by Carlton Hobbs
We are again approaching voting season, as if it ever escaped us. So much of our destiny and actions are controlled by this action. Have we asked, "Can Christian Ethics give us guidelines for voting and participation in government?"
In many issues, Christians are not afraid to apply Biblical principles to issues that are not directly addressed by the Bible. As we are commanded to judge righteous judgment (John 8:32), we must call a sin a sin. However, when in the issue of voting and politics arises, Christians have slacked from applying the term 'sin' to actions that stand against Christian morality as established in the New Testament.
The issue of voting is really a consequent of the larger issue of participation in governing authority. In whatever manner a person may participate in government directly as agent, executive, representative, etc., he may likewise vote for that participation. Likewise, in any respect a Christian may not act directly, he may not support through voting. This essay will focus attention on participation in government, and the answer to the question of the ballot will be then be same.
Do Christians have any specific command to take an active roll (such as voting) in a governing body? There is no such command. However, there is no command to not participate either. Can any conclusion be drawn from this lack of specific command regarding participation in government? Yes. This is the same conclusion that must be drawn for ALL ISSUES that are not specifically addressed in the New Testament: If any act (such as voting) does not compromise Christian morality and ethics, then it is permitted.
Consider a relatively simple governing body of a corporation. If we assume that the corporation was morally formed (not from stolen property or capital), and practices legitimate and moral business (printing Bibles for instance), then we have every reason to believe that it is moral for Christians to participate either as management or stockholders, to vote and make decisions in this governing body. Here we have an example of legitimate participation and voting in a legitimate governing authority. Thus, it was very easy to show that an absolute opposition to voting is not required by Christian ethics. Yet, there may still be many limitations that morality will place upon it.
Again, consider our corporation. You are a stockholder. The management decides it wants to compliment its Bible printing business with the sale of prostitution services. Christian ethics would certainly not allow you to vote for that expansion! If a Christian can not morally place temptation to sin upon others personally, he cannot do so through proxy either! King David did not kill Uriah personally, but through an agent. Yet, he was still a murderer. (1 Samuel 12:9) On the other hand, what if our Bible printing company was started by stolen property? Perhaps the printing press was stolen from horrible atheists. Wouldn't that be justified, killing two birds with one stone? Absolutely not! Any number of good actions can not make a sin (here theft) acceptable. (1 Samuel 15:22) The only way to repent of a specific sin is to make restitution for that act, not doing other good deeds to replace it. Here the only moral action would be to return the stolen property and compensate any loss. A Christian stockholder's voting would be very limited. He can vote for the return of the stolen property, and nothing else until it is done! To vote for anything else would be make him guilty of the sin(s) of the company.
Christians should believe their ethics are superior to those of atheists. This is why we should compete with them in a free market of beliefs. If we have the truth, then we have nothing to fear from such competition. We should never need to fear their printing presses!
The governing body of a business in generally simpler than that of a political body, but do political bodies have specific authority to sin without it being sin? On the contrary, political bodies are held to the same standards as individuals. Over and over, the kings of Israel are confronted by the Prophets for actions that were wrong for government and people alike. The non-Jewish nations were not excepted, just as Pharaoh, Agag, Nebuchadnezzer, etc. were likewise condemned for their sins.
God also sometimes used the evil actions of State for a greater good, but that didn't make the evil action good! Pharaoh was still responsible for sins against the Israelites even if God used his 'hardened heart' to demonstrate His own power. Pilate was used by God to accomplish the Divine Plan of Salvation. He could wash his hands, but he could never wash off the responsibility of his own bowing down to the will of the people to crucify the innocent Christ!
So what is a legitimate governing authority as described in Romans 13? You've probably guessed that there is some aspect of this type of governing authority that is more extensive than the 'governing authority' of a business. That is in one sense true, however, this 'governing authority' could better be described as a specific type of business. Fortunately, Paul tells the Romans the 'business' of this business. These 'governing authorities' are "God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil" (Romans 13:4). They are the ones who punish criminals. The fees this type of business collects is called taxes (Romans 13:6) just as banks collect interest and landlords collect rent.
"Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience sake." (Romans 13:5) This verse not only describes 'why' to obey this authority, but it describes the qualities of this type of business. Its regulations must be something already required by conscience, otherwise we could have ignored these laws without violating conscience. When Peter and the apostles were brought to the high priest and council, they were commanded to stop preaching Jesus, but Peter responded, "We ought to obey God rather than men." (Acts 5:29) Did the Apostles have to pit two commands of Scripture against one another (obey authorities vs. preach the gospel) and choose which one to obey this time? Certainly not! Scripture will not contradict leaving us stuck in a dilemma of uncertainty. In fact, Scripture gives us no 'hierarchy of antagonistic Scriptures' in which higher ones overrule lesser ones because they will never be in conflict! There are two conclusions that may be drawn. (1.) The council and high priest were not legitimate governing authorities at all. (2.) Legitimate governing authorities have limits to their legitimacy.
