Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.Ah yes, the classic Romans 13, a piece of scripture that has been mauled and reinterpreted by American Evangelicals to the point where it becomes classic eisegesis.
Romans 13.1-7 (ESV)
What is this syncretic belief? The belief that the Bible contains instructions on how much power civil government may have. Why is it syncretic? Because limited governmental theory is a modern political and philosophical concept, which means that it is sourced from outside the bible, yet it has become so important to American evangelicals that they see it as having a divine origin. In response to this, passages of scripture - most notably Romans 13 - have been fitted around this belief without taking into account either the concept's basis in modern philosophy, nor the clear meaning of scripture.
Disclosure: Politically, I would describe myself as an independent leftist, yet some of my economic beliefs are quite market-based, which means that I would fit closer to the centre of the political spectrum that to the left-hand margin. The political theories of Social Democracy, Social Liberalism and Ordoliberalism contain much of what I think would help our world, both socially and economically (There are limits, though. I would never be a Democratic Socialist. That's too far to the left for me). Despite this I know that the only real answer to sin is through Jesus Christ. Political theories of the sort that I adhere to may make material life in this world better, but they do not replace the gospel or the need for spiritual regeneration. They do not get people to heaven. Yet the reason why I adhere to them is because I honestly believe they will help our physical world to get better. What I won't do is somehow link these political beliefs back into the bible and argue that that the only Christian response is to hold to such beliefs.
And it is at this point that I am quite different to those who preach small-government as being biblical. I'm not going to preach that Social Democracy, Social Liberalism or Ordoliberalism is the only way for Christians to go. Instead, it is my argument that the Christian can follow whichever political movement he or she thinks will bring about the best outcome.
Let me put even more simply. If you are a Christian who does believe in small government theory, that's fine. It's not wrong to believe that. What is wrong to believe is that the small government position is biblically mandated, while alternatives like big-government socialism are sinful. Christians should be allowed to hold to various political positions, so long as they do not completely contradict scripture. I could not, for example, support Christians who think that a fundamentalist Zoroastrian theocracy is okay.
The thing is that small government theory and big government socialism is neither supported nor rejected in scripture. The problem is that modern American evangelicals do think it. These evangelicals argue fiercely to defend their particular ideology in much the same way as Liberation theologians argued back in the 1960s and 1970s that Marxism is the only political ideology Christians can support. Of course, the Liberation theologians were simply reading Marxism into the biblical text - much the same way as free market small government theory is being read into the Bible by modern Christians.
But, of course, all of this goes back to the passage quoted - Romans 13.1-7. The argument by small government Christians is that this passage gives clear limits to government power. Greg A. Dixon, an American Baptist pastor, wrote this list to describe what the passage taught:
- Good government is ordained by God.
- Government officials are to be good ministers who represent God.
- We the people must obey good and godly laws.
- As we relate Romans 13 to America, our Constitution is the higher power -- not the IRS tax code.
- Good government is not to be feared.
- In America, we are to pay honor and custom and constitutional taxes to whom it is due.
- Government is to protect the righteous and punish the wicked.
The problem is that, in this passage, Paul's intention is NOT to present the limits of civil government. Grammatically, there is no way the passage does that. If you read the passage again, you'll realise that what Paul is talking about is the Christian's relationship with government. Just because Paul describes a few things that governments do doesn't mean that he has prescribed what governments do. This confusion - between working out what the Bible describes and what it prescribes - seems to affect lots of people, especially the Biblically illiterate. Some have used the fact that the Bible describes polygamy as being something the bible prescribes. Others have used the fact that the book of Acts describes new converts speaking in tongues as a prescription that those who don't speak in tongues are not saved.
Another misinterpretation is that God's way of looking after poor people is only through charitable giving. Of course the bible speaks volumes about the importance of charity, but the bible nowhere states that it is the only solution. The invocation of 1 Timothy 5 doesn't really work when you realise that the commands Paul was giving applied only to church members who needed charity to survive. Of course government welfare payments were not even considered back then, but this passage is not evidence that the Bible has prescribed "charity only".
Actually, one of the best passages to shoot down this "charity only" belief can be found in Deuteronomy 24.18-22:
When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. 21 When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. 22 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.What is important about these couple of verses is that this is not charity. It is a command (verse 22) from God to Israel's farmers. This was not about willingly giving money or goods over to those who need it, it was an ancient form of taxation in order to help those who could not help themselves. Put it another way, if a farmer did NOT choose to do this to his field, then he was breaking the law and sinning. Of course this action was a form of generosity that should be undertaken with a glad heart - but it doesn't negate the fact that this command was a form of legislation and taxation, not a form of charity.
Of course if I was a Liberation Theologian I would use these verses to back up the claim that Marxism is the only true form of Christian politics. I won't because these verses were aimed at the people of Israel, God's covenant people before Christ. Since Christ's resurrection and ascension, the laws pertaining to Israel remain in their intention, but not in the specifics. The legal punishment for adultery in the OT was death, but Jesus over-rode this punishment in John 8.1-11 yet did not hesitate to tell the adulterous woman to "sin no more".
What this passage in Deuteronomy tells us, however, is that government actions like taxing people in order to redistribute funds towards public health and education (and other things), while not prescribed, is not proscribed.
But what is the best way? Is it big government socialism, handing out welfare checks to any lazy person who feels entitled to one? Or is it free-market small government theory, which puts the onus on personal responsibility to the point where needy people are to blame for their own poverty?
This is where wisdom comes in. Christians like myself who are on the left hand side of politics argue that some level of government redistribution of funds is essential to help people help themselves. On the other hand, there are Christians out there who argue that better laws and less government spending is necessary to help people help themselves. I don't claim that my position is the most biblical, and neither should the small-government Christian. Arguments and disagreements should naturally arise between Christians who adhere to these different political positions, but so long as the arguments focus upon what works and what doesn't then fellowship should be maintained.
Craig Schwarze is a blogger I respect. He is a political conservative and he and I disagree on many things. Nevertheless he doesn't argue that his position is the only one Christians should hold to.
What I don't like are Christians who somehow continue to think that small-government is the only godly way. They're the sort of people who would say "Picking my pocket at gunpoint to satisfy your charitable notions is not a Biblical procedure". These sorts of people see my political views as being sinful, rather than being a political alternative that they don't agree with. Personally I blame the whole "reds under the bed" phase of American history in which Communism was depicted as anti-Christian while free-market capitalism was promoted as being godly. Moreover, it is also one of the main reasons why so many Christians in America have been reduced to being the "true believers" in the Republican Party. Voting for the Republicans is not just a matter of personal conviction for these people, it is the only biblical thing to do. It's because of this that theocratic loudmouths like James Dobson spends all his time with politicians in the Republican Party and all but ordering his listeners to vote for them.
We're at an age now where Christians in politics - especially in America - have done enormous harm, mainly to themselves. By adhering to a particular brand of politics as though it was handed down on high means that Christians have become easily led, unthinking, biblically illiterate and susceptible to the most base rumours. From the angel in the back seat of the car who said that Jesus is returning soon to Satanism being promoted by Harry Potter, Christians are gullible, credulous and undiscerning. And it is this credulousness, so easily cultivated by outside groups interested in manipulating them for their own needs, which has given rise to modern evangelical syncretism. The presentation of a political belief as being moral and biblical, and then the dissemination of this belief, allows the creation of fanatical followers who sees differences of political opinion as being matters of life and death, of following Satan or following God, all based upon reading Von Hayek (an unbeliever) rather than the Scriptures.
© 2007 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/
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