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William D. Bontrager, J.D.

1710 C.R. 121, Hesperus, CO 81326





While teaching in Russia, I was asked to consider under what circumstances one religious group might avail itself of the secular legal authorities in an action against another religious group. I must say that I am not certain this is a big problem in the U.S. because of our First Amendment and history of religious pluralism. However it may have some connectivity to our propensity to sue over control of church and ministry properties.

So let's look at the issue. I see at least four questions involved:

(1) On what basis is resort to the law appropriate for resolution of conflicts between two or more groups, each of which confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?

(2) Under what circumstances can one group confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior use the power of the secular law and the governmental system to limit the activities of another group of people who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?

(3) What use may we, who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, make of the law and secular power to establish our position over those who do not confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?

(4) What use may we, who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, make of the law and secular power to protect our position against attack by those who do not confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?

In approaching any question concerning how I, as one who confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, am to live, I take all of Scripture and pass it through the picture of Christ as shown in the Gospels.

Christ walked among us at a time, and in a place, when there was both an established Religious Power (the Jewish Sanhedrin) and an established Secular Power (the Roman Government). Both had their legal systems to which a person in conflict could go to seek relief -- the Roman Court System and the Beth Din of the Synagogue. Never once did Christ go to either system until He was taken into custody and dragged before each. Until then He lived, spoke, taught, and ministered as God the Father directed.

On occasions He was invited to enter the secular and religious conflicts of His day. Who can forget the issue of tribute, and His reply: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things which are God's." (Matt. 22:21)

And who can forget His response to the disciples who came asking permission to call down fire upon another "confession": "Do not hinder him, for he who is not against you is for you." (Luke 9:50)

And so I have set my lens through which I will look at other portions of Scripture.

As to the first two questions I have raised, I present three passages -- two from Christ (Matt. 5:21-26, and 18:12-35) and one from the Apostle Paul (I Cor. 6:1-8). Any reading of these passages together seems to leave no room for one group of people confessing Christ to ever use the power of the State against another group of people confessing Christ. And unless I have missed something in the Scriptures, neither Christ nor any of the Apostles ever made such a choice.

Instead, what these Scriptures seem to do is to call us to that highest and best example of the Church in action -- the Ecumenical Council -- with the calm and certain expectation that the Holy Spirit will "make it seem right to us" as He did to the early church in chapter 15 of Acts.

But the difficulty is: How do those who call such a Council show such humility and openness to listen that those who are frightened of coming will chose to come?

And, yet another difficulty: What do those who come do concerning those who do not come, either as a part of the determinations of the Council, or after the Council has disbanded?

And, a final difficulty: In light of all the doctrine, dogma, liturgy, spiritual pride, pomp, circumstance, and properties which any confession now owns, is it possible to even ever again have such a Council as they had in the early life of the Church?

I do not have answers to these questions. But I do know that St. Sergy was right when he spoke to the Princes of Rus: "Unite, for in unity is our strength. Our God is a Trinity; God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit; however, He is one. So be like Him in everything." If that was the answer needed for the triumph of the Russian Princes over their conquerors, how much more so is it the answer which the Church needs today against the disbelieving world. And how much more do the people of a nation coming out of bondage -- the people of Russia -- need to see the collective church functioning in unity as a symbol of the Gospel, and of hope.

But does that mean we should unite under one name, one leader, one confession? If I read Scripture correctly, we who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are already under one name -- Followers of Christ. We are already under one leader -- Jesus Christ. And we are already of one confession, the confession of Peter -- "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God." (Matt. 16:16)

The question is not what we should be, for, mysteriously we already are. The question is how we will act towards one another -- and that is a matter of the Spirit of God breaking through the barriers which we have erected, and allowing us to recognize the work that He has done in another person. Then having recognized the work which God has done in the life of another, all that is left is to choose to have fellowship with that person regardless of the name, leader or confession under which that person chooses to worship the Triune God.

But mark this: if one who confesses Christ uses a secular sword against another who confesses Christ, he who makes such a choice risks the rejection of God. Certainly he would be spitting in the face of the Christ Who prayed: "that they may all be one, even as Thou, Father, are in Me, and I am in Thee, that they may also be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me." (John 17:21)

There remains the question of the extent to which we, as Christians, can use the secular power either pro-actively against the non-believer or in self-protective defense when sued by an non-believer (or believer acting in unbelief).

