A few days ago Chaplain Mike over at Internet Monk provided as fodder for discussion an excerpt from a recent interview given by John MacArthur.
MacArthur was asked for his thoughts on the “revolution in the Middle East with protesters opposing authoritarian rule.” MacArthur’s responses included the following:
I think there are a lot of ways to approach that but if you just talk about a biblical thing, they are all in violation of a biblical command – to submit to the powers that be because they’re ordained of God.
… whatever the government would be, even if it was Caesar in the New Testament, that the believers are commanded to live orderly lives, peaceful, quiet lives, subjecting themselves to the powers that be because they’re ordained of God.
But biblically speaking, I would have wished the American government, which has a history of Christianity, would have risen up and said “this is wrong, this is forbidden for people to do this, this is intolerable.”
The full interview is here if you’re interested.
MacArthur seems to take the view that, irrespective of how brutal and despotic the governing authority, even rallying in opposition in an attempt to topple that authority is forbidden. And he’s got Bible verses to prove it.
The problem with trying to use the Bible to condemn the protesters is that you have to rely on a few verses while largely ignoring one of the major themes of the Bible, namely, God’s opposition to oppression and injustice. The OT is replete with condemnation of injustice. The prophets continually warned that if nations persisted in oppressing the vulnerable within them, God’s justice would see to it that their regime was overthrown, trampled, destroyed.
God didn’t suddenly stop caring about injustice and oppression when Christ stepped on the scene. From Luke’s standpoint, this Old Testament theme is the essence of Jesus’ ministry. In Christ’s inaugural sermon, he quotes Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)
Freedom for the oppressed is central to Christ’s Kingdom message.
But what about the passages that MacArthur alludes to? They certainly do sound as though they endorse a strict political quietism. Why does MacArthur’s response just feel so … wrong?
I’ll share with you my thoughts and I’ll let the biblical scholars out there tell me if I’ve missed the mark.
It seems to me that to understand Paul’s direction to live in submission to the authorities, you have to understand his eschatology. Paul was clearly persuaded that the end of the age was at hand. In a dramatic reversal, God was about to enter the fray, destroy the Roman empire and establish fully the Kingdom of God on earth. There was no need to fight or resist the Romans because God was about to overthrow their empire at any moment.
Paul’s expectation of an imminent end is on full display in his advice in 1 Corinthians 7. Don’t worry about changing your station in life. Don’t sweat being a slave. Don’t marry if you can avoid it. Why? At verses 29-31:
What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
When Paul tells Christians to live in submission to the Roman authorities, he’s doing so from the perspective of one who believes that the whole order is about to be overthrown in any event. This is not a long-range perspective. It’s not that God suddenly decided that oppressive empires weren’t deserving of destruction. It was precisely because God was about to overthrow this unjust regime that Paul could recommend that God’s people just wait it out.
In fact, in Romans 13, after calling for submission to the authorities, Paul goes on to say in verse 11:
And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.
The NT ethic of submission to any and all authority arises in a context of temporary instruction for a people who are about to be given a total victory over their oppressors. That’s a sensible strategy if the hour of God’s intervention is near. It’s not such great advice if you’re living 2000 years later in North Africa with no sign of divine intervention in sight.
Time and again, the Christian commitment to justice has been undermined by the expectation of an imminent end. Generation after generation, those who suffer are told to wait it out; authentic justice is impossible this side of the eschaton, but there is hope to be had in the conviction that the end is nigh. Yet the end has never been nigh, and there is no reason to believe that it is nigh today. Meanwhile, human beings continue to suffer and many Christian institutions can do little more than to bandage wounds and send victims back into the very political and economic environments that wounded them in the first place. … That [charity] may be all very well when the consummation of the kingdom of God is expected to take place within a few decades, but with a two-thousand-year margin of error, such charity itself becomes an injustice.