part I of this topic we explored the unfortunate reality that many Christians misuse the Bible to support their politics, and that this is often the result of their political ideology taking precedence over their Christianity. We discussed the issue of war and how many American Christians unquestioningly support America’s offensive and constant wars, despite our call to be peacemakers. To remedy this, we must take a nuanced approach to Biblical hermeneutics and properly contextualize the areas which seem to be at odds with the Gospel message. Firstly, we will look at the issue of slavery from the Bible and consider our modern attitude toward a once pervasive institution, and then use this same methodology to approach the issue of submitting to governing authorities.
We no longer condone or approve slavery even though the New Testament often speaks of the duty of slaves to be obedient and subservient.1 Paul and other writers were writing at a point in history when slavery as an institution was ubiquitous. Nearly all major civilizations and people groups had either owned slaves or were enslaved themselves at one point, such as the Hebrews by the Egyptians in the Old Testament. We see then that slavery was, unfortunately, normal to authors of the Bible, and therefore their thoughts on the subject were a reflection of historical context. That being said, it would not follow that “the Bible is inerrant” so we must continue to support slavery and demand obedience from slaves. I would posit that even though we no longer condone slavery, there is application in the premise of obedience to authorities. Although it would be disingenuous to pretend Paul was writing to a twenty-first century audience living in a capitalist economy, we nonetheless see a relevance to the idea of obeying authorities in our lives whom we do not always get along with. We can honor God by being obedient to authorities, so long as the authorities are not demanding we oppose God’s law. To return, just because the Bible mentions slavery and commands slaves to be obedient, we surely would not take this to be a sweeping defense of slavery for the rest of time. This seems obvious, but has a radical implication: our understanding of certain Biblical commandments can be updated to reflect our historical context. We look at American slaveholders’ use of the Bible to defend racial slavery as abhorrent, and yet so often we refuse to reconsider our ingrained understanding of other Biblical issues.
Admitting that slavery’s inclusion in the Bible should not be used as a defense of it today is to say that some parts of it were products of its authors’ exact positions in history and were not prescriptive for posterity. If this is the case, what else could be updated while maintaining a faithful attitude the inspiration of scripture? Many Christians today are pushing for more prominent roles for women in the church. Despite the early church’s male-dominated hierarchy in the New Testament, there are those presently who believe that this too is antiquated and was not intended to govern all churches for all time. Rather than only allowing women to serve in minor roles, many are open to female pastors. My intent here is not to take a stance on this particular topic, but only to show that there are issues in the church today which challenge the traditional understanding of what the Bible says. Other points of controversy today include church membership and/or leadership roles for gay Christians; gender identity issues among churchgoers; cohabitation of unmarried Christians, and various others. We do not mean to say that because slavery is no longer tolerated, the Bible can mean anything anyone wants. Our attempt and struggle with properly understanding the text is part of what makes spiritual maturity an ongoing process. But if we were to dogmatically assert that something is “in the Bible” so it must be preserved, where would that leave something like slavery?
We see that there are issues in the Bible, such as slavery, which have been or are being updated to reflect a modern understanding. This isn’t theological liberalism run amok, it is simply the application of logical and rational principles to Biblical issues; principles to which authors writing in the first century could not have been exposed simply as a matter of historical development. Should we expect those who wrote the Bible to have seen slavery as an evil institution when even many in the United States did not see it as such until the late nineteenth century or later? It is anachronistic to impute common sense views from 2018 to those living and writing in the first century. Furthermore, Christians cannot arbitrarily isolate these contentious issues to fit their politics. Although no one today favors slavery, there are surely other issues which modern Christians would be more reluctant to reconsider. We cannot dismiss these conundrums of Biblical inerrancy by saying, “The Bible doesn’t really mean that.” We must either admit that some of these issues should be updated, such as slavery, or they should not. Since surely no one today would defend slavery on Biblical grounds, this opens the door to other issues we must confront; namely, our attitude toward governing authorities in the form of the State.
If Christians should approach these difficult areas of the Bible with a combination of Godly discernment and a modern historical context, why can we not also apply this approach to “submission to the governing authorities”? Too many Christians believe that everything the government does is in some way justified or authorized by God. This is the result of a selective interpretation of Biblical passages such as Romans 13 which at first glance seem to demand submission to all governing authorities for all time. We cannot pretend that the text does not call for us to submit to the governing authorities, but like much else, this must be contextualized. As discussed previously, we cannot take something from the Bible and, simply as a result of its inclusion in the Word, assume that it is a blanket Statement and intended for everyone, everywhere, for all time. If I cannot literally move mountains with my faith, should I still submit to all governing authorities at all times, regardless of the activities of those authorities?
Christians must update their understanding of Biblical submission to reflect the political world we live in. Granted, at the time Paul wrote this passage in Romans the early Christians were being persecuted by Nero. But again, we must assess whether his instructions to the early church were a sweeping command for all Christians throughout all time, or simply Paul’s attempt to keep the fledgling church alive. Regardless, there are certain historical events in which we would not so simply tell those being persecuted to abide by the call to submit. Would we say the American colonists were breaking God’s law by seceding from the British empire? Were Northerners sinning by failing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act? Were those involved in the plot to kill Hitler failing to uphold Romans 13? These are weighty questions indeed.
To conclude, the point is not that the Bible can mean whatever we want it to mean. On the contrary, we believe the Bible is inerrant. A true understanding of the text and a proper application of its message should be our goal. The Bible should inform our politics and not the other way around. Our libertarianism, or conservatism, or liberalism will not save us from the penalty of our sins. For those of us in Christ we go through life under the covenant of God’s grace, attempting earnestly to know God and know his Word. All the while, we cannot pretend that the words in the Bible are as straightforward as many would have us believe. We cannot sit idly by while today’s metaphorical slave owners whip others into submission under the false pretense of Biblical authority. For Christians, the ends should never justify the means. Shall we continue sinning so that grace may abound? By no means. I submit then that if the State is predicated on sinful means – violence, theft, and murder – no end it brings about can be considered worth the price paid to achieve it. God is the only one who can redeem us and redeem the world’s brokenness. If it be His will, He uses us in this redemptive process, but our hope is not in earthly governments. We await a new heaven and a new earth.
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men[a] and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.
1 Samuel 8:4-18 (ESV)
- Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-24; 1 Timothy 6:1-2; 1 Peter 2:18; Titus 2:9-10.