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“It can’t happen here!” How many times have we heard this claim? But it can happen here. Many will tell you that it is happening here. It seems that almost on a daily basis we are losing our God-given rights. Some even make the case that there is a direct assault on the Christian religion because it is the only belief system that puts limits on governments. To grow the State means that biblical law must be reinterpreted or made to disappear altogether. Relegating God to a distant corner of the universe or redefining and remaking Him in the image of the politically empowered emboldens governments to “do what they will" without any regard to any fixed moral foundation. In pre-Nazi Germany, many Christians were under the false assumption that they had to go along with whatever their civil rulers demanded no matter how contrary they were to God’s law. A two-kingdom approach to society had been taught since the time of Augustine and reinforced by the work of Martin Luther. Two-kingdom social theory teaches that “heavenly things” are directed exclusively by God’s redemptive grace and Special Revelation while “earthly things” are formulated by God’s common grace and Natural Revelation. In this ideal world, believers and unbelievers, because they are created in the image of God, work together to construct society using common-ground features found in Natural Revelation. As long as most of the people believed in God, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, such a world was possible. The evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin killed “common grace” and the belief that there is a common humanity created in the image of God. In time, nature ate up grace.
This real shift in worldview thinking is expressed dramatically in the film The Dark Knight (2008) when Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) tells Alfred (Michael Cain) that criminals are “not complicated,” we just need to find out what The Joker wants. In a world where there is general agreement that there is an acknowledged universal moral order, the actions of criminals have always made sense. Even criminals knew what they were doing was wrong. But there’s something different about The Joker. He operates from a different point of view, an anti-point of view. Alfred tells Bruce that “some men just want to watch the world burn.” “There is no ultimate purpose to his mayhem; he delights in it for its own sake, as is evident in one particularly chilling scene in which Batman tries to beat him into revealing his plans. As The Joker cackles with glee at the pain, he taunts Batman, ‘you have nothing to frighten me with.’” The Joker lives in a world that is beyond good and evil. There cannot be a two-kingdom approach for those who live in The Joker’s world, and there are an increasing number of Jokers out there if statistics are accurate. Richard Dawkins is up front with his claim that “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” It can also be said that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled nihilist, living “beyond good and evil.”
The two-kingdom approach to Christian social theory was used to great advantage by Adolf Hitler. He knew that many Christians believed that the particulars of their religious worldview only applied to spiritual things. Civil government operated in the secular realm where natural revelation was the standard. “A Majority within the state church (known as the ‘German Christians’) unwittingly or otherwise embraced the new national religion, founded not on the Word of God but on the divine will allegedly embedded in the natural order. Emerging from this fatal exchange came a semiChristian natural religion (some would say a new paganism) in which the church became a servile instrument of Nazi policy. . . .”
For decades before the rise of Hitler, Christians were subjected to arguments like the following from pastors and theologians based on the two-kingdom theory:
While many Christians might have been opposed to Nazi policies at a personal level, they had been conditioned to believe—because they were Christians living in two kingdoms operating with two sets of standards—that they could not do anything about these rapidly implemented policies a political level. Much of their thinking was shaped by a misreading of Romans 13 and a misapplication of Matthew 22:21 where Jesus says “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” As with all authority, there are limits, including limits on civil government. We know this only from the Bible. It might also help to realize that we do not live under Caesar. Our civil rulers took an oath to uphold the Constitution which is the “supreme law of the land.” Neither the president nor the members of Congress are Caesar. If we have a “Caesar,” it is the United States Constitution. But even the Constitution recognizes its own limits and the right of the people to (1) express their grievances, (2) vote corrupt and oath-breaking rulers out of office, and (3) change existing laws.
Paul McGuire, an evangelical syndicated talk-show host out of Los Angeles explains why so many Christians are indifferent to a culture beyond the personal:
The root is theological and it goes back to Francis Schaeffer’s comments about the Christian culture being pietistic or super-spiritual. The Christian culture does not believe that Jesus is lord of all of life. The evangelical culture believes the nonbiblical idea that Jesus is only lord of Bible study, prayer, and church attendance, and anything outside of that is not really spiritual.
Over time, churches in Nazi German were “confined as far as possible to the performance of narrowly religious functions, and even within this narrow sphere were subjected to as many hindrances as the Nazis dared to impose.” This is the evaluation of a 1945 report published by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA. It was called The Nazi Master Plan: The Persecution of the Christian Churches and was prepared for the War Crimes Staff. It offered the following summary: “This study describes, with illustrative factual evidence, Nazi purposes, policies and methods of persecuting the Christian Churches in Germany and occupied Europe.”
Where did the strategic plan begin? “Implementation of this objective started with the curtailment of religious instruction in the primary and secondary schools with the squeezing of the religious periods into inconvenient hours, with Nazi propaganda among the teachers in order to induce them to refuse the teaching of religion, with vetoing of . . . religious text books, and finally with substituting [a] Nazi Weltanschauung [worldview] and ‘German faith’ for Christian religious denominational instruction. . . . At the time of the outbreak of the war . . . religious instruction had practically disappeared from Germany’s primary schools.” Does any of this sound familiar? This is a perfect description of our nation’s education system with the only difference being that a materialistic worldview and “secular” faith have replaced the once Christian worldview that served as the foundation of education in America.
The next step was to neutralize the impact that churches would have on politics. “Under the pretext that the Churches themselves were interfering in political and state matters, [the Nazis] would deprive the Churches, step by step, of all opportunity to affect German public life.” How often do we hear that the “separation between church and state” means that churches must remain silent on social and political issues, that pastors cannot use their pulpits (unless they’re liberal) to influence legislation?
