Updated: May 1, 2020
Centralized institutional states are man’s greatest idol to himself. To challenge them, we must first rediscover the biblical role of the church.
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
The meaning of “liberty”
The Declaration of Independence says it is "self-evident" that all men are "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." The Bible, however, never mentions "rights." God does not give men a set of rights, but a set of duties. In the words of Simone Weil, “A man, considered in isolation, has only duties: other men have rights.”
It is in this sense, and this sense only, that Christians believe in “rights.” Under God's law, every human being has a duty to help and protect other human beings—including, for instance, by protecting their lives. It follows, in a sense, that all human beings have the "right" to life. Christians should therefore champion "rights" insofar as we have moral duties to other people. Weil, again, put it best: “A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds.”
One of the central ways that Christians must help and protect other people is by defying and curtailing the power of governments. The Bible and church history, as well as history in general, show that authoritarian governments are the single most harmful system in the human world. The whole drama of God's people is, in part, a cyclical struggle against unjust human government, which habitually attempts to usurp the place of God, and which the saints must repeatedly defy and overcome.
As part of our duty to help and protect others, Christians are called—not only to disobey human authority when it goes astray—but to be politically engaged in a way that actively limits governmental power. This call is made explicit in certain well-known passages such as 1 Samuel 8, but it is also interwoven throughout the whole of scripture, and has been recognized for much of the church’s history. It is this active limitation on the power of the state that is what we mean by "liberty."
Promoting a Christian view of politics in the church therefore requires not merely defeating authoritarian ideology, but releasing the church from its current political quietism—by which I mean its tendency to falsely conflate political apathy with piety.
On using the word “libertarian”
When traditional Christians describe ourselves as “libertarian,” we mean only that we advocate a set of policy positions. “Libertarian” policy positions are simply those that aim to limit and decentralize governmental power in a way that maximizes personal choice. That is the sense in which I use the word here.
Christian opponents of the word “libertarian” emphasize that “libertarianism” is sometimes associated with post-Enlightenment philosophical beliefs, including Randian individualism, relativism about morality, and the belief that markets will automatically select the good. They point out that all of these beliefs are intrinsically anti-Christian.
My response to this argument is that I agree with it completely. If there ever emerged some equally-effective label that lacked these connotations, I would use that label instead. As things stand today, though, no other term is as useful for suggesting an across-the-board reduction in the scope of governmental power.
Throughout church history, Christian thinkers have proposed many different names for the idea that the church should push the secular state out of the life of the community—names such as “sphere sovereignty” and “subsidiarity.” While these terms are useful for scholarly debate, most Christians today are too de-intellectualized to have heard of them. Saying that Christianity is "libertarian" at least succeeds in communicating the thrust of the idea to most people without being pedantic.
It is true that libertarian Christians sometimes have the unpleasant task of explaining that the word “libertarian” does not refer to libertine postmodernism, or to whatever Gary Johnson says. No matter what term we use, however, misconceptions about that term will arise and need to be corrected. The word “libertarian” at least spares us the added step of trying to popularize some new piece of political jargon.
Some day, God willing, the church will be fully re-engaged with its intellectual inheritance, and simply saying “I have Christian political beliefs” will by itself suggest what amounts to a libertarian political program—much like the way saying “I have Islamic political beliefs” automatically suggests political sharia. That day has not yet arrived.
Revolution against political tyranny
Many people with a basic understanding of Christianity know that, woven continuously throughout the Bible, there are stories in which believers are called upon to disobey unjust human authority. Some of the better-known examples include the three men thrown into a furnace for refusing to worship Nebuchadnezzar's golden image, Daniel's being thrown to the lions by Darius for praying out loud, and the declaration of the apostles that "We must obey God rather than men." In the words of the church father Theodoret, all of these men acted "in scorn for the impiety of the law."
Yet the Bible does not merely tell a story of disobedience, but also of active defiance. Defiance was, in fact, the origin and foundation of Israel as a political entity. The Exodus from Egypt began with an active flight from political oppression. Moses, says Stephen in Acts, “defended the oppressed… God was giving them salvation by his hand.”
Moses was also not a quietist, sitting by passively as God unilaterally freed the Hebrews from captivity. Instead, God made Moses a co-participant in the Exodus story—sending him into the halls of power to demand Israel’s release. God even told Moses: “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh.” When one thinks about the politics of the Exodus story—a story still known even by most secular people older than Generation Z—the insistence of some Christians that the church must never make political demands seems ridiculous beyond the point of credulity.
