On Obedience to the State (Part 5)

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? Because the world appears to be spiraling into an old heresy, the heresy of sacralism —of making the state a god. If the state is a god, are Christians directly told to obey the authority of the state?

In the last four posts on this topic, we’ve examined the case for a simple statement –”Christians are to obey the law when the law doesn’t directly contradict a commandment of God,” and seen how this statement doesn’t hold up under either the Scriptures or logical scrutiny. If you’re interested in reviewing those posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Is there another model we can use for the relationship between the Christian and the state, one that will stand up to Scriptural scrutiny, and is reasonably defensible as well? There are a couple of models in the Scriptures that might provide us with an answer to this problem.

The first model we should turn to directly bears on the question we’re trying to answer. Moses, in Exodus 18, is overburdened with his work in judging the people. Jethro, his father in law, gives him a piece of advice: appoint judges over smaller groups, building a hierarchy of judges throughout Israel, so that Moses doesn’t personally need to hear every case. This story introduces the concept of intermediaries powers, or levels of power within a civil government. In Exodus 18, these powers are placed between Moses, who is technically an intermediary between God as King and the people, and the people themselves.

While the purpose of these powers on the one side is to lighten the load of Moses, there is a later story that shows they became much more than this through Israel’s sojourn in the desert. In Numbers 16, we find one of the many stories of rebellion in Israel –Korah’s rebellion. Korah, a member of the Tribe of Levi, rises up against Moses, saying Moses has “taken too much on himself.” Korah means that Moses has taken too much authority on himself, he has too much power over Israel.

What’s interesting about this incident is that we don’t find any instance of Moses saying, “no, you should obey my authority as God’s appointed leader over this Nation.” If we examine the text carefully, we find Moses refutes their charges on other grounds –that he had not used his power for personal gain, or been unjustice to these people. Moses doesn’t defend himself on the principle of authority, he defends himself on his record.

What does this mean? Apparently, Moses accepts their right, as leaders within the camp, to question his authority –in essence, to rebel against him. But he only will only accept the rightness of their cause if they can prove he has abused his power in some way. Here we have a perfect model for two concepts critical to the relationship of the Christian to the state –in fact, of all people to the state. There are two things we need to closely observe.

First, everyone in the state falls under the authority of the law. From the highest leader to the lowest slave within the camp, the law applies equally to all of them (or rather, to all of us). Injustice on the part of a leader is no different than injustice on the part of a slave.

Second, if there is a breach of the law by a leader, it is the other leaders who should –indeed must– lead the effort to clean the problem up. This pits lower leaders against higher leaders, rather than the people against higher leaders. There is, built in to the idea of lower and higher leaders, the concept of accountability between the levels of leadership.

Next we’ll examine whether or not these ideas of uniform obedience to the law and intermediate leadership holds up in several other stories that involve the relationship of the Christian to the state.

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