The Bible, Government and Christian Anarchy
This “essay” contains my informal reflections on biblical texts that I believe support what some call “Christian Anarchy.” Consider it a very rough draft of a future project.
I’ll argue that Kingdom people are called to pledge their allegiance to God alone, not to any nation, government, political party or ideology. Because Kingdom people are under the rule of God alone, they are not under any other rule. Kingdom people are thus called to be “anarchists” (meaning without [“an”] human authority [“archy”]). Not only this, but the main task of Kingdom people is to keep the Kingdom “holy” — meaning “set apart,” “separate” and “consecrated.” We are to take great care to live lives that are set apart from the ideals, values and methods of the world’s politics.
I need to say at the start that this doesn’t mean Kingdom people are to be law breakers. When laws conflict with the rule of God, of course, we must break them (Ac 5:39). But otherwise we’re to submit to them, for not doing so would unnecessarily get in the way of our call to build the Kingdom. But we submit to laws not because they have authority over us, but because we submit to God.
Here are some passages I invite you to think seriously about.
I Samuel 8:1-22
This is an extremely important foundational passage for understanding God’s view of governments.
The Lord had been sole King over Israel up to this point in history. True, he had appointed judges to settle disputes, but there had never been an established governmental structure or positional leader over Israel. It was never God’s plan to have humans ruling one another. He had always wanted to be our direct “King.” Governments only arose as a result of the fall.
In Israel, God was trying to inch humanity back to his ideal by having a tribe that once again recognized him alone as “Lord” and was thus free from human lords. In the age in which Samuel lived, however, the faith of the Israelites wavered and they wanted a king “to be like other nations,” to rule over them and to “go out before us and fight our battles.” In other words, the people felt that having a king would make living easier and make them more secure against enemies.
God responded to this request for a king by decrying,
…they have rejected me from being king over them. Like all the deeds which they have done since the day that I brought them up from Egypt even to this day–in that they have forsaken Me and served other gods…
We see that people want human rulers only because they no longer trust God to rule. It suggests that the very existence of governments is evidence of human rebellion.
God pleaded with his people not to go down this path. He warned them that giving a person power over them would wreak havoc in their lives. Fallen humans simply can’t handle having power other people (vss. 11-18). What God knew – but what the people seemed incapable of accepting – was that when fallen humans are given power, they use it in sinful ways. Exceptions to this are very rare, as history readily testifies. But the people would not listen. They demanded a king. So God reluctantly gave them what they wanted.
The passage reveals that governments are a mere concession on God’s part to humans who cannot trust God to rule them. Since humans are rebellious and insist on having them, God uses governments, as much as possible, to preserve as much law and order as possible (Rom. 13:1-5). But this doesn’t mean that God approves of them. Often in the Old Testament God would use a wicked nation (e.g. Assyria) to punish Israel, only to turn around and punish the nation he used for being wicked (e.g. Isa 10). That’s God’s attitude toward governments. The are under the influence of Satan (Lk 4:5-7) and are inherently corrupt, but God nevertheless uses them.
The Kingdom of God, on the other hand, is based on people trusting God as their sole ruler. Kingdom people are therefore to place no more trust or confidence in governments than Jesus did – which is none. If a government’s laws happen to be consistent with the rule of God, we obey them. If they’re not, we follow the example of Jesus and disobey them. But either way, it’s clear that our behavior isn’t to be dictated by what government says, but by what God says.
The king is not saved by a mighty army;
A warrior is not delivered by great strength.
A horse is a false hope for victory;
Nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength.
Even after God allowed Israel to have a king, he stressed that the security and hope of people was not to be in the king, but in him. It may look like having a mighty army brings security, but this passage says this is a “false hope.” The only real hope is in God. Those who place all their trust in God have no need to place any trust in a human ruler.
It’s also worth noting that this passage, and many others, reveals how misguided is the common attempt to justify Christians fighting in war on the basis of the violence of the Old Testament. God did indeed lead the Israelites into war at times, but they were never to do so unless God specifically told them to and they were never to trust in their own military might in the process. There is no “just war” policy in the Old Testament.
Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
And are regarded as a speck of dust on the scales;
Behold, He lifts up the islands like fine dust.
