Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Limits of Obedience

By Larry Beane

A controversial American economist and political philosopher, Walter E. Williams, lays out a case for disobeying the law - specifically federal laws related to health care mandates.  He asks a provocative question "Should we obey all laws?"  This is really a moral and ethical question that cuts to the very essence of government and its power.

At first glance, his answer to this question seems to run contrary to the scriptural Christian understanding of law and order.

In Romans 13:1-7, St. Paul lays out the Christian's duty to be obedient to the government.  He is told to "Submit (υπερεχουσαις) to the governing authorities (εξουσιαις)."  He is told that whoever resists (αντιτασσομενος) the authorities is opposing God and setting himself up for judgment.

St Peter says something very similar (1 Peter 2:13-17): "Be subject (υποταγητε) for the Lord's sake to every human institution (ἀνθρωπίνῃ κτίσει), whether it be to the emperor (βασιλει) as supreme, or to governors (υπερεχοντι) sent by him....  Honor (φοβεισθε) the emperor (βασιλεα).

Obviously, we live in a republic, not a kingdom.  We in the United States have a federal-state-local system of government in which political power is shared and comes from the bottom up.  Even at the federal level, authority resides in competing branches: executive, legislative, and judicial.  And unlike ancient tyrannies, the federal and state governments are held accountable by limited authorizations of power by written constitutions.

How do we apply the scriptures in the context of our various "emperors" and "governors" today?

Also complicating matters is the fact that Scripture abounds with examples of sanctified disobedience.  In other words, Peter's and Paul's exhortations to obedience are not absolute.  There seem to be limits of obedience.

In the Torah, Moses led the children of Israel in rank disobedience against the Pharaoh.  In their pre-monarchical history, the Israelites rebelled against their overlords on many occasions (even though it was God Himself who placed them under such authorities as a consequence and punishment for their disobedience).  Ehud committed regicide against King Eglon of the Moabites (Judges 3:21).  Jael assassinated the military commander Sisera (Judges 4:21) who served Jabin the king of Canaan.  There are many instances of Israelite resistance against their Philistine governments.  The history of Israelite rebellion and disobedience continues well into the intertestamental period against the Greek government.

A famous act of Old Testament civil disobedience of a peaceful and passive sort (against Babylonian law and hegemony) came in the form of illegal prayer (Daniel 6:4).

In the New Testament, Sts. Peter and John disobeyed the governing Jewish council by illegally preaching in the name of Jesus.  They replied: "We must obey (πειθαρχειν) God rather than men (Acts 5:29).

The early church is replete with disobedient Christians being executed by the imperial government (interestingly, including both Peter and Paul) for non-compliance with government decrees.

Lutheranism itself is founded on resistance against papal authority.  The confessors of Augsburg blatantly refused to honor the emperor when he commanded them to worship according to Roman rubrics.  They further defied his authority by refusing to reunite under the papacy, and instead formed the militant Smalcaldic League.  Much blood was shed as a result of Lutheran disobedience to the state in the days of the interims.

The United States was born of an act of disobedience against the British crown and parliament as the thirteen colonies seceded from the empire.  The United States suffered horrific bloodshed in the nineteenth century owing to a secession crisis of its own.  Some theologians consider the Confederate South's disobedience to be sinful, while others include the secessionist birth of the United States to be equally sinful and contrary to Romans 13.

In the mid-twentieth century, Americans resorted to civil disobedience to overturn unjust segregation laws.

And so what do we do with Walter Williams' modern call for popular and civil disobedience?  With state resistance against federal mandates?  With nullification?

I think Williams makes a very strong case for the moral right to disobey the government when the government itself (be it federal, state, or local) is acting immorally and/or unlawfully.  His own cited historical examples carry great weight.  Moreover, there were German Lutherans who acted passively, or even actively, against the legitimate and lawful National Socialist government in the mid twentieth century.  Likewise, consider the Russian Christians who defied Communist decrees under the Soviet Union, as well as the heroic disobedience among Christian refuseniks in Communist China and in Islamic countries.

But what about our situation closer to home?  What about when it isn't a cut-and-dried case of state vs. church?  What about when a branch of government steps beyond its boundaries as authorized by the constitution that governs it?  What do we do when the "emperor" himself is breaking the law?  What do we do in our own synod when popular conventions or bureaucratic political structures violate the Scriptures and/or the Lutheran confessions?  What are the limits of obedience?  And if disobedience is called for, what should that look like?  I like the fact that Williams does not call for violence.  I like the fact that Williams appeals to using one branch of government to resist another.  This seems to be in accordance with both the founders intent and the philosophical foundations for republican government with checks and balances.  Nobody wins when reformation becomes revolution.

So, what are the limits of obedience?  I believe this is a question we are going to continue to wrestle with in both church and state.


