Rev. John MacArthur is sort of a poster boy for traditional, Calvinistic, fundamentalist Christian theology. He also commands the highest respected within those circles. When notable evangelicals and Catholics signed a statement forming a socially conservative political alliance, he was one of the first to caution against the potential blurring of their profound theological differences. And he has chastised Billy Graham (and the Pope) for intimating that non-Christians perhaps will be saved. He also teaches literal 6-day creation. In short, he is the antithesis of a theological liberal. And this theology is not my cup of tea, at all.
As I've noted before, one thing I admire about MacArthur is the way he keeps his faith pure from political whoring, the consequences be damned. His understanding of Romans 13 demands concluding that the American Revolution was conceived in sin, that the Declaration of Independence is an anti-biblical document. I will charitably conceded alternate literal interpretations of Romans 13; I just want the other side to understand the strong biblical grounds for MacArthur's view and the longstanding tradition it has in orthodox hermeneutics.
The position that holds revolt against tyrannical government is biblically permitted is not exactly historically novel; theologians have been making the case for hundreds of years. But Christianity did not begin with the American Founding or the age of political revolution. The notion that Romans 13 demands you submit to government no matter who they are is arguably the more traditional, biblical view. The notion that revolt against tyranny is permitted is arguably the more historically novel, theologically liberal view.
Here is MacArthur's teachings on Romans 13. Again, a biblical literalist can disagree that this is the proper interpretation (in the same way that biblical literalists dispute all 5-points of Calvinism). What is undeniable, however, is that MacArthur's interpretation is a traditionally held, sound, literal interpretation of the Bible. Here is a taste:
1. The inadequate responses
In their struggle to answer the question of their relationship to government, Christians have not always answered it properly. Throughout the history of the church, people have decided that the right thing to do was revolt against the government in power and demand their rights--all in the name of Christianity. Wars were even begun for the same reason. Sometimes Christians have understood what their role was. But sometimes they have not understood their God-given role and have revolted instead of submitting. Laws have been violated in the name of Christianity.
a) In the past
In America, certain violations of law, civil disobedience, and subversive attempts to overthrow the powers that be on a local level, state level, or national level have been led by people who claimed to be Christians. Some Christians have decided that since they received bad treatment from certain governments, they were justified in their war against those governments.
To some people, evangelical Christianity was a proper justification for the American Revolution. They believe we had every right to load up our guns and kill Englishmen for the sake of our religious freedom. There are some Christians I know personally who refuse to pay their taxes because they believe that their freedoms are being violated. The truth is, the United States was born out of a violation of Romans 13:1-7 in the name of Christian freedom. That doesn't mean God won't overrule such violations and bring about good, which He did in this case, but that end doesn't justify the means.
a) Christ's situation
Jesus came into a very interesting world:
(1) A world of slavery
Slavery flourished in the Roman Empire. There were approximately three slaves to every free man.
(2) A world of absolute rulers
The world was dominated by absolute monarchs and rulers. At the end of the Roman republic, the Caesars took power and ruled with absolute authority. Although Julius Caesar was murdered in the Roman senate in 44 B.C., that only served to accelerate the centralization of power. The senate declared Augustus pro-consul and tribune of Rome for life, and he wielded absolute power. He was the Commander in Chief of all soldiers, he reigned over the senate, and he controlled all civil affairs.
Jesus came into a world dominated by slavery and by one- man rule--the absolute antithesis of democracy that we hold so dear. All the power of the state was in one man's hands. The same thing was true in Palestine, where Herod had been placed as a puppet king under Roman rule. Herod was an Edomite, not a Jew. He ruled with such great power that he had the authority to demand that every baby in a certain region be massacred (Matt. 2:16). No one could stay his hand. He had absolute authority over life and death. He even murdered members of his family--his wife, his wife's mother, and three of his sons.
(3) A world of high taxes
When Jesus came into the world, taxes were exorbitant. Those who worked as tax collectors had sold themselves to Rome for money and then overcharged the people. For example, when Zacchaeus the tax collector was converted, he immediately said he would pay back everything he had extorted fourfold (Luke 19:8). That was typical of the extortion that existed. So, the taxes were unjust. In fact, Caesar Augustus decreed a census (a registration with a view to taxation) be taken of all people in the world (Luke 2:1).