The first conclusion seems very doubtful. Though God instituted the office of high priest, the old law had passed away, so the Jewish religious authority ceased to exist. However, as government is commonly understood, the council was still a legitimate part of a political government. Since the seemingly legitimate government in this example would bring Acts 5 into conflict with Romans 13, we can conclude that the second proposition is true. A 'governing authority' could make some claim of authority that it has no right to make, and thus have limits to what it may do. What is this limit? May we do anything that God asks of us despite anything the (supposed) governing authority may attempt to restrict us from doing? The answer can be better understood after understanding the problem of authority within the church.
Religious Governing Authorities
Romans 13 is sometimes applied to the government of the church, but that is not exactly correct. Although we must also be subject to the governing authorities of the church (elders), they are not the ones who 'bear the sword' and are paid in taxes. Nevertheless, religious authority and political authority have more often than not been one united church/state government, especially before the Enlightenment.
Yet, even if Romans 13 does not apply to church government, many lessons can be learned from the comparison. When Constantine took control of the church in what would become the Papacy, many Christians must have opposed the change. However, there is undeniably a direct historical line between the Apostolic Church and the Catholic or Orthodox Church. If Christians were to obey the governing authorities of the church even in their errors, then Christians were justified in abandoning the New Testament plan for State Christianity. When reading of all the sins and atrocities of the 'Official Church' in the Dark Ages, some members of that religion must have opposed the sins. Why didn't they leave? They assumed and had been taught that even when the church authorities were in error, members should still be obedient.
The Reformation attempted to deal with this problem. Even Luther at first thought the same way. He didn't want to leave the Catholic religion, just reform it. Eventually, he, like other Reformation leaders, would defend the Christians right to seek God through the New Testament instead of through the Church. Sadly, they would all hold that position just long enough to establish their own churches. Then, they would re-establish the authority of their church to rule the individual, even in issues contrary to the New Testament!
Fortunately, there were true restorations of the New Testament Church. These Christians didn't try to reform the apostate church, but to abandon it. They recognized the New Testament as the religious authority. When the 'Church' would attempt to be a 'governing authority' in matters in which it was given no authority, (whether to change New Testament doctrine, append it self to a State, etc.) then it was no authority at all! The True Church is not necessarily the direct descendant of whatever can claim something like 'Papal succession' from the 1st Century. It is merely the faithful Christians who meet together to worship God in accordance with the New Testament. The New Testament Church has been attacked because it has no earthly headquarters. Each congregation is independent. The elders of each church have very limited powers. If or when they try to gain additional authority or power, they are abandoning the original design of the church.
Civil Governing Authority
It took about 1500 years for the church to rediscover an understanding of the limits of religious authority. Have we discovered the limits of political authority?
How is it that even when we reject Denominationalism we fail to see the root word, Nationalism? Denominationalism follows and was a product of Nationalism in almost every facet. There is the Roman Catholic Church, Greek Orthodox, Church of England, Church of Sweden, Lutheranism was the church of Germany, Calvinism of Switzerland, and John Wesley, founder of Methodism, praised the Church of England. All these Denominations take out the voluntary aspect of Christianity by making their children automatically members with infant baptism. Where did they get this? It is the product of Nationalism, the rejection of a person's right to choose who he will allow to govern himself.
We have already found that legitimate governing authorities have limits to their legitimacy. In the authority of the church, the authority is limited to what authority is spelled out for it in the New Testament. In a civil government what is the limit of its right to pass laws? For those who think a civil government has the right to make any law it desires, they have not left political Catholicism, the Babylon of Revelation. Those who think a civil government's laws are legitimate laws even if bad are also in political Catholicism. How different is such a person from a Catholic who remained faithful to the Catholic Church, but opposed its false doctrine only through his influence in the Catholic bureaucracy?
Actually, all the answers we need to discover the limits of political authority are directly in Romans 13!