  1. Let me pose my thoughts on this question, and I will stand corrected if someone will give me good reason to do so.

    The first thing Lutherans should stop doing is interpreting the Bible like fundamentalists. I say this specifically in connection with Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, both cited above by Fr. Beane. He does NOT interpret the bible like a fundamentalist, but like a Lutheran, and I commend him for the same. He sees the exceptions.

    The standard thinking of fundamentalists, as far as I can tell, is this: if the govt says it we must do it, except when it comes to remaining silent about Christ (Acts 5:29). In all other things we must obey. Since they consider America God's nation, they utterly confuse church and state, and depend on Caesar to legislate their morality.

    Before I proceed let me say that whenever we do choose to obey God over man, we must be prepared to suffer Caesar's wrath. He may be lashing out against us unjustly, immorally, and even illegally, but the fact is that he does what he wants to do because he can, and because he thinks that he is God. He really does.

    But to continue, I posit that Lutherans have no moral obligation to obey laws that are immoral (against our conscience), or laws that are irrational, e.g. wearing seat belts because the law says we must. We do have an absolute duty, however, to live orderly lives, and to love our neighbor, and as much as it lies within us to live peaceably with all men. That is we must not use our liberty as a license for evil, as St. Peter notes in his epistle. And again, we must be prepared to answer to Caesar if he desires to punish us, or make an example of us. Then we are suffering unjustly, and are blessed, as St. Peter also states.

    If anyone takes anything I say here out of context, then let there be a pox on his house.

    Let's consider this, too. God established the govt to punish evil and reward good behavior. What happens when the govt rewards evil, and punishes good behavior? In my opinion govt is much more prone to do this, than to act justly in any given situation. See, for example, how many lives it ruins by legislating against, and punishing people for, victimless or potential crimes. Consider for a moment its financial crimes, how it robs productive people in order to buy votes and feed its rich masters (because in the final analysis money runs the world, it is the pimp and govt the strumpet). See how many young lives it destroys! for its endless, aimless wars. I am talking about the USA, and all govts. There is none that is good, no not one.

    For every blessing govt gives, there are in my opinion at least two curses, that's when things are running well.

    None the less God established govt in order to subdue evil, and provide the atmosphere in which we can live peaceable and godly lives. And when it does its God given job it is a blessing. But it hasn't done so in America for a long, long time. The 19th century, minus the civil war, was tolerable. The 20th has been a disaster. Perhaps all things will be reset in the 21st. It's looking that way.

    to be continued...

  2. continued from above...

    Let's consider some interpretation for a moment. When Sts. Peter and Paul wrote what they did about obeying govt, and honoring the king, is it possible that since the former was in Rome, and the latter writing to Romans, that it was not politic to speak that way? Do you object that this is a low view of Scripture? Please don't. Paul buttered up the Corinthians before he slammed them. Was he lying when he said all those nice things in the earlier part of chapter one? In other epistles it seems that what he sometimes wrote was more the way he wanted things to be, than the way they actually were. So I don't consider it a sin to think of these two inspired writers might be tipping their hats to govt so that it might go well for their beloved children. And don't forget all of Fr. Beane's examples from above in which God's people took exception to the rule. Sometimes they weren't even very orderly about it: like when Moses murdered and Egyptian for harming a Hebrew. But you better be sure if you're going to pull that stunt, and you better be ready to answer. Moses went into 40 years of hiding as a result, from the high civilization of Egypt, to the hostile environs of Midian - where the most amazing things happened to him.

    What about us? We must obey God rather than man. Acts 5:29. Not just when it comes to preaching the gospel, but in all things. But as much as it lies with us, we must live peaceably with all men. We must sincerely love our neighbor, we must live orderly lives. Love does no harm to its neighbor, says St. Paul. But in this sin filled world, in which there is no one who is righteous, no not one, we may be tested to the limits at times. Those are the times we pray without ceasing for wisdom, intelligence, courage and strength to do what is God-pleasing.

    Don't expect the world to support you if you are a Christian acting according to conscience. And if you end up as the target of Caesar's wrath, so did Joseph, Moses, Daniel, Shadrach, Meschach, Abednego, Jeremiah, the Magi (who blatantly thumbed their noses at Caesar and gave the Holy Family the needed gold to escape to Egypt).

    Who follows in their train?

    And finally the Lord Himself also fell afoul of the authorities and for their envy, and for our sins, He was put to death. But He was also raised again by the glory of the Father, and by faith in Him, so shall we be.

    Fire away.

  3. I wonder how our Lutheran fathers several generations ago would have responded to government intrusion into church-run insurance programs…

    I find it somewhat ironic that it is this culture’s social and political obsession with insurance that has become a major locus of the religious liberty debate. If the church had not recently (in the context of history) accepted and embraced the concept of insurance, would we be impacted by this issue at all?

    Is it possible that we have, in some way, brought these problems upon ourselves?

    1. I was also amused that a change in the practice of our health insurance was immediately responded to -- not only in writing, but also in person back in DC. Yet changes in our worship practice, taking place every Sunday morning, get no mention by the higher-ups. Which business are we in again?


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