In my last post discussing the misuse of Christianity to support narrow political agendas, I made the assertion that to be a Christian was to be an anarchist. I realize that, for many, that may be unexpected or even indefensible. The purpose of this post, therefore, is to explain and defend that assertion. This explanation and defense will take a few steps, so bear with me. In the end, I hope that the way I use anarchism in a theological context will become clearer. The first step in realizing that clarity is to review some of the typical definitions and conceptualizations of anarchism.
Typical Definitions and Conceptualizations of Anarchism
The term anarchy is derived from Greek. It is made up of two parts: (1) the prefix an-(Greek ἀν) and (2) the word arkhos (Greek ἀρχός). The prefix has the meaning of “to be without,” as in our English word (also derived from Greek): atheism–ἀ (to be without) + θεος (god) = to be without a god. Thus anarchy means (1) ἀν (to be without) + (2) ἀρχός (a ruler, leader, or prince) = to be without a ruler, leader, or prince.
As a secular political theory and philosophy, anarchism holds “that there is no legitimate political or governmental authority.” As a practical form of political action, anarchism seeks the dissolution of the state, governments, and institutionalized authority structures. Because of this goal, the term anarchy has come to be used colloquially to describe a state of civic disorder or chaos. These three uses are related to one another in the sense that it makes sense to dissolve governments if they are illegitimate, and it is assumed (not without cause) that a lack of government and civic structure will necessarily and naturally result in chaos and disorder. These theoretical, practical, and colloquial understandings of anarchism are what give Christians pause–there does not appear to be any biblical mandate for dismantling secular governments while there does appear to be a biblical mandate for maintaining structure and order. Thus, the next step is to consider how the Bible views secular government.
The Biblical View of Secular Governments
Entire books have been written on the subject of what the Bible teaches regarding secular government. Obviously, covering this topic in-depth in one blog post is not possible. The overview contained in these few paragraphs will be very broad, but I think it will make the point.
The first thing to notice is that the biblical writers all accepted the existence of secular human governments. One of the best examples of this acceptance is the narrative of Jonah. Jonah’s prophetic ministry was primarily directed at the northern kingdom of Israel at a time (ca. 793-753 B.C.) when the dominant political power in the region was the Assyrian Empire. Jonah receives instructions to deliver a prophetic warning to the Assyrian city of Nineveh (Jonah 1:1-2, 3:1-2). Specifically, Jonah is instructed to warn Nineveh that it will be overthrown within 40 days if it does not repent of its injustices and wickedness. Nowhere in the narrative is it indicated that the government of Nineveh was itself illegitimate. Rather, it was using its power and authority to do illegitimate things. It was not going to be overthrown because it existed, it was going to be overthrown because–in the terminology of political theory and philosophy–it was not practicing public justice.
The issue of public justice is an important one. Romans 13 is probably the most-cited text in Scripture when it comes to thinking about secular governments and how Christians ought to relate to them. It is there that we read Paul’s instruction to the Roman church to “submit to the governing authorities” (Rom 13:1 HCSB). He justifies this instruction by claiming that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God.” Paul goes on to unpack this a bit more by pointing out that secular governments, in the performance of their police power, are focused on punishing bad conduct. Therefore, since Christians ought not to be engaged in bad conduct, they should have nothing to fear. This brings up several issues that need to be dealt with.
First, it is important to note that what Paul is describing in Romans 13 represents an ideal state of affairs.1 In other words, when secular governments are doing their jobs properly then Christians should have nothing to fear since they will not be living lives that bring them into a negative light from government’s point of view. Of course, no society and its governments exist in an ideal state of affairs at all times. Paul was writing prior to the great persecutions of Nero, but also with an understanding of what government was capable of due to the treatment of the Jewish community in Rome.2 In less than a century, Justin Martyr would become the first great Christian apologist in the post-apostolic church by defending Christianity against the injustices of Roman government.3 These injustices arose because Christians confessed Jesus as Lord in an “empire that pretended Caesar to be lord.”4 That is that by the second century, the Roman government had come to view Christians in the exact opposite light of what Paul proposed in Romans 13.
The Upside-Down of Christian Civics
For Paul, the mere fact of one’s being a Christian meant that they posed no threat to the legitimately established government and its exercise of authority. Paul made that assertion during a time when the status of Christians in the empire was ambivalent. By the time of Justin Martyr, the opposite was the official position of the Roman government: that to be a Christian was to pose a direct threat to the legitimacy of the Empire. Of course, within just a few centuries more, Christianity would come to be first a legalized religion under Constantine and, later, the official religion of Rome under Theodosius I. For all our talk of looking for a biblical foundation for our political theory, it is not so much the Bible that sets the foundation for our theorizing but the historical realities that began with Constantine.
