Archive for the ‘church state entanglement’ Tag

Examples from History   Leave a comment

Some Biblical examples of  obedience to authorities that was disobedience to God

  • Israel – submitted to her idolatrous kings  (2 Kings 17) and was sent into captivity for it.
  • Israel – obeying the laws of King Omri (Micah 6:16), rebuked by God


Examples of Godly disobedience from history

  • Peter Waldo formed a lay society of Anabaptists who refused to participate in the Catholic Church (12th century)
  • John Huss resisted the hierarchy of the Catholic Church (14th century)
  • Martin Luther disobeyed the Pope (15th century)
  • John Bunyan refused to take a government license to preach the gospel (16th century)
  • Pilgrims would not submit to the King of England (1620)
  • Robert E. Lee taught his slaves to read and write so they could earn a living upon their manumission – disobeying the laws of Virginia at the time.
  • Christians in the 1850s who disobeyed the Fugitive Slave Act
  • Christians like the ten Booms who refused to turn over their neighbors to the Nazi authorities
  • Civil rights protesters who marched peacefully through Selma even though they were told not go.

These believers took principled stands against the civil government.

When Disobedience is Required   Leave a comment

The church of Jesus Christ was founded on obedience to God that was rebellion against the ruling authorities of the 1st century. Centuries of Anabaptists rebelled against the established church before the reformers rebelled successfully. Our own nation was birthed in rebellion. The German Christians who let the Jews be exterminated were guilty of grievious sin because they chose to obey their government as it carried out genocide against God’s laws.

“All powers” are not ordained by God and those that are not must be resisted. Whenever hierarchical leadership is disobeying the word of God, Christians must stand for the word of God which is sometimes going to look an awful lot like rebellion against civil or ecclesiastic authority.

Here is an incomplete list of the believers who have resisted ungodly authority throughout Biblical history.


  • Joseph – disobeyed Potifer’s wife (Genesis 39)
  • Moses’ parents  – disobeyed the civil authorities (Exodus 1)
  • Hebrew midwives  — disobeyed the Egyptian government (Exodus 1)
  • Rahab — disobeyed the king of Jericho (Joshua 2)
  • Ruth – disobeyed her mother-in-law (Ruth 1)
  • Judges of Israel – took up the sword, organized armies and overthrew the governments of Canaan (Judges)
  • Sampson – disobeyed the Philistine government officials (Judges 16)
  • David – disobeyed his older brothers and did not go home as ordered (1 Samuel 17)
  • Jonathan – disobeyed his father and did not deliver David to Saul (1 Samuel 20)
  • David – did not surrender himself to Saul who wanted to kill him (1 Samuel 19-30)
  • Naborth – refused King Ahab’s offer to purchase his property (1 Kings 21)
  • Elijah – ignored a summons from King Ahaziah (2 Kings 1)
  • Elisha – disobeyed Elijah and did not stay where he was told (2 King 2)
  • Jehoiada – resisted the de facto queen and overthrew her rule (2 Kings 11)
  • Shadrach, Meshach, Obednego – refused to kneel before the king’s statue (Daniel 3)
  • Daniel – prayed after an executive order forbad prayer to any god but the king (Daniel 6)
  • Habbakkuk and Zechariah – encouraged Israel to disobey the Persian king and revive the building of the temple after they were ordered to stop (Ezra 4 & 5)
  • Peter – continued preaching Christ after Israel’s government ordered him to stop (Acts 5)

If these Biblical examples were disobedient to ecclesiastic or civil rulers, but obedient to God. Please, if you believe Romans 13 is a text that can never be violated, please do explain how these Biblical examples got around that.

What is the Legitimate Function of Government?   1 comment

“For he is God’s minster to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minster, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.” (Romans 13:4)

The only legitimate function of the civil magistrate is to protect society. Reasonably, this would be achieved by executing God’s wrath on evildoers — what we would call criminals, who pose an internal threat to society — and by repelling attack and invasion by foreign aggressors, which are external threats to society.

Yes, this has a secular counterpart — the oath of office that vows to protect the Constitution from enemies foreign and domestic.

Beyond these duties, Romans 13 cannot be used to grant the civil magistrate further authority. Christians have a duty to respond with submission to the magistrate who faithfully exercises those duties and to provide material aid (taxes and personal actions) that finance these legitimate functions of government. Beyond that, Christians are to show due respect to officials as we are to show due respect to our fellow citizens.