I find a number of cases in Scripture involving believers caught up in the secular systems. We have the three Israelites in Daniel chapter 3, and Paul before the Roman authorities, to give but two examples. But I see three interesting things in the cases:

First, the believer never chose to be in the secular power center; in each case he had been brought into the secular arena against his will.

Second, in each instance it was the secular governmental power itself which was acting against the believer, not an individual unbeliever acting against the believer.

Third, the response of the believer was to either (1) claim the rights which any other citizen of the government could claim while not counter attacking, or, (2) claim only the power and authority of God as defense and justification while not counter attacking. And we see all three of these items in the trials of our Lord before the Sanhedrin, Pilate, and Herod.

I find no example of a believer taking the initiative in legal or political power against the unbeliever.

Further on this point, I need no protection of man for the doing of what God calls me to do. My religious freedoms come from God, not man. If I look to the laws of man as source of my freedom or call, sooner or later I will either try to use those laws for my benefit against others, or have those laws fail me and I will begin to complain, leading to bitterness and to defeat of the call of God in my life.

Now it would seem that if I am to be consistent, then I must say that we cannot use the power of secular authority to establish our position over non-believers. Stated in those words, I am consistent, and do not believe that we may use power to establish our position: "You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:42-45)

But I do believe we may use the secular processes to present the Gospel. I believe that, as Christians, we are to be in the world while not of the world. I believe we are to take the Gospel into every segment of life and society. Thus I approve of Christians entering the legal and political sectors of society. It is the "why" we enter, the "how" we enter, and the "how" we act once inside which causes the problems.

If we enter to gain control and then use the power of the State against others who do not believe as we believe, we are, I think, out of God's plan. If we enter seeking our self-interest rather than in following the personal call of God upon our life, we are out of God's plan.

If we enter to present the Good News to those who listen in such sectors, or to those who listen to people from those sectors, then we are within God's plan.

If, to enter, I must bite and devour others, demean and degrade them, then my "how" of entry is not honoring God.

But if my way of presenting the Good News is as a noisy gong and clanging cymbal (I Cor. 13:1), then my "how" is wrong.

Well, what does this mean in reality

First, it does not mean that Christians in positions of power will bring in a Christian Kingdom. The world is headed for Armageddon, and it is not going to reverse its direction. In fact, it is far more likely for the Christian who enters the political or legal arena to be ridiculed and persecuted than to win election and make any significant transformation in such areas. But we still are called to "go therefore."

Second, it means that we can, and should, offer biblical philosophy and practice to the secular government for their possible adoption.

An example: The purpose of man's law is to retrain evil by the method of punishment. The purpose of God's law is to restore people to relationship with Him and to one another by the method of: (1) calling offenders to confession and then taking responsibility for the harms they have caused and seeking to make them right; (2) calling victims to confront offenders with the offense and then forgive; and (3) by calling the Body of Christ to bear the burdens of both victims and repentant offenders.

If this is a proper analysis, then we have much to offer a government struggling to establish civil and criminal law and legal proceedings. We have much to offer discussions of the role of police and prisons.

Similar examples could be given of where Biblical philosophy offers answers to the questions with which governments struggle.

And these are things the vast majority of confessions should be able to speak to with a unified voice -- an evidence to the world of our oneness instead of our separateness.

Third, it means that the Ecumenical Council has a task beyond establishment of the boundaries of the faith. It has a task of speaking Biblical truths to the government.

But as we do any of these things, we must have no expectation of ever seeing anything in which we believe take place. I even write this without expectation. We are seed throwers, common clay pots, workers for the Lord Who has prepared the work beforehand. We do not change people, their governments or their societies -- if change takes place it is because the Holy Spirit took our seeds and our gentle life and brought fruit from out of the soil of someone's heart.

The Lord told us that we must give it up to gain, and that if we try to gain (or even hold what we have) we will lose. I believe that is a message for the church today. If we chose to gain or hold a position relative to secular society, we will lose all that we have. Oh, we may still have the appearance of having many things -- but the Spirit will flee, and we will have lost.