Thursday, October 24, 2019

Our Duty towards Unjust Civil Government

In two recent posts, I have considered the duty of civil government and the duty of the people toward civil government. Here I want to conclude this short series by considering our duty when civil authority is abused. Those in civil government often use their power in unjust ways or ways that go beyond God's intention for civil government, adding additional burdens for those under them. While the civil government ought to be the champion of justice and liberty, sometimes it is the very thing that undermines these principles. So what should we do when the civil government is unjust or overbearing? Here are some things we should do:

1. Focus on serving God in your current condition, rather than fretting. As Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 7:20-24, be content even when you are in some degree of servitude and serve God by respecting your master. "Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it" (1 Cor. 7:21). But seek freedom when you are able. "But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity ... do not become bondservants of men." (1 Cor. 7:21, 23).

2. Embrace responsibility and act like freemen in spirit. Do not let your condition lead you to lose initiative or become embittered and discouraged. You are a freeman of the Lord (1 Cor. 7:22). Govern yourself, take responsibility for your own, and show mercy to others.

3. Be patient amid injustice - especially as private citizens. Jesus gave us a general rule in Matthew 5:38-42 to not resist the one who is evil, particularly in cases like when someone gives a personal insult, takes your clothes, or impresses you into government service for a mile or two. Note also what Paul says in Romans 12:14-21, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them ... Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God."

4. Repent of your sins and seek mercy from God in prayer. Participate in corporate repentance as a people, confessing not only individual sins, but also societal and national sins. God can use tyrants and oppressors to judge sinners and to chastise His people (Judges 2:11-23), and the intended response is for us to repent and seek His mercy (Jonah 3). And pray also that God might correct injustice and tyranny and save His people from oppression (Ps. 10, 82, 94), appealing to His righteousness and steadfast love.

5. Disciple others in a biblical view of society, justice, and the state (Matt. 28:18-20). This is key to lasting change, particularly when people are transformed by the gospel and desire to honor God in this area. Political campaigns might call people to action, but they cannot replace the formative work of education, gospel transformation, and discipleship.

6. Be involved in politics. Seek reformation with whatever influence you can reasonably exercise. This includes campaigns, protests, petitions, donations, voting, and the like. “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate…” (Amos 5:15). A free system of government, like we have here in the United States, gives citizens a large amount of opportunity and responsibility to establish justice and freedom through political involvement. The well-being of your neighbors depends in part upon your political involvement.

7. Challenge unjust actions by legal means. Call a lawyer. Appeal from one authority to another. Paul made this sort of resistance several times (Acts 16:37, 22:25, 28:19). Occasionally strategic law-breaking may be part of such a legal challenge. 

8. Respectfully and firmly disobey if the civil government commands you to sin. Consider the examples of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Dan. 3), Daniel (Dan. 1, 6) and the apostles (Acts 5). "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

9. Run away when in private danger for just cause. Consider the example of David (1 Sam. 19:12, 20:1, 21:10) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-3).

10. Support resistance by another civil authority. Within a system of civil government, there is a variety of authorities, and each civil authority has a particular duty to use force to protect the people under his charge against unjust aggression (Rom. 13:1-5). It is proper for a civil authority to interpose between the people and an unjust ruler. The people as a whole, organized as such, is one of these civil authorities, although private individuals are not. Resistance must not be to civil government itself, but by civil authority to civil authority. We see an example of this imposition in 1 Samuel 14:43-45 when the people stopped King Saul from executing Jonathan, as well as in 2 Chronicles 23 when the priests and the commanders and heads of the people made Joash king and dethroned Queen Athaliah the tyrant. Because this interposition involves resistance with force, it should be subject to just war criteria and used when other remedies have been tried and failed. We see more recent examples of this principle in the English Civil War and the American War for Independence. A less dramatic example of this is when a lower magistrate refuses to enforce an unjust law from a higher authority. 

It is easy to get discouraged when the power of civil government begins to be used for injustice or to expand government control and take away freedom. The is especially the case in our day when an individual seems so small in the grand scheme of things. But to give up in discouragement and bitterness is only to become even more a slave than you were already. There are many things that a person can do, and with the help of others and the blessing of God, change is possible. Our Lord reigns in the heavens and laughs at the pride of even the most powerful tyrants.


Patrick said...

The social justice movement, or ideology, is championed within the Catholic church, the Methodist church and PCUSA. This movement has been gaining traction in the PCA and more recently, the SBC. Does it have a place in the church? For churches (not individuals) that have embraced it, it seems to have replaced Christology with sociology.

Peter Bringe said...

Hello Patrick,

It seems that two things are at play in this issue. First, is what goes under the label "social justice" is true justice? Second, is a concern for justice in society replacing a focus on the work of Christ?

With regard to the first, I do think that "social justice" usually imports unbiblical assumptions about the nature of justice, and so it is quite dangerous. It can misdirect the well-intentioned efforts of Christians who want to promote righteousness and love their neighbors. This is one reason why, when I wrote my post on the duty of civil government, I did not want to merely say that the government should establish justice, but to define what justice is (using the principles of the Ten Commandments).

With regard to the second concern, it is possible for a concern for justice in society to replace the work of Christ, especially in churches which deny the historicity of the gospels and the doctrine of the atonement (not having the true gospel, they replace it with the social gospel). But this does not mean that Christians should abandon this concern. We should appreciate both justification and sanctification, redemption accomplished and redemption applied, faith and duty.