Some Greek scholars suggest that Romans 13 is a prescriptive passage. It speaks of what “higher powers” are supposed to be, no t what they are intrinsically. As God’s minister, the civil official is obligated to obey God’s law and to property apply it to society. Conversely, if an official becomes “a terror to good works” (verse 3), and rewards evil rather than punishing it, he then “bears the sword in vain”. He is no longer “God’s minister to you for good” and it becomes the duty of Christians to  resist his unlawful rule as we would resist the rule of Satan.

Yes, God may deliver His people over to an oppressive civil magistrate as chastisement for sin, but we are not obligated to deliver ourselves and our consciences over to that which is contrary to God’s word. To say that the laws of the civil government are unequivocally the “ordinances of God” is blasphemous because sometimes those civil laws are evil. The magistrate ceases to be God’s minister when his rule contradicts God’s law.

The question is — how far does the Christian obligation to resist go under circumstances where the coercive power of the state has been used to violate God’s commands?

Adhering to Misinterpretation   Leave a comment

“For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing. Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” Romans 13:6-7

My anarchist friends won’t appreciate me for saying this, but God commands Christians to pay taxes to finance the LEGITIMATE functions of government in its capacity as the “avenger” of God’s wrath against evil-doers. However, when the civil authorities levy taxes or customs to finance that which is contrary to God’s ordained purposes, the Christian is forbidden by Scripture to pay it because in doing so, we become party to the sin of those purposes. Examples where Christians must needs consider civil disobedience in order to avoid participation in sin would include abortion, aggression against God’s Church, government abuse of citizens and wars that do not have a self-defense or protection of the helpless component. When the civil magistrate becomes a tyrant and commands us to do that which the Bible forbids, explicitly or by implication, then we are not to fear him or honor him anymore than we would fear or honor Satan.

I draw this stand from Daniel 3. Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego showed up for the ceremony — showing their respect for the king – but when they were supposed to bow, they refused, even though death was the cost of disobedience.

Loyalty to God’s commands must always take precedence over any law written by man. And, therein is the fault of most modern Christians when they frown on civil disobedience. Taking on the pious guise of submission to “God-ordained authority” often places modern Christians, particularly in the Western world, in actual rebellion against God.

Reformed Interpretation of Romans 13   Leave a comment

The writings of the Protestant reformers resound with the principle of the primacy of the Scripture-bound conscience over human tradition. None of these men interpreted Romans 13:1-7 in the way that it is currently interpreted.

John Calvin advocated a similar position as Luther. In Institutes of the Christian Religion, which was written primarily as a rebuttal of the anabaptist anarchist tendency to declare all civil government to be incompatible with Christian liberty, he exhorted Christians to submit to the authorities who had been placed by God over them with the following qualifications:

“But in that obedience which we hold to be due to the commands of rulers, we must always make the exception, nay, must be particularly careful that it is not incompatible with obedience to Him to whose will the wishes of all kings should be subject, to whose decrees their commands must yield, to whose majesty their sceptres must bow. And, indeed, how preposterous were it, in pleasing men, to incur the offense of Him for whose sake you obey men!The Lord, therefore, is King of kings. When He opens His sacred mouth, He alone is to be heard, instead of all and above all. We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against Him let us not pay the least regard to it, nor be moved by all the dignity which they possess as magistrates– a dignity to which no injury is done when it is subordinated to the special and truly supreme power of God.”

At a later time, Calvin wrote a commentary on Romans 13:1-7 that more directly addresses the proper submittal to the legitimate rule of the magistrate:

The reason why we ought to be subject to magistrates is, because they are constituted by God’s ordination…. [T]yrannies and unjust exercise of power, as they are full of disorder, are not an ordained government; yet the right of government is ordained by God for the well being of mankind…. [T]hey are the means which he designedly appoints for the preservation of legitimate order…….[Paul] speaks here of the true, and, as it were, of the native duty of the magistrate, from which however they who hold power often degenerate.

Being Baptist in polity, I naturally looked toward the Westminister Confession of Faith to see what that says on the subject:

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to His Word…. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also…….[B]ecause the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God….

It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honour their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience sake.

The Reformers regarded obedience to the civil magistrate to be required when the magistrate was exercising legitimate authority, but allowed for rejection of that authority when the exercise of it became tyrannical or violated morality. It was a “middle ground” approach between Erasmus’ earlier position which required unqualified submission and the anabaptist position which advocated rebellion against all forms of “wordly” authority.

Neither extreme is the godly position and in the “third way” of the Reformers Christians will find choices to prove that the Christian life was never meant to be one of easy choices.