Prior to Constantine, when Christians wrote about political subjects, their purpose was primarily to defend Christianity against accusations that it somehow contributed to the destabilization of Roman society by ignoring the civic responsibility to appease the gods.5 By the time of Augustine, the political writing had moved on to a defense of Christianity as a superior foundation for civic society over the backdrop of Rome’s fall. Augustine was writing against a resurgence in pagan worship and the claim of some that Rome’s failures were due to the preeminence of Christianity over the traditional religions.6 When we next encounter such a true giant in the realm of Christian political theology, we’re in the thirteenth century, when Thomas Aquinas wrote from well within the phenomenon of Christendom. At this point, the dispute was not whether Christianity had any place within civil society but whether Christianity as a political hegemon was superior to competing hegemons, primarily Islam.7
My point here is not to give some exhaustive recounting of the history of Christian political thought. Rather, I want to highlight the changes that occurred in how Christians thought about politics. In the New Testament and early Christian centuries, that thought revolved primarily around how to exist as a minority religion within an environment of socio-political opposition. In Augustine’s time, that thought revolved around the competition for political influence. In Aquinas’ time, that thought was directed at defending and legitimizing Christianity’s direct exercise of political power. What this ultimately means is that most of what we call Christian political theory is based not on the New Testament but on the thought that developed in a post-Constantinian environment where Christianity was itself a political player. This holds true for much of the dominant thought in Protestant theology, from Calvin and Luther, to Hooker, to Locke, and right on down to today. The major point being that this represents a completely upside-down look at the political implications of Christian faith from what the New Testament writers–our ostensible foundation for what to believe–themselves believed.
Recovering the New Testament’s Perspective
The real question to be answered is “What is the proper role of the church in the context of civil society, public spaces, and political discourse?” How one answers that question will depend on what presuppositional foundations he or she chooses in order to form an answer. Because I am an American, I cannot help but write and think about this problem from an American perspective. Even with the continuing decline in Christians as a portion of the population, 65% of Americans still describe themselves as Christian. Thus, it is hard to extricate myself from thought patterns that make sense within a society where I am a part of the religious majority. The challenge to this way of thinking is to pose two important questions: (1) is a majority position the perspective of the Bible? and (2) is a majority position true for the global, universal church?
I think I’ve already addressed the first question. The perspective of the biblical writers is that of a minority. This holds true even in the Old Testament when the audience was Israel or Judah since those two kingdoms were minorities in the world. The Hebrew monarchies were always less powerful and less influential than their larger neighbors like Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon.
As for the second question, this is harder to answer. While Christianity maintains first place globally in terms of the total number of self-described adherents, when compared to all non-Christians, Christians are a global minority. Another factor is that many of the world’s Christians live in countries where they either make up the majority or are the largest religious minority. The United States alone accounts for almost 11% of the world’s Christians. The top ten nations with the largest populations of Christians account for nearly 50% of the world’s total, and some of those are in countries where religious persecution is very real. China, for example, accounts for just over 3% of the world’s Christians. That means over 70 million Christians live in a nation that–like the Roman Empire during the early centuries–sees Christians as a direct threat on the social and political order. And that’s only one example.
The reason I bring up all these statistics is to raise the point that it is hubristic and arrogant for Christians in places like the United States to speak, write, and act as if we ought to be rulers. If that is so, how do we speak to and minister to–how do we advocate for–our brothers and sisters in places where publicly adhering to faith in Christ and living out the commitments that faith demands can get them killed?
The best expression (so far) of the sentiment I am trying to capture here was written by John Howard Yoder in his book, The Priestly Kingdom:8
Instead of dreaming about either past or future situations in which Christians did or would constitute the powerful majority in society, we could accept as normal the diaspora situation in which Christians find themselves in most of the world today and in which voluntarily committed Christians will increasingly be conscious of standing also in the ‘post-Christian’ North Atlantic world.John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom, 158
We cannot and should not expect the secular governments of this world to be favorable to Christianity. Christians have no inherent right or claim to be the rulers and leaders of men. This is the case in Western Europe and North America, if for no other reason, because the men who choose their rulers and leaders are less-and-less inclined to defer to a Christian ethic of what leadership ought to be. It is certainly true in nations where Christians are a persecuted minority, either because they are seen as threats to the prevailing secular order (China) or theological enemies (Islamic theocracies).
When Yoder admonishes his reader to “accept as normal the diaspora situation in which Christians find themselves in most of the world today,” he is not just asking believers to identify with their persecuted brethren, he is asking believers to adhere to the point of view of the New Testament, which they claim as the authoritative Word of God. That point of view is not that of the ruler, the majority, or the cultural hegemon.
Why Am I Calling this Point of View Anarchism?
Now, back to the actual point of this post. If you’ve stuck with me so far, thank you. The prior material was a lot, but it is necessary background for explaining my thoughts on the mere semantics of saying Christians should be anarchist in orientation. First, I hope it is somewhat clear that I think Christians should not place their faith in human governments–even those governments that are evidently favorable or indifferent to matters of religion. The point being that I think Christians should be anarchist in the sense of being able to exist as Christians regardless of the political regime. The church is the church everywhere and always. The mistake that too many Christians make, especially in the United States, is to assume that the interests of the secular government need to align with the interests of the church. That is not and has never been the case.
