A friendly commentary on the Bible from an atheist

Sunday, October 23, 2005


An Australian reader emailed me some interesting points about the Old Testament background to the text

Jeremiah 29 has some interesting things to say about what God required of his people, the Israelites, while they were living in captivity in Babylon. At verse 7 God says, "And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace." That is, God is telling the Israelites not merely to submit peacefully to the rulership of a Babylonian king but to actively pray that the peace in Babylon would continue. They were to get on with their lives - build houses, plant gardens, get married, have children - and wait for God to do something about their situation. They were not to get involved in insurrections. They were not to be "activists", destroying the peace of the city.

Now look at the Jewish Wars. The "religious activists" among the Jews of the time tried to force a political/military solution to their perceived problem of Roman overlordship and it was their terrorist activities that led eventually to the destruction of the temple, the city and their millenial dreams.

But remember also that Daniel (who read Jeremiah to find out how long the captivity would continue) was a servant in the Babylonian king's court. He didn't have nothing to do with politics. When Daniel was asked to interpret the king's dreams (because no one else could do it satisfactorily) politics became his concern. What he did was tell the king the truth as he saw it, or as it was revealed to him.

Rendering unto Caesar does not mean that Christians should have nothing to do with politics, only that wherever a Christian is working he or she should obey God, pray for those who govern over them and not seek to damage or overthrow the government by illicit means. But the government's paid servants aren't the government. They are among the governed. If they do well in their jobs then they are only doing what God requires of us all. If they don't do well then they, too, can expect to be subject to the "sword" - as some of our public servants currently are in the Vivian Alvarez case.

Friday, October 21, 2005

ROMANS 13: 1-7

Should Christians obey the government, no matter what? I consider that in the post below. Note that there are two German words below. "weltfremd" means "foreign to this world" and "Obrigkeiten" is the Luther version bible translation of "superior authorities". Luther used the "Obrigkeiten" passage to advocate support for the Princely rulers of his day.

1: Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
2: Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
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, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
5: Wherefore ye must needs 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.
7: Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
8: Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.
9: For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
10: Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
11: And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.
12: The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.
13: Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying.
14: But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.

One of my regular correspondents -- of Dutch origin but living in the USA -- recently wrote to me as follows:

In your scripture commentaries, have you ever written on Romans 13: 1-7? I have had a rough time with the notion that all government authority comes from God, and it's our Christian duty to genuflect to it.

The first time was when I attended a Presbyterian church. Unlike many American Presbyterian churches today it was a sound, conservative congregation with a good minister. But then, after several years, there was a local controversy about the area's public hospital. It had replaced two old, private hospitals, but then the new professional managers and the Board went on a building spree which a lot of the taxpaying public thought was excessive. It so happened that three members of the hospital Board were prominent in the church, and they were getting a lot of flak - deservedly so, I think, because even financial conservatives, when they're elected to public office, tend to throw prudence overboard and go along with the empire-builders on their staff. Building big, useless monuments has always been irresistible to people who handle the public's money, Anyway, one Sunday the minister preached on Romans 13, advocating that we honor and obey these free-spending public servants because they'd received their positions from God - well, that's when I became seriously disenchanted. In the first place, I don't believe the government of Paul's time was into running as many things as today's governments are, so where does this stop? It would mean that in countries where the government runs EVERYTHING - you know which ones those were - the population would be genuflecting constantly. Besides, I had a hell of a lot more respect for the nuns that used to run one of the now-closed hospitals than I did for the highly paid "professionals" in charge of the new one. I also happened to know a lot of them were incompetent, but that's another story.

In addition, I don't see a lot of support elsewhere in the Scriptures for Romans 13, and I think it's a sound principle that concepts that only occur once or twice in the Scriptures may be taken with a grain of salt. Then there is the question of Paul as a politician. The Roman Christian congregation he was writing to contained a lot of Jews - maybe a majority, and the Roman government of the time was pretty distrustful of the Jews in Palestine, who had a tendency toward insurrection.

Fast-forward twenty years, and we've been attending a Conservative Baptist church. It has a lot of similarities to the Presbyterian church I spoke of except for the music - I will never be able to relate to the so-called worship songs, too many of which I think are trite, unsingable retreads of seventies pop songs. But then, there are some aspects of American culture I will never connect with. Anyway, the minister at this church is a great guy; having grown up hearing the bloodless, weltfremd ministers of the Dutch Reformed church I think it's good to have someone who started out in the regular world and only later got his calling. Jerry started in life as a fireman and a part-time boxer, attended Bible College in his spare time and then, like the minister in the Presbyterian church, he was a missionary for some years. With his background he draws a lot of firemen and policemen to his church, and he is the Chaplain for all local police departments, which means he is called to minister to survivors and relatives whenever serious accidents have occurred. You have to respect that; I couldn't do it.

But guess what: the other Sunday he turned to Romans 13, his basic message being that all public "servants" - policemen, firemen, teachers, hospital workers, administrators of all kinds - are entitled to special respect - he came real close to suggesting they were superior people and made them stand up and enjoy applause. Well, I've seen policemen perform go-slow actions because they didn't get their raises, I've heard them lie in court, I've seen teachers behave like hoodlums on the picket line, I've seen enough corrupt politicians, and let's not get into the armies of well-paid lazybones shuffling paper everywhere. Besides, if all authority comes from God and shouldn't be challenged, how come we had the American Revolution? (American War of Independence is a more appropriate description, but ignore that aspect.) "Shouldn't Queen Liz and Tony Blair still be in charge of the USA?" I challenged Jerry at the exit. Well, no, that was different, he said. Taking a deep breath I started into the fact that King George was good enough for the Australians and the Canadians - but my wife poked me in the ribs to move on.

I wrote in reply:

Turning to an atheist for spiritual counsel is certainly testimony to how bad the churches have become.

But the answer is clear: Both Paul and Jesus made it very clear that their concern was to show the way to the afterlife. They did NOT think this world or its government was their concern -- Caesar's things to Caesar etc

So the advice concerned is SPIRITUAL: It will be better for your personal development if you ignore politics. And politics is so crazy that there is a lot of sense in that. Paul's view that the Obrigkeiten were put there by God is a way of saying: accept whatever God's purposes are (as with the problem of evil) and don't question it. Just keep your own life pure.

But we can do many things for non-spiritual reasons -- including challenging authority -- but while that may help this world, this world is not the important one

And, as I alway stress, context is very important. If you read the verses right through to verse 14 you can see the truth of what I said. Paul even laid out in detail what your personal conduct should be and how that would lead you into the coming Kingdom of Heaven. And perhaps the wisest verse in the passage is:

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

In other words, if you keep your nose out of politics and just live a good personal life, you have little to fear from any ruler.

So it was clearly the view of Christianity's founders that involvement in politics (the affairs of "this world") is, if not absolutely wrong, at least inadvisable and certainly bad for you spiritually. So the attempts by various Christian groups over the years to legislate morality ran against the advice of their own Christian scriptures. If Christians HAD followed the advice of their founders and not tried to intervene in the political affairs of the world around them, Christianity would not have the bad repute it does today have among the many non-religious people who resent being dictated to about what they should do in their personal lives. Christian authoritarianism has, in short, shamed Christ.

Note however that there is NOTHING in the scriptures that forbids Christians from voting according the their consciences nor is there any prohibition on voting itself. And note that the New Testament was written in Greek and that the concept of voting for your government was at that time already centuries old in the Greek-speaking world.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Only a small part of this blog is on the page in front of you. If you want to follow my attempted reconstruction of what 1st century Christians believed, you need to click on the ARCHIVES link in the green column to the left and start from the earliest date there.

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