When Martin Niemoeller used his pulpit to expose Adolf Hitler’s radical politics, “He knew every word spoken was reported by Nazi spies and secret agents.” Leo Stein describes in his book I Was in Hell with Niemoeller how the Gestapo gathered evidence against Niemoeller:
Now, the charge against Niemoeller was based entirely on his sermons, which the Gestapo agents had taken down stenographically. But in none of his sermons did Pastor Niemoeller exhort his congregation to overthrow the Nazi regime. He merely raised his voice against some of the Nazi policies, particularly the policy directed against the Church. He had even refrained from criticizing the Nazi government itself or any of its personnel. Under the former government his sermons would have been construed only as an exercise of the right of free speech. Now, however, written laws, no matter how explicitly they were worded, were subjected to the interpretation of the judges.
In a June 27, 1937 sermon, Niemoeller made it clear to those in attendance had a sacred duty to speak out on the evils of the Nazi regime no matter what the consequences: “We have no more thought of using our own powers to escape the arm of the authorities than had the Apostles of old. No more are we ready to keep silent at man’s behest when God commands us to speak. For it is, and must remain, the case that we must obey God rather than man.” A few days later, he was arrested. His crime? “Abuse of the pulpit.”
The “Special Courts” set up by the Nazis made claims against pastors who spoke out against Hitler’s policies. Niemoeller was not the only one singled out by the Gestapo. “Some 807 other pastors and leading laymen of the ‘Confessional Church’ were arrested in 1937, and hundreds more in the next couple of years.” A group of Confessional Churches in Germany, founded by Pastor Niemoeller and other Protestant ministers, drew up a proclamation to confront the political changes taking place in Germany that threatened the people “with a deadly danger. The danger lies in a new religion,” the proclamation declared. “The church has by order of its Master to see to it that in our people Christ is given the honor that is proper to the Judge of the world. . . . The First Commandment says ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me.’ The new religion is a rejection of the First Commandment.” Five hundred pastors who read the proclamation from their pulpits were arrested.
The Bible tells us that civil rulers are ministers of God. The Greek word translated “ministers” is the same word used to describe “ministers” in a church and is often translated as “deacon” or “servant.” Both serve as God’s servants toward the people within their jurisdictions, one civil (State) and the other ecclesiastical (Church). It is unbiblical to assume that civil rulers are autonomous, that they can legitimately rule independent of God’s limiting authority of them. It is a serious mistake to take Paul’s instructions in Romans 13 and claim that civil rulers cannot be challenged by the citizenry in their actions. James Willson makes the point in his book The Establishment and Limits of Civil Government, “For surely none but an atheist can deliberately affirm that even the law of the land can set aside, weaken or nullify the authority of the law of God. To the best government, obedience can be yielded only in things lawful; for there is a ‘higher law’ to which rulers and subjects are alike amenable.”
One of the reasons King James I wanted a new English translation of the Bible was because he did not like some of the notes found in the Geneva Bible. Some of the notes condemned rulers who acted contrary to God’s Word in terms of absolute power. For example, a marginal note for Exodus 1:19 stated that the Hebrew midwives were correct to disobey the Egyptian king’s order to kill the Hebrew babies. King James reasoned that if it was legitimate to oppose a ruler in one case, then it might be legitimate to oppose him in others.
Notice the use of “governing authorities” in Romans 13:1; there are many. Even Rome had governors and other civil officials. Our own system of civil government follows the biblical model of multiple civil rulers with county, state, and national authorities. American civil government was designed to be decentralized and limited at all levels. We have a United States Constitution and 50 state constitutions. It’s unfortunate that as a nation we have turned unwarranted and unconstitutional authority over to the national government to the exclusion of state and county governments.
Civil authorities are to rule in terms of “good and evil.” There is no room for tyranny in these words. Those who rule are bound by the same laws as the rest of us. That’s why there is no divine right of kings in the Bible. The prophet Nathan challenged King David to do right. Daniel was not a revolutionary when he opposed the king’s law. John the Baptist rebuked King Herod for his sexual sins. Jesus even called him a “fox.” Peter continued to preach, obeying God rather than man, even though he was commanded to stop by the authorities of his day. Paul used his Roman citizenship to challenge the Roman Empire. Paul spent a great deal of time in prison because he was seen as a threat to the Empire.
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To obey Romans 13 is to call our civil officials to uphold their oath of office, an oath that nearly everyone all of them took by affirming “So help me God!” Once a civil ruler takes political office, he has the “power of the sword,” that is, he has civil authority and the claim of governmental legitimacy to enforce the law by the use of civil sanctions. By not limiting the power of civil government with our voices and votes, we give a free hand to officials to act independent of any human restraint to tax our income at any level, confiscate our property, send our children to war, and even to kill us if a crime is deemed egregious enough. And who gets to determine what constitutes a crime? Civil rulers alone unless they are held accountable for their actions by the electorate, but only an informed electorate is in the position to act as a brake on the unbridled power of the State.
James Willson’s study of Romans 13, The Establishment and Limits of Civil Government (buy now), is needed more than ever in our day. What’s most helpful about it is that it was written in a time that does not muddy the principles by the highly charged politics of our day. There are no current or recently passed politicians named. He sticks to principles based on the biblical record. If we are to save our Republic, then we are bound to heed his instruction and warnings as they are derived from God’s Word.
Article posted May 4, 2009