Even Lebanon is not enough to burn,
Nor its beasts enough for a burnt offering.
All the nations are as nothing before Him,
They are regarded by Him as less than nothing and meaningless.
The sovereign Lord “rules the nations.” He orchestrates them as he finds them, in all their wickedness, to accomplish his objectives. But in the end they are like “a drop from a bucke,” “a speck of dust on the scales,” “nothing” and “meaningless.” Since the job of Kingdom people is to align our perspective on the world with God’s, we should regard them the same way.
It’s understandable that “normal” fallen humans pin their hopes on the “right” political views (their own, of course) conquering the “wrong” views, the “right” government (their own, course) overcoming the “wrong” government, and the “right” nation (their own, of course) overcoming the “wrong” nation. But a person whose whole trust is in the sovereign Lord is freed from this self-serving folly. Whatever unfolds in politics, governments and nations, our hearts can remain in “perfect peace” because our eyes are fixed on the Lord who rules history and regards all of this as meaningless ( Isa 26:3).
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
The heart of a Kingdom person is to be solely invested on the Kingdom, which is the only thing humans have access to that will not perish. All earthly treasures – things that people invest with value – will pass away. This is why people who are invested in earthly treasures struggle with anxiety, anger, envy and jealousy – what Paul calls “works of the flesh.” It is unwise, therefore, for Kingdom people to invest perishing governments or nations with significant value. Indeed, it is unfaithful for them to do so. Our treasure, our hearts and our confidence is in a treasure in heaven.
Matthew 6:24-25, 27-29, 31-34
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?…
Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these…
So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
What a radical teaching! Kingdom people are to seek the Kingdom and trust God for everything else. To the extent that our trust is in God, we do not worry. The governments and nations of the world do nothing but worry, for, as we’ve seen, they do not trust God. Politics is all about acquiring the things pagans chase after. Kingdom people are to be freed from this preoccupation.
Matthew 7:1 -5
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from the other person’s eye.
Though religious people — including Christians — are often known for their judgments of others, Jesus tells his disciples to adopt the opposite attitude. Whatever sins we see in another person, we’re to regard them as mere dust particles compared to our sins, which are planks. We are never to judge. Paul in particular says Christians have no business judging those outside the church (I Cor. 5:12-13). (How ironic that this is one of the main things American Christians are known for!). Followers of Jesus are to be known for their humility and gentleness (Eph 4:2; Ja 4:10-12); I Pet 3:8 ), esteeming the interests of others above their own ( Phil 2:3-5).
This mindset is antithetical to the power-over antics that characterize the politics of the world. All political fights, and all national fights, are predicated on both sides feeling they’re superior to the other. “If only the world was run according to my superior thinking and moral convictions, it would be better,” the world’s thinking goes. Nothing has done more to further damage the world than this mindset. And in times of war, nations judge that the other side is so inferior, they deserve to die. Kingdom people can only manifest the humility of the Kingdom by distancing themselves from these antics.
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
This teaching comes right after the mother of James and John was trying to get Jesus to let her sons sit at a place of privilege and power, right next to Jesus, when the kingdom comes. Jesus used the misguided request to give a profoundly important teaching. The quest for privilege and power characterizes pagans. They get their life from such things. But it is not to be so among Kingdom people. Indeed, in the Kingdom, everything is to be reversed. Greatness is defined not by power over others, but by power under others — that is, self-sacrificial service. While there’s a place for pastors and teachers and others to exercise spiritual authority in the Kingdom, this authority is not about power and privilege. It’s rather about people serving others according to how God has gifted and empowered them.
This sets the Kingdom of God radically at odds with all the kingdoms of the world, for the kingdoms of the world are all about certain people exercising power over others. All the political fights within kingdoms, and all the wars between kingdoms, are about who gets to rule. To manifest the beauty of God’s servant character — that is, to manifest the Kingdom of God — Kingdom people should have no part of these power-over squabbles.
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial taxa to Caesar or not?”
But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.”
Jesus came into the world in politically turbulent times. Consequently, people were always trying to get Jesus to weigh in on the political issues of the day, but Jesus never took the bait. He always found a way to turn their political questions around on people and transform them into Kingdom questions.
Christians often cite this episode to argue that Christians have a duty to the state (“give to Caesar what belongs to him”). The passage actually implies nothing of the sort.
