Those who uphold the legitimacy of the state tell us that Christians should obey the state in every matter that does not involve disobedience to God. What that means in practice, however, can be difficult to determine, and as one who often finds simple things, especially simple things that involve obedience to God’s inconvenient demands, almost impossible, I would have to posit that once one has come up with a reasonably certain answer to these difficult moral questions, obedience is difficult at best.
So I offer the following study questions about a fairly straightforward passage of Scripture to show that questioning the legitimacy of the state is at best no more problematical than attempting to obey its dictates. The passage is taken from Acts 12:1-19.
King Herod Agrippa began to persecute some believers in the church. He had the apostle James (John's brother) killed with a sword. When Herod saw how much this pleased the Jewish leaders, he arrested Peter during the Passover celebration and imprisoned him, placing him under the guard of four squads of four soldiers each. Herod's intention was to bring Peter out for public trial after the Passover.
We can assume that Herod did not personally go out and arrest Peter. He gave a command to an officer, who dispatched some underlings to find Peter and arrest him. Keep in mind that Peter had not been convicted of any crime or even brought to trial. He was, even officially, innocent of any wrongdoing, and certainly of any violence against people or their property, yet here was a command given, at the very least, to deprive him of his liberty.
1. Should a Christian officer have obeyed Herod’s command and ordered his subordinates to arrest Peter?
2. Should Christian subordinates have obeyed the order?
3. Was Peter being persecuted for the offense of the cross?
But while Peter was in prison, the church prayed very earnestly for him. The night before Peter was to be placed on trial, he was asleep, chained between two soldiers, with others standing guard at the prison gate.
4. Should Christians have taken the assignment as guards in the inner chamber with Peter? At the prison gate?
Suddenly, there was a bright light in the cell, and an angel of the Lord stood before Peter. The angel tapped him on the side to awaken him and said, "Quick! Get up!" And the chains fell off his wrists. Then the angel told him, "Get dressed and put on your sandals." And he did. "Now put on your coat and follow me," the angel ordered. So Peter left the cell, following the angel. But all the time he thought it was a vision. He didn't realize it was really happening.
5. If Peter had known that he was really leaving the prison and not having a vision, should he have left the prison? In what way was he obeying duly constituted authority by leaving?
At dawn, there was a great commotion among the soldiers about what had happened to Peter. Herod Agrippa ordered a thorough search for him. When he couldn't be found, Herod interrogated the guards and sentenced them to death.
6. If the guards were sentenced to death, what can we guess Peter’s sentence would have been had he been found guilty? Should a Christian have volunteered or consented to be on the detail that executed him, or on the chain of command that passed on the order to have him executed?
7. Romans 13:3 says, “The authorities do not frighten people who are doing right, but they frighten those who do wrong.” If “just following [the] orders” to guard Peter was “doing right,” in what sense did the guards have no reason to be frightened of the authorities?
8. Should a Christian have been part of the detail that executed the guards, or on the chain of command that passed on the order to have them executed?
9. What indication does the text give that the state’s treatment of Peter was unusual? If this was not unusual treatment, what biblical wisdom would a Christian be following to enlist or submit to conscription to join the armed forces of that state?
10. If Peter had been acquitted, would depriving him of his liberty have been a sin? If so, who would have been guilty? What consequences would that sin have merited? If it was no sin, why not?
11. Compare the similar treatment given Paul and Silas in Acts 16. Were Paul and Silas duly convicted of a crime meriting violent retribution? Were they being persecuted for the offense of the cross?
12. How should a Christian in the chain of command, from the authorities in the marketplace, to the gendarmes who beat them, to the guards who guarded them, reacted to orders to inflict the violence that took place?
13. How does the severity with which Paul and Silas were treated affect the legitimacy of their detention? Had they been treated as peaceably as Peter seems to have been, would an otherwise illegitimate detention have been legitimate? If Peter had been treated as roughly as Paul and Silas were, would an otherwise legitimate detention have been illegitimate?
14. What consequences would those in the chain of command in Acts 12 have faced if they refused to obey the orders they were given? In Acts 16? Given the consequences for insubordination, what biblical wisdom would a Christian be following to enlist or submit to conscription to join the armed forces of that state?
The arrests of Peter and of Paul and Silas raise a slew of questions for which there are no good answers if one assumes the legitimacy of the state; if nothing else, if all those who share the guilt for its injustices were to receive the just (earthly) consequences for their crimes (not to be confused with the eternal consequences for their sins), very few workers would be left at liberty.
Compare the chaotic situations brought about by the state in these two passages to the order of anarchy. Under anarchy, if you, either as an individual or as part of a voluntary organization, own the Temple or any other property and you don’t want Peter there claiming that a man you hate has come back to life, you tell him to leave, if necessary get your bouncers to throw him off the property, and that’s that. (I infer from 1 Peter 4:15 that Peter wouldn’t consider preaching the gospel a justification for trespassing.) If Paul and Silas chase away the demon who gives your employee supernatural powers, then you and the two of them find a mutually agreed-upon arbitrator to decide whether doing so was a proper response for her telling the truth at inconvenient times. And, of course, if you want to impress people, you’ll have to find a better way to do it than killing innocent people.
If we Christians are to be good neighbors to our unsaved friends, we can do much better than being part of the state's armed forces.