I realize that I'm starting with part 2 here, but my mind is working backwards on this one, so bear with me. After a little while, I'll come back in part 1 to address this: What responsibilities do we as Christians have towards our government? The New Testament seems pretty clear that Jesus called us to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” and also in Romans 13:1 we are called to obey those with governing authority. But this question can become a bit more complex if you live in a place where the governing authorities are “of the people, by the people and for the people.” What is the responsibility of a Christian then, with respect to a participatory government? To what degree should we involve ourselves in it, and how does this idea affect our perceptions of the nation in which we live?
But, for now... on to part 2
I read a familiar line of reasoning recently that is often used in support of physically violent uprisings by Christians to fight against ungodly, evil forces in the world.
This particular individual pointed to 2 Tim 2:9 and claimed that this verse authorized, even demanded that Christians physically fight to allow the spread of the gospel unhindered. The author said, “Because Paul also says that the Word of God is not to be bound (2 Tim 2:9 NIV), the right of resistance against tyranny is an important element of the rule-of-law system ordained by Him. For this reason, as John Knox (1513–1572) put it, to rebel against a wicked ruler can be the same as to oppose the devil himself, ‘who is the one abusing from the sword and authority of God’.27 Knox stated that anyone who dares to rule over a nation against the law of God can be lawfully resisted, even by force if necessary.”1
To claim that Paul is here authorizing Christians to use forcible resistance, even against a truth-suppressing government is patently false, and furthermore an abuse not just of 2 Tim 2.9, but of the entire New Testament. The context of 2 Tim clearly affirms precisely the opposite — namely that Christians should rather suffer their own deaths than take up arms to return the same violence on their persecutors! Paul was in jail for the gospel, and would die for the gospel soon after penning these words, and even when ungodly Jews sought his life, he did not resort to violence for defense, rather he trusted Christ!
Can anyone sustain the view that Paul, Peter, Jesus, or any early Christian supported the use of forcible resistance against evil doers, especially against those in the positions of authority? No. No one who views the scripture in the way that all of the apostles, Christ, or the early church did! That is because any use of armed force in some misguided fight against worldly sources of evil misses entirely the focus of Jesus’ ministry and teaching.
Christ called his followers to peace, love for enemies, and repeatedly to look to God for justice, trusting him for protection, even if it meant the protection of their souls since their bodies were killed. Jesus said these very words “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Early Christians understood this well, and as renowned scholar Everett Ferguson observes, “[early] Christians made no resistance, leaving vengeance to God. . . . There are no known examples of retaliation by Christians for persecution in the early centuries.”2 And it was not just lack of resistance, it was an opposition to “the use of force in any way by Christians . . . [who] were forbidden to kill their enemies or to condemn others to be burned or stoned.”3
At this point, many would point to the religious motivation behind many who fought against Hitler and the Axis powers of WWII in order to liberate these people. They might say, “Hitler was clearly evil and wicked, and the necessary, good, and right thing to do was for those who loved Christ to fight against Hitler until his power to destroy the innocent was broken forever.” This argument is quite potent, and it deserves attention and consideration.
It’s certainly true that the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime were absolutely evil in their oppression and murder of millions of innocent lives. Who would argue that such actions merited the judgment of God Almighty? But therein lies the rub: how does God administer this judgment against sinful nations? At times in scripture, God intervenes directly by His own hand (as in Noah’s flood, Sodom & Gomorrah, etc.) but more often than not, the tool which God uses to judge a nation is another nation. The whole of scripture, especially the major and minor prophets, are replete with this message: God rules the nations, and actively judgements their sinfulness according to His own foreknowledge in order to further his purposes through the agency of other sinful nations. This much is acknowledged by most people, but they miss this one, little, but extremely important fact that changes everything.
It is this: God’s usage of any nation to carry out His judgement in NO WAY implies that the nation he uses is thus “His special people” or even “more righteous” than the nation which they are destroying!
