Social Justice and Scripture: Untie the Knot Pt.15

In the argument against “social justice” we now come to several of the most important Scripture passages.

  • Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2: The relationship of Christians to their earthly governments.
  • Matthew 17 and 22 (and parallel passages): Christ’s view on taxation.

Alexander cuts the gordian knot

These passages have been used to support a variety of incorrect interpretations about government, ranging from Mennonite pacifism to authoritarian statism.

Let’s look at a grievous example of the latter:

Matthew 22 (render unto Caesar) has been taken by some as evidence that all Christians have a duty to pay taxes to their government, whatever its nature may be. Proponents of this viewpoint include several prominent professors at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where I studied.

Dr. Timothy Paul Jones writes, “The only foundation for resisting the government is if the state’s delegates demand participation in or promotion of practices that defy divine commands.”

Jones quotes Dr. Russell Moore as pointing out that, “Some of the taxes given by New Testament Christians would have gone to pay for crucifixion stakes. Some would have gone to feed wild beasts for the bloody circuses.”

By my reading, Jones and Moore believe Christians should pay taxes to any government, regardless of its nature, not rebelling except if Christians are individually and directly forced to take part in wrong-doing. By this reasoning, there would have been no American Revolution.

Indeed, Jones belittles the revolutionaries. I would want to ask these men to clarify, but I’m curious to know if there are limits to their support of the state. Would they have supported taxes paid under the Third Reich? It’s an important point which they do not address.

Dr. Jones sums up his position, “Caesar had every right to demand a cut of this currency from the subjects who lived in his lands.” As we’ve seen, my own concept of “rights” stands directly opposed to Dr. Jones’ authoritarian view. Rights inhere in our nature as individual rational creatures. Rulers are judges, not owners, of the lands they rule.

Jones’ view depends on a confused premise: that because God has allowed every state to exist, the state is therefore a “divine institution” such that a rebellion against the state would be a rebellion against God. The error is somewhat understandable, given Romans 13:1-2:

1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but from God; the powers that be are ordained by God.
2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God, and those who resist shall receive for themselves damnation.

Jones has taken the passage out of context.

By Jones’ interpretation it would be difficult to justify Israel’s exodus out of Egypt or its numerous Old Testament rebellions against foreign oppressors. The Apostle Paul is not speaking of such situations of national emergency. He is explaining the right attitude citizens should normally take toward government. Paul explains the proper role of a government in Romans 13:3-6:

3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same,
4 for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid, for he beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
5 Therefore ye must be subject not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.
6 For, for this cause pay ye tribute also, for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.

Christians are beholden to their earthy government for the sake of the practical benefit of protection from the sword, by the sword. Except for in unique times of emergency, we obey our government because it works for our good. That is the context in which the Apostle Paul writes. Paul is not telling the Romans what to do when they are persecuted (Flee! says Jesus). He is saying their membership in the kingdom of God has not exempted them from the need of an earthly government.

But is this earthly government a “divine institution” as Dr. Jones would hold?

To rebut Jones, we turn again to Dr. John Frame. The authority of the state is an extension of the family’s authority to use force to end violent disputes. Frame writes,

Once kingship appears in history, are we then able to speak of an “institution of the state?” Well, it isn’t too important what you call it, as long as you understand what is going on. Yes, God has ordained authority within the family. Yes, he warrants the extension of that authority to extended families, tribes, nations. Yes, he warrants the popular selection of leaders to implement that authority (a selection into which, of course, he is always free to intervene, and over which he always exercises providential superintendence). Yes, that authority includes the power to use deadly force and to resolve disputes which cannot otherwise be resolved. In that sense, we may say with Paul in Rom. 13:1 that “the authorities that exist have been established by God.” But it is important to remember that the authority of the state is essentially a family authority, not something different. For that reason, I consider it somewhat misleading to talk about a “divine institution of the state,” or to speak of “family, church and state” as “God’s institutions,” on a level with one another.”

In light of this clearer picture of Romans 13, we can look at what Jesus says about taxes.

As a preview, ask if you know what happens in Matthew 17:24-27 and in Matthew 22:17-21. Which of these says more about Jesus’ view on taxes? But which one tends to be overlooked?


 

In this series:

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6   7   8   9   10
11   12   13   14   15
16   17   18   19  20
Appendix