06 May 2015

John MacArthur, Romans 13 and Christian Attitudes Regarding Law Enforcement Officials

John MacArthur's latest newsletter addresses the current rash of protests and the growing complaint with regard to the police. Citing Ferguson as an example, MacArthur felt compelled to address the issue of obedience to the government and the important role played by the police.

He cites Romans 13 as the passage which delineates the role and responsibilities of government and how God uses it to administer justice and righteousness on earth.

For the most part I can agree with him. In a fallen world, government serves as a restraint. God utilizes it and providentially ordains the regimes that rule in order to keep the world from falling into chaos. This peace though flawed and often less than just, allows the Church to bear witness through testifying to the truth, and to continue building the Kingdom through the salvation of souls. The Church perseveres in the face of worldly opposition and God is glorified as his martyr-Temple, those united with Christ, resist the world and live as pilgrims and strangers on the earth.

The renewed believers of Romans 12 who eschew violence and vengeance are contrasted with the agents of the state in Romans 13. Paul explains the need for the state and how we are to respond to it. We understand it serves a purpose but we're not part of it, nor do we endorse it. We largely want it to leave us alone. Even corrupt states with idolatrous aspirations and flawed justice will largely leave good peaceful people alone and will punish the agitators and those that seek to harm others. When citizenship becomes something idolatrous and rivals our Kingdom obligations, that's when we have trouble.

In the United States, the Church has turned this idolatry into Christian virtue and duty and thus until recently the mainstream Church has suffered little in the way of opposition let alone persecution.

This is where MacArthur makes a wrong turn and ends up on the wrong side of the issue. He endorses the state and its agents that enforce its will through violence.

Again they are necessary and providentially ordained by God but that doesn't mean God endorses their actions nor does it mean they are necessarily good. Assyria and Persia were also spoken of as God's servants or ministers. Many Christians err in reading Romans 13 and think that the state is somehow akin to an 'office' within the Kingdom. The Roman state that Paul lived under was no more a servant than was Assyria or Persia. They serve a Providential purpose but it does not mean we encourage them, join with them or take up arms to defend them. They are ministers in the sense of being agents of God's reign but they are in no way part of the Holy Redemptive Realm that is the Kingdom of God. They state is not redemptive, it's not part of the plan of salvation. Its work is not the work of Christ applied to the world. It does not save and neither it nor its institutions will be part of the consummated Kingdom.

The violent acts in the Old Testament were legitimate because they were executed in the context of the Covenant. The Israelites were agents of the Holy State, the Holy Nation a typological picture of Christ the Judge and Saviour.  Fulfilling a Divine Commission they were the arm of Christ. It is a great error for Christians to cite these passages and apply them to non-typical, non-Covenantal nations of this era.

In the New Covenant there is no Holy Nation apart from the Church of Jesus Christ. And this nation lives in the time between the times. We are citizens of the Age to Come. We are called to live as if we were in Heaven (for we are) but live in the turmoil and anguish of the cursed earth. In this setting we glorify God by being obedient, rejecting the world's deceptions and testifying to God's glory and grace. This is our calling at all times. Career aspirations, social integration or desire for a voice in society do not allow Christians to set aside these obligations.

Violence in the common grace sphere is out of bounds for Christians. To suggest that a Christian can don a badge and now wield a gun to enforce a legal code that is not redemptive, not part of the Kingdom is say that Christians can serve two masters. It is to allow two different authorities for one's ethics. Those of us who insist Christians cannot serve the state are accused of capitulation and retreat of being Sunday-only Christians who give in to the world the rest of the week.

Those that charge of this are actually guilty of it. It is they who are saying that on Sunday you take off your badge (so to speak) and become a Bible-obeying Christian. Then on Monday morning you become another person that uses violence to intimidate and coerce others, to enforce an unjust and necessarily flawed man-made system that will burn at the end of the Age with the rest of man's works.

As Christians we are not to seek bondage, we are not to bind ourselves to obligations that hinder our walk with Christ. We have a problem because the Church has created theological categories that accommodate the world and allow the Church's members to set aside their Christian obligations in the name of dominion, vocation, office and worldview... all perversions of the New Testament picture of the Christian living in the world.

As an officer or soldier you swear an oath. I did so as a pagan and once converted I immediately regretted it, repented of it and was burdened by it until I was able to free myself from the obligation.

As a 'Christian' agent of the state your loyalty is divided and you live a lie. If you put your Christian obligations first you are violating your oath to the system you swore to uphold. If you show favour or disfavour based on your own ethical sensibilities and preferences then you are being less than faithful to your oath. If you keep the oath, which you should have never taken to begin with, then you betray your commitment to Christ's Kingdom.

You cannot have it both ways.

The fact that objectivity is virtually impossible and that other officers are equally biased is a poor excuse. We're Christians, we ought to know better. We're held to a higher standard. Christian police officers are playing fast and loose with their obedience to God and in the end are only deceiving themselves.