The prophet Habakkuk got a hard dose of this reality when God told him that He would be sending Babylon to judge Judah for their wickedness in Habakkuk 1:5-11. Habakkuk tried to protest, as many today would, that Babylon were certainly no lovers of YHWH, and were actually WORSE than Judah in Habakkuk 1:12-13! But God simply replies by saying “even so, I will use them for my judgement and then judge them too in their own time” in Habakkuk chapter 2. The book ends with the faithful prophet Habakkuk showing an astounding example of faith and trust in YHWH by praising God!
Just look at the trust bleeding through these words “16 I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me.Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us. 17 Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. 19 God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.”
Habakkuk knew Babylon was not “a godly nation” simply because God used them to judge the evil and wickedness of another nation. The same is true of the Allied powers in WWII. The fact that they were used by God to defeat the Axis powers does not imply that they are thus God’s “favored” or “special nation” because of it. The New Testament stresses over and over that God already has “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” and it is a spiritual nation without any physical borders called “the church of Christ”! (see 1 Peter 2:9, Col 1:13, many others!!). Jesus explains that entrance to this nation comes not by borders or gates, but through a spiritual rebirth (see John 3:3-6).
With that being said, the idea of a “Christian nation” other than the church is certainly not a Biblical one.
The first church struggled in a world where it was illegal to be a Christian, where there was state-sponsored terror against followers of Jesus, imprisonment and even murder because of it. And yet, when Jesus and the apostles faced down the violent, godless dictators (much like Hitler!!!) who ruled the world, they NEVER called on Christians to resist them with physical violence! “ For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). The reverse was true, that Christians were murdered by their earthly rulers, and much of the N.T. addresses the obvious struggle that these Christians must have continually faced in this regard. If there was any time in which Christians should have retaliated with violence against murderous force, surely it would have been during the time the New Testament was written! But in every case, we see that these early Christians left the judgment of these rulers to God, and eventually Rome would fall, but that was in God’s hands not those of His church.
The letter of 1 Peter addresses just such a group of Christians who were enduring unjust suffering at the hands of a sinful, godless government. Persecution is in the background of much of the New Testament writings in fact. But never, let me say again, NEVER in scripture do we see inspired men calling out in a rage for Christians to fight against these rulers as their god-given duty! We see exactly the opposite, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9).
The point is clear that even if these Christians felt justified in returning the attacks, God's will for them was to continue to do good instead of fighting back. Peter goes on to encourage these Christians to “not fear . . . [do] not be frightened” when they chose not to defend themselves or return violent rebellion for violence suffered (1 Peter 3:14). Peter sums the discussion up by saying that instead of worrying about what might happen, these Christians “should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (1 Peter 4:19).
In such difficult times, Peter, just His Lord Jesus, kept the focus on the real concern of these Christians, which was neither their physical existence, nor their physical governors, but rather the greater spiritual reality. In chapter 5, Peter reminds these Christians of their true enemy, and it is not human attackers but Satan! Satan CANNOT be defeated with weapons of this world, or armed revolutions against ungodly rulers. Instead, Peter tells Christians to fight by “Cast[ing] all your anxiety on [Jesus] because he cares for you. Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:7‒8). Peter's answer for Christians was not to pick up a sword and defend themselves. Paul echoes the same, but goes on to add, “do not repay anyone evil for evil . . . live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord. On the contrary . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17‒21).
While there are books written on the subject, the greatest one has already been written; it is called the New Testament. I fear for any whose worldly patriotic sentiments are more highly valued than allegiance to Christ our Lord. So, while most Americans may agree with your patriotic sentiments, and even despise me for having said this, I “must obey God rather than men,” and when scripture is examined, the teaching of Christ and all of the N.T. condemn violence, even against a tyrannical, God-hating, Christian-murdering government.
While it rubs against our natural grain, against our natural desire to defend ourselves, it is nevertheless what Christ commands those who trust Him, even with their lives as they rely on Him in faith rather than their own efforts to forcibly overthrow evil with violence.