Servants, be in subjection to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the wicked. For it is commendable if someone endures pain, suffering unjustly, because of conscience toward God. For what glory is it if, when you sin, you patiently endure beating? But if, when you do well, you patiently endure suffering, this is commendable with God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example, that you should follow his steps, who did not sin, “neither was deceit found in his mouth.” Who, when he was cursed, didn’t curse back. When he suffered, didn’t threaten, but committed himself to him who judges righteously; who his own self bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live to righteousness; by whose stripes you were healed. For you were going astray like sheep; but now have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:18-25 WEB)
If I’m going to discuss the topic of whether anarchism is an acceptable position for Christians to hold, why would I begin my discussion with the quotation above? Does the passage above make it unacceptable for a Christian to be anti-slavery? If you use the same hermeneutic that most contemporary people bring to Romans 13 (and other passages about civil government like the one in 1 Peter that immediately precedes this one), then you would be forced to conclude that Christians must support slavery. So how would an anti-slavery Christian use the Bible to defend their viewpoint against a pro-slavery Christian brother who was brought from the past via time machine? If your method of Biblical interpretation is to take one verse or passage, absolutize it, and divorce it from the context of the rest of scripture, then you’ll wind up in a stand-off at best. You’ll have your verses and they’ll have their verses. No, in order to argue against slavery as a good institution, you would need to look at the whole story of it in the Bible. You would need to begin and end with who Jesus Christ is and how his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension ultimately overthrow and subvert lawful pre-Christian institutions like slavery and polygamy. When something like slavery appears in the New Testament, it is not shown as a good, but as an evil that is to be subverted through imitation of Christ (who, when he was cursed, did not curse back) rather than overthrown via violent revolution. Do not repay evil with evil, but overcome evil with good. Wait a minute! That verse sounds familiar. Where in the Bible does it appear? It happens to be the last verse of Romans 12. And what comes immediately after the end of Romans 12? Hmm…
Ye shall be like God – an anatomy of the state
To see the true nature of the state, we need to go back to the beginning. Think about the temptation of Adam and Eve by the serpent. How does he close the sale? “You won’t surely die, for God knows that in the day you eat it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Since the fall of man, the desire to use power to dominate others has been a constant theme. The City of Man, as Augustine coined it, has been one story after another of centralization of power, deification of the state, and Yertle the Turtle-style hegemony. This is especially obvious in the ancient world of Nimrod and the Egyptians. Do you think those pyramids were built in that shape by accident?
In contrast to the autocratic kings of the nations, how did God choose to establish Israel? Rather than centralizing autocrats, you see a decentralized administration of God’s law by judges. There really isn’t anything that could be construed as a state in the modern sense. The decentralized nature of Israel from Moses to Samuel consisted of elders and judges using God’s law to resolve disputes. This far more closely resembled free market private law and mediation than it resembled the socialist court system of the modern state. The main drawback (if it can be called one) of this system is that it worked so well and brought such prosperity that the people forgot God. When God brought judgment in the form of foreign invaders, the stiff-necked people of Israel learned the wrong lesson and called for a king like the other nations. When the people of Israel clamored for a move from an essentially anarchic system of decentralized judges to a system aping the pagan kings, God revealed to Samuel that it was a rejection of Him (see 1 Samuel 8). The monarchy of Israel was a disaster, just as Samuel prophesied, and you didn’t see any widespread return to following God until the exile, when the people of Israel no longer had political power.
Since Constantine, the intoxicating temptation to seize political power has been a constant problem for the church, undermining her witness and causing Christians to apologize for, justify, and even participate in the atrocities of the state. People who claim the name of Christ have fought on opposite sides of wars, all too eager to swallow the dehumanizing propaganda of the state. How can this be? Why not rather be wronged? Ye shall be like God, knowing good and evil.
So what about Romans 13?
Now that we’ve looked at the state, let’s take a look at the passage that allegedly precludes the possibility of a Bible-believing Christian being an anarchist. George Kalantzis points out in Caesar and the Lamb that the pre-Constantine Christian attitude toward the civil magistrate was very far removed from the way a modern western Christian looks at Romans 13. The early church took Jesus’ call to love your enemies very seriously. Participation in war and the apparatus of the state was seen as incompatible with the command to love your enemies. I’m going to quote the passage giving it a running start from Romans 12. Remember, there were no chapter headings or verses in the original epistle.
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor that which is evil. Cling to that which is good. In love of the brothers be tenderly affectionate to one another; in honor preferring one another; not lagging in diligence; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; enduring in troubles; continuing steadfastly in prayer; contributing to the needs of the saints; given to hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless, and don’t curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind one toward another. Don’t set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Don’t be wise in your own conceits. Repay no one evil for evil. Respect what is honorable in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as it is up to you, be at peace with all men. Don’t seek revenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to God’s wrath. For it is written, “Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord.” Therefore
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him.
