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What would the Twelve Apostles say about modern government?

This essay continues the Christian Theology and Public Policy Course essays by John Cobin, author of the books Bible and Government and Christian Theology of Public Policy.

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How would the statements by the Apostles Paul and Peter (in Romans 13:1-7, Titus 3:1, and 1 Peter 2:13-17) have differed if they had been modern day Americans rather than living under the Roman state? The study of history, economics, political science, world religions, literary forms, and philosophy are important for proper biblical interpretation. Without a good grasp of these fields of endeavor, the interpreter is prone to make errors in judgment, including errors in applying the doctrinal rules regarding submission to authority under a modern “democracy” (or republic) rather than an autocracy.

For instance, the synoptic gospel accounts say that the death of Christ occurred at the “sixth hour” (Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44), while John 19:14 says that He was still with Pilate at that time. How can one reconcile the difference in time? Is the discrepancy proof that the Bible contains errors? By applying knowledge from fields such and history along with deductive reasoning, one will find that John’s Gospel was written much later than the other three accounts—after the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD. That cataclysmic event crushed, among other things, the Jewish manner of keeping time. For a Jew, a day began at 6AM instead of midnight (the latter being both the Roman convention and ours today). Thus, in Jewish time the sixth hour corresponded to noon in Roman time. John would have used Roman time in his gospel and so there is no contradiction in the Bible. Accordingly, biblical interpretation can be facilitated and enhanced by careful utilization of the tools from other disciplines.

That is not to say that all doctrines of the Bible require tools from disciplines like the sciences or the humanities to be well understood. In particular, the doctrine of salvation and the nature and attributes of God may be clearly manifest to even the most uninformed reader. But some theology and specific doctrine requires hard work to flesh out appropriately—including the use of analytical tools and knowledge gleaned from other disciplines. Thus, a good grasp of economics, public policy theory, and history are a great boon in developing a biblical theology of public policy.

The political context of the Apostles differed greatly from the situation of the modern West. Not only do most Western nations not have an autocratic state, the rules of interventionism have changed. Rome had no welfare state. This fact is important for Christians because welfarism is based on the notion of “positive rights”. This political philosophy justifies plundering one group of citizens in order to benefit another, and is therefore an abomination to the Christian faith.

Would the Apostles have encouraged modern Christians in the West to participate in welfare state programs or employment schemes? If we take the Scriptural admonitions against theft seriously, the answer must be “No”. The Bible clearly prohibits theft: “You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another” (Leviticus 19:11), “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15; Matthew 19:18, Romans 13:9), “Let him 3 who stole steal no longer” (Ephesians 4:28a); and it forbids idleness: “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (1 Thessalonians 3:10).

The fact that the state legalizes plunder through extortive taxation policy does not justify the theft, nor does the state’s rewarding of idleness excuse complacent joblessness. Recipients may not receive welfare and be innocent any more than a woman or her abortion “doctor” can be guiltless of murder when performing a “legal” abortion. How can a Christian rightly contend that the Apostles would have contradicted their teaching against theft by allowing looting through the political process? The bottom line is that a Christian cannot be righteous while voluntarily requesting welfare state benefits like Social Security, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, food stamps, educational grants, or subsidized housing.

Furthermore, the existence of democratic processes under a constitutional republic does not alter the malevolent nature of proactive public policies or the bad behavior of government agents. Representative government does not preclude Christians from championing causes against bad legislation, evil decrees, or nefarious rulers. Neither does it prevent them from disobeying foul edicts. There is nothing in Scripture that would lead one to believe that state-sponsored extortion or state-sanctioned murder (e.g., abortion and euthanasia) are cleansed (or are no longer wrong) because they have been approved through a representative process. And it is inconsistent for Christian leaders to arbitrarily decry abortion policy but not extortion policies.

The Apostles simply did not envision (and could not have imagined) Christian submission to the state entailing us Christians voluntarily participating in thefts, murders, unjustified aggression, fraud, or malice. Had the Apostles been able to foresee what would transpire under modern “democracies” in the name of “the general welfare” or the “public interest”, they would have both condemned the policies as evil and certainly discouraged Christian participation in them. Further, the Apostles would have doubtless called believers to be those who stand up against such evil policies, whenever prudent, as a matter of maintaining integrity in their Christian lifestyles and their commitment to the Truth. Nowadays pastors and church leaders, rather than Apostles, are left with the charge of calling Christians to maintain integrity. The big question is: “Are they willing to do so?”

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Originally published in The Times Examiner on June 15, 2005.

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