One of the mistakes in the common interpretation of this chapter is to separate verses 8-10 from the commentary on governing authorities. How can verse 8 be understood without verse 7? The separation has sometimes caused people to think Christians can't get loans. However, if understood with verse 7, then it makes more sense. If you owe only a loan payment at the end of every month, and it is paid on time, then you have 'rendered to all their due.' Likewise, how could verse 9 or 10 be understood without 8 and thus 7? It is all a part of being subject to governing authorities. In verse 10, "Love does no harm to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." What is the limit (fulfillment) of law? Love! More specifically, (from a legal point of view) that which does no harm to a neighbor is the limit of the power of the governing authorities discussed in Romans 13! What actions are limited because they do harm to a neighbor? Paul answers that too in verse 9 as adultery, theft, false witness, covetousness. The common thread throughout this list is that they are all either a violation of a contract or property rights. In fact, a contract is a type of property. Therefore, the 'fulfillment of the law' can be summed up in two words: property rights!
A legitimate civil governing authority is the defender and respecter of property rights. Are the governments that are generally viewed as the ones we must obey in Romans 13 the defenders of property rights? Yes and no. These governments in general do punish most true crimes, but in addition to this legitimate and moral action, they almost invariably add numerous lists of other 'crimes.' Paul only listed four actions that qualify and stated that if there are any others they could be summed up by what does no harm to a neighbor! The United States, in contrast, has literally millions of laws that no one person could ever know, remember, or have even read in a lifetime even if they didn't change daily.
From all the examples seen, we can conclude that when a government like the United States upholds laws respecting property rights we must respect it as acting legitimately, and we obey for both fear of punishment and conscience's sake. However, if such a government acts in violation of property rights, or attempts to gain any other power, it has no authority from Romans 13.
Does this seem surprising? It is a logical conclusion that has been veiled by the Mystery of Babylon, but it allows questions to be answered with clarity that are otherwise unanswerable.
Do you want examples? Years ago zoning laws made the congregation of which I was a member post a maximum occupancy sign above the auditorium. On occasion, we would exceed it. I wondered what right does the government have to limit the size of our worship in our own building? If Romans 13 grants unlimited power to governing authorities, then it has that right. I could quote "We must obey God rather than men," but that argument doesn't hold water. God doesn't require us to have congregational meetings of a certain size. We could have broken up into smaller groups.
In fact, there are millions of ways a government could limit Christianity out of existence without making us specifically violate Acts 5:29 if governments' powers are unlimited. What if the government didn't allow Christians to give or hear sermons in English? We could just learn a new language. What if it would then continue to change the language that it allowed Christians to communicate in so often that we could never successfully learn enough to communicate well? What if it forbade Christians to marry? We are not required to marry. What if it forbade Christians from having children. We are not required to have children. What if it forbade Christians from breathing? We are not required to breathe. In none of these cases could we fall back on Acts 5:29 if Nation-States have the power they claim.
An understanding of Romans 13 that would make a civil government legitimate outside of the defense of property rights thus leads to absolute confusion. If properly understood, with limits to governing authorities' domain, everything makes perfect sense.
"For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same." (Romans. 13:3) An unlimited government that limits us from acting morally and doing good works and encourages evil is not in accordance with this description. (E.g. the United States has zoning laws that limit where and how Christians can meet to worship while paying for abortions. Therefore, the US government fails this verse's test of legitimacy.) When Jesus cast out a demon, some said he cast out demons by Beelzebub, ruler of the demons. Jesus responded that Satan cannot cast out Satan, that he cannot act against his nature. (Mat. 12:22-30; Luke 11:14-23) Wouldn't this be even more true for God? Certainly God cannot set his own authority against itself. If this were not true, then Satan would be more consistent than God!
Can you see how important this is to understanding Romans 13:1-2? One authority that is from God can never come into conflict with another authority of God. How then do the governments we assume to be legitimate come into conflict with each other? The most obvious application is war between Nation-States, but just as essential is the problem of civil war. If the authority of Nation-States is legitimate, then God wars against himself. A house or kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. (Luke 11:17) God either doesn't apply legitimacy to Nation-States, or His kingdom has fallen and Satan's kingdom still stands.
What should a Christian have done in the American Revolution or Civil War? Two governments each claim to be legitimate, and both cannot be right. If the British government was legitimate to start with, then the American was not. How then was the American government legitimate in the Civil War? Or the Confederacy either? The house of Nationalism has divided against itself, and if the authority claimed by Nationalism is from God, then God's kingdom has fallen.
The only non-contradictory solution is that each individual is a self-governor, and only the authority he voluntarily grants to a civil government is the only authority it has. If two legitimate civil governments go to war, then one is violating property rights. It is extending its governing outside of God's limits. Yet, this is how Nation-States were formed. It was the same violation but against self-governors. What would it have taken for the United States as it currently exists, or any similar government to be legitimate by Romans 13? Every individual must have voluntarily submitted his body, soul, land, and property to the sole authority and ownership by the government, to whatever changes it may make in its laws and taxes based on whatever whim may cross its fancy. That never happened. Fortunately, few will ever be sinful enough to agree to such a Satanic contract as that!