Really Early “Protestants”   Leave a comment

The early Christians relied on direct witnesses to the events in Jerusalem surrounding the birth, ministry, crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All of the writers of the New Testament either knew Jesus or knew someone who knew Jesus well. Even Paul qualified, since he met the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. In one of his letters, he told people who had doubts about the resurrection of Jesus to go talk to some of the witnesses, who were well-known in the 1st century Christian community. Although there were believers who apparently doubted Paul’s authority, Peter did not and affirmed that authority in his own letters. Christians considered direct witness to be the best determination of what was truly “Christian”.

When the apostles began to die out, those who had known the apostles personally were seen as the best witnesses to their teachings. The New Testament as we know it was not widely available, though textual critics believe there was a codex in circulation with most of the books we’re familiar with by AD 160.

We know from Paul and John’s writings in the New Testament that there were heresies about in the early church. The earliest heresy was the Judiazers, who believed that Gentiles must hold to the Jewish dietary and cultural laws in order to be Christians. This was settled by the Jerusalem Council in AD 49, but it was by no means dead, prompting Paul to write the letter to the churches of Galatia.

Some groups deemed “heretics” by the Roman Catholic Church may well have been neo-protestants, but there were some whose beliefs were clearly nothing like what the New Testament Christians believed.

The largest heresy was the Gnostics – who believed that flesh was evil and spirit was good, so the god who created the earth was also seen as evil. But Jesus was the spiritual being who brought salvation, so he could not be the son of the God  of the Old Testament, but somehow was indwelt by a higher power. Docetism and Marcionism developed from that dualism. Jesus could not be thought of as truly a man. He just appeared as a man, but the highest good could not truly be united with sinful matter. Therefore, he didn’t die and was not buried. The Christ spirit must have left the man Jesus before his death or the death was simply a shame. There was a “good” God as well, but he didn’t create the world, but sent Jesus to liberate us from our bondage to matter.

The Gnostics were true heretics and the apostle John seemed to have been dealing with proto-Gnostics in his epistles from Ephesus.

Maybe in reaction to Gnosticism, the Monarchists held that God was God, but Jesus was a man indwelt by God’s spirit. Like the Gnostics, this heresy had several derivations that are sometimes viewed as separate heresies – modalism(Sabellianism), and unitarianism. Yes, there were and remain heresies and some still exist today.

In contrast, the Montanists may have been the first protestant movement. As the catholic church became more regimented, there arose in Phrygia (Asia Minor) a group that emphasized new revelation and condemned the orthodox church as lax and cerebral. Tertullian (my favorite of the Patristic writers) became a Montanist possibly because of his opposition to the church at Rome extending its authority beyond the environs of the city of Rome. Tertullian was a powerful defender of the faith and his writings align with what I know of the New Testament, so I have a hard time naming him a heretic.

Hippolytus was a presbyter (lay-leader) of the church at Rome who attacked the bishop Zephyrinus as a modalist (believing in the compartmentalizing of God). He later accused Zephyrinus’ Callstus of extending absolution to adulterers. He formed a second church at Rome. Eventually he was sent to the Roman mines along with the current bishop of Rome, Pontian. They reconciled and were martyred together. Were they heretics or simply men of conscience who had the audacity to stand up against the authorities of the church?

Cyprian was Bishop of Carthage who, following a severe persecution under emperor Decius, conflicted with the “confessors” who were readmitting the “lapsed” into the church. These were folks who had denied Christ under persecution. This was (and continues to be) considered an unpardonable sin, though Baptists (my own polity) accept that a non-Christian can deny Christ and letter accept Christ as savior and be pardoned. Cyprian’s win really ushered in the Roman Catholic view for the future. Was he a heretic? Were the “confessors” the heretics? I’ll note that Cyprian, born to a rich pagan family, became a bishop within months of converting to Christianity (AD 249), making me think it was a political move, but I don’t know the man’s heart.

Novatian and Cornelius got into a fight over which of them was the bishop of Rome (AD 251). Following a time of persecution, Novatian denied readmittance of those who had denied their faith. He and his “confessors” broke the church of Rome in two and induced Cyprian to write “On the Unity of the Catholic Church”, from which came many of the ideas of traditional Roman Catholicism such as no salvation exists outside the Church. The Novatian “kathari” withdrew from the “catholic” system, rebaptized their followers and refused to submit to what they considered to be a corrupted Church. Were they heretics or just standing on principle?

My point here is show that there were divisions already happening in the Christian church before the rise of the Roman Catholic Church. The early church dealt with it by examining the doctrine of these “heretics” and showing where they did not match with what the apostles were teaching. Where the Church went astray, I believe, is when it began to name as heretic anyone who called out immorality among church men or drift from New Testament beliefs. The insistence that the Roman Catholic Church, no matter how far it drifted from New Testament teachings, was the sole door to heaven was bound to — someday — lead to problems.

