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William D. Bontrager, J.D.

1710 C.R. 121, Hesperus, CO. 81326




While teaching in the former Soviet Union, I was often asked: What is a person to do when confronted with the reality of living in a state without rule of law? What I offer is born in my history as lawyer, judge, Christian, student of the Bible, and Minister of Reconciliation. It is not exhaustive of the question presented, but may serve to begin a discussion.

As with so many questions of life, I turn to the Bible for guidance -- for, with a transcendent God-Creator, we have both a Law-giver and law Incarnate.

The issue of man in relationship to society can best be studied by starting with the words of the Apostle Paul -- who was, after all, a lawyer by training:

"Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those who exist are established by God. Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinances of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; for it [authority] is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it [authority] does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil. Wherefore it is necessary [for you] to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience' sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law." (Romans 13:1-8; New American Standard version)

Man is a sinner. Without law and governmental structures, our sinfulness -- self-centered, rebelliousness against all authority, seeking only our own pleasures -- would result in total anarchy. Law and societal structures are thus restraints against our evil potentials. All governmental structures -- even those of totalitarian nature -- are still exercising some positive role in their restraint. That alone is worthy of respect.

Paul clearly says that all authorities exist only by the sufferance of God -- just as we, and the entire universe exist only by his sufferance. If for one instant He closed His eyes and stopped His work, all would cease to exist. In that way, all authorities are under His authority, whether they acknowledge that fact or not, and whether or not they act as He would have them act. And we must not forget that He may also "turn the hearts of the rulers where He will".

What we are asked to do is "be in subjection" to the earthly authorities. This is, first of all, an attitude of respect. It means not calling the ruler or his laws by some demeaning or derogatory term. It does not mean we cannot criticize the ruler, his laws and actions, but it does set the ground rules for such criticism.

Finally, the passage calls for the "doing of good and not evil". There is the promise of reward in the minds and hearts of people when this choice is made and followed.

What the passage does not promise is a lack of persecution -- it does not promise that a respectful attitude and doing of good will stop your execution. Deitreich Bonhoeffer was executed by Adolph Hitler -- yet he today receives the respect and admiration of tens of millions of people in all lands of the globe.

A wonderful example of the correct attitude comes from chapter 3 of the Book of Daniel. Daniel's three friends have been ordered to bow down before the statute of the King. They refused, for to do so would be to dishonor God. When brought before the King, we see no attitude of disrespect -- the King is not called unrighteous, etc. -- nor is the law complained against. No defense is offered other than the quiet response "our God will not allow us to bow." In fact, when threatened with death by fire, they quietly acknowledged the power of the King to execute them -- while also saying God could save, but would still be God even if He did not save. They were thrown into the fire. When the King looked in a bit later, he said: "Behold I see them walking free, and there is with them another, as like unto a Son of the gods."

Walking free in the midst of conflict is walking peacefully in God's path -- then the heart and mind are at peace. This is also promised in Paul's writing in Romans.

So, faced with a state without rule of law, our first obligation is one of attitudinal subjection.

Daniel had a different type of encounter with the law. Daniel was in the habit of praying at an open window three times per day. When decree was made commanding no person to worship any God other than the King, Daniel kept on doing his normal daily activity. He did not hide, although he could easily have done so by merely closing the shutters. He was seen and reported. He, too, was brought before the King -- where he showed respect at all times. He was thrown into the lion's den, and was saved by God. In turn, those who had plotted the evil against Daniel were executed.

I am a teacher of law. I see God has things to say about His law and legal processes for man. Thus when I teach law, I teach biblical statements as well as man's law. That means I am always bringing up the subject of rule of law, human rights, separation and balance of powers, obedience to the law, and even civil disobedience against the law. I do not change what or how I teach because of the condition of rule of law in the nation where I teach. I recognize that by teaching as I do, I might also be brought before the governing authorities and suffer. But I believe God requires of me the action I take. Thus I am able to have peace in the midst of the fire.

And so we have our second obligation: to continue to honor God in our daily life. But what about civil disobedience? May such be "of God"? If so, what are the rules of such actions?

I begin at the extreme: I do not believe a Christian may -- apart from his role as an agent of lawful authority or in biblically allowed self-defense -- take up the sword. Paul tells us the sword is the implement of society, not individuals. Thus, armed rebellion is not allowed. I do not address the issue of self-defense when attacked by another. But I must question if self-defense is acceptable according to God when it is the government attacking; all we need do is review the actions and attitudes of Christ at the time of his trial and crucifixion to see this problem in action.

But may a Christian march, carry a sign, stand and picket -- the next level of outward protest? I believe such is allowed. It must, however, be done peaceably and respectfully. One problem with marches and other public demonstrations is that they may provoke others to violence, or be infiltrated to instigate violence and destroy the voice of protest. And the one who feels called to do this should not complain that others do not join him, for his call to action from God may be for him alone. Likewise, those who do not go forth should not condemn the one who does go forth in the Spirit of the Lord.

Certainly a Christian may write and speak in opposition to governmental actions and national conditions -- and see to the dissemination of what he writes or speaks. But, once again, all must be done respectfully. And I believe we should not do such actions "anonymously" -- we should identify ourselves rather than hide.

May we emigrate -- or seek political asylum? Of course. But if all those who would speak and write truth, who would stand publicly to call for repentance of the leaders, who would daily live in obedience to God although in disobedience to some specific laws of man -- if all those leave, where will be the light? The voice of truth? The witness to the power, sovereignty and authority of God? Yes, we may leave -- but I suggest we should stay. Leaving is too often self-seeking after pleasure; God is a God of sacrifice, for Christ could have called 10,000 angels.

As I said at the beginning, this is but an overview -- a place for the beginning of discussion.

The next in this series is If Jonah Came Walking Today.