(4) A world of persecution
When Jesus came into the world, His people the Jews had become chattel for the Romans. They were an underprivileged and oppressed minority. They had no voice in Roman government and had to pay heavy taxes to their Roman task masters.
b) Christ's solution
That's a description of the world Jesus entered into. The people didn't have democracy, the opportunity to vote, and many of the freedoms we enjoy. But what did Jesus say? He said, "Render, therefore, unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God, the things that are God's" (Matt. 22:21). He did not come with power and force to overthrow Roman tyranny. He did not seek social change. He did not attempt to eliminate slavery. He did not come with political or economic issues at stake. He did not come to bring a new government or to wave the flag of Judaism. Those things were not the concern of His life and ministry. His appeal was ever and always to the hearts of individual men and women, not to their political freedom and rights under government. Jesus did not participate in civil rights or crusade to abolish injustice; He preached the gospel of salvation. Once a man's or woman's soul is right with God, it matters very little what the externals are. Jesus was not interested in a new social order, but in a new spiritual order--the church. And He mandated the church to carry on the same kind of ministry.
3. The inevitable conclusion
The problems in Jesus' day were far more severe than ours. Today people living on relief have cars, TV's, and modern conveniences. We have to look at the issue differently when we determine how a Christian should respond to his government. Throughout all the generations of the church, Christians have had to struggle with this issue. But we have to come to some conclusion about what we are called to do and be in this society. What is our priority? What right does the government have over us? What is our proper response to that right?
Admittedly we live in a tension. Personally, I'm not that concerned about political, economic, social, and civil issues. I do have a reasonable concern about those things, but they don't occupy my mind. The souls of lost men and women occupy my mind. Do they occupy yours? I'm not as concerned that people be happy, wealthy, and healthy as I am that they be saved. I only have so much energy and the church only has so much power and resource. So I struggle with the millions of dollars that come out of evangelical hands for the purpose of politics. We need to be concerned about the souls of the lost.
What is our responsibility to government? How do we respond to the tension of being preoccupied with the Kingdom of God yet desiring to be a good citizen in this world? First, the answer is not found in politics. God has called us to do two things. The first is in Romans 13:1: "Let every soul be subject to the higher powers." The second is in Romans 13:6: "For this cause pay ye tribute." The Apostle Paul says two things are required of you as a Christian: submit to the government and pay your taxes. That's our duty. Beyond that you ought to be busy doing the things that are eternally valuable to the Kingdom. That is not to say the other things aren't important; it's just that they pale in importance when compared with the work of the Kingdom. Be subject to the government and pay your taxes. That's what Jesus meant when He said, "Render to Caesar." What does Caesar want? Submission to the laws and payment of taxes.
In Romans 13:1 Paul established this basic principle: Whatever the form and whoever the ruler, civil government should be obeyed and submitted to by Christians. The Christian has a duty to his nation, even if the ruler is a Nero or a Hitler.
First Peter 2:12 says, "Having your behavior honest among the Gentiles, that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation." In other words, "They may speak evil of you, but let that be a lie." But how are you going promote goodness in a society that wants to persecute you? Verses 13-15 say, "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake, whether it be to the king, as supreme, or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers [the police] .... For so is the will of God, that with well-doing you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men." Foolish men look for something to criticize. You're lack of good citizenship and obedience to the civil authority will give them their reason. Verse 16 says not to use "your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness." So Peter told a persecuted group of believers to accept and obey their authorities.
A Testimony from the Soviet Union
I will never forget a conversation I had with Georgi Vins. He is a Christian who lived for many years in the Soviet Union. He met with our staff one day and we asked him what it was like to live under tyranny and repression in a communist country. He told us that Christians can't pursue an education or a career. They have no say in the government and no freedoms to speak of. This question was then posed to him: How do you respond to that kind of government? He said, "We obey every law in our nation, whether it appears to us to be just or unjust, except when we are told that we cannot worship God or obey the Scripture. But if we are persecuted, put into prison, or killed, it will be a result of our faith in Jesus Christ, not because we violated some law in our nation."
In Romans 13:1-7, Paul is saying the same thing Peter did: We have a serious responsibility to live out our justification by faith. Our self- sacrifice to the Lord (Rom. 12:1-2) should make us model citizens of our nation. We should not be known as protesters--as those who criticize and demean people in authority. We should speak against sin, injustice, evil, and immorality fearlessly and without hesitation. But we should give honor to those who are in authority over us. That is the biblical pattern for every age, every nation, and every Christian--it has nothing to do with America alone.