Cracks in the Monolith   1 comment

Christianity underwent a metamorphosis when it became the exclusive religion of the Roman Empire. Jesus had told Christians that they would be outcasts in society as a result of their beliefs and for the first three centuries they were.  Then Theodosius made Christianity the exclusive religion of the Roman Empire and all that changed. Not too long later, the Roman Catholic Church became the acknowledged “gate to heaven” and the kings it crowned were considered divinely appointed.

We are usually taught in our history classes that the Roman Catholic Church ruled unchallenged for 1500 years until Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation. This is not exactly true.

While the Roman Catholic Church was the state religion of almost every kingdom of Europe during that time, there is ample historical evidence for evangelical outbreaks in medieval times. Leonard Verduin’s book “The Reformers and their Stepchildren” suggests a continuous line of underground believers that is interesting, but not really proven. If you step away from the concept of apostolic succession and remember that Christianity was originally based on the individual believer accepting Jesus Christ and acting upon that transformation, protestant groups look a whole lot less like heretics and a whole lot more like true believers who didn’t agree with the Roman Catholic Church.

It’s likely that the churches before Nicea contained congregations that were not integrated into the Roman scheme of things. We know that some of the Patristic Fathers complained about how the church at Rome was overstepping its authority. It’s entirely possible that there were congregations which understood truths not validated by the Roman church. Unfortunately, most of what we know about these “heretics” is what the Roman Catholic Church said about them.

They were called many terms of abuse — anabaptists (rebaptizers), enthusiasts (for their supposed lack of sensible thought), Cathars (referencing an older more gnostic heresy), revolutionaries, donatists (another reference to ancient “heresy”). They were said to deny baptism, the Eucharist and the authority of the priesthood and some were accused of fomenting revolution.

Clearly these were groups who did not think that Romans 13 required them to be obedient to the authorities.

Ending Individualism   Leave a comment

Individualism is a danger for large governments that require conformity and docility. When Constantine made his political calculation that faithful Christianity legalized could provide stability to the Roman Empire, he apparently didn’t foresee a future where his successor thought nominal Christianity could provide conformity throughout the Empire.

By requiring everyone to become Christian so as to partake of the benefits of the empire, Theodosius failed to grasp the history of Christianity. Christian conversion is individual. We stand before God alone, without father or mother, country or culture. God forgives our individual sins, not our group sins.

Theodosius linked the Roman Empire to the “catholic” (or universal) church and required it to be something God had never intended it to be — an all-encompassing arbitrator of men’s souls. Instead of faith in God, the Roman Catholic Church now offered membership in the Roman Empire. When Rome fell, the Roman Catholic Church was really the only authority left in Western Europe while the individual kingdoms sorted themselves out. The Church had to bring order to society.

And it did … by means of teaching Christians that being obedient was God-ordained. Good Christians didn’t question the authorities, didn’t assert their individuality or rebel against cruel or inhumane governments.

And, thus the Roman Catholic Church, comprised by this time of the younger brothers of nobility, created the divine right of kings and the idolatry of government worship.

Subverting Scripture   Leave a comment

Romans 13 was written in AD 56-57 from Corinth, where Paul was making tents in the market place while ministering to the local community. Most Christians were not power brokers. The earliest Christians were Jews living in virtual clientage in Palestine. Paul was a Roman citizen with the rights that came with that status, but he abandoned the prestige of being Gamalial’s heir-apparent as THE scholar in Jerusalem to be God’s ambassador to the Gentiles. So he sewed tents in the market place.

The church Paul wrote to was nothing like the church of Rome 300 years later. This congregation lived under threat and soon Nero would attack them with impunity, accusing them of spreading the plague and burning down parts of Rome. The last thing the congregation in Rome needed was the reputation of being rebellious. Thus, Paul suggested they submit to the authorities.

There’s two reasons for this and he touched on them. One, God’s followers are in the world, but not of it. Our citizenship is not Roman or American so much as it is heaven. This is true now as it was true then, but it was more true then. Christians might have to flee to another country to survive. As such, they couldn’t afford to become too attached to whatever governmental system they lived under. The second reason was that Jesus had told them to be peaceful and forgiving, so to be rebellious would cast the God they served in a bad light.

They were going to be hated as Christians regardless, but Paul wanted them hated for being Christians, not for refusing to pay their taxes or follow some other secular law that did not impact their Christianity.

