God and Government 8: Choices Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

What should believers do when God and government clash? When civil or religious edicts clash with conscience? When should we surrender? When should we resist? The Bible tells us: 

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. (Romans 13:1-2)

Notice the term “subjection’ in that passage. 

Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men. For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy,… (Titus 3:1-5)

Again, notice the phrase “be subject to.”

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. (1 Peter 2:13-15)

For our discussion today, let’s assume that civil or religious disobedience is purposeful, non-violent action, or refusal to act, by a believer who believes that such action or inaction is required in order to be faithful to God, and which s/he knows will be treated by the governing authority as a violation of lawful acts.

There are many examples of such resistance in the Bible; for example:

As they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to them, being greatly disturbed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they laid hands on them and put them in jail until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.

On the next day, their rulers and elders and scribes were gathered together in Jerusalem; and Annas the high priest was there, and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of high-priestly descent. When they had placed them in the center, they began to inquire, “By what power, or in what name, have you done this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of the people, if we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man, as to how this man has been made well, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by this name this man stands here before you in good health. He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the chief corner stone. And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.”

Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus. And seeing the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to say in reply. But when they had ordered them to leave the Council, they began to confer with one another, saying, “What shall we do with these men? For the fact that a noteworthy miracle has taken place through them is apparent to all who live in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But so that it will not spread any further among the people, let us warn them to speak no longer to any man in this name.” And when they had summoned them, they commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” When they had threatened them further, they let them go (finding no basis on which to punish them) on account of the people, because they were all glorifying God for what had happened; for the man was more than forty years old on whom this miracle of healing had been performed. (Acts 4:1-22)

In the following chapter, Peter and John are again arrested:

When they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. (Acts 5:27-29)

The history of mankind is full of acts of resistance and surrender. Dozens of individuals were honored for their resistance in one passage alone: 

By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace.

And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.

And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:30-40)

One might conclude that men and women of faith should never resist, should always surrender. Justin’s Book of Martyrs (?) extols the virtues of the martyrs of early Christendom—those who lost their lives in resistance. It raises the question: Is it ever right to surrender, or capitulate? Why are the heroes only those who resist? Can nothing be said for the compromising peacemaker? In our own time, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela were exemplary conscientious objectors, all sacrificing their lives (in Mandela’s case, a substantial portion of it, in prison.) Was there no room for compromise? The Parable of the Unrighteous Manager might shed some light, in a parabolic way. The rich man can be seen as representing government or authority, civil or religious:

“There was a rich man who had a manager, and this manager was reported to him as squandering his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an accounting of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from the management people will welcome me into their homes.’ And he summoned each one of his master’s debtors, and he began saying to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ And his master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings.

“He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you? And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16:1-18)

In the three passages quoted at the beginning of today’s discussion, what do the words “subject” and “submit” signify? It’s the same word used by the disciples on their return from their first ministry abroad:

And the seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us, in Your name.” (Luke 10:17)

Is there a distinction between subjection and obedience? What is the formula, the method, for an appropriate response by the believer to the demands of God and government? What would Jesus do? 

Donald: Who has the authority to determine what is disobedient? We have structures and hierarchies that help to clarify that question, but so does God, who has a kingdom—a defined structure, which puts it at odds with human kingdoms, which tend to vie for supremacy. But the kingdom as Jesus taught it seems flatter, less structured, more egalitarian, than any human kingdom. We know where we stand within a structure, but we are uncertain of our standing without a structure. Where is the Mandela, where is the Mother Theresa, of Yemen today? 

Dr. Singh: 

Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil. (Ecclesiastes 8:11)

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.
Because you have rejected knowledge,
I also will reject you from being My priest.
Since you have forgotten the law of your God,
I also will forget your children. (Josiah 4:6)

Mikiko: Human leadership and government is tainted by human greed and selfishness. We are imperfect; we are corrupt. The solution is:  

And to him there were given rulership, honor, and a kingdom, that the peoples, nations, and language groups should all serve him. His rulership is an everlasting rulership that will not pass away, and his kingdom will not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:14) (New World Translation)

So we should follow the government of Jesus.

Kiran: Daniel and his religion were subject to a hostile foreign government, not that of his own country. He benefited from miracles we do not see today. Queen Esther averted danger by befriending an alien king. She set a good example for us to follow. There are some things that are religiously unacceptable, such as picking up arms, and in some countries (the U.S., for example) a refusal to bear arms is tolerated, but is not tolerated in many others countries, where the choice is submission or death (or, like Queen Esther, getting the government to see reason.) 

Dr. Singh: Christians must care about politics. We have to live on this earth, so we have no choice but to participate. 

Donald: Accepting the structure of an organization makes it easy to go along with it. Does Daoism have churches?

David: Religious Daoism has temples, sometimes with a pantheon of traditional Chinese earth gods, sometimes with a priesthood or monks who may worship together at set times, but there is no congregation as we think of it, or church services as we think of them. Philosophical Daoism (which preceded religious Daoism) has no temples. It does recognize a heaven (tian) but its central precept—The Way, the Dao—is not about getting to heaven. It is about living life on earth. 

Desmond T. Doss was a Seventh Day Adventist who refused to carry a rifle in WW2 yet served as a medic in the front line on Okinawa. (The story is well, if goryly, told in Mel Gibson’s movie Hacksaw Ridge). It is easy to value his religiously founded resistance; yet are all the other soldiers in his unit to be condemned for their lack of it? Resistance or submission is an intensely personal matter. Resistance is right for some, like Doss, while (in the same circumstances) submission may be right for others. It depends on one’s faith, one’s background, and many other things. There is no universal “right” or Godly response. There are only individual responses, based upon the strength and closeness of the individual’s relationship with God. 

