God Blessed America (Psalm 33:12a)
Pastor, Why Are You In Jail?
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 22:21f (Holman) “. . . the things that are God’s.”
We believers are to give to the government what is the government’s, and to God what is God’s. We juggle the two, seeking a delicate balance.
On the surface, the Pharisees’ grievances against Rome sounded reasonable. Rome’s government was 100% pagan and its rulers were depraved beyond imagination. Nevertheless, Jesus said pay taxes. Paul reinforced this teaching when he wrote to Christians at the capital of the Empire under Nero, one of the most Godless humans ever (Romans 13:1-7).
In giving government its due we must obviously go the second mile, but not necessarily the third or fourth mile. If we strongly disagree with what the government is doing, and have decided to let government do its thing while we do ours, this should not be interpreted as meaning we think government has a carte blanche to do whatever it wants to against us.
The Baptist Faith and Message, adopted in 2000 A.D. by the Southern Baptist Convention, deals with doctrines we hold dear. Article 17, an excellent statement on religious liberty, begins with, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word.”
Government may try to force us to act contrary to the Bible. If in our heart, after much prayer and consulting others, we decide an act required of us is wrong, we must obey God instead, even if doing so requires suffering.
The Bible teaches us a time comes when we have to draw the line. King Nebuchadnezzar commanded everyone to bow before the golden idol. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew they could not do this, and told the king, “If the God we serve exists, then He can rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire, and He can rescue us from the power of you, the king. But even if He does not rescue us, we want you as king to know that we will not serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up” (Daniel 3:17-18). Short on tact, but long on courage, into the air-conditioned fiery furnace they went.
King Darius decreed that for 30 days he was the only God that could be prayed to in his kingdom. “When Daniel learned that the document had been signed, he went into his house. The windows in its upper room opened toward Jerusalem, and three times a day he got down on his knees, prayed, and gave thanks to his God, just as he had done before” (Daniel 6:10). His punishment was a forced sleepover with a pride of not-hungry lions.
The Sanhedrin ordered the disciples to stop preaching Jesus. “Peter and the apostles replied, we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
In the Roman Empire, Caesar eventually claimed the status of a god. The only obeisance required of early believers was to go to a pagan temple once a year, and say, “Kaiser Kurios” (“Caesar is Lord”). Instead they confessed, “Kristos Kurios” (“Christ is Lord”). Rome considered this treason. As a result, many of our people were tormented and died.
In our state of Missouri in the Civil War, Union Generals Rosecran and Curtis ordered pro-south preachers in St. Louis to swear loyalty to the federal government and maintain a pro-Union stance. Lincoln intervened in this threat to religious freedom, saying the U.S. government must not undertake to run the churches; the churches must take care of themselves.
How do we know when and where to draw the line? Let’s pause a moment to consider at what point the line might be needed. Our last lesson listed what I think are essential elements of religious freedom: the right to raise one’s children in one’s faith, to share one’s faith peacefully with others, to publish religious materials without censorship, to change one’s religion—by choice, not coercion, and to practice no religion at all.
At what point do believers have to say, “Enough. We can go no farther”? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this. For instance, we conservative Christians in the USA are surprised at how nonchalant our counterparts in the United Kingdom are about religion in politics. They are equally surprised that we let religion affect our voting, and that we would ever consider receiving any religious respect from the government.
Drawing the line rightly is not a slam-dunk. For instance, in the USA, we all give tax money to pay the abortion provider, Planned Parenthood.
Abortion is voluntary here. What if it were mandated? We might say we would then quit paying taxes, yet in China, where a great revival is underway, Christians pay taxes, though the government requires abortions.
How should we respond if taxes are used in an unjust war? What are pacifists to do (the WW1 story of Alvin York comes to mind)? Our taxes pay salaries of civil servants who have no inkling of respect for holiness. Are we right to pay taxes anyway? Obviously, a vast majority of us say yes.
Having no clear-cut answer on where to draw the line, we are left with an indecisive verdict. Dilemmas like this should not surprise us. Following Christ is complicated. Cases like this are what it means to live by faith. We each have to decide for ourselves; no one has the right to dictate to another.
Once we choose where to draw the line, and decide we cannot let it be crossed, then we have to decide how we will respond. One, we can leave a government’s jurisdiction, as the Pilgrims and millions of our ancestors did.
Two, we have the right to plead our case in whatever proper channels are available to us. In the USA, nothing is wrong with seeking to exert influence by going to the courts. Paul appealed to Caesar. Hobby Lobby has justly taken to the Supreme Court its case to not have to provide aborticides.
Three, civil disobedience. If the first two options are not taken, we have no choice but to practice civil disobedience. I remember Baptist Pastor Martin Luther King going to jail. Our Baptist forebears suffered grievously in pre-Revolution years at the hand of government and established churches.
Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave his life in refusing to cowtow to Hitler. His book “The Cost of Discipleship” is already considered by many to be a modern classic. He died by hanging in a Nazi concentration camp, only 23 days before the German surrender. He lived up to his own statement, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”
Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller escaped the final fate Bonhoeffer experienced, but did languish in Nazi concentration camps from 1937 to 1945. His words from Hitler’s reign of terror still have a haunting ring.
First they came for the communists,
And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
They came for the trade unionists,
And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me,
And there was no one left to speak out for me.
In July 1937 Nazi secret police arrested Niemoller for the sixth time. This time they kept him as the personal prisoner of Hitler for eight years.
His wife Else had a nervous breakdown. She and the seven children were expelled from the manse and left with neither accommodation nor income. He was ordered to be executed, but American forces liberated him in time, and reunited him with his wife. After the war Niemoeller continued to work on behalf of the devastated people of Germany. International honors were accorded him. Yet whenever asked how he wished to be introduced, he always replied, “I am a Pastor.” I appreciate his pride in my occupation.
On Niemoeller’s admission to Berlin prison, a chaplain asked him, “Why are you in prison?” Niemoeller replied, “Why are you not?” We may say the choice in his day was obvious. Really? Then why didn’t other Godly Pastors join his protest? We do not know what we will do until faced with it.