After the conquest of Canaan, the Hebrews, in turn, succumbed to the religious influence of neighboring states, and were themselves conquered by a series of foreign enemies. This began an era in which Israel was led by charismatic leaders called “judges” in a cycle of revolution against foreign rule. In each reenactment of the cycle, the judges’ struggle to restore proper worship was inextricably intertwined with their political struggle against tyranny.
After Israel was conquered by Moabites, the judge Ehud personally assassinated the king of Moab; Ehud then led the Israelites in a revolutionary uprising. After Israel was again conquered by the Canaanite general Sisera, the prophetess Deborah incited a revolt against him. The Canaanite forces were routed by the rebels, and a housewife named Jael—who the Bible calls “most blessed of women”—assassinated Sisera with a tent peg and a hammer. After Israel once again embraced foreign religious practices, parts of Israel were once more conquered—this time by Midianites. Perhaps the greatest of the judges, Gideon, then launched guerrilla attacks on pagan altars before driving out the Midianites militarily.
What happened next is key to understanding the recurring political oppression and revolution in the judges cycle: the Israelites, in gratitude for Gideon’s defeat of Midian, attempted to anoint the great judge as a hereditary dictator. “Rule thou over us,” they told him, “both thou, and thy son, and thy son's son also.” Yet Gideon refused: “I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the Lord shall rule over you.”
Gideon’s juxtaposition is a summation of biblical politics: the statement logically requires that people are either ruled by God or by human beings, but not both, for no one can serve two masters. God’s battle against human tyrants has been, all along, part of the same divine war as His battle against material idols. This is why, after Gideon had cut down the Asherah, he also cut down the Midianites. Political tyranny is the epitome of idolatry, and to tolerate it is to place a finite, and destructive, object in a position of lordship over human life.
Authoritarianism and the cultural elite
David, the first biblical figure to directly appear in an external archaeological source, marks the transition from the prehistory of the judges era to one in which Israel can be firmly located in historical space. After David’s reign, Israel began to see a new kind of revolution.
Beginning with the prophet Ahijah and continuing down through the Maccabees, Israel witnessed upheavals which were also, in part, civil wars. In each conflict, God called upon religious traditionalists to revolt against a domestic elite—an elite which was consistently culturally progressive, cosmopolitan, and authoritarian. Israel’s history is therefore not only a story of cyclical revolution, but of a kind of populism. To be clear, I do not mean to say that the numerical majority is always in the right, but that governments have a tendency to promote an elite that is spiritually rootless and politically remote, and which must in turn be confronted like the Asherah that Gideon pulled down.
This pattern is epitomized by the struggle between the prophet Elijah and Jezebel, the Phoenician queen of Israel. At the height of her power, Jezebel sat at the center of a large family alliance tying together three kingdoms. Jezebel also imposed a new religious order. By dominating her husband Ahab, she promoted the worship of Baal, Asherah, and other deities—and violently persecuted monotheists. The Bible and an extant royal seal show that Jezebel was a religious pluralist who did not think everyone needed to worship Baal in particular. Instead, she likely persecuted monotheists because she saw them as backwards and narrow-minded, like the later Antiochus IV.
In response, the prophet Elijah instigated two revolutions against Jezebel’s regime. First, Elijah challenged Jezebel’s priests to the famous Contest on Mount Carmel. Once God had demonstrated His power by immolating a soaked offering, Elijah called on the Israelite spectators to seize Jezebel’s priests, who he then executed in a brook flowing out of Israel. In a move that must have been uncomfortable for Ahab, Elijah then assumed the role of Ahab’s royal guard on the king’s return trip to Jezreel, as if to broadcast that a religious coup had taken place.
The events on Mount Carmel, however, did not dislodge Jezebel, who managed to continue consolidating her political power and entrenching foreign religion. God therefore ordered Elijah to anoint a new king, the Israelite general Jehu, in 1 Kings 19.
Anointed by Elijah’s disciples, Jehu led a reactionary revolt against Jezebel’s extended family. In a surprise attack, Jehu killed the kings of both Israel and Judah, decapitating the Hebrew leadership that had compromised and betrayed traditional monotheism. Marching into Jezreel with his army, he then ordered Jezebel to be thrown out of a window by her own eunuchs. Jehu then used a ruse to round up and execute the religious leaders that Jezebel had appointed, breaking the apparatus of state persecution.
