The apostle Peter is plain and clear in his first letter.1 The password is submit. Yes, submit to the supreme authority: king, queen, emperor, president, prime minister, governor, mayor. Submit to every authority instituted among men. That is very comprehensive indeed.
All this, Peter insists, is God’s will. By so doing we will avoid being punished for doing wrong, and we will silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. The fools here are obviously those who do not want to submit because they claim, as Christians, to be above the law, for ‘we are free men.’
Peter’s response to this sophistry is penetrating: live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. His clear instruction is: fear God, honour the king. He repeats the warning in his second letter: be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men.2 The apostle Paul is equally plain and, as often, he cites the Jewish law in support: It is written, ‘Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people.’’3
We need to be quite clear in our own minds how far this honour and respect extend: it goes way beyond authority, that is to say it applies when we visit government offices. Peter’s word is to show proper respect to everyone.4 That would eliminate most letters and e-mails I have received, and some I have sent, in the past five years. David gives us a wonderful example of this. Nabal of Carmel was a man who was surly and mean in his dealings. This is David’s respectful greeting: Long life to you! Good health to you and your household! And good health to all that is yours!5 Marvellous! David was courteous even to his enemy. My lord the King! he says when he and Saul unexpectedly met at the Wild Goat Crags.6
The Halifax dispute
On a ‘missionary’ visit to the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, John Thomas addressed a thousand citizens of the provincial capital Halifax.7 We are told that the audience included prominent civic leaders, representatives of the provincial government, clergy and even army officers: a wonderful opportunity for witness. According to his own account, he told them that all governments are essentially usurpations of the rights of God, and political embodiments of the evil and sin of the world wherever they existed, in Canada or elsewhere.8 The purpose of God, he insisted, is to destroy them. This public – and in my opinion unscriptural – faux-pas upset members of the provincial government, which issued a statement asking the lecturer to explain himself further. He did so at a meeting a few days later, asserting that they [governments] are all absolutely evil. He then urged his hearers to transfer their allegiance from the government [of Canada] to the government of God’s king.
He must have forgotten the Medo-Persian government of God’s anointed Cyrus, of whom He said, he is my shepherd.9 And forgotten Nebuchadrezzar who, it is testified, glorified the God of heaven and acknowledged that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of men, and is held up as an example of righteous rule to his ‘son’ Belshazzar.10 At Halifax, John Thomas made the same mistake as Abraham did at Philistine Gerar: I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place’11. Perhaps it is not surprising that the visit to Halifax, despite its great initial potential, was not permanently fruitful.
God’s servants or ‘heartless ruffians’?
An all too common Christadelphian depiction of government and its agents of law, described by the apostle as God’s servants, is a lot of heartless ruffians with hearts of stone, and without the power to be merciful even if they had the mind.12
In view of the clemency shown by governments to the same writer on many occasions, such a wresting of Scripture seems very uncharitable, to say the least. Two camps have been formed in the Gentile world: the one on the side of king Jesus; the other on the side of Caesar and all who occupy similar positions; between whom there has been constant enmity for nearly eighteen centuries, though it has not been so openly manifested in recent years as it was in olden time.13 This is simply not true. Even during the savage 17th century persecutions, the ‘Little Ecclesia in Poland’ did submit to the supreme authority without defiance, and in consequence sometimes received state protection from religious fanatics.14
When I was editor of The Caribbean Pioneer, I received a letter from a Russian sister who lives in a remote town which was once used as a Soviet slave labour camp where exiled Christadelphians had perished from overwork and the cold. She wrote in great distress that she had received a copy of a Christadelphian publication which had a nasty cartoon caricature of President Putin, along with comments to which she, as a Russian citizen, took great exception, especially coming from a foreign source. She wrote of the changes that his government had brought about, including the fact that she herself was a believer but not a slave. She was horrified at the contemptuous attitude of North American Christians toward a president for whom, as instructed, she daily prayed and whom she rightly respected. She also pointed out that some of the Christadelphians responsible for the insult could bring judgment upon themselves by such words and actions.15
Do let us be very careful. We need some self-censorship to moderate our zeal. I believe that God wants us to honour His ministers, not insult them. By God’s amazing grace, the Christadelphians have recently become fully recognized in fundamentalist Islamic Pakistan. How would this have been possible if we had treated their regime as absolutely evil? I used to cringe when one of our leading Jamaican brothers used to publicly call our former marxist Prime Minister a craven liar. He may have been, but the apostles tell us that he must be respected nonetheless. As I was adviser to the Prime Minister on environmental matters, you can well imagine that this outspoken attitude made my own efforts to witness to my faith a lot more difficult.
Intercession and thanksgiving
The apostle Paul urges that in our assemblies we pray and intercede first of all for kings and all those in authority.16 We might ask, what exactly does he mean by first of all? He seems to imply that, of all ecclesial activities, prayer and intercession are of primary importance. And he actually wants us to pray and intercede for everyone! That’s a tough one, for sure.
It is my long experience that in our meetings we are embarrassed about specific prayers. We prefer vague clichés. But Paul would clearly have us pray specifically for a new government after elections (or a violent coup!), for a new president, or mayor, or police chief. If laws are proposed, or passed, or repealed, our public ecclesial prayers are needed – and when they affect every citizen, not just ourselves.
