As I was doing a bit of research into the age old question of Christians’ relationship with government and the question of civil disobedience, I ran into a deeply depressing article by John MacArthur entitled "The Christian and Government."
I’ve never heard of Reverend MacArthur, though I understand he’s quite famous in some circles; and I have no intention of attacking him personally. But I believe his stance is definitive of the passivity and separatism afflicting many evangelical and Reformed churches–as well as many other denominations.
Briefly, MacArthur apparently believes in complete separation of the social order and what he terms the "spiritual order" of the church. For him church and government remain impermeable and separate entities. The entirely spiritual Kingdom of God has no interest in or interface with the kingdoms of this world with two notable exceptions: The Christian is to pay taxes and to submit to the existing government. He writes: "The Christian has a duty to his nation, even if the ruler is a Nero or a Hitler."
MacArthur states "Personally, I’m not that concerned about political, economic, social, and civil issues...The souls of lost men and women occupy my mind..." He concludes, "The one time we have a right to disobey the government is when it commands us not to do something God has commanded us to do, or when it commands us to do something God has commanded us not to do."
MacArthur, being what evangelicals and fundamentalists term "dispensationalist," bases his thesis on civil disobedience almost entirely on Pauline doctrines outlined in the letter of Romans, other New Testament quotes and on the belief that Christ did not come to establish a social order but a spiritual order. In other words, he believes the Old Testament was replaced by the New Testament. Therefore, he sees little continuity between the Hebrew and Greek scriptures.
The above means the great prophetic utterances of the ancient Hebrew prophets are almost completely ignored; and of course, such omissions vitiate the high sense of social justice which runs throughout the entire Hebrew scriptures.
But there is at least one other major problem with MacArthur’s ideas, which is that it addresses only one half of the Great Commandment cited by Christ as the summation of the law and the prophets. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart...and thy neighbor as thy self.") MacArthur addresses only a narrow, personalized obedience to God. It does not address loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. It does not address the responsibilities of the Christian toward a suffering world .
In essence, it is the response of Cain cloaked in spiritual language of separatism from the suffering world: "Am I my brother’s keeper?" It is the response of the Pharisee, who separated from the world by his personal "holiness" walked by the man nearly beaten to death by robbers and left on the highway to die while a good Samaritan was left to do the good work of rescue.
By contrast, by 1933, the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who originally was a believer in Ghandi style pacifism, was writing that civil disobedience was a proper response when opposing unjust political structures which oppressed and persecuted their citizenry. He became increasingly convinced that submission to a corrupt and evil government was not God’s will, but that he, and by implication, other Christians had to oppose oppressive governments.
One basis of Bonhoeffer’s change of heart was the conviction that the consequences of pious pacifism were far more dangerous to society at large than active opposition–which of course, carried its own risks. What Bonhoeffer saw clearly was that when Christians did not stand up against evil, evil prevailed. He saw the lightning speed with which Hitler’s regime fomented evil; and he saw the creation of a "German" church which went along with and sometimes actively supported the atrocities of the Third Reich. Along with Karl Barth and others who signed the "Barmen" declaration, he refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of a regime which sought to crush the Christian conscience.
He came to the conclusion that submission to an evil world order was wrong because the first loyalty of the Christian was to God’s will, a will expressed in God’s directives against injustice and unrighteousness. In brief, he felt as a Christian he was called to a battle against evil wherever he found it–and find it he did in Nazi Germany.
Bonhoeffer had seen a drift in Christian theology which he had tracked from the thirteenth century. He did not like or approve of the drift, seeing a shift concerning humans’ relationship with God reduced to a set of meaningless rituals and a mindset intent on a conversion which meant escapism from the "world." He thought that trend the very opposite of participating in and relieving the suffering of our fellow human beings. He called his approach a "church for others." His concept of grace has influenced many Christians who have appropriated his description of a "cheap grace" which repudiates participation in the suffering and redemption of this world order, forsaking involvement and risk for personal spirituality confined to private practices..
Those who know Bonhoeffer’s story know he died at the age of 39 for his participation in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer took the risks he did because he knew the atrocities which were happening under the aegis of the Third Reich, and took a radical stand against them. He literally laid down his life for his suffering countrymen..
While Christians in America may not suffer imprisonment and death for standing up against what they believe to be wrong, Bonhoeffer insisted all believers are called to radical discipleship which demands active responses to evil. For Christians, retreat into passivity and a merely personal spirituality is not an option. The call to discipleship includes the confrontation of evil and the establishment of justice and righteousness in the here and now.