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By Consent of the Governed


Udo W. Middelmann

The Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation

Chalet Les Montaux, CH 1882 Gryon, Switzerland #41 24 498 1656

C.S.Lewis once wrote that democracies are not chosen because we have much confidence in people, but because we have reasons to mistrust too much power for too long in the hands of too few. Man being sinful and not a saint obliges us to design controls, ways to discipline and to hold accountable those who have been given the place of authority and service to others.

Such controls exist in various forms and places. An education in history, economics, law and literature is necessary to participate responsibly in public life. Only a moral and educated citizen can see errors, deceptions and false promises on the market. Without moral restraints and historic realism democratic freedoms become selfish assertions and personal opinions.

Further controls are encouraged by the establishment of the Bill of Rights, which grant rights over against the power of the state. The freedom to assemble, whether in families or private associations, creates counterweights to the state and its power. Libraries make the resources of various view points available. School, church and civic clubs should teach and alert us to the creative ways to inform or to fool, silence and exploit the public. Various media give us different angles on events and sensitize us to see things more in perspective. Such a wide range of insights should make us all a bit more willing to become self-critical, or at least reserved.

This system of checks and balances is not only provided in the division of government into the three branches of the executive, the legislative and the judiciary, but also in the interplay between the elected and the governed, who give or withhold consent.

Most likely this is the best way to not have evil go undetected. The system can not change the heart of man and make him good. But it alerts us to the constant problem of sin. It requires a will to be responsible. It obliges us to explain and to change, when wrong is done.

It is, by its nature, an unstable system. It is not heaven on earth, not fool-proof, nor does it make for better people. But it can and often does prevent greater evil on the part of citizens and government.

The instability is also a source of a great and healthy dynamic in public discussions of what is good and right. Such an instability can also lead to severe damage, when the governed become as selfish as those who amass too much power and then play god in the process of making law.

Instead of a healthy dynamic we find cynicism spreading today in the country about distant Washington, about Party rivalries in the Congress, about law made by lobbies and about the powerful being above the law themselves. The government's focus is so often on relatively insular concerns in a world of real problems. The probes, accusations and suspicions surrounding the person of the president are cited as well. In Europe, a fatalism about government is spreading when an optimism about a united Europe and the introduction of a common currency stand in contrast to failure in a number of areas: to reduce continuous high unemployment and growing resentment about immigration and refugees, about the inability to stop the crimes and war in the former Yugoslavia, to name a few.

In light of this we do well to examine our proper relation to government. Some misconceptions about the Christian and the state should be put away. The Bible teaches some specifics in relation to sin and service, which I would like to raise here.

Are the cynicism, the jokes, the critical comments and accusations about those elected to govern us justified and should they be expressed? How can they be resolved or at least put to good use?

The significant passage relating to this is in Paul's letter to the Romans chapter 13. It stands in the flow of a larger argument, which describes the proper comportment of Christians in all of life. Chapter 12 tells us about this in relation to God (1-2), to the body of the church (3-8) and to the neighbor (9-21). The next section, following right along, establishes the divine appointment of authority in the state, rooted in the fact that all of life is under authority. For, there is a creator of the world. He gave definitions of what he made and said. Authority is vested in families, teachers and in all kinds of truth worthy of attention and obedience. Scientific truth explaining laws of nature would be a good example here.

Authority is real, since there is an author to the universe. His definitions stand in the real world. Submitting to them makes life possible, while disregard of poisonous mushrooms puts an end to it.

But this submission to authority does not require an acceptance of any one specific government at any time or in any condition. Should we not critique, review and reject those, who, in authority, use this authority wrongly, who deceive, are asleep to human need or who enrich themselves? That question has been debated, but not settled in a uniform way.

Confusion about authority, patriotism and service have contributed much to the continuous obedience of the German army to Hitler's immoral rule. Stalin justified terror, extermination of millions, the forceful collectivization of private property, agriculture and industry as well as the massive deportation of millions with an appeal to patriotism. Yet 'beloved father' Stalin was a cruel 'pater.' The rule of the Mafia in Italy is in some sense tolerated for the sake of the order it imposes in the absence of a moral state.