Our political interest should not be confined to scrutinizing newspapers for signs of imminent Armageddon. Moreover – and here our real Christian spirit is surely demonstrated – Paul urges that thanksgiving be made for kings and rulers. When President Harry Truman changed his policy at the last moment and voted for the state of Israel, did our assemblies thank God for him? When President Lyndon Johnson signed into law civil rights legislation to end centuries of discrimination, did your ecclesia rejoice in thankfulness? And when President Mandela repealed the iniquitous apartheid laws in South Africa, did we all thank God that He rules in the kingdoms of men ? In 1979, the Christadelphians in Jamaica were one of a hundred sects banned by the marxist government. Ten years later, two Christadelphians were publicly baptized in a special pool built for the purpose by the government in the main square of Kingston. In this instance, we do recall Michael Ashton, editor of The Christadelphian, who was present, giving thanks for this dramatic change and asking God’s blessing upon those in authority who had made the occasion possible.
Jobs for Christians
Among prominent Christians mentioned in the New Testament were Jewish priests, the lawyer Zenas, Luke the beloved physician, Erastus Corinth’s director of public works, a gaoler at Philippi, Cornelius, a Roman army officer at Caesarea, an Ethiopian minister of finance, a ship’s captain, the wealthy customs officers Matthew and Zacchaeus, Crispus, Corinth’s synagogue ruler and his entire household, Joanna the wife of the manager of king Herod’s royal household, Sergius Paulus the provincial governor of Cyprus who believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.17 There is no evidence at all that any of these people had to cut themselves off socially and professionally before their baptism into Christ. We may assume that Cornelius sought a discharge from the armed forces, but Luke did not consider it essential to inform us about it.
We comment on this matter because of situations we have known. I knew one Jamaican gaoler whose wife and son were Christadelphians. Despite several requests by himself and family, he was refused baptism right up to his death on the grounds that he had an unsuitable ‘job’ for a potential brother. There was another case of a seaman who was told he could not be a Christadelphian because he would be away from the ‘meetings’ for too lengthy periods to be acceptable to the ecclesia. A sister, greatly beloved to me, was no longer received at her ecclesia after she took a job as a clerk of court.
During the first hundred years of the Christadelphian brotherhood, there was much discussion about which ‘jobs’ or professions were suitable for Christians to engage in by way of a livelihood. Sixty years ago I recall being severely lectured when I was about to become a Christadelphian. I had been offered a science scholarship to Oxford University, but was told that to accept it would be tantamount to abandoning my faith. Science, law and most professions were taboo.18 Medicine would take me away from attending ‘meetings.’ In the end I was offered two jobs: mail-boy or lumberjack. I took mail-boy.
In the days of Isaac Barnes and John Blenman, and for long afterwards, brothers and sisters in our Caribbean ecclesias included many who were highly educated. They were in the professions and in business, with some in high government positions. Among them were our late beloved brethren Howard, Greene, Mitchell, Melbourne, McDonald, Randall, Husbands, Quamina, and some sisters too. Then, in the 1960s, visitors came to the Caribbean from wealthy countries and insisted that it was worldly to try and educate ourselves out of poverty, a condition which they had never experienced. We were shown a Bible passage which said that we were not to try and change our life style (our ‘jobs’, that is, if we had any) and ‘better ourselves’ once we had ‘come into the truth.’ Paul’s words are: Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him.19 Does this mean that Cornelius remained an army commander? Personally I doubt it.20 Nor do I think it means that Paul forbids accepting a promotion. Then just what is he telling us? The church of Christ in the first and second centuries AD had an ‘official’ policy of assisting poor converts with education to uplift them economically, but sadly, this has not been the case with some Christadelphians in modern times.
Alan Eyre, Kingston, Jamaica
NEXT MONTH: Copyright law; the Internet; and Libel law.
1. For1. I Peter 2:13-17.
2. II Peter 3:17.
3. Acts 23:5 quoting Exodus 22:28.
4. I Peter 2:17.
5. I Samuel 25:6.
6. I Samuel 28:8.
7. Robert Roberts: Dr. Thomas: his life and work. 1980.
8. John Thomas: Gospel and governments. Published posthumously in 1883.
9. Isaiah 44:28 to 45:4.
10. Daniel 4:37; 5:21.
11. Genesis 20:11.
12. The Christadelphian, vol. 9, 1872, p. 492. This is in answer to a specific question about the relationship of the believer to the state.
13. J.J. Andrew, “Jesus versus Caesar”. The Christadelphian, vol. 7, 1870, p. 81-83.
14. Alan Eyre: Brethren in Christ. 1982.
15. Romans 13:2.
16. I Timothy 1:1-2.
17. Acts 6:7; Titus 3:13; Colossians 4:14; Romans 16:23; Acts 16:29,33; Acts 10:1,48; Acts 8:27,38; Acts 27:11,24; Luke 19:2,9; Matthew 9:9; Acts 18:8; Luke 8:3; Acts 13:7,12.
18. This sounds extreme now, but in the 1940s this advice was routinely given to young converts such as myself, supported by articles in our magazines. We were told that as it was ‘certain’ that the Lord would return before our retirement, to save or have well-paying jobs was to lack faith in the prophetic word. The second century treatise The Apostolic Tradition lists the following professions forbidden to Christians (in this order): pimp, madam of a brothel, sculptor of idols, actor, charioteer, gladiator, hunter of wild animals, pagan priest/priestess, male/female prostitute, magician.
19. I Corinthians 7:20.
20. “A military commander [who is a brother] must be forbidden [by the church] to kill. If he is commanded to kill in the course of his duty, he must refuse”. Hippolytus: Church Order. AD 218.