Alice: It is a matter of personal conscience. 

Don: We make resistance heroic, but not conciliation. Martyrdom is final. Conciliation may not be. 

David: The whole point of the Dao is conciliation. Don’t resist. Be like water—flow around obstacles. Daoism does not have heroes. It has sages. To me, Gandhi, MLK, and Mandela were sages. They flowed around the rocks their oppressors kept flinging in their way. This was indeed a form of resistance, but not a physical form. 

Donald: When we were young, it was common for Adventists to call themselves “peculiar people.” We took pride in setting ourselves up as “different”—with the implication that we were in the right lane and everyone else was in the wrong lane. We resisted military service, we resisted the common meat diet, common entertainment, the Sunday. Sabbath. Those were important enough to get us noticed. 

Kiran: King Ahab wanted to kill all the prophets. One of his generals hid a hundred of them in a cave and fed them. He played both sides. Schindler did the same thing, in essence. We honor such people. Some people—like Gandhi, MLK, Mandela—are called, chosen by God; the rest of us just try our best to survive. 

David: What did Gandhi et al. resist? The assault on their own consciences. Their resistance took the form of ignoring the assault, of treating it as a rock to be flowed around. I don’t think God (their consciences) would have approved of violent physical resistance. 

Don: Is it possible to submit yet be disobedient?

David: Private Doss submitted to military service but disobeyed direct orders to carry a gun. He did not support war; as a medic, he supported the salvation (literally and no doubt spiritually) of his fellow soldiers—American and Japanese! He followed his conscience, his God. 

Mikiko: We are living in the world, so we cannot reject government completely. Our taxes pay for Medicare and social security—these are good things. None of us is perfect:

For there is no righteous man on earth who always does good and never sins.  (Ecclesiastes 7:20) (New World Translation)

For we live in a wicked world:

We know that we originate with God, but the whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one. (1 John 5:19)

Don: In summary, we seem to have decided there is no formula, that it is an individual matter, and that survival by all means may be right for some (perhaps for most).

David: I would add that salvation (in the spiritual sense) is right for those whose conscience—the inner light—insists upon it. 

Donald: I am not sure that the next generations holds the same respect for structure and institution that we do. They resist formal structure, including church governance. This is an ecumenical issue, not just an Adventist issue. Churches may be closing at least in part as a result of this generational distrust of institutions.

Don: Is the religion of the future a religion without authority?

David: I think it has to be, if only out of faith—which I think the majority of people, universally, will eventually have—that His kingdom will come, that all will be sages. If that is so, then they are likely to abandon religions and sects that do not embrace the universal view. Technology is accelerating the trend to individualism, and in the spiritual sense of an individual relationship with God, it is to be welcomed, it seems to me. (In the worldly sense of selfishness, however, the trend is troubling.) 

Don: Are the Biblical and Christian lessons concerning civil disobedience then more—or less?—applicable to the future as they have been to the past? Is resistance passé? On its way out? 

David: The recent exemplars we’ve noted (Gandhi, MLK, Mandela) seem to point to a growing, not a lessening, trend. As Donald notes, it seems to be a growing trend among millennials, whose distrust of institutions itself amounts to incipient disobedience. Previous epochs have been relatively devoid of disobedience, in this sense. It seems to be a modern and accelerating trend. Is it necessarily bad?

Donald: Technology plays a significant role even in our meetings. We could not have held this class a decade ago. We have many more choices of religious study classes than previous generations and epochs had. We can be, and we are, much more individualistic about it. The highway has many more lanes to choose from. The question is: Which lane should we choose? 

Don: We need to discuss this further. It may make a good jumping-off point for our seminar about the Future of Religion, to be held at Andrews University on January 26 and 27. 

David: I will look for the universal aspect, the common core, within the messages of Gandhi, MLK, and Mandela. 

Donald: Is evangelism’s role to get people to switch lanes? 

Don: It appears to be so. But if there were no traffic cops directing cars into various lanes, there could be no disobedience. People might change lanes from personal choice or from simple indifference. The former world of a few separated narrow lanes, with stern religious cops forcing people into one or other of them, is disappearing, or has already disappeared. What does this mean for the future?

Donald: The metaphor may apply equally to civil as to religious governance: One’s civil identity was defined by land and sea borders that technology has substantially demolished. Long-accepted barriers between lanes and between cultures are coming down. We are then more individual and less a relatively faceless member of a disciplined social group.

Anonymous: That seems likely to stimulate greater distinctive biases between people: The zealot will grow more zealous, the faithful more faithful, the unbeliever more unbelieving. The righteous will grow more righteous, living straight and upright law-abiding lives that government will not perceive to be threatening in any way.

Don: Imagine a world without race, religion, boundaries, borders, ethnicity…. In some ways, these lanes are growing harder to change. 

David: John Lennon added: “Imagine there’s no heaven,” which I find impossible to do because it implies there is no… nay, it denies there is… Goodness in the world. But the millennials are indeed carrying forward Lennon’s hippie-era ethos. 

Donald: Do we then no longer need to render anything to anyone? 

David: Private Doss rendered his faith to God, and his service to his government. 

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