Limits of Civil Authority
What then would a civil governing authority look like if it did not exceed the Biblical limits of its power? Intuition should hint to us that it might look much like the authority of the church of Christ, very decentralized. How would we discover what it would look like? The best way to discover it is a method used in economics called Crusoe economics, but perhaps in this case 'Crusoe government.' In this model, we simplify society to just a few persons. We determine certain principles that always hold, and then if they are not affected by the addition of additional people in society, then the principle is just as valid for a society of millions as to a society of three.
If a person is in this society, say of seven people, how are they going to 'govern' themselves. Begin by stating the axioms. A person 'governs' himself. He controls his own actions and that is the most basic form of 'government. We have already accepted the Biblical case for property rights. By application, a person governs his own property.
But how does a civil government for the entire society begin? There are several possibilities. The first is by unanimous consent. In fact, the method of formation of government is what is important, not the kind of government. If there was unanimous agreement, then a monarchy, democracy, republic, commune, etc. would all be legitimate. Every individual would have agreed to subject himself and his property to the higher authority of this government. Although, in such a unanimous agreement, individuals are very likely to place limits to the government. Who would voluntarily place despotic powers over oneself? All other possibilities for the creation of a society wide government can be aggregated into one method, namely, one that violates the property rights of at least one person. A government that forces at least some of the people to give up part of their property rights involuntarily is in fact violating the property rights of those people who did not choose to surrender them. Any Christian who supported such a government has violated Romans 13.
If five people agree to a government, but two refuse, there is no right of democracy to force the two to submit. However, if one of the two steals from one of the five, then their government can punish that non-member just as a current government may punish (true) crimes by aliens. This does not violate any rights of property, because the thief gives up any moral right to the security of his property when he 'does harm to a neighbor.' The government of five may take whatever value was stolen plus restitution. What if the government of five murders one of the two as 'traitors' for not accepting that government? Then the government of five is not a valid government. Any Christians in it are morally bound to oppose it, do anything possible to make it make restitution, and not participate in it in any way until it has done so.
This principle holds true no matter what the numbers are. There could be millions of supporters of such a government, and only one abstainer. If this were not true, then might makes right! Something that is evil becomes good just by adding more people! What is saddest is that most Christians make this mistake!
What mistake is often made is the idea that there must only be one civil authority over the whole society. If Christians applied this mistake consistently, they would support One-World Government. That returns us to Babylon!
The political lesson we must learn is the religious one we already have learned. It is better to be decentralized, to have no political head on earth than to force some to submit to a civil government or church against their will, without their first harming a neighbor.
What is a Free Nation?
A free nation is one in which any citizen may secede with his property and land. The differences in nations that deny this are differences of degree, not kind. The US claims that private ownership of land exists, but property taxes are levied exactly like rent. If you don't pay it, you are 'evicted.' At least the USSR was consistent. It claimed to own all land.
Our government is one that considers all within a geographical region as its people, over which it has the right to make any law whatsoever, and none of which have signed a contract stating that!
Nevertheless, any organization has the right to say that theft, murder, or any violation of property rights is illegal, regardless of its own legitimacy. To that extent, any organization making such a law should be obeyed in our respect for that law, not the maker, whether it is the US, USSR, or the Mafia. When it, like all Nation-States, forbids other legitimate civil governments from forming to punish real crime, there is nothing wrong with Christians using the police powers of the sinful government to punish crime.
However, Christians would be sinning if they supported any further action by the government (either by voting, electing officials, or ballot initiative) that would violate property rights of any individual. This would include compulsory taxation for those who didn't voluntarily submit to the government's absolute authority, eminent domain, drug laws, anti-trust laws, tariffs, prostitution, gambling, homosexuality and related sins that don't violate property rights, government schools, compulsory education, price ceilings or floors, minimum wage laws, price freezing, zoning laws, currency laws, forced centralized banking, and millions of others.
Why Romans 13?
Why was the 13th chapter of Romans written in the first place? It was to make sure that 12:17-21 was not misunderstood, specifically verse 19, "Do not avenge yourselves... 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord." Without further explanation, it could have been interpreted as absolute pacifism. Additionally, what Christians fail to realize is that when they vote, participate, or pay taxes to a government that will avenge them, they are avenging themselves by proxy! As every example in the Bible illustrates, it matters not whether a person commits any action directly, by agent, or proxy. What matters is the action.
Paul was making sure that Christians understand that God's vengeance is exercised through legitimate governing authorities. Also, that we can use those governing authorities whenever possible for the punishment of crimes, but not sins or vices that are not crimes.