Elijah and his two revolutions remind us that believers should not retreat with bowed heads from a hostile political climate, attempting to preach the Gospel as if in a vacuum. Instead, we should vigorously engage with politics, even when the odds appear stacked against us, in order to create an environment in which the Gospel is not suppressed. Like Moses, Elijah did more than quietly pray for an unjust system to be removed: instead, he took steps to encourage its downfall. Elijah’s revolution was, in many ways, the forerunner of the Maccabean Revolt—the conflict which created the world of the New Testament.
After restoring Judah from the Babylonian Captivity, the Persians under Cyrus followed a model of relative decentralization, allowing Judah to follow its national customs. When the Persians were replaced by the Greek Seleucids, however, the new Western empire reversed Cyrus' regionalism. As the author of 1 Maccabees wrote, the Greek king Antiochus IV "wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that all should give up their particular customs."
Antiochus IV aimed to modernize and centralize the culture and politics of his empire. As Judaism was an obstacle to this goal, Antiochus viewed it as a backwards and bigoted religion, and felt the Jews needed to be violently forced to accept the cosmopolitan spirit of the age. To that end, Antiochus IV outlawed circumcision and other Jewish customs, and mandated Greek religious practices. He even sacrificed a pig to Zeus in the Temple at Jerusalem—not out of devotion to Zeus per se, but to trample upon and degrade traditional Jewish religion, and to signal that Jews were now part of a unitary Hellenistic civilization.
Government agents then went from town to town in Judea, gathering the community together and forcing everyone to offer Greek sacrifices. In the town of Modein, a man named Mattathias refused to do so, saying:
Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey [the king], and have chosen to obey his commandments, every one of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors, I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors.
A Hellenistic Jew, however, stepped forward to obey the law anyway and sacrifice to Zeus. When Mattathias saw this, the author of 1 Maccabees says, "he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred." Mattathias rushed forward and killed the Hellenistic Jew upon the altar, then killed the Seleucid officers who had commanded the sacrifice.
Mattathias and his sons then led the Maccabean Revolt that established independent Hasmonean Judea and restored the sanctity of the Temple. Whatever one thinks of the canonicity of 1 Maccabees—my own opinion is that the Reformers were too hasty in excluding it—all major Bible commentators agree that this event had been prophesied in Daniel 8, which says that "the sanctuary shall be restored to its rightful state.” It was this independent kingdom that set the stage for the Judea of the New Testament.
Mattathias' rebellion shows that it is centralized government which is the greatest threat to religious truth. Authoritarian power is always inclined to reject any law which transcends its will, and to impose a deadening uniformity on its subjects, forcing everyone to "abandon the religion of their ancestors." It is therefore the eternal enemy of anyone whose loyalty is to unchanging revelation rather than cultural circumstance. Nor is authoritarianism a danger that believers are to passively observe, but—like Gideon, Elijah, and Mattathias—one which we must actively resist and curtail.
"Break every yoke..."
There is not space here to review all of the Bible's many prophetic condemnations of unjust authority. The prophet Isaiah, however, powerfully, summarized the prophetic political tradition, rejecting both earthly oppression and the notion that God's people are merely to be pious observers of injustice. Believers are not merely to fast in their own homes, says Isaiah 58, but to act in the world.
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke
Nor did Isaiah think of a "yoke" as merely a spiritual burden. Later in the same chapter, for instance, Isaiah forecasts the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem following Judah's liberation from the Babylonian Empire, writing "your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations." When it occurred, this reestablishment was not accomplished through patience alone, but through political advocacy in the Persian court at Susa, as can be seen in Nehemiah 1-2, and sometimes through openly defying unjust laws, as can be seen in Ezra 4-5. God, as always, makes his people co-participants in opposing political oppression.
One theme of Isaiah 58, then, is Judah's establishing its autonomy from the centralized empire that had oppressed it—an autonomy that would be the foundation of the coming destiny of Judea. Importantly, a man named Zerubbabel was responsible—more than any other single figure—for rebuilding the ruins that Isaiah wrote about. Zerubbabel is known to us for an even more important reason: aside from David and Mary, he is the single-most well-attested ancestor of Jesus.