To grasp the ironic brilliance of Jesus’ response, we need to realize that the Jews of this time were deeply offended by currency that bore the image of the emperor. They saw it not only as egotistical on the part of the emperor but as a direct violation of the commandment against making images (Ex. 20:4; Lev. 26:1). Only God can make an image of himself, and he did so when he made humans (Gen. 1:26-27).
Jesus ingeniously linked the issue of pagan egotism and idolatry with the issue of paying taxes. With a tinge of sarcasm, Jesus was in essence saying, “You of course believe this coin is an egotistical and idolatrous offense to God. So why should we who are God’s people fight with each other over how much of this we should keep or give back to the egotistical, idol-making offenders? If it bears his image, give it all back to him for all I care.”
The thing people should rather be concerned with, Jesus is saying, is whether or not they are giving to God what bears his image and what therefore belongs wholly to him – namely, their very lives. Indeed, Jesus was ironically suggesting that an inappropriate preoccupation with what we should do with Ceasar’s image may reflect a heart that is insufficiently preoccupied with what should be done with God’s image. Even if someone comes up with the “correct” position on paying taxes (is there one?), what good does it do her if she loses her soul (Mk 8:36)?
In this way Jesus wisely used the kingdom-of-the-world issue as a spring board to pose the kingdom-of-God question and the kingdom of God option. He was demonstrating, once again, that he hadn’t come to resolve the ambiguous and controversial issues that characterize the kingdom of the world. He rather came to offer a radical alternative way of doing life, answering a completely different set of questions. And they all concerned living under the reign of God.
Those of us who have pledged our lives to living under the reign of God must adopt the same attitude. We should never become preoccupied with the many divisive political issues pagans fight over. Our one concern is to manifest the beauty of the reign of God in our lives.
And the devil said to Him, “I will give You all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. Therefore if You worship before me, it shall all be Yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and serve him only.'”
It’s noteworthy that Jesus didn’t dispute the devil’s incredible claim to ownership of these kingdoms. Nor did Jesus dispute his ability to make good on his offer. Indeed, everything else the New Testament says about the devil confirms his claim.
For example, Jesus several times refers to Satan as the “prince” or “ruler” (archon) of the world (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Paul says he’s “the god of this age” and “the ruler of the kingdom of the air” (2 Cor 4:4; Eph 2:2). John claims, “The whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 Jn 5:19). And in Revelation, all governments are depicted as the beast and Babylon, the governmental wing of Satan’s empire that deceives the world and oppresses all people, but that is now falling under the judgment of God (Rev. 13; 14:8; 17:5; 18.).
How much trust should Kingdom people have in demonically oppressed governments? The answer is; As much as Jesus did – which, obviously, was none.
Just as important, notice that the reason Jesus would not accept the devil’s offer to have all the authority of the world’s governments was because he understood that the only one we are to serve is God. Serving God and trusting governments to change the world are mutually exclusive. Jesus could have done a lot of immediate good if he would have accepted the devil’s offer, but to do so would have been to go AWOL on the assignment Jesus had from the Father – namely, to win the world through self sacrificial love. The same is true for all of us who are his followers.
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
Jewish inheritance laws weren’t particularly just, for everything went to the firstborn. Other siblings had to depend on the good graces of the elder sibling to receive anything. This man, apparently, had a stingy older brother. He understandably wanted Jesus to intervene and do something about this. It was a legal and political question. Jesus in essence responded by asking him, “Who ever said I was a lawyer or politician?” As he always did, Jesus then turned the question back on the man and posed a distinctly Kingdom question. He was in effect saying, “I didn’t come to solve your legal and political problems. But I did come to set you free — from things like greed. So be careful about greed.”
This passage once again reveals that Jesus simply has nothing to say about the goings-on of government and politics. Since the job of Kingdom people is to imitate him in all things, we should have the same attitude.
If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.
Kingdom people follow a different Master and therefore have an entirely different way of looking at the world, and acting in the world, than pagans. (I’m again using the word “pagan” here as to refer to anyone not under the reign of God, regardless of what their professed beliefs may be). As citizens of the Kingdom of God, we are foreigners, exiles and strangers in this world (Phil. 1:27; Heb 11:13; I Pet 1:17; 2:11). We are to expect to be hated, for Jesus was hated (Jn 15:18; 17:14).