Second, I want to return to the Greek origins of the term anarchy. The Greek term ἀρχός (ruler, leader, or prince) is etymologically related to the term ἀρχή (arche: beginning, origin, source). The context that is applied to ἀρχός supplies a sense in which the ruler or the state is somehow primeval, original, or holds the nature of the beginning of the people it rules over. Aristotle makes this point plainly in his Politics, where he writes that “the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part.”9 We witness this contextual sense in the way nations throughout history have–and still do–craft mythologies to explain the noble foundations upon which they were built. Whether or not we want to believe it, we do the same thing in the United States. In the U.S., we have a founding myth that is largely intertwined with the Protestant heritage of the first colonists. Christians in other nations are not so lucky. Nonetheless, the founding myth in the U.S. is no more authoritative than those others just because it borrows the language and imagery of biblical Christianity. The origins of the U.S. are no more primeval or original in identifying who and who is not American than that of Romulus and Remus were for citizens of Rome.
It is at this point that I mean Christianity as anarchism in its truest sense. The only ruler who is original and primeval in any sense is Christ. All other authorities–religious or secular–are subsidiary and subservient to him and his purposes. The only political entity to which I owe ultimate allegiance is the Kingdom of God. It is because of this allegiance that one submits to the authorities that Paul speaks of in Romans 13 and that Peter writes of in 1 Peter 2. That the Kingdom of God is a political reality necessarily affects how I relate to other political entities. Take, for example, a contextual reading of 1 Peter 3:13-17. When Peter tells his readers that they should submit to Roman authorities and “by doing good, silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 3:15), he was doing so in the context of active and ongoing persecution (c.f., 1 Peter 3:12). In other words, submission to secular authorities who were punishing Christians for being Christian amounted to witnessing to the truth–loyalty beyond mere adherence to cultural and political norms.
Christians in the New Testament period were instructed to allow the Roman government to punish them for their faith. That is what Peter meant by submission. If he meant loyalty–which is how we often interpret him–then loyalty would have meant denying Christ in order to burn incense to the Caesar who claimed to be a “living god” and “lord” over against the true Living God and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Of course, this also means that actively seeking the abolition of the state is outside the purview of ethical Christian behavior. Christians ought to be anarchist in the sense that they are not ultimately loyal to the secular state and its reigning ideological paradigms. Anarchism in the Christian sense means “without human rulers” in the ultimate sense. It is a denial of the Aristotelian conceptualization of the state as ontologically prior to the society it governs.
None of this means, of course, that Christians ought not or cannot serve their secular governments. If that is what I advocated, then I would be a hypocrite since my entire adult professional life has been in government service. It would also be a denial of the testimony of Scripture, where men like Joshua and Daniel served in governments outside the Hebrew nations. But that is more fodder for later writing, especially since it deals with the specific roles of individual Christians.
I realize this is not a complete or comprehensive explanation. That’s why this post’s title is “Towards a nuanced understanding.” And in the end, I hope it generates more questions than answers. One of those questions towards which I hope this post offers some answers is the role of the church in politics. To close, I’ll return to the narrative of Jonah. In that narrative, the prophet was sent to a foreign nation that shared neither his culture nor his worldview. Nonetheless, he appealed to standards of righteousness and justice that appealed to political leaders in a society beyond his worldview. It is this prophetic role that I envision as the church’s political purpose. Another, though not completely analogous example, is Nathan in the court of David. Nathan was not a political insider, nor was he a member of David’s court. He stood apart from it but appealed to the ethical worldview David claimed to hold in order to call him to account. In these two examples, we can see a role for the church globally, no matter the culture, and inside a society that, at least in part, holds to the worldview appealed to by the prophet. In both cases, the prophet stood apart from the political power structures. It was that apartness that imbued the prophet with authority. Had the prophet in either case been a participant in the political power structures, his authority would have been diminished.
It is all too common today, and I speak mainly of the United States, for Christians to assume that a lack of political power means a lack of cultural and moral influence. However, it is more biblical–and more historical–to think the opposite: political power equates to a diminished influence. Christians ought to be anarchists because they are called to influence the principalities and powers of the world, not become those principalities and powers themselves. It also bears mentioning succinctly that, even when the prophetic message was one of imminent destruction, that destruction was left to God to bring about, not taken up as a call to arms by believers themselves.
- Ben Witherington, III, New Testament Theology and Ethics, Volume One (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016), 257.
- John Anthony McGuckin, The Path of Christianity: The First Thousand Years (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017), 90-91.
- John Goldingay, Biblical Theology: The God of the Christian Scriptures (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016), 356.
- Michael J. Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018), 42.
- Saint Augustine, City of God, translated by Henry Bettenson (London: Penguin Classics, 2003), 6-9.
- Avery Cardinal Dulles, A History of Apologetics (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 112.
- John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), 158.
- Aristotle, Politics in The Basic Works of Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 1129.