In Luke's Gospel, Jesus quoted another passage from Isaiah—chapter 61—which seems to parallel Isaiah 58: "He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners… to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." Jesus then stated, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
There are, of course, many prophetic passages in the Old Testament about freedom for the oppressed. Why might Jesus have had a special interest in Isaiah 61? Like Isaiah 58, it alludes to the now-prior rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem: "They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations." Yet Jesus' quotation of this particular chapter is also a potent apologetic for Christianity—for Isaiah 61 is even more explicit about what Judea's eventual destiny will be:
but you shall be called the priests of the Lord; they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God… Their offspring shall be known among the nations, and their descendants in the midst of the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are an offspring the Lord has blessed.
By claiming to be the fulfillment of this prophecy, Jesus was foretelling something that must have seemed utterly implausible to a non-Jew in the first century: that all the nations of the world would eventually worship the God of the Jews. Isaiah thereby beautifully ties together three related themes: the opposition of godliness to the yoke of oppression, the consequent establishment of the Second Temple, and the highly implausible messianic foundation of the church.
Liberty and the New Covenant
The foundation of the Christian church was also, in one sense, a fulfillment of the struggle between Elijah and Jezebel. Christianity was seen as a threat to the authority of the Roman state precisely because of Christianity’s alleged bigoted narrowness. If you were to ask a Roman persecutor why Christianity had to be destroyed, his answer would not have focused on Jesus himself, but on the fact that Christians rejected his own gods—gods who embodied the universal authority of the Roman state.
The Roman philosopher Celsus, the first author to write an entire book attacking Christianity, said that he had no objection to Jesus per se, and that he was “willing even to assume that he [Jesus] really was an angel.” Yet Celeus proclaimed that Christians should be systematically killed "if they persist in refusing to worship the various gods who preside over the day-to-day activities of life." The church father Polycarp was asked a seemingly reasonable question before his martyrdom: "What harm is there in saying ‘Lord Caesar,’ and in sacrificing, with the other ceremonies observed on such occasions, and so make sure of safety?” Yet it was Polycarp's and other Christians' inflexibility, and consequent willingness to defy all earthly authority, that led the church to one day become the universal religion of the Empire. The very pattern of Jesus’ rhetoric seems oriented towards just this kind of fierce exclusivity. “Enter by the narrow gate,” Jesus says, “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.” Jesus also regularly rebukes people for compromising and diluting their core principles. “If salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile.” Likewise, “because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Jesus’ rhetoric seems almost calculated to spit in the eye of the kind of cosmopolitanism that was imposed by Judah’s enemies from the period of the judges to the Maccabees.
Like the prophets whose work Jesus brought to fruition, Jesus was also not a quietist. The most well-known illustration of this fact is, of course, Jesus clearing the Temple with a scourge. It is unnecessary here to engage with Christian pacifism and its many strained contortions of the temple-clearing accounts. Suffice it to say that Jesus' act was brazenly illegal, was perpetrated in the service of a power beyond all human authority, and was an active restraint on the abuse of that authority.
Upon seeing Jesus wield a scourge in defense of the sanctity of the Temple, "his disciples remembered that it was written, 'Zeal for your house will consume me.'" Again, the absence of 1 Maccabees from the Protestant canon—whatever one thinks of the validity of that decision—has obscured our ability to understand the full significance of the temple-cleansing accounts. This reference to "zeal" is originally a quotation of Psalm 69—yet there may be a reason that this psalm was forefront in the disciples’ minds. When Mattathias wielded a blade at Modein against the corruption of Judea, the author of 1 Maccabees had written that "he burned with zeal." Mattathias was, in this sense, a type of Christ: both men wielded a weapon, in defiance of the law, to challenge the desecration of Judea’s religious heritage. Likewise, both the Maccabees and Jesus actively cleansed the Temple at Jerusalem from pollution. Each story communicates something about the limits of human authority and the necessity of acting to enforce those limits.
Revelation brings this archetypal conflict between Mattathias and Antiochus IV to fulfillment. In the last days, John writes, the "camp of the saints and the beloved city" will be besieged by the armies of Satan.
And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea.
C.S. Lewis, through his Narnia series, famously termed this collision "The Last Battle." Although the saints are surrounded, John writes, Jesus will intervene and destroy the armies of Satan, and the Last Judgment will ensue.