If he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing so, you will heap coals of fire on his head.”
Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Let every soul be in subjection to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those who exist are ordained by God. Therefore he who resists the authority, withstands the ordinance of God; and those who withstand will receive to themselves judgment. For rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Do you desire to have no fear of the authority? Do that which is good, and you will have praise from the same, for he is a servant of God to you for good. But if you do that which is evil, be afraid, for he doesn’t bear the sword in vain; for he is a servant of God, an avenger for wrath to him who does evil. Therefore you need to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For this reason you also pay taxes, for they are servants of God’s service, attending continually on this very thing. Therefore give everyone what you owe: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if customs, then customs; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.
For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other commandments there are, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love doesn’t harm a neighbor. Love therefore is the fulfillment of the law. Do this, knowing the time, that it is already time for you to awaken out of sleep, for salvation is now nearer to us than when we first believed. The night is far gone, and the day is near. Let’s therefore throw off the deeds of darkness, and let’s put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day; not in reveling and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and lustful acts, and not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, for its lusts. (Romans 12:9-13:14 WEB)
Some thoughts on how this doesn’t automatically preclude a Bible-believing Christian from being an anarchist:
- The passage is written in the immediate context of the radical Christian practice of loving your enemies. Do not repay evil with evil, but overcome evil with good. Love your enemies. Even if your enemy is the state. Even if he kills you. This is how we win. Our weapons are not carnal.
- As discussed earlier, submission is subversive. Slaves submitting to harsh masters, wives submitting to domineering husbands, and subjects submitting to rulers and imitating Christ in how one does so overthrows these extended implications of God’s curse to the woman in Genesis 3.
- “For rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Do you desire to have no fear of the authority? Do that which is good, and you will have praise from the same, for he is a servant of God to you for good.” If you care about Biblical inerrancy, then you can’t take this clearly counter-factual statement at literal face value.
- Jesus, the only truly righteous person in the history of the world was killed by the state. Rulers are 0 for 1. In addition, all of the apostles except for John were martyred, most at the hands of the state. Paul the writer of this epistle, was executed by Nero.
- Since antiquity, the state has been an unending procession of beast after beast with very few exceptions. Over 200 million people have been killed by the state since the beginning of the 20th century.
- As a servant of God, the “ministry” of the state seems more like the ministry of a natural disaster than like a minister of the Gospel. The state slays the righteous along with the wicked, and often intentionally targets the righteous.
- Romans 13 comes after Romans 8. God works all things (even the state) together for the good of those who love Him. The fact that God turns the evil acts of the state for our good doesn’t mean that we should be encouraging or supporting the state in its performance of evil acts. We can say along with Joseph that they meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.
- Romans 13 was the primary text used as the justification of the Divine Right of Kings by tyrants and their apologists for centuries. As the church matures in her understanding of the application of scripture, perhaps contemporary advocacy for the Divine Right of the Post-Enlightenment State will look as silly to our descendants as advocacy for the Divine Right of Kings looks to us today.
Hopefully in this short format, I have at least caused my brothers and sisters in Christ to rethink whether anarchism can fit within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. The goal here hasn’t been to question the living Word of God, but to try to get us to re-examine some of the assumptions and biases we bring to scripture in the 21st century west. I’m well aware that I bring my own biases and presuppositions to the interpretation of scripture, and that I stand in the vast minority in terms of contemporary and historic post-Constantine Christianity. This is why I’m only advocating for tolerance and discussion of my point of view and not demanding that others adopt it, or else I will question their loyalty to Jesus. I would hope that my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ will extend to me the same charity.
I would also add that our differing views of the state are essentially irrelevant to the overall mission of the church. Our views on what the state should (or shouldn’t) be are adiaphora (matters that are of secondary importance where sincere Christians should be allowed to disagree according to conscience). Our mission as the church is to go and make disciples of the nations. If the state is as faithful to God as Josiah, or as unfaithful as Stalin has absolutely no bearing on the mission of the church. Jesus and apostles didn’t tell us to do everything we could to seize control of political power and the public square and use that as our tool for discipling the nations. On the contrary, the church has historically seen its greatest growth in regimes where it was outright illegal to profess belief in Jesus and its greatest stagnation and mission creep when the church and state have been the coziest. The world’s problem is a spiritual problem; carnal weapons won’t work. The only tool the state has at its disposal is the sword. It can’t help us in our mission. Perhaps it is time for us to reconsider whether we as the Church are undermining our own mission by expending so many of our resources helping the state with theirs.