When followers of Jesus become indistinguishable from everyone else by buying into the same values, ideals and methods as the surrounding culture, they are forsaking their calling. As people called to imitate Jesus in all things, we must have the same relationship to the surrounding culture and political regime he had. He exposed its illegitimacy by refusing to conform to it — and it hated him for it.
It’s worth noting that the church of the first three centuries (the church before it acquired political power) was usually hated and was often persecuted. Many were viciously put to death. The main reason was that the early Christians would not buy into the values of the Roman empire. They were accused of being unpatriotic, subversive and cowards (for their unwillingness to serve in the military).
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then my servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, my kingdom is not of this realm.” Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”
Jesus’ kingdom is “not of this world.” This is why Jesus spent no time or energy trying to tweak the government of his day — though it was corrupt, immoral and barbarically violent. The proof that Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world is that his followers would not fight the way citizens of the kingdoms of the world fight. In fact, one of his followers (Peter) tried to fight to defend Jesus, lopping off a guard’s ear in the process, but Jesus rebuked him.
The telltale sign that one is a member of Jesus’ kingdom is that they do not fight like everyone in the world does. This includes refusing to use physical violence. But it also includes not fighting with harsh words or speaking evil of others (e.g. Eph. 4:29-31). Everything we do — including all our thoughts and speech – is to be done in love (I Cor. 16:14). The governments of this world always rely on physical violence and the politics of this world is characterized by (at least) verbal sword fighting. A Kingdom person manifests their allegiance to a different Kingdom by refusing to participate in this.
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.
If it has “flesh and blood,” it’s not someone we’re to be fighting against. Indeed, if it has “flesh and blood,” it’s someone we’re to be fighting for. They may intend us and our nation harm. We may hate their lifestyle, politics and religion. But if they are human, we are commanded to love them, serve them, do good to them, pray for them, and fight for them (Lk 6:27-35). And a primary way we fight for them is by resisting the principalities and powers that seek to oppress both them and us — including fueling the universal fallen human tendency to identify other people as the enemy! Our counter-cultural Jesus-looking lifestyle, including our willingness to love and serve enemies, is our warfare on behalf of enemies.
The governments of the world are all predicated on opposing human enemies, which means Kingdom people should have no interest in serving it.
2 Tim. 2:3-4
Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs; rather, they try to please their commanding officer.
Paul has in mind here a soldier stationed in a foreign land. This soldier’s assignment is to suffer, if need be, to carry out the agendas of his homeland. And his assignment is not to become involved “in civilian affairs” but to rather be focused on pleasing his “commanding officer.” We are, quite literally, soldiers stationed in a foreign land. Indeed, we are stationed in “enemy occupied territory,” for the world in which we live is governed by “the god of this age” (2 Cor 4:4) and “principality and power of the air” (Eph 2:2). Our task is to “please our commanding officer” by imitating his example and thereby furthering the work of his Kingdom. To do this, it is imperative that we don’t become preoccupied with “civilian affairs.”
When Christians mistakenly think they are furthering the Kingdom by pronouncing which political options, candidates or programs are the “right ones” (or worse, the “Christian” ones), they are letting themselves get distracted from the one task Kingdom people are given. Our task is to do what Jesus did. He manifested God’s reign and unleashed the transforming power of the Kingdom by how he lived and died — not by how he voted.
This rough draft of an essay raises a million questions, I know. Can Christians ever serve in a political office? Should they even vote? Should they serve in the military or even the police force? We are not of the world, but we are in the world. This tension creates an ambiguity in our lives that cannot be resolved by a set of ethical rules. I am content to lay out the Scripture as bluntly as I can, reflect on them as honestly as I can, and call on people to seek God’s will for their life. We are never to judge others for the decisions they make (Rom. 14), but we also must never sugar-coat the clear and radical teaching of the Word.
Kingdom people have one Master and serve one Kingdom. In light of this, the lords of the earth and kingdoms of the world are irrelevant to us. Our job is to build his Kingdom by doing what Jesus did. Nothing must distract us from this one task.
I leave it to individual consciences and to the Holy Spirit to apply this to each individual’s life.