On pacifist readings of Revelation, the saints will not actually try to stop Satan from conquering the camp of the saints. This theory is nonsensical, though, if John’s passage is to have any actual narrative content about what will happen in the future. If pacifists believe that God is glorified when Christians turn their loved ones over to Satan, then Christians could simply do this in their respective nations as Satan comes to power. There is no reason for Christians to gather together in a camp only to offer their throats to the devil. All of the language of John's vision, described in terms of a military siege, imagines a church that is willing to actively defy and overrule all the armies and nations of the earth. In other respects, too, Revelation emphasizes the political agency of the church. After telling Christians to hold fast against false teaching within the church itself, Jesus promises that “the one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces.” The precise meaning of this promise is beyond the scope of this paper. Yet it is plainly Jesus’ Christian audience, not Jesus himself, who is described as breaking the nations with a “rod of iron.” From start to finish, then, the language of Revelation envisions an active role for the church in challenging competing systems of power.
To overthrow the throne of kingdoms
Haggai, in a prophecy about Zerubbabel, emphasizes this geopolitical dimension of biblical eschatology:
Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying, 'I am about the shake the heavens and the earth, and to overthrow the the throne of kingdoms. I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations... On that day, declares the Lord of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, the son of Shealtiel, declares the Lord, and make you like a signet ring...
Zerubbabel status as the Lord's signet ring makes him, perhaps more than any other Old Testament figure, a type of Christ. Jesus seems to have been well-known as Zerubbabel's descendant—for the otherwise-conflicting genealogies of Matthew and Luke agree in naming Zerubbabel, as well as his famous uncle and adoptive father Shealtiel.
This knowledge of Jesus’ genealogy likely came from Jesus himself, who appears to have identified himself with Zerubbabel. In Matthew 21, Jesus, immediately after clearing the Temple, tells his disciples “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt... even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen." Similar language was used about Zerubbabel by Zechariah: "Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain."
The destruction of mountains by God's power, as it happens, is also associated with the breaking apart of kingdoms. "Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill shall be made low," writes the prophet in Isaiah 40. What are these mountains and hills? Later in the same chapter, Isaiah becomes more explicit: "he who sits above the circle of the earth... brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness."
Liberty and Christian eschatology
An eschatology, from the Greek word “eschatos”—the “last” or “uttermost”—is a theory about how to interpret the Bible's prophetic narrative arc. Some eschatologies see biblical prophecy as encompassing real-world geopolitical developments. Other, more abstract eschatologies tend to interpret biblical prophecies as describing invisible or obscure heavenly events. The more concrete one's view of eschatology, the more obvious the libertarian political implications.
Even those Christians who adopt highly abstract eschatologies cannot deny that Daniel, one of the most eschatological books in the Bible, is a largely geopolitical text. For instance, no major Bible commentator has ever disputed that, in Daniel 8, a ram and a goat are used to symbolize the Persian Empire and Alexander the Great, respectively.
In the same way, Daniel 2 and 7—which parallel each other—both depict a series of world empires. In Daniel 2, Daniel interprets a dream in which Nebuchadnezzar sees a statute made up of four components. A stone then miraculously appears, smashes this idol into pieces, and then grows into a great mountain. Daniel interprets the segments of this statue as a series of kingdoms, and tells us directly that the first kingdom is the empire of Nebuchadnezzar, or the Babylonian Empire.
This identification of the first kingdom with Nebuchadnezzar's empire tells us two important things about the scope of Nebuchadnezzar's dream. First, the kingdoms in the dream are real geopolitical powers, not abstract demonic forces. Secondly, the events that Daniel is describing are not vague, spiritual occurrences which happen beyond our everyday experience. The Babylonian Empire did not merely spiritually collapse: it was physically and violently overthrown by Cyrus. In fact, Isaiah prophesied about Cyrus by name in Isaiah 44-45, foretelling that he would destroy the Babylonian Empire and restore Judah from exile.
Just as Daniel does not imagine an abstract heavenly eschatology, he also does not imagine that the church will be a mere quietistic observer of God's plans. In Daniel 2:44, he concludes that “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed… it shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever." Note especially Daniel's use of the words "it shall." Daniel does not say that God will dismantle these kingdoms while God's people look on meekly and pray. Instead, it is God's kingdom itself that "shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end." This is consistent with the ethics of Isaiah. God's people are to "break every yoke"—or, in other words, to actively deconstruct all kinds of systems of oppression.