Where kings saw a divine right to their position handed down to them through birth, title and traditions, the modern state often wishes to occupy a similar position. While it had replaced royalty and assumes, in the form of consent of the governed, to represent all well-meaning, wise and intelligent citizens, it does not in fact, as an institution, always do justice.

It was this assumed position of the state, replacing both king and church, which continued and at times gave rise to wide-spread antisemitism in the 19th century all over Europe and America. For the Jew saw his final allegiance not to the state, nor to the democratic majority, but to Jehovah and the Law of Moses. That law always brought both encouragement and judgment to the democratic state. The latter is a hard pill to swallow for any authority besides God. Therefore the Jew in Europe and the Roman Catholic and the Jew in America were suspect to the state, because of their first allegiance to a "foreign" sovereign.

(For this reason Jews historically tend to vote more for Democratic candidates than Republicans, though the former have a history of strengthening the power of the state more than the latter. But then, the Democrats have also been able to portray themselves as the party protecting the underdogs, minorities and rainbow rights rather than the rights of individuals, the wealthy and achievers.)

It is in their nature that authorities like to remain in power. They like to portray themselves as authors of the good life each person desires. Through government 'the good' will come in history. This was as characteristic of the attempts to establish "Christendom" (Christ's Kingdom) on the ruins of the Roman empire from the eighth century onwards. With the Enlightenment it became the pursuit of a nation's destiny through ideologies like nationalism, ethnicity or the vision of a 'manifest destiny' in both Europe, America, China and Japan..

Such a pursuit is always utopian, for it suggests that a better place, rule, system or human experience can be achieved, in which there are no more problems. It is utopian in that it is a worthy goal impossible to achieve in a fallen world.

Bill Gothard taught that submission to authorities was God's divine way of blessing people. He suggested this to be a way of healing dissent during the Vietnam and hippie era of the 60s and 70s. It did not matter whether your parents gave you wrong or poor advice. Submission alone mattered for a blessing! The chain of command was not to be broken. Respecting the chain would heal all youth conflicts and introduce countless blessings in personal lives and in the life of the nation.

At the National Prayer Breakfast a few years ago President Bill Clinton talked about a Christian's call to love and asked participants not to criticize him so much. While partisan politics is often childish and a stupid way to deal with real moral and practical issues, the amount of criticism, however, also depends on the value of presidential political proposals. Really knowing the pulse of the nation or really explaining the morality of a better view would have diminished the criticism more than a plea for kindness dressed in Christian language. Better, wise and moral politics would eliminate unfair and unfounded criticism.

It is true that there should be no cheap shots against authority. But the jester at court during very authoritarian times in Europe's history or the illustrative story by the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12) to alert king David to his crime are helpful ways to bring critical truth to authorities and to lead to repentance.

Romans 13 tells us that all authority is from God, for He is the author of creation, of the laws and of every effort to diminish evil, sin and the effects of sin. The Christian is not against the state as such. 1.Timothy 2:1, Titus 3:1 and 1. Peter 2:13,14 tell Christians to support the state as a social reality, an authority established by God, instituted to have power from God for good services.

This does not mean, however, that whatsoever present state has its authority from God. A government can only claim that authority, if it places itself under God's judgment as well. God alone is good in his character, and every good has to be compared to this standard. Neither king nor 'we the people' are a guarantee for good. One dictatorship can easily replace another, the individual is no better or worse than popular consent in an uncivil setting.

The Christian approves of being under authority, for the Bible never frees us from the need to overcome evil with good also by means of the state and its authority, whether it be pagan or Christian. But there are good and bad leaders. The sheep hear and know the voice of the true shepherd (Jn 10:11, 12). They should not follow the voice of those, who do injustice. That measure must also be applied to any subsidiary authority such as states, parents, teachers, pastors and elders, and the media..

