On Obedience to the State (Part 1)

Given today’s headlines, the question fairly shouts itself into our world: What is the proper relationship between the Christian and the State? Why is this so urgent now, just at this moment? First, there are the headlines. Obamacare, the impending default in Greece, the left using Christianity as a stepping stone to power (by mostly misusing the Scriptures).

Are Christians directly told to obey the authority of the state? The answer we most often here is:

Christians should obey the state so long as the law or order doesn’t directly contradict Christian doctrine.

This seems like a rather pat answer —it neatly resolves the problem in a way that sounds like it doesn’t challenge state authority in any way. What is the basis of this statement?

The prime example given of not obeying the state is that of Peter refusing to back down on preaching the Gospel in the face of an order not to do so. A number of examples are given to show how those in the Scriptures always obeyed the state, no matter how much the law in question went against their Godly belief, and Romans 13:1-7 is brought into the fray to prove the thesis.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. -Romans 13:1

But does this line of thinking really hold up? The examples of those throughout the Scriptures who obeyed government authority aren’t quite as clear as those who defend this simple dictum would like us to believe.

Let’s begin with David and his refusal to cut off the corner of the garment of Saul. The story can be found in 1 Samuel 24 —Saul goes off chasing David, and while in pursuit, enters a cave to relieve himself. David just happens to be in that very same cave, and has the perfect opportunity to kill Saul. David would clearly be justified, but rather than kill Saul, he cuts off a corner of Saul’s robe, and then states that he will not kill “the Lord’s Anointed.”

This example is supposed to show how David, though he himself had already been anointed king, was so deeply concerned with obedience to those in government that he would not kill them. And taken as a single snippet in the life of David, this story does appear to show that very thing. But there is a fly in the ointment.

If we turn just a few pages later in the Scriptures, to 1 Samuel 27, we find David is now in the service of Israel’s enemies. What does David do while he’s in the service of a Philistine king?

He lies.

There’s really no other way to put it. Once David is in enemy territory, he lies in order to build up his reputation with the local king. But isn’t this king of the Philistines also a king appointed by God? Isn’t this king also worthy of the obedience of the Godly man?

The problem is that if we see David’s in reaction to Saul as showing his willingness to obey even against his own best interests, then how can we interpret his lying to another king in order to preserve his position as the future king of Israel? Even before this incident with the Philistine king, we have to ask —what is David doing out in that cave except disobeying Saul’s orders? If Saul is chasing David, shouldn’t David surrender on the spot? Why is David hiding out in caves and gathering “everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul” (1 Samuel 22:2) to form a small army?

No, this won’t do at all… David’s actions clearly support the thesis in one regard, and fail to support the thesis in many others. We can’t look to David for support, we must look elsewhere.

More next time.

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