Can we be sure that this eternal kingdom is the church? Jesus has left us with no doubt—for his favorite title for himself is "Son of Man," a reference to Daniel 7. Daniel wrote that "there came one like a son of man... his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed." God's kingdom is the body established by the Son of Man: a kingdom composed, as Daniel promised, of "all peoples, nations, and languages." This kingdom stands outside and beyond the series of secular empires that Daniel described. Yet it does not merely ignore or complement these structures of authority, but takes an active role in dismantling them.
In other respects, too, the Bible’s eschatology has libertarian political dimensions. Much debate about Christian eschatology concerns the interpretation of the “Millennium,” a thousand-year period in which Satan is imprisoned and martyrs are said to rule the Earth. So long as one reads these millennial prophecies in any concrete sense, however, it is clear that the rule of the martyrs is characterized by the absence of a centralized political empire.
In Daniel 2, for instance, it is only when the four empires are destroyed that “the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.” Likewise, in the parallel chapter of Daniel 7, the destruction of these four empires is associated with the dominion of the Son of Man: “These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth. But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.”
The closing chapters of Revelation, too, concern the destruction of a world empire, a vast political and economic power symbolically described as “Babylon.” John is told that the “woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.” This city sits on “many waters” and rules over many “peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.”
After John sees this empire cataclysmically destroyed, he also witnesses “the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God… They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” No equivalent empire succeeds the great city—at least not until Satan emerges at the end of the Millennium. This city that sits on many waters is apparently the last of Daniel’s series of four empires. In all three narrations—Daniel 2, Daniel 7, and Revelation 17-20—the rule of the saints is therefore a negation of human imperial rule, and follows its downfall chronologically. Revelation further sharpens the anti-authoritarian message of this story: poetically, those reigning with Christ are not just saints, but martyrs: Christians who have been killed by the state. The millennial rule of the martyrs is, in every sense, authoritarian empire turned inside-out.
As if one needed further confirmation, Revelation makes it clear that God’s judgment on “Babylon” is tied up with its status as a government. After Jesus appears and is introduced as “King of kings and Lord of lords,” an angel announces Jesus’ judgment this way:
Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead, ‘Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.’
While God’s judgment falls on “both small and great,” the coming battle is primary against the kings of nations. In one sense, the apostles prefigured this battle in Acts 4, when they quoted from the Psalms: “the kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed.”
Quietist readings of the Bible have a strong tendency to interpret all negative language about “rulers” as referring to ethereal demonic powers rather than actual governments. In the context of Revelation, however, this interpretation is clearly foreclosed. When the angel says “the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth,” we are not being presented with a symbol to be explained, but with a literal explanation of a symbol: the symbolic “woman” is literally a political entity. Over-spiritualizing Revelation also ignores the overwhelming coherence between John’s vision and Daniel’s visions: Daniel 7:9-11, for instance, stands in awe-inspiring parallel with Revelation 20:11-15. The “kings” being discussed are therefore literal political figures.
The angel’s call to “all the birds that fly directly overhead” is yet another sign that real-world politics are being discussed. The Bible frequently expresses God’s condemnation of specific, unjust rulers with prophecies announcing that they shall be eaten by the birds of the heavens and by the dogs of the fields.
After the Israelite king Jeroboam turned away from God and promulgated improper worship, Ahijah condemned him by saying “anyone belonging to Jeroboam who dies in the city the dogs shall eat, and anyone who dies in the open country the birds of the heavens shall eat, for the Lord has spoken it.” A later prophet condemned Baasha, Jeroboam’s successor, by saying that “anyone belonging to Baasha who dies in the city the dogs shall eat, and anyone of his who dies in the field the birds of the heavens shall eat.” When the time comes to anoint Jehu’s revolution against Jezebel, Elisha’s prophecy draws on this motif consciously: “I will make the house of Ahab like the house of Jeroboam… and like the house of Baasha.” Jezebel was, in turn, famously eaten by dogs.
