A History of Contrariness   1 comment

In examining my anabaptist roots, I am struck by how often these advocates for non-violence and separation of church and state used civil disobedience as their means to protect themselves from the encroachment of the government into their faith.

For the purpose of this article, “civil disobedience” is defined as:

Purposeful, nonviolent action, or refusal to act, by a Christian who believes such action or inaction is required of him or her in order to be faithful to God, and which s/he knows will be treated by the governing authorities as a violation of law.

This article further assumes a Christian stance which rejects violence as a means to any end.

Three Scripture passages are generally cited for the proposition that Christians are to obey the government:

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to the governors, who are sent by him to punish {24} those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men (1 Peter 2:13-15 NIV).

Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men (Titus 3:1-2 NIV).

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities which exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves (Romans 13:1-2 NIV).

In my prior conversation with Becky Akers, she explained how these Bible verses have been misinterpreted and misrepresented to urge Christians to obey the government in every instance, even when the government infringes upon our right to practice our faith. This contradicts clear Biblical narratives that show that the early Christians did not always obey the government.

The tension in which Christians find themselves is shown in Acts 4 when the Sanhedrin orders Peter and John not to teach or speak in the name of Jesus, and they ask whether it is right to obey God or men. The Sanhedrin believed their authority superceded God’s in this matter. Peter and John took the opposite view.

Paul’s preaching in Jerusalem caused his opponents to incite a riot for which Paul was blamed. The Bible shows that he was quite willing to use the Roman legal system to avoid be flogged for something that was not really his fault. His decision afforded him an opportunity to witness in new ways. Simply being a Christian was a violation of Roman law until Constantine endorsed Christianity. Luther violated the law by arguing with the Roman Catholic Church over matters of Biblical doctrine versus Church dogma. Sixteenth-century Anabaptists violated the law by not baptizing their infants and by baptizing adults previously sprinkled as infants.

We tend to forget that before Jesus began to preach the Jews were certainly in tension with their rulers. Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews, tells the story of Jewish resistance to Pilate’s introduction of images of the emperor into Jerusalem. A large number of Jews lay in the courtyard for five days in protest, and when Pilate ordered his soldiers to surround them and threatened slaughter if the Jews did not submit, they instead bared their necks and said slaughter was preferable to the images. Pilate relented, by the way.

Historically, tension between Christians and their governments centered upon either the government’s demand that all citizens subscribe to and follow the practices of a state religion or the government’s prohibition of Christian practices which are central to the faith. Military service became a problem for both reasons. Pre-Constantinian Roman soldiers were required to participate in emperor worship and/or sacrifice to Roman idols. Moreover early Christians understood that killing was contrary to Jesus’ teaching whether done in peace or war. Marcellus the centurion, who was martyred in A.D. 298, objected for both reasons:

I cease from this military service of your emperors, and I scorn to adore your gods of stone and wood, which are deaf and dumb idols. If such is the position of those who render military service that they should be compelled to sacrifice to gods and emperors, then I cast down my vine-staff and belt, I renounce the standards, and I refuse to serve as a soldier . . . I threw down my arms; for it was not seemly that a Christian man, who renders military service to the Lord Christ, should render it also by inflicting earthly injuries.

For anabaptists of the 16th century adult baptism and military service were key points of tension with the government. The Martyrs Mirror shows how Christians have responded to demands of the government which directly contradicted their faith. The heroic acts depicted in the Martyrs Mirror may not seem the same as what we call civil disobedience in modern times, but the only real difference is the higher cost to those who defied the government in centuries past. They paid with their lives while we pay with fines and jail time.

Henry David Thoreau developed the modern concept of civil disobedience in the 19th century. In the western world of his era, emperors did not demand worship. The concept of civil disobedience was applied to “social issues” such as slavery, child labor, women’s suffrage, and prohibition of alcohol. Thoreau’s work on civil disobedience influenced Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for Indian independence.

In reviewing church history, we need to remember that the pre-Constantinian worldview was unfamiliar with the North American understandings of individualism and personal liberty. Marcellus did not throw down his staff and belt to make a statement about who he was as an individual or to strike a blow for individual liberty. Marcellus renounced soldiering as being unfaithful to his true Lord. Anabaptists in the 16th century didn’t have those concepts either. When we talk about Christian civil disobedience we are not talking about Thoreau and his New England Transcendentalism which focused on private conscience as against majority expediency. We are talking about faithfulness to God which transcends all earthly loyalties.

Nevertheless, the scripture passages quoted at the beginning make it clear that we are to be subject to the governing authorities. How is it that one is subject to government, yet refuses to obey it? That would appear to be a contradiction. John Howard Yoder offers an explanation:

It is not by accident that the imperative of [Romans] 13:1 is not literally one of obedience. The Greek language has good words to denote obedience, in the sense of completely bending one’s will and one’s actions to the desires of another. What Paul calls for, however, is subordination. This verb is based on the same root as the ordering of the powers by God. Subordination is significantly different from obedience. The conscientious objector who refuses to do what his government asks him to do, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, . . . is being subordinate even though he is not obeying.

One response to “A History of Contrariness

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  1. Reblogged this on aurorawatcherak and commented:

    And this will be the last one on this subject for today.

    Like

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