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When Rights Clash

The Rights of The Individual vs That Of The State

A Christian Perspective by John Edmiston

First Scenario

A Christian family believes in disciplining their child by using firm but fair corporal punishment. A law is passed outlawing all corporal punishment in the home. What should they do? What should we do when Scriptural obligations to be respectful to governments and those in authority clash with what we see as our clear duty as parents ?

Second Scenario

An unemployed person with a large family refuses the offer of a well paid job because he can get more on the dole and because he prefers his "chosen lifestyle". Can we expect the state to support us in our "chosen lifestyle". Is this theft?

Third Scenario

After the Port Arthur massacre in Australia the Australian government banned all automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Access to firearms was tightened and made on the basis of demonstrated need. Was this a right and responsible action or a violation of individual rights?

Postures Taken In Scripture

There are seven basic postures that we see exercised between men and women of God and the State in Scripture. To make it easy I have started them all with the letter R.

Rapport - Orderly and godly government - Nathan, Priests & David and Solomon

Respect - Orderly pagan government - Daniel & Nebuchadnezzar, Darius

Rebuke - Significant systemic sin - the prophets and most of the Kings of Judah

Ridicule - Despicable , disorderly and profane government - Daniel & Belteshazzar, Jesus and Herod.

Resistance/Civil disobedience - Anti-Christian authority - Peter and the Sanhedrin, Roman persecution.

Reformation/Restoration - Idolatrous government - Ahab, Jezebel vs Elijah, Elisha &Jehu. OT reform movements.

Revolution/War - Oppressive and evil government - Moses & Pharaoh, Maccabees & Antiochus Epiphanes.

This leaves us with the problem of how to select the appropriate response for the times we are in. Most of us live under "orderly pagan government" deserving of respect most of the time and godly confrontation on others. We do not need to resort to military action in most Western democracies. There are two indicators for the Christian that help us select the right response: 1) The style of the government we face (as listed above) 2) The promptings and leadings of the Spirit. This will be dealt with in the next paragraph.

The Christian Response - Flesh or Spirit?

Our responses to injustice need to be of the Spirit not of the flesh. We are not to revile in return or to curse. We are to accept most injustice with joy. Outbursts of anger, wrath and dissension are not to be part of the Christian response. Spiritual responses and fleshly responses can look similar but in fact be miles apart. Passive acquiescence to the regime of Ahab and Jezebel was simply not God's will. God's will in this case involved the killing of Ahab, Jezebel and 800 false prophets! The flesh can be more "submissive" than the Spirit when self-interest is involved. For example the unprotesting acceptance of an unjust status quo on the grounds that we are to be "submissive to the government". Christians have upheld great evils such as apartheid by compliance with evil. Spiritually sensitive people have protested against such entrenched injustice (eg Amos). We need to be careful especially if the injustice operates in our favor. The Spirit may lead different people to respond in different ways e.g. the Hasidic and Maccabean responses to Antiochus.

Jesus Christ as Basileus

Jesus Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth and is the Christian's only true allegiance. Matthew particularly indicates that He is a King with a Kingdom. Revelation sees Him as establishing a theocracy where "He will rule the nations with a rod of iron". The early Christians were martyred for seeing Jesus Christ as their true Basileus (Lord) in contrast to Caesar. This was so pronounced that the Roman Empire interpreted the Lordship of Jesus Christ as a political statement regarding the subject's loyalties and somehow as a tangible threat to Rome's dominion. At Christ's trial it was His claim to Kingship that caused Pilate to feel threatened. True Christianity is a political as well as a spiritual reality.

Suffering unjustly

While the State has no right to be unjust or capricious, if it is unjust and if it does persecute Christians for their faith, then we should rejoice in our sufferings. This is our glory and the way the prophets of old were treated. The State will be judged for its oppression by God. The first response of the Christian to the enactment of unjust laws should be defiance followed by suffering. Matthew 5:10ff, 1 Peter etc.

The dangers of Dominion theology

There is no indication in Scripture that the Church is to be a triumphant political Kingdom before the return of Christ. There are great dangers in trying to use military or other means to advance the earthly power of God's people.

Antiochus Epiphanes ...calling the unholy holy.

Where God's people are being asked to profane themselves or defile their faith and to call the unholy holy there may be a case for an armed response as in the case of the Maccabbean revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes which seems to have been of God. God's people divided then over the issue of armed resistance and would also divide now but in retrospect both the pacifist and non-pacifist groups were doing so "unto the Lord" and were blessed by God in their own ways.

Taxation - Jesus' perspective and Paul's

At no point do the Scriptures advocate withholding taxes as a means of protest. The overwhelming burden of Scripture is to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars".

Mission and evangelism - obeying God rather than men

Acts indicates that the proclamation of the eternal gospel is of a higher priority than obeying religious or civil authorities but that discretion should be used to avoid inciting unnecessary confrontation.

Separation of Church and State

Depends on how it is interpreted. The American High Court interpretation gives dominance to the State and relegates religion to a backwater. Biblically the State is accountable to the Church which has the right to anoint Kings or uproot governments but not by military power but through the power of God manifested through the actualization /fulfillment of the prophesied Word.

Military service

There are no Biblical prohibitions against military service or records of exemptions being asked for on the grounds of conscience. It was an expected duty of all citizens. The limits placed on soldiers include not using their force/power for exacting unjust gain. Military service is never condemned as such. Warfare is defiling but not sinful.

The miraculous answer and the alternative Kingdom.

Moses' answer to an unjust regime was a clear demonstration of the power of God in miracles that finally persuaded Pharaoh to let them go. The power of the Kingdom of God was manifested in Jesus and the early apostles and is the best preparation for and answer to persecution. Our answer must not be fleshly but spiritual in the demonstration of the Spirit and of power and of Christ's character. It was their godly character and joy - that left the deepest impression on those observing the persecution of the early Christians. God is a delivering God and has saved His people from many persecutions down the centuries (see Esther) when our rights are violated then we must look to the Lord, not to our own anger for a solution.

This article may be freely reproduced for non-profit ministry purposes but may not be sold in any way. For permission to use articles in your ministry, e-mail the editor, John Edmiston at johned@aibi.ph.