The aim of this article is to demonstrate that accusations of inconsistency between Christian theology and a political philosophy of anarchism are not well-founded based on Scripture. If a Christian is to refrain from considering anarchism as a means of organizing society, he or she cannot do so on Christian grounds.
The term anarchist tends to connote visions of chaos, burning buildings, mass murder in the streets, and a sense of “every man for himself.” An anarchist society, in most everyone’s eyes, is one of utter disorder, violence, and destruction. However, anarchism, as defined in this article, is an idea based on a fundamental moral principle commonly referred to as the non-aggression principle (often abbreviated the NAP). It is not a violent philosophy by any means.
The NAP states that it is immoral to initiate violence or force against someone who has not initiated violence or force against someone else. This principle differs from pacifism, as it allows for certain forms of defensive violence. For example, if Tim is coming towards Bob in a parking lot with his fist cocked, yelling “I’m going to punch you in the face,” the anarchist sees no issue with Bob throwing the first punch.
Of course, defensive violence must be reasonable and proportionate to the threat of violence posed. What “reasonable” means is up for debate in many cases, but it is unimportant to define for the purposes of this article. To be clear, the NAP is far from the only moral principle that exists in an anarchist worldview. For example, cheating on one’s wife is not a violation of the NAP, but it is not inconsistent for an anarchist to view that as an immoral act. The NAP is merely at least one moral principle that exists.
From the NAP, anarchists argue that the existence of any sort of state is therefore illegitimate and immoral. Common actions the state performs such as taxation are, according to the NAP, theft because the state uses its threat of force to confiscate money from its citizens, many of whom have not committed any act of aggression towards anyone else. Actions such as taxation or the imprisonment of non-violent “criminals” (anarchists would not consider non-violent people to be criminals), while perhaps immoral and illegitimate, do not in and of themselves lead to the conclusion that the state ought not exist.
One can conceive of a state in which funds are raised voluntarily and only violent offenders are punished. Rather, what makes the state illegitimate in the mind of the anarchist is the inability to secede. If a man owns a piece of property in the United States, he owes taxes to the state in which the property is located. Suppose he wants to secede from the state. Sure, he’s allowed to leave the country, but he is not allowed to own his own property and declare himself and his land to be sovereign. He is, in a sense, kept in a polity against his will.
Keep in mind, the purpose of this article is not to convince the reader of the validity of the NAP or the practicality of anarchism, rather it is to understand the anarchist point of view and to assess its compatibility with the text of the Bible.
It’s important to note that, while anarchists do not believe in the legitimacy of the state, they do (or at least most do) believe in government. There is a distinction between these two concepts. The state is the means by which society is organized in the present day. It is an abstract idea in which all citizens within a given geographical territory are compulsory members. It also has the monopoly on the use of legitimate force (consistent with the NAP) within that same geographical area.
Government is a function that the state performs: it is not synonymous with the state. The state in its government function renders opinion on law (judicial), recognizes law (legislative), and enforces law (executive). Notice the state does not create law. The law exists outside of the state.
One might object to this characterization, noting that, for example, Congress “makes laws.” This is an imprecise use of language. If the state had the power to make law, then the state determines morality. Obviously this cannot be the case, for there have been many atrocities committed that have been perfectly legal such as slavery and communism. Not only that, but states often repeal previous laws. Does this mean that right and wrong have changed between the passing of both laws, the initial law and the repeal?
If one is to affirm the objectivity of morality as Christians do, this cannot be the case. For Christians, God is the one who determines what is right and wrong. God is the one who makes law. This raises a question: What is it the state does when it passes law? What does that phrase mean?
It seems that when a law is passed, it is the state making a proclamation about what the law is. For example, take a law that states it is wrong to kill someone. As a Christian, one would believe that it is God who determined the action of killing someone to be wrong. There are a number of different theories explaining what it means to say “God determined the action of killing someone to be wrong,” but discussing those theories is beyond the scope of this article. However one wants to interpret that fact, the fact remains that it is in God one finds the truth of the statement “killing someone is wrong.”
Suppose the state “passes a law” stating that it is wrong to kill someone. It is not that the state has determined this to be the case, rather the state has officially recognized this law as one it will enforce.
Now imagine Bob were to kill Alice. Because this action is clearly wrong and the state has recognized it as such, Bob would be charged with a crime. He would be taken to a court of law, where the judge would render an opinion on how the law applies to his case. The judge (or jury) tries to gain a full understanding of the entire situation so that he or she can discern whether or not (or to what degree) the law “it is wrong to kill someone” applies to this particular case. The judge’s verdict is called an opinion. This opinion is then used by the state as guidance on how to enforce the law “it is wrong to kill someone” on Bob. So to summarize, the law exists outside of the state. The state recognizes that law, renders opinion on that law, and enforces that law. Clearly, the state can accomplish each of these to varying degrees of accuracy. For each situation, there is a way in which the law ought to be applied.
Obviously, the state performs other functions besides government. The state makes war, creates infrastructure, defines borders, and backs currency among many other things. The anarchist, when he or she advocates for the abolition of the state, is not advocating for the abolition of infrastructure, borders, or currency (though most do advocate for the end of war). In the same way, the abolition of the state does not mean the abolition of government. Rather, the anarchist is merely claiming there are better, more moral methods of governing than through a state.
Anarcho-capitalists, for example, claim that the function of government can be left to the free market through the use of competing courts and enforcement agencies. Whether or not this is a viable solution will be left an open question for debate. The salient point is this: one can affirm the necessity of government while advocating for a different entity (or entities) to perform that function.
So, the question is, does the anarchist who advocates for the abolition of the state find himself contradicting Scripture or any other tenants of Christian orthodoxy? Let’s begin with the most common proof text used against the anarchist position: Romans 13:1-7.
“1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
First, Paul clearly had a state in mind when writing this letter. To argue otherwise would not be holding true to the original context. Paul is writing to the church in Rome, which was obviously ruled by the Roman Empire, a state. However, it seems this text would be entirely consistent in an anarchist society.
In verses 1 and 2, Paul is saying that, as Christians, one must obey the governing authorities. In an anarchist society, these would be those institutions that recognize, render opinion on, and enforce the law. When a Christian might commit a crime in an anarchist society and a judge renders an opinion which is enforced, according to verse 2 the Christian must respect and submit to that judge’s authority.
What about the phrase “those that exist have been instituted by God”? How can one advocate for the abolition of the state if it has been instituted by God?
It seems entirely consistent to obey the current social order (one with a state) while also advocating for a better one. At the time of Paul’s writing, the Roman Empire was hardly friendly to Christianity. Although he was emperor after this letter was written, the Roman emperor Nero was responsible for many martyrdoms of Christian missionaries. Would it have been wrong for Christians to speak out against these atrocities and advocate for a better social order? It doesn’t seem so.
What this text calls to mind is the crucifixion of Jesus. Remember, it was the state that put Jesus to death, clearly an evil act. So Paul obviously cannot be arguing that all state actions are good and right. What he seems to be saying is that Jesus is to be our example. Christians are not to be revolutