[Note: This is the prepared text for a message given to the Portland congregation of the United Church of God on Sabbath, July 18, 2020.]
There is saying that you know you are in trouble when you have to say the quiet part out loud. We all tend to live our lives under certain assumptions, and when those assumptions are questioned and have to be defended openly, one knows that one lives in very dangerous times indeed. Today I would like to talk about one of the assumptions that in most ages is unquestioned but which in our own has to be defended and justified, and that is the legitimacy of the coercive power of the state. As I am speaking to people who believe in the Bible, we will ultimately base our conclusions in matters such as this on what the Bible says, and the Bible does speak a fair amount about this subject, it should be noted. I would like to begin our subject, though, with a brief discussion about why it is that we need to care about the question of the legitimacy of the coercive power of the state at all.
One of the empirical laws that relates to civic order is called Colson’s law. This law states that for there to be peace within society it is required that we have either a society that is governed by a strong conscience or that is kept under control by cops. For mankind to be restrained from evil, we need either a lot of conscience, a lot of cops, or some amount of both. It does not require a great deal of awareness in the present evil state of our society to recognize that many people are not restrained from evil by their consciences and that the legitimacy of police in restraining people from their wickedness is under attack by evildoers as well. And it should be remembered again that for evil to be restrained we need either external or internal restraint, and without one of those evil will be unrestrained and the order of society will be under extreme threat. This is the issue we face.
Colson’s law is named after a man named Charles Colson. This gentleman first came to fame as one of the most devoted partisans of the cause of President Richard Nixon and was imprisoned as a result of his actions regarding the Watergate break-in in 1972 as part of his political work for Nixon. During the course of his imprisonment he came to Jesus as it happens and he later became a noted writer on Christian matters as well as an advocate for prison reform. It is in prison that we tend to see the coercive power at its strongest. Those who have to be restrained by evil and find themselves unable to restrain themselves typically find themselves restrained by the justice system by being locked up for a certain amount of time in hopes that they will be converted to the cause of order and restraint. We may as believers think that we do not need to be restrained in such a fashion, but at least a few believers have found themselves imprisoned.
As a child, when I was between the ages of 8 to 10 or so, my grandfather would occasionally do bible studies in a local minimum security state prison near where I grew up in rural Central Florida and my younger brother and I would troop along with him to visit the prison. There were two prisoners there who were considered as members of our congregation and they represent two different ways that people find themselves handling the coercive power of the state. One of the prisoners had found his wife and her paramour in bed together and in a heat of passion shot them both dead. Being poor and having terrible legal assistance, he confessed to the crime and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Being a model prisoner, though, not considered at risk to escape or to behave violently, he was placed in a minimum security prison where he was able to be a good example for other prisoners despite the apparent injustice of his sentence. The other prisoners was a man who bragged about his role as an international drug runner between Florida and the Bahamas but who was in prison for the statutory rape of his former stepdaughter, and he considered it an injustice to be jailed for something that he did not view as being worthy of being called a crime at all. Violent anger and sexual sin are certainly the sorts of crimes that believers can find themselves caught up in, so it behooves us all, obviously, to avoid being the just targets of the coercive power of the state.
Where do we find the coercive power of the state first justified? Let us turn to the first book of the Bible and look at a couple of passages. When we look at the state of mankind in the period before the flood, mankind has fallen to a low level. Genesis 6:5-8 tells us of God’s sorrow about having created mankind in the first place. Genesis 6:5-8 reads: “ Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the Lord said, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” As might be expected, God had a solution for this unrestrained evil in the period after the flood, and we find this solution in Genesis 9:5-6. Genesis 9:5-6 reads: “Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man. From the hand of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man.”
Has the natural state of mankind changed from the time of the flood to now? Not at all. Without the help of God, and such restraint as can find within ourselves as well as in the world outside, we are all in the state of mankind before the flood, and our society appears to be dedicated to the goal of making every intent of our hearts only evil continually as was the case in the days of Noah. Paul eloquently wrote about the natural state of mankind in Romans 3:9-18 and it remains true today to the extent that we are not ruled and transformed by God. Romans 3:9-18 tells us: “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one.” “Their throat is an open tomb; with their tongues they have practiced deceit”; “The poison of asps is under their lips”; “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.””
This is a grim state that we can all find ourselves fallen into if the evil within ourselves is not restrained. And not surprisingly, Paul views this wicked human nature that we all have in abundance as justifying the coercive power of the state. He does so, indeed, in the bluntest language, in ways that may make us feel uncomfortable to listen to. Let us turn to Romans 13:1-7 and read Paul’s strong language in support of the coercive power of the law. Romans 13:1-7 tells us: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs are due, fear to whom fear is due, honor to whom honor is due.”
We might be first motivated to minimize what Paul is saying here, but let us take him seriously. In light of the evil that is naturally present within the dark hearts of all of mankind, the state has a God-given responsibility to restrain that evil through bearing the sword and executing justice against evildoers. Paul is not saying this to a gang of hardened criminals, but to the brethren of Rome. And who was it who was God’s minister bearing the sword? We know him as Nero, and among his actions was to put Paul to death by beheading and to persecute the early Christians of Rome, including at least some of the recipients of this letter, creating horrific scenes such as covering believers in wax and lighting them as candles for the dinner parties of the elites of Rome at the time. This was the man who Paul told the brethren of Rome was due their honor, fear, taxes, and customs of respect who those believers were subject to.
We tend to have a low opinion of our own political leadership on the local, state, and national levels and bristle at the suggestion that we are to restrain ourselves to obey the rules they give us and the laws they pass and the executive orders that they sign, but none of these leaders, as incompetent as they are, is half as wicked, we fervently hope and pray, as the man to whom the brethren of Rome were bound by conscience’s sake to honor and submit themselves to. Let us say the quiet part out loud as we close. We live in evil days, and we may feel tempted to copy the example of our contemporaries in casting off anything that restrains us from evil and doing harm to others. Let us not forget that the Bible fully justifies the coercive power of the state and places us under the jurisdiction of flawed and fallible human authorities who have often been abusive and hostile towards God’s people. Let us hope that we do not suffer from the coercive power of the state with reason, for we may not be fortunate enough to escape the same sort of persecution that our brethren in the past have had to endure at the hand of wicked authorities who were nevertheless God’s servants despite their evil actions against God’s people. Let us prepare ourselves.