It seems that more than a few discussions about what the Bible says about the state jump directly to Romans 13. I won’t fault anyone for looking there first, but even if Romans 13 is the right place to start, Christians have a duty, I think, to interpret the Bible in light of the whole counsel of Scripture. That’s why it’s important (as Norman Horn has written here, here, and here, and Cody Libolt here, and here) not to stop with Romans 13 when trying to learn what the Bible can teach us about the state. This post and the next one certainly aren’t going to be a comprehensive treatment of the subject, but I hope that my observations will at least be a small but meaningful part of how some people will think about this topic.
One question (perhaps “the” question) I think Christians have to grapple with is whether the state is an institution of God’s making or one of man’s making. Granted, the answer to that question doesn’t change the fact that the state is subject, as are all things, to God’s sovereignty; regardless of the evil that may be committed in its name, even the state cannot thwart God’s good will. I think it’s helpful to put the state in the right category, however, so we can discern how Christians should relate to and interact with the state.
It would be simple to say: “God established Israel. Israel was a nation-state. Therefore, the state as an institution must be God’s idea.” Aside from the many obvious differences between the Israelite nation and the modern, secular nation-state, I think that line of reasoning errs in its method of interpreting Scripture. To see why I say that, consider a passage most people probably wouldn’t think to look at in a discussion about the state. In Matthew 19 we read the following:
Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
Jesus acknowledged that the Mosaic law permitted divorce, but he was clear that “from the beginning it was not so.” Divorce was God’s accommodation to man’s sinfulness, but it was never his plan. Divorce was not, as in other cultures, merely the breaking of a contract; marriage was a divinely protected covenant, the dissolution of which was akin to a person tearing apart his own body. Despite the fact that the practice was permitted among the Israelites, God was and is clear that he hates divorce (Malachi 2:16).
Are there other parts of the Mosaic law that were accommodations to man’s sinfulness?
Slavery was permitted in Moses’ time, but the law (in contrast to surrounding cultures) actually afforded slaves certain protections. In Israel the chattel slavery with which Americans are familiar from our own past was a foreign concept. This, I think, is another clear case of God’s accommodation to man’s sinfulness, not an endorsement of slavery. Indeed it was because abolitionists like William Wilberforce were Christians that they strove to have the slave trade outlawed.
My point is this and I’ll lay out exactly how I think it is relevant to discussions about the state in my next post: Christians cannot simply point to a system God set up for Israel and conclude that because God permitted something for them that the same accommodation is God’s divine decree for all people and all times. Jesus clearly rejected such a notion and I’m at a loss to think of a reason why a follower of His should refuse to do the same.