Being Christian was enough of a crime because Christians did not bow to Caesar or sacrifice in the pagan temples. After Paul’s sojourn in Ephesus, Christians would stop buying and making silver idols for the goddess Diana. Christian masters sometimes freed their slaves, which actually led to revolts among slaves held by non-Christian masters. The private worship practices of Christians struck the pagans, used to public displays of religion, as highly suspect — causing false accusations of cannibalism and incest. Later the pagans would feel that Christian neglect of the old pagan gods lead to the weakening of the Roman Empire.

Paul meant for Christians to voluntarily submit to authorities to avoid trouble with the government and so that Christians would be hated for being Christians, not hated for being subversives.

And, I would note, his advice eventually worked. Christians became known throughout the Empire as peaceful people who went about their faith without resorting to violence. They took this idea of submission so far that they sang hymns as they walked into the coliseums to be devoured by wild animals as a form of execution.

Yet, once the church at Rome and, by extension, Christianity, became the exclusive religion of the Roman Empire, that voluntary submission became a liability requiring a subversion of Scripture.

THE Center of Christianity   Leave a comment

In keeping with a faith, as opposed to a religion, Christianity had no actual physical center. Christians claimed their Savior Jesus to be the foundation of their faith. He was (and remains) their High Priest and His individual followers were “priests” under His guidance alone. Following His death, the faith spread outward from Judea on the wings of persecution. As hostility forced them to flee, Christians took their faith with them, telling their neighbors about their beliefs in acts of individual evangelism and sending forth missionaries from churches like Antioch.

In keeping with the idea that individual believers were priests of the Most High God, the local bodies that formed around new converts organized their own congregations — selecting local officers from those in their number who bore the right character traits. The doctrines remained the same (for the most part, but that’s another topic), but the organization was pretty loose. Administratively, Christianity was very trans-cultural, adapting to local conditions and customs as needed. When congregations had issues within the congregation that they felt inadequate to resolve, they sought guidance from the apostles like Paul, Peter and John, and then later from more established congregations, but there was really no “center” of Christianity. First the church at Jerusalem provided guidance. That center shifted to Antioch and then Ephesus as persecution came upon different congregations.

The church at Rome was probably founded by Jews who heard Peter preach in Jerusalem on Pentecost. The New Testament gives only that clue. When Paul wrote the letter to the Romans, there was already a thriving community there. Priscilla and Aquila apparently accepted the Lord in Rome before traveling to Corinth where they met Paul and ministered with him for a couple of years. They returned to Rome when circumstances allowed and hosted a church in their home, according to Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. Paul spent a number of years under house arrest in Rome prior to a trial that tradition says he was released from. He was later returned to Rome under Nero and executed. Peter was also arrested under Nero and transported to Rome for execution — he wrote 2 Peter from there — but there’s no evidence he traveled to Rome prior to that or founded the church there or that he ever was an officer of the local church there. By the time of his imprisonment, the Romans were not employing house arrest, but were seriously trying to kill Christians.

Historically, the church at Rome began asserting its primacy in the mid-2nd century — long after Peter’s death. Christian writers like Tertullian objected strenuously on Biblical grounds. The first “pope”, Leo I, asserted the connection with Peter in the mid-3rd century. Later, Ireneus brought in the statement of Jesus that He would build His church on Peter. For the record, if you parse the wording of Matthew 16:18 (in English or Greek), it becomes clear that Jesus meant Peter’s statement of faith (“you are the Messiah”) rather than Peter himself. Five verses later, Jesus rebuked Peter for insisting Jesus didn’t need to die soon and called Peter’s denial satanic (Matthew 16:23). And this is Peter we’re talking about — the one who would later deny Jesus three times and who botched the evangelism of the Gentiles that God clearly gave to him. Peter did many brave things for the Lord, but he was a man often with feet of clay and plenty of human warts. There is simply no serious evidence to support the claim of the Roman Catholic Church that Jesus was referring to that future ecclesiastical organization when He made the statement in Matthew 16:18. The church of Jesus Christ was and remains founded on Jesus Christ Himself and on no mere mortal. Christians in the 1st century knew that and acted accordingly.

As time went along, however, the local churches ceded their autonomy to as many as 40 different regional centers of Christianity and by the time of the Council of Nicea, this had reduced to five leading centers of authority.

Wait! There were FIVE centers of authority in AD 325?

So how did the church at Rome, which had competitors, become the center of official Christianity by the fall of the Roman Empire?

Its leaders were bought and paid for.

Constantine and then his successor Theodosius needed it there.

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