MacArthur refers to the police as Peace Officers. On paper and in theory this may be the case but in all actuality they are corrupt and self-serving. This is not unique to our day, it's simply the nature of power in a fallen world. Too often they are just as much an evil as the evil system they serve. That said, the system, even if evil, flawed and fallen is better than the chaotic evil of no-system. The Christians who promote laissez-faire almost anarchistic libertarianism have a very low few sin and demonstrate a serious lack of knowledge and discernment when it comes to economics, sociology and especially history. Such an arrangement can work only on paper or in a fantasy novel.

We are thankful for the state and even the police but we keep our distance. They're not 'us' and we're not 'them'. They are not interested in peace unless it serves the regime. Their motivations are wholly different from ours and in the American system in particular there are serious conflicts of interest regarding revenue collection, the penal system and the so-called Drug War.

There are racial issues. I'm not saying that Christians should be out on the streets throwing rocks and protesting. Quite the contrary but in the Babylonian system that is America I want to see the power of the police checked and reined in. We are slowly creeping toward a police state and when people take to the streets the politicians take note and try to work compromises. Is it perfect, just or reasonable?  Rarely. Why would we expect such things in this fallen world?

And yet I doubt there are very many people in MacArthur's congregation that would understand why the minorities and poor are frustrated, angry and feel disenfranchised from the system they live under. Their responses are not Christian but neither is the conduct of the state or the men with badges and guns that enforce its will.

We are truth-tellers and that means that in most situations we're going to see both sides and be critical of all sides. The riots need to stop but the system of law enforcement is broken and has become in many cases criminal. It is shame to witness so many Christians clamouring to venerate the state's agents of violence and despite the protests to the contrary there is still a great deal of racism in our society. And since the Church (to its shame) echoes and replicates the worldview of society and in many instances has baptized the American narrative it is no surprise these forces are also at work in the Church. As much as MacArthur can be appreciated, some of his words in the corresponding sermon exhibit this and were disappointing to hear. The sermon is entitled 'How God Restrains Evil in the World'. You can find it at his website or at SermonAudio.

MacArthur also mentioned that he invited the police to join in their worship services and many showed up in uniform. He says,

"Response from the officers was very encouraging. They were no doubt startled to hear their jobs described in scriptural terms and affirmed as externally significant. Even for our congregation, the service was special due to the unique context."

It is surprising to see MacArthur resorting to this kind of gimmicky stuff. It reminds one of the 'Blue' masses practiced by the Roman Catholics. At this point his behaviour and apparent strategy is no different than the Seeker churches he has rightly criticized in the past. We do not cater the meetings of Christ's church to a segment of society and we do not seek to fill our meetings with unbelievers. This is not how evangelism is done and MacArthur knows it well. Was he that agitated by the recent events that he felt compelled to do this?

These events are nothing new. We all remember the LA Riots in 1992, and MacArthur was an adult when the Watts Riot and the MLK riots happened in the 1960's. This doesn't mean they aren't significant, but was there some reason that he was extra-agitated by the recent upheavals? Maybe I'm mistaken and he's done things like this in the past but I am unaware of it and it seems almost out of character.

If police happen to attend our services they are welcome but that is not an endorsement. I would definitely encourage them 'not' to wear their uniforms and I would make a special effort in terms of discipleship to help them see that it's time to hand in the badge and find more honourable and Kingdom-worthy employment.

The police are the 'outside' as Paul says. The fact that Christians do not go to the courts of the unbelievers implies the judiciary is a non-covenantal authority, part of the 'outside'. We do not escape it, we have to live in the world but that's a far cry from joining with it. The judgments of the courts are enforced by the police with a threat of violence. I know many argue that Christians are not to sue Christians but that we can sue unbelievers and we can litigate with regard to business etc...

That's not what Christ says in the Sermon on the Mount. I realize the implications of this are startling for those who seek power and believe it is the Church's task to wield it. Far from it. We are to eschew it and deny ourselves. Even allowing for a degree of hyperbole the overall message is one of self-denial and a rejection of self-assertiveness. Certainly an other-worldly mentality and posture is one that is hardly concerned with 'rights' and retribution. Generally speaking the lawsuit is forbidden to us, even if that means our own harm. The lawsuit is a form of retaliation, calling on the state to use coercion to right a wrong. This is wrong in our personal lives, when done in the context of the Church, it's nothing less than disgraceful. Living as strangers, pilgrims and exiles we are effectively second-class citizens. We do not assert our rights or call on the state to right our wrongs. We can be thankful for the state, pray for its peace, but we keep our distance.

The Babel project cannot be sanctified by putting a cross on top of its tower or carving Scripture on its monuments. In fact such acts are sacrilege and represent a terrible confusion of Babylon with Zion.