Repeatedly Jesus Christ stood up to the authorities of his day. He acknowledges the claim of Caesar for taxes to administer government authority and respects the image of the ruler on the coin. At the same time he states that God has a much greater claim on man, in whom the image of God is visible. The image of Caesar is on the coin, the image of God is on man's heart, soul and mind.

Jesus also refuses to perform for Herod, "that fox" (Luke), because of a lack of real spiritual and moral desire on his part to understand the Messiah and his teaching.

The warning about those who rebel against the authority (Ro 13:2) forbids anarchy and sedition. We are to lead quiet lives (1. Thess 4:11), which keeps us from revolutions, anarchy and creating chaos. But it does not free us from moral discernment, opposition and critique. We have already been told at the end of the 12th chapter of Romans that we should not take personal revenge, but leave room for the wrath of God. There is a role for the authority of government to be an instrument of that wrath of God in the administration of justice under just laws..

Yet we are to stand and pray against evil.

When we are called to pray for our enemies, we should do this hoping that they would see their error, then change and be enemies no more. Such prayer is not a form of approval or acceptance of the hostility from individuals or government, but a request for God's powerful work in their hearts. It is a warning against personal revenge, but not a call to submission or moral indifference.

Such reservations about the obligation to be submissive are not rationalizations in the name of faith. There is clearly a limitation to submission in Romans 13 itself. Authority is to be obeyed, when and because it uses the sword against evil (vs. 4). Those who break the rule of God's law have to fear such authority. It does not have to be feared by those seeking to do good. Thus an authority is from God only when it seeks to do good.

An authority which confuses good and evil is not to be accepted as from God, for they have separated themselves from their divine calling to be a beneficial authority in a sinful world. Authority is a servant of God, when it serves what is good for human society (13:4). Such authority we must obey and serve without expecting perfection or being too idealistic. To it we pay taxes and support it in its fight against evil, against military aggression and other forms of threatening wrong.

Such, and only such an authority, would also create no conflict between the demand for obedience to its rule and the admonition of God to each of us to seek justice, to do good and to love mercy. For when we then do what Paul continues in Romans 13 to expound, we are not in conflict with a government that is, in its character, from God.

Paul tells us that "he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law." The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," Do not steal," "Do not covet" and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to its neighbor." (Romans 13: 8-10). Submission to authority is called for when such authority supports the practice of life, which is required by these commandments of God.

In light of this context the question is not whether Paul wrote Romans during the first five good years of emperor Nero's reign (and therefore could not have known what authority would turn into later); or after Nero became cruel (and therefore submission would involve a sacrifice of responsible action for the sake of submission itself in obedience, as a virtue).

Paul writes more from principle than from historic context. He must have recognized the dual dangers of what would later become known as Byzantine despotism and examples of Jewish/Christian fanaticism. He remembered both the dictatorship of Pharaoh and Korah's rebellion. He knows of the split of Israel under Rehoboam (the authoritarian) and Jeroboam, who came back from Egypt to lead a rebellion (1. Kings 12:1ff). Paul speaks against the man of lawlessness (2.Thess 2:8) and agrees with Peter's insistence that no earthly power must come between God and a good conscience (Acts 4:19).

Neither individual selfishness or autonomy nor community acquiescence to governmental selfishness turn out to be Biblical.

An appeal to David's sparing Saul's life as the Lord's anointed does not affect this perspective differently. For David refuses always to obey or to surrender to Saul on moral grounds. Saul is the Lord's anointed, yet David runs away instead, doing good against the king's wishes and waiting for God to bring about his own kingship.

In our modern setting we must remember that any democracy requires an alert, critical participation of the governed. Of course, no-one should be assumed guilty until the proof is in. But all issues should be debated, argued with and, when required, contradicted on moral and factual grounds.

The office of the president should be honored, but not always the person in it, whose views may be very immoral, unwise or irresponsible. Any authority must explain the moral/factual argument for its positions. We have authorities under law, which must include the king or president of a country. On these ground rules they were elected in the first place. That is also the way they will maintain support or, failing, loose it.