Then, in 13:3-10, Paul makes sure we don't misunderstand the first two verses by thinking that whatever government that happens to exist at the time is legitimate in whatever it may claim legitimacy for. Specifically in verses 9-10, he defines the limits of the realm of civil authority.
The common and false interpretation of Romans 13 (and the end of 12) is unable to answer how criminals are to be punished in any case that may resemble the Lockean State of Nature, Crusoe economics, or a deserted island. This interpretation assumes a government already existing without questioning its limits.
The view presented here on the other hand, answers what can be done in a case without an established civil government.
In such a case, there is no higher authority than the self-government of individuals over their own properties. And such individuals may enforce punishment and restitution on criminals themselves because they are the only 'authorities appointed by God...to execute wrath on him who practices evil.'
Is Government an Important Issue?
The first mention of the first Nation-State in the Bible is that of Babel started by Nimrod in Genesis 10:8-10 in only the fourth generation from the flood. It should be common knowledge that Babel, like all Nation-States tried to make a name for itself and centralize government to keep from being scattered over the earth (Genesis 11:4).
God viewed this as bad enough to interfere and scatter the people with different languages. The remnant of Babel became Babylon, which means confusion (Genesis 11:9).
When the Israelites wanted to establish political government, God made sure they knew that such action was a rejection of His authority (1 Samuel 8:7). Satan's final temptation of Christ (in the wilderness) was to offer political authority (Matthew 4:8-9).
In Revelation, Babylon returns as a symbol in direct opposition to Christianity. It has been interpreted in part as Catholicism, but that is not the whole of it. Babylon most essentially represents political power. As the first Nation-State, it was the Mother of Harlots. Catholicism fulfills much of the prophecy of 'Mystery: Babylon' because it was a political power.
More murders, thefts, and all crimes have been committed by Nation-States than individuals acting without the State ever could have committed. The reason political authority is a primary agent of sin is that it is an attempt to move responsibility for sins to a higher authority that could take the blame, a 'king to fight our battles.' Sin desires an accomplice, or better yet a civil authority that can require subjects to follow it in evil ways.
From Genesis 10 to Revelation 19, we are given examples of the evils of the Nation-State. How could the correct interpretation of Romans 13 make it God's minister for Good?
And Finally, Voting
A Christian's participation in any Nation-State, any organization not based wholly on voluntary consent must be limited to actions that do not support its compulsory actions.
It is often assumed that voting necessarily is support for, and legitimizes the State. However, this is not completely true. It is essentially the case of a victim being held at gunpoint to surrender his wallet. Even if the victim then gives the wallet to the thief, that doesn't mean the victim agrees to the legitimacy of the transfer of property. Yet, if one victim supports the thief stealing from someone else if the thief agrees to return a part of what was stolen, then the first victim is now a thief as well! This is what democracy is. Therefore, any vote that would violate a single person's property makes the voter a criminal as well!
Individual political parties (except for Libertarian) don't limit what candidates may or may not support, so it can't be made into an absolute statement that it is sinful to vote for Republicans or Democrats. Nevertheless, their party platforms have always supported violation of property, and essentially all of their candidates have done so. (I know of perhaps only one exception in our country's history.) If a candidate openly opposed the existence of the United States as originating in sin, and did everything in his power to end it, then it might not be immoral to vote for him. If a ballot initiative repeals a law, tax or other compulsory measure (other than enforcement of contract per Romans 13:9-10) then it may be acceptable to voted for it.
What about the Libertarian Party? The Libertarian Party is actually based on the principles of Romans 13, and members must sign a contract that says the signer opposes the initiation of force to achieve any goal, social or political.
Sadly, it is still possible for members from this party to violate that pledge and compromise if given the opportunity that might by 'moving in the right direction' but still immoral. The only full-proof way to avoid the sin of harming our neighbor is to abstain from voting.
So We're Left With...?
Once we realize that politics is the problem, not just having problems, then we can give up on what is evil and ineffective. We can spend more time on evangelizing Christianity and care less what elected officials might be saying, or what elections may be coming up.
The conclusion of this paper was made undeniable thanks to the following: The Apostle Paul's Romans, Alexander Campbell's Address on War of 1848, David Lipscomb's Civil Government of 1913. Murray Rothbard's Libertarian Manifesto, and other books of his, and Robert LeFervre's Fundamentals of Liberty.
Carlton Hobbs is a student at the University of Texas at Arlington, majoring in Mathematics and Economics. He is a Christian, a Libertarian, and an aspiring musician. You may e-mail him at Carlton_Hobbs@email.msn.com
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