More on Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Christian relations to the State

As promised I’m listening to Lloyd-Jones’ sermons on Romans 13, although it’s taking a while – finding time to concentrate on sermons nearly an hour long can be tricky. From the latest one I picked up a few points where I again somewhat disagree with Lloyd-Jones (and I would remind you again that me disagreeing with Lloyd-Jones is rare).

First was a passage in which he spoke rather as if Paul’s Romans 13 was almost the only full expression of these ideas. But in Paul it’s just one chapter in a longer exposition of many basic Christian ideas.  So for me, though Romans 13 is certainly a key passage, Peter in his first epistle actually says much more, gives more detail, than Paul in Romans, and I think it’s a good idea to see the two passages together.

Apart from simply using as much of the biblical teaching as possible, getting the widest biblical view of the topic, Peter’s letter has a further key element for an issue that arose later; supposedly the Roman Catholic Church claims special authority as the ‘successor of Peter’. Yet ironically, if you follow Peter’s actual words, much of it contradicts the way the Catholic Church (and the Orthodox Church before the split between RC and Orthodox) dealt with the state through history. Which of course raises some questions on how much the Catholics can truly claim succession to Peter….

Secondly, though, Lloyd-Jones takes up the idea of ‘subjection to’ the state that Paul expresses, and he says rightly that this can’t mean we must always obey the state, the ‘powers that be’. And quite rightly Lloyd-Jones quotes Peter’s words from Acts 5, about how Christians must ‘obey God rather than man’. But he then I think makes a significant slip; he speaks in terms of being ‘subject to the state’ EXCEPT when we must ‘obey God rather than man’.

And I want to say no; we must actually as the text says ‘be subject’ full stop. NO EXCEPTIONS!! And I think the slip here is common, made by many; it is the slip of equating ‘be subject to’ with simply ‘obey’. As I see it, we are to be subject but in different ways – when we can, we obey; but when we find it impossible to obey, we still remain ‘subject’, we still don’t ‘resist’ in a sense of military rebellion or the like. We disobey, and if the state chooses to punish us for it, we accept the punishment – as Peter, Paul, and indeed Jesus himself did; Jesus in his unjust death, Peter and Paul later in their martyrdom for the faith….

The trouble with trying to make an ‘exception’ to subjection to the state is that although it sounds very reasonable, it’s hard to keep it as a minor exception. Ian Paisley and others in Ulster advocated a similar ‘exception’ and effectively it ‘ate up’ the rule it was supposed to be an exception to. It pretty much ended up as being subject to the state only if the state did what you wanted. Where Paul was ‘subject’ to the state of an emperor like Nero and willing to accept eventual martyrdom at the hands of Nero’s Rome, the Ulstermen ended up basically rebelling against a democratic state that simply wanted them to respect the rights of others who disagreed with them – and indeed compared that democratic state to Nero or Hitler…. And Ulster Catholics, also on the ‘Constantinian’ side of the argument, took similar views, making a bloody clash inevitable.

One common way to justify the exception at least in the days of kings and emperors was to try to distinguish between the ‘office’ of king which you had to respect, and the individual holding the office, who, in effect, didn’t have to be respected and obeyed if he wasn’t doing the job properly. That kind of reasoning leads to very hair-splitting legalism which basically comes to attempting to justify rebellion. The idea I’m advocating, of distinguishing between ‘subjection’ and ‘obedience’, allows the different option of being always subject and never rebelling, while still, when required, obeying God rather than man and so risking martyrdom. That avoids all the dubious legalism and also the essentially selfish and fractious attitudes which accompany such reasoning.

In the same sermon Lloyd-Jones dealt with questions about capital punishment – the death penalty. I’m going to have to go into that one sometime in future – for now I’ll shove it on the back burner and think it over.

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