This essay continues the Christian Theology and Public Policy Course by John Cobin, author of the books Bible and Government and Christian Theology of Public Policy. It is the sixth installment of a seven part series dealing with Christians and rebellion against the civil authority, originally titled “Christian Views on Rebellion.”
In my previous two columns, I outlined the two historical schools of Evangelical thought regarding the nature of the state and public policy: (A) the Integrated Authority School and (B) the Competing Kingdom School. In this column, I pick up that discussion by delineating in greater depth the principles of Competing Kingdom School, and the two views associated with it.
The competing kingdom school views the state as an entity entirely distinct from the church and family insofar as promotion of the Kingdom of God is concerned. Some proponents of this school would see the state as benign, although it often rears up its ugly side to assail the church of God. Others would view it as significantly aligned with Satan’s kingdom and his efforts in the world. Either way, the state is not a special sphere of authority along with the family and the local church.
The first branch of this school is the Anabaptist (strict separationist) or pacifist view. Leading Evangelical theologians of this perspective include Menno Simmons, Mark Roth, Harold Bender, and Heinrich Bullinger. Submission is passive for the Anabaptist, and even though rebellion is unavoidable in most lifetimes (as Christians inevitably come into contact with trying public policies), armed revolt is never the role of a Christian. Hence, the Anabaptist view holds a passive or non-confrontational public policy theology. However, like the divine righters, the Anabaptists do not make a very compelling or consistent case for reconciling the plain meaning of Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 with the fact that Nero was in power.
The Anabaptist view is the least sophisticated branch of the competing kingdom school and at some points (like divine right) is attenuated by some apparent logical contradictions in its structure. For instance, the Anabaptist preacher tells believers that it is sinful to be involved with the state’s “social security” plan, running for office, jury participation, military service, or voting because the state is effectively evil. The state is also exposed as the frequent afflicter of the church, persecuting God’s people. Yet many of this persuasion hold, paradoxically, that the malevolent state is in some way doing God’s bidding by restraining evil in the world and punishing criminals. While Anabaptists view the state as a separate, competing kingdom (some even see it as having a satanic nexus), they also see the state (even in Nero’s Rome presumably) as an instrument of God to punish criminals or those who do evil in God’s sight. This fact is rather odd given that Anabaptists, who are presumably the good guys in general, have suffered more persecution at the hands of state than perhaps any other Christian group.
The second branch of the competing kingdom school may be aptly termed liberty of conscience. Although this term has not been commonly used historically to describe theological views of public policy, many theologians and pastors have held it. Proponents include Baptists at the time of the American War for Independence such as Isaac Backus, John Leland, and John Wallers, as well as Roger Williams and probably John Bunyan (who at least held the seeds of the liberty of conscience view). Any Christian who holds to a dispensational or a “new covenant” Calvinistic perspective of biblical interpretation will tend to embrace this view, along with Baptists in general. Such Christians prize volunteerism and freedom of thought among believers and in society, shunning the notion of using Old Testament law or public policy to coerce people into behaving in a proper manner. For instance, few of them would want to force people to abstain from working on Sunday and to attend church services instead. Few of them would want to enlist the tools of the state to better evangelism by compelling people to hear the Gospel. Only God has a right to “compel” sinners to come to Him (Luke 14:23; Psalm 65:4).
The liberty of conscience view is developed and applied in a practical way in my book Bible and Government: Public Policy from a Christian Perspective (2003). In the same way that theonomy is the logical outcome of a Presbyterian and postmillenarian theology, liberty of conscience is the logical outcome of a Baptist theology (whether premillenarian or amillenarian). More resolutely than its Anabaptist counterpart, liberty of conscience views the state as evil, having a strong link with Satan and his kingdom. Yet Christians are left to their liberty with regard to where and when to resist the state, work within the state, or participate in revolution. Like theonomy, liberty of conscience holds a transformational, active or involved view of public policy theology. It is morally wrong at times to rebel against the state, but not always. Yet the state is never viewed as something to be transformed or that can ever become anything other than evil. The state is not the benign entity of the divine righters.
Moreover, those who hold a liberty of conscience view have a well worked out and cogent view of the words good and evil used in Romans 13:3-4 and 1 Peter 2:13-14. Unlike the divine righters, they do not try to make Nero into an overall bad ruler that nonetheless did imperfectly bring law and order to society. And unlike the Anabaptists, they do not try to impose a godly role on the state as an occasional punisher of criminals. They do not share the theonomic quest to idealize the passages and push them off as a theological abstraction with little practical significance for the Christians at Rome. Instead, they interpret the words good and evil to mean good and evil as defined by the state (or Nero) rather than as defined by God. So a state may consider Christians to be “evil” and punish them with the sword (as Nero did), while rewarding adulterers, idolaters, and murderers that it deems to be “good”.
The liberty of conscience view (which is my perspective) permits Christians to disobey public policy at times. Even though the general rule is for them to submit to rulers and public policies, Christian submission to civil government must be passive rather than active. The Greek verb ‘upotassesqw, translated “be subject” in Romans 13:1, is in the present tense, passive voice in the original language. Likewise, Paul uses the passive voice in Titus 3:1 (‘upotassesqai), as does Peter in 1 Peter 2:13 (‘upotaghte). In other words, Christians are to obey whenever directly called upon to do so, so long as God is not defrauded or any sin committed, but it is not their duty to actively pursue a course wherein they scour the “law of the land.” They do not need to make sure that they are in compliance with every point of public policy if the state does not directly pressure them to do so. Accordingly, Christians do not sin by violating government rules per se. They sin if their actions sidetrack them from their primary mission, cause harm to a neighbor, or detract from the glory of God. Being unduly harassed by the state for things of miniscule importance (from an eternal perspective) must not be the primary focus of a kingdom-minded saint. But acts of disobedience—even revolution—are both permissible and righteous.
Originally published in The Times Examiner on April 27, 2005.