MacArthur must also be questioned with regard to his Christian Nationalism. Are these sentiments only valid in the American context? Are Christians in France bound to support their government even if that means standing against the United States? Should they sing The Marseillaise in Church or even out on the public square? If he answers no, then why not? Is it because of French history? They're not Christian and we are? Is not their course also ordained by the Hand of Providence? Even France's secularism can have its benefits. The Huguenots have reason to celebrate the French Revolution. It ended their persecution and smashed the Bourbon dynasty.

What of Christians living in Russia? Should they support Putin and call in the agents of the state to honour and praise them? Should Christians sing the national anthem and put Russian flags up in their Church meetings? Today's Russia certainly views itself as a Christian state and seeks to implement this understanding in terms of law and society. While we reject such frameworks it's clear MacArthur does not.

History cannot be a guide to determining these questions and that's all the more true if we drink from the polluted well of Christianity in America. Christian Nationalism is rooted in dubious theology, myth and historical romanticism. Turning to the Bible alone tells us that even if America was founded as a Christian nation (which it wasn't) it would also tell us the very notion is erroneous. There's no such thing and if that's the case then the promotion of it by American Christians is nothing more than a theological and historical lie.

Of course it's wrong for French Christians to venerate their government as it is for British, Americans, Germans, Russians and Zambians.

Our loyalty to and appreciation of these institutions must be severely limited. The state which ultimately will burn at the Eschaton is outside the Church and should not be a cause of division within the Church. Those who promote a takeover along with the specific vision they would impose, while insisting their views are Christian and for the good of the Church are in fact promoting schism, causing unnecessary divisions and driving the Church into unnecessary internal conflict. It is this camp that is guilty of introducing doctrines and ideas completely foreign to Scripture. They would cite Old Covenant Israel but the New Testament teaches the whole Old Testament system was typological, pointing to Christ. To apply the typology to a non-redemptive nation is to throw pearls to swine, treating Babylon as Zion or making Zion no better than Babylon.

Finally MacArthur seems to endorse the Rebellion of 1776, and I frame it that way to make a point. History is written by the victors. His discussion of Romans 13 becomes absurd if you craft a narrative about a God-blessed and Providentially inspired violent rebellion and then insist that all such rebellious activity is now sinful. Was it a one-time occasion? In all actuality it must be said the Rebellion of 1776 was sinful and yet it happened. We don't have to account for the action of people in the past but we do have to account for ourselves in the present. The United States is a reality, as Providentially ordained as Castro's Cuba or the French Revolution, but that's not an endorsement either. And we shouldn't presume to interpret Providence and declare its outworking automatically blessed.

Again at this point Christians turn to mythological narratives concerning 1776, that it was a Christian struggle, a fight for religious freedom. This is absurd. There is no reference to any such cause in the Declaration or the Constitution. The Constitution grants religious freedom in terms of Enlightenment liberty and makes a substantial break with the Western tradition. Thankfully so, we might add.

Were the Hanoverians tyrannical? No doubt, but no more than Rome was when Paul wrote Romans.

Was their taxation unjust? Maybe. But to refuse to pay taxes is forbidden in Scripture, let alone to kill over the issue.

The Revolution and its principles introduced schism into the Colonial Churches and led to violent division as many orthodox Christians believed it was wrong to take up arms against the king. This sad but fascinating story has been all but ignored by most Christians in America today. The conduct of the Church during this period is nothing less than disgraceful. They glory in what ought to be their shame.

At the moment the powers ordained by God are the American Empire and its political figurehead Barack Obama. We can bear witness against it, not as partisans but as Truth-tellers. Obama is evil but so are the Bush's, so was Reagan... in fact every US president has a pretty dubious record when it comes to virtue, truth and Christian character. That's why they were presidents.

The doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate is a cop-out, a fiction, a speculation. It begs the question assuming some kind of Constantinian model. It is without any Scriptural warrant and is built on a false foundation. To utilize such a doctrine to justify violent resistance is to baptize bloodshed and is therefore a damnable heresy.

MacArthur is right in asserting God restrains evil in the world through the state but imagine the early Church setting up Roman banners in its meeting, inviting uniformed legions to attend and to celebrate and affirm their role... I don't think so. And that would be true even before Rome started persecuting the Church. Imagine the Christians of Persia doing this with the symbols and officials of the Parthian Shah. Christians lived very peacefully in Persia until the time of Constantine, but they didn't venerate the Persian Empire.

But America (it will be argued) doesn't persecute Christians? Why? There's nothing to persecute. The American Babel is baptized by the American Church. They will happily worship the tokens of Caesar, serve in its legions and worship at its altars and venerate its pantheon.

If we refuse to conform to the social order, refuse military participation, juries, voting, public schools, patriotism... then we get some resistance. Try sitting down the next time the Star-Spangled Banner is played, tell the person at the door why as a Christian you refuse to vote. Tell the judge why you won't serve on their jury... and you get a little more in the way of response.

Speak out about our economic system and why you won't participate in about 95% of it and you'll hear about it... ironically with the greatest volume coming from within the Church.

MacArthur is to be appreciated on many points, but in this matter he has gone astray.