Some of my Christian friends in Malaysia are caught in a dilemma. The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (BERSIH), is calling for a peaceful rally to be held this Saturday, to press for reforms in the electoral system. The police have refused to give a permit for the rally citing various legal reasons. BERSIH has appealed against the decision. There has been no news as to whether the appeal has been successful at time of writing.
Some Christians are sympathetic to the concerns of BERSIH. They want to see changes in the electoral process that would help elections to be more “clean and fair.” But they are not sure if they should take part in a rally which has not been permitted by the powers that be. Citing Romans 13: 1-7 some feel that they should not.
Others argue that the powers of the state are not absolute especially when they deny citizens basic rights like the right for peaceful assembly. Therefore many Christians are asking WWJD? What would Jesus do? The better question perhaps would be “what would Jesus have me do?”
Let me state up front that I haven’t received any direct word from the Lord. All I know is that seeking to follow the Lordship of Christ in a fallen world means that Christians often need wisdom to discern between various biblical injunctions. On the matter of the relationship between church and state, Christians have to take seriously the biblical material found in both Romans 13 and Revelation 13.
Commenting on Romans 13:1-7, Dennis Hamm, SJ, writes:
“Paul was indeed making the case here that normally civil authorities are servants (knowingly or not) of divine providence. Obedience to such officials was a way of loving one’s neighbour as oneself and fostering the order necessary for harmony in society.”
(“Faith’s Call to Justice”, The American Catholic Weekly, July 31, 2006, p. 2)
But in the same article he also warns against “a passive and uncritical attitude towards public officials.” He points out the danger of such an interpretation by reminding us that during the rise of Nazism in Germany, some pastors urged their churches to cooperate with Hitler and his agents on the basis of Romans 13. “Hitler was, after all, a legitimately elected official” (Hamm, p. 2).
The situation in Revelation 13 however is very different from the one in Romans 13. Nigel Wright points out that Revelation 13 “acts as the counterpoint to Romans 13. The author (of Revelation 13) refers to Rome and its persecution of the saints, and reveals the beastly character of human power systems. In accordance with the nature of apocalyptic literature, the author describes here the potential nature of all human power. All governments have it within them to be idolatrous and to oppose the good.” (“The Church and ‘God’s Servant’ the State, Part 1”, Anabaptism Today, Issue 7, October 1994, p. 3)
In Revelation 13 there is no call to submit to the civil authorities. Instead believers are called to be faithful to Christ even if it costs them their lives. The church is never called to violent resistance. But there is clear teaching about the need to suffer if need be, when being true to one’s Lord means coming up against a state that is now in opposition to the concerns of the Lord.
Therefore, the Christian’s default position should be to support the state, seeing it as “a power ordained by God for the preservation of order” (Wright, p. 5). However, quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Dennis Hamm reminds us that to be good Christian citizens also “includes the right, and at times the duty, to voice (our) just criticism of that which seems harmful to the dignity of persons and to the good of community” (Hamm, p. 2-3).
In the light of passages like Revelation 13, Douglas J. Moo interprets Romans 13:1-7 in this way:
“…Paul’s demand that Christians submit to government means simply that they recognize government’s rightful place within the hierarchy of relationships established by God, a hierarchy at whose pinnacle is God. When, therefore, government usurps its place, and commands us to do something contrary to our ultimate Lord, we are free — indeed obligated— to disobey. This view may, however, unduly weaken the meaning of ‘submit.’ Perhaps the best solution, then, is to view 13:1-7 as a general statement about how the Christian should relate to government, with exceptions to this advice assumed but not spelled out here.”
(“Romans”, New Bible Commentary, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994, p. 1153)
So, should Christians attend the BERSIH rally if the police permit is not forthcoming? In this and in many other issues, I will say again “ask the Boss.” He has promised to give us wisdom when we need it (James 1:5). Therefore the church should come before the Lord for a time of discernment. The Living Christ is in our communities and speaks to us through His Word and through His Spirit. We need to be confident of His presence and His leading and seek His mind together.
Still, this side of heaven we “see in a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12) and different Christian groups may come to different conclusions on this matter. We need to be gracious enough to accept and love those who, in trying to follow Christ, come to different conclusions from us. What we can do is to encourage one another to be faithful to obey Jesus as He calls us to “deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him” (Luke 9:23). And to be faithful in preaching the gospel.
Ajith Fernando’s recent article in Christianity Today (“Getting Back on Course”, Christianity Today, November 2, 2007 ) is timely. While he applauds evangelicalism’s present commitment to societal involvement, he warns that the pendulum should not swing too much away from our duty to proclaim the gospel. He says:
” I will do all I can to encourage people to live the Christian life in society. But I will also follow Christ’s example in placing before Christians the fact of eternal damnation and the glory of eternal salvation. And I will challenge them to follow the agenda of Jesus, who ‘came to seek and to save the lost’ (Luke 19:10), reminding them of the advice of Jude, who said, ‘… save others by snatching them out of the fire’ (v.23).”
Some of us have been convicted to take part in BERSIH’s rally. But we should all be clear that the ultimate solution to humankind’s problems is the gospel of Jesus Christ. And in our commitment to share the gospel we must be prepared to stand alone.