Why this persistent focus on violent enmity between political power and God? The answer, as we have seen, is interwoven throughout the whole story of God’s covenantal family. It lies in Gideon’s answer to the people of Israel: “I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the Lord shall rule over you.” Centralized institutional states, more than any other entity in creation, are man’s greatest attempt to make an idol of himself. They usurp powers that are God’s to possess, and promise things to humanity that only God can truly provide. Biblical prophecy, with its deliberately insulting talk of birds and dogs, reminds us of where earthly states actually stand when compared to the God who created the very universe in which they exist.
Direct political philosophy in the Bible
One might object that, so far, I have focused largely on the Bible’s narrative content—content describing things that have or will happened—and drawn political lessons from it. Yet the Bible also has several lengthy passages that fall squarely within the genre of political philosophy and political ethics.
Perhaps the most powerful example of political philosophy in the Bible is the Parable of the Trees of Judges 9:8-15. Although well-known among libertarian Christians, this parable is unfortunately little-known in the broader church. The story is told by Jotham, a son of Gideon, after his half-brother Abimelech massacres Gideon’s other sons and centralizes power in his own hands, interrupting the broadly liberty-oriented period of the judges.
Jotham’s parable is a rebuke and a warning to the men of Shechem, who have trusted Abimilech with absolute power in the naïve hope of personal gain. In Jotham’s stirring metaphor, the Earth’s trees decide to anoint a king to rule over them. One by one, the olive tree, the fig tree, and vine are each offered the job. Each declines, preferring instead to keep their own unique role. In the words of the vine, “Should I leave my new wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to wave to and fro over the trees?” Finally, the trees turn to the bramble, which eagerly accepts rulership. As the bramble assumes its throne, it threatens to destroy with fire all those who do not submit to its shade. In other words, Lord Acton was wrong when he warned that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Instead, absolute power attracts those who are already absolutely corrupt.
1 Samuel 8 is also well-known among libertarian Christians. It describes how the Israelites, having grown weary of the period of the judges, decided to centralize power and crown a king. The great judge Samuel, upset by the nation’s desire for an earthly ruler, then prayed to God for guidance. God replied by telling Samuel that, by demanding a human king, the Israelites “have rejected me from being king over them.” Returning to his people, Samuel warned them that a king would inevitably abuse his power:
These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: … He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.
Nonetheless, the people “refused to obey the voice of Samuel,” leading Samuel to relent and appoint a king. To prevent the suffering of the people of Israel, then, Samuel had actively warned them not to appoint a king. At the same time, God plainly saw Israel’s authoritarianism as a form of idolatry: the Israelites “rejected me from being king over them” by asking for a human ruler. Israel’s decision is therefore one which they should not have made, and which we should not imitate.
What of explicit political philosophy in the New Testament? Many Christians know of only two political passages in the whole New Testament, and perhaps in the entire Bible: Romans 13—a broad injunction to “be subject to the governing authorities”—and Christ’s statement that one should “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's.” It is unfortunately common for Christians to be unaware of almost everything else I have discussed thus far, and to believe that these two verses are essentially the only things that God has ever had to say about politics. It is telling and disturbing that the phrase “render unto Caesar” is almost always quoted with the second half of Jesus’ sentence omitted, despite the fact that it plainly contains Jesus' main point. Jesus said to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” While I believe that Christians should pay their taxes, it would be a tragic mistake to suppose that Jesus' answer is basically about giving things to Caesar, and that God is mentioned only as an afterthought. Likewise, Romans 13 is not even Paul’s only discourse about how Christians should interact with the state. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul emphasizes that Christians are prohibited from litigating against one another before a secular court. Secular judges, he says, are not competent to hear civil disputes between Christians. In contrast, writes Paul, Christians will judge the world. “Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church?” It would be better, Paul says, to suffer wrong or be defrauded.
When it comes to disputes within the church, the modern church must function as its own court system. It should operate a system of arbitration facilitated according to Christian principles, and by those who have “standing in the church.” For Christians to allow secular governments to arbitrate their internal disputes is to allow the state into the life of the church, and therefore to give it an oversized role.
What, then, of Romans 13:1-7 itself? Among opponents of libertarianism, this chapter is typically quoted—with little real argument—as if it self-evidently suggests political absolutism. Absolutists, most prominently including John MacArthur, purport to take Romans 13 as the be-all-end-all of politics, so that Soviet Christians should not have disobeyed or resisted Joseph Stalin. Of course, absolutists themselves say that there is a narrow exception if Stalin commands you to renounce Christ. Yet, even in this case, they say, the sole appropriate response would be to passively protest Stalin's policies.