In a democracy one must earn, assemble and maintain such an authority by exposing oneself to public scrutiny and approval, or suffer rejection and even ridicule. Those who run for office choose this exposure. Their work and life is a constant call for approval or disapproval from all citizens, from those they represent and from those who voted against them. They can not complain of a changing opinion in the public, when policies do not agree with the promises made earlier to win.

Certainly we are commanded to pray for those in authority. We should also further and keep alive a public debate. Issues in their philosophical framework, views and analysis of problems (and ways to solve them) rather than clever sound bites and visual appeals should be the focus.

The problem in our countries is not too much criticism or too little respect, but too little content, too much selfishness and too little civil responsibility on all sides. All seek pleasure, power and self-promotion rather than truth, wisdom and responsibility. In fact, for much of public life we have lost all sensitivity and replaced it with sensuality (Eph 4:17-20).

The search for wisdom and the attitude of humility have become rare. So has debate along the lines of what makes sense in the larger context, considering also the long-term effects of a measure. The moral and cultural results from different world views in the use of the building blocks of society, economics and law also need to be known. We are no longer very much aware of the need for personal responsibility and self restraint. Instead we demand that government provide the play ground for life, to make the rules and to provide the ambulance to take the victims to hospital.

As mentioned above, there is a real danger that the electorate becomes as authoritarian as the elected. Often from purely selfish reasons, out of a tradition of the self-reliant pioneer and rugged individualism, one demands immediate accounting of what government has done for me. At that point there can be no more delegation of power, no more representation of many by one, and no more dialogue for the simple reason that each person ( ethnic, gender and victim- specific ) assumes to be the center of the universe and always right. We have then become complainers rather than participants in moral government.

Those chosen to administer power and justice must be allowed to minister to the larger public until their views and practices become immoral or wasteful.

Representative power is in itself an expression of the recognition that the good is impossible to come by. A division of labor and callings should help to bring in a better approximation of what is good. Life itself is less cumbersome, when public administrations, like any other jobs, are handled by qualified people We chose people to represent us, whom we trust to be better qualified and unlike ourselves. The benefits are evident. The price to be paid is to submit to them, to respect them, to honor them and to live under their wisdom, even if our immediate expectations may not become real. If not, the refusal to submit and to honor the authorities will brew much trouble on the horizon. Trust is important, but also easily smashed by either citizen or elected powers. And when government becomes as cynical about the citizens as they in turn are about their government, democracies might not be able to survive. At least they will become very uncivil, as seen already in many so-called democracies from Yugoslavia to Russia to India and in some countries in Africa.

The Christian understanding is not a call to submission under authorities qua authority, but for submission to what is true, defined and sound. Submission includes prayer, service, with limited expectations in an earthly kingdom and constant alertness. We are 'children of light, who test all things and hold on to what is good' (1.Thess 5:19,20). That should involve our readiness to enter the debate, to work in government and to serve any present government with constructive critique and demands for moral and educated candidates. We should require much more in explanations about their world view, their understanding of history and economics, of literature and family life, of work and social kindness from those to whom we submit. What is offered, in the short attention span of the contemporary public, is insufficient to build trust between anyone.

The Christian is neither a fatalist nor god. He is both a servant of authority and a prophet from a higher authority. At times he must stand, not unlike Elijah, in the court of Ahab in the name of our God and speak against the king and his policies (1.Kings 17:1). From our humility before God, seeking wisdom, knowledge and understanding, we will gain strength to stand courageously before men in our need as people to live in the city, under law and with moral definitions.

At no time is the Christian called to honor authority merely for itself. If God explains himself and our situation in the Bible over such length and in detail, are we then not also encouraged to demand explanations from those who supposedly express authority on a lesser level. Where authority fails to serve what is good and righteous, it should speedily be challenged and possibly be replaced. Serious and valid criticism, the education of the public, adequate information and a willingness to serve are first significant steps in that direction.

The Christian is never free to be uninvolved in authority. For at all times he is under the authority of Christ, to whom he must give an account of what he has done in this life.

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