At the outset, we should note that none of the absolutists' multi-level ethic appears explicitly in Romans 13. Paul does not say: "Obey the government unless you are commanded to renounce Christ, in which case passive civil disobedience is the only legitimate recourse.” Romans 13 simply says to "submit to the government," then gives a rationale behind this commandment. Yet absolutists import additional content into Romans 13 based on other parts of the Bible they feel are important. Are absolutists actually absolutists about Romans 13? Or have they made the chapter only one part of a larger political philosophy—one based on authoritarian premises?
I maintain that, without the absolutists' assumed authoritarian premises, it would simply never occur to anyone to interpret Romans 13 as teaching absolutism: the problem would not even arise. This would certainly be true if the church today was better-grounded in biblical politics. In light of all of the content we have reviewed so far, we can say confidently that the Bible's political premises are in fact not authoritarian, but oriented towards liberty.
Among non-absolutists, a common response to absolutist thinkers like MacArthur is to analogize Romans 13 to the relationship between a parent and a child, and to point out that a duty to one’s parents does not require submission to parental sexual abuse. I wish to make a different, if related, point. Suppose that we were to go through Romans 13:1-7 and slightly modify it so that the “governing authorities” become parents, and that their subjects become children. The passage might then say something like this:
For there is no authority except from God, and all parents have authority instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists their parents resists what God has appointed… For parents do not punish good conduct, but bad. Would you have no fear of the discipline of your parents? Then do what is good, and you will receive their approval, for they are God's servants for your good.
It’s clear this passage would not command children to submit to parental sexual abuse. Nor would it prohibit a child from defending a sexually abused sibling. Yet the point I wish to make is a deeper one: if this modified passage had been written by Paul, it would never even occur to most Christians to read it as requiring submission to parental sexual abuse. If someone claimed that the scope of the passage had no limits except a parental command to renounce Christ—up to and including sexual abuse—then he would not be advancing a "literal" reading of the text, but an unnatural and bizarre one. Likewise, nobody would suggest that putting sexual abuse beyond the scope of the passage was a figurative or weakened interpretation of the verse. Two things are both true: all parents have authority from God, and a teenager would have a duty to defend his sibling from sexual abuse. There is no tension between these two claims.
A Stalinist reading of Romans 13 is therefore not only wrong, but is a brazen abuse of the chapter, and does not follow naturally from Paul's words considered in their ordinary sense. The passage—which should truly be read as Romans 12:14-13:1-7—rightly enjoins Christians to be good citizens and obey the law. It is also true that God’s people are often called upon to defy governments and even to actively resist them. No genuine conflict between these statements exists. Thus, for instance, Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not violate Romans 13 through his work with the Abwehr. Bonhoeffer was both a law-abiding citizen and a member of an armed resistance against the state—and he was both things without contradiction.
Pacifists, who see Bonhoeffer's legacy as something of a thorn in the flesh, naturally emphasize that he never personally engaged in violence. Yet it is nonetheless true that the entire aim of the Abwehr resistance network, which Bonhoeffer actively supported, was the violent sabotage and overthrow of the Nazi state. Bonhoeffer's student and friend, Eberhard Bethge, even wrote that Bonhoeffer declared that he was willing to kill Hitler with his own hands.
We should also be suspicious, not just of the way that Romans 13 is interpreted by absolutists, but of their selective focus on it. If we give absolutists the benefit of the doubt, we might suppose that they are privileging Romans 13 because it is a lengthy passage on political ethics by Paul. Yet this leaves no excuse for the fact that these people often completely ignore 1 Corinthians 6, which meets the same qualifications.
If you ever want to see a glaring exercise in strained hermeneutics, consider reading the Christianity Today column that pastor James MacDonald wrote after he was accused of violating 1 Corinthians 6 for suing a Christian. MacDonald’s arguments are so thin that it seems likely that he was flat-out unaware of the chapter when he brought the lawsuit. But, if MacDonald were not a pastor, who could blame him? It is continuously implied to Christians that Romans 13 is essentially the only thing the Bible has to say about how believers should interact with the state.
Libertarian thought in church history
Nothing advocated in this essay is an essentially new idea. Throughout church history and especially during the Middle Ages, the primary thrust of Christian political thought has been to narrowly limit the role of the state, and to call for resisting states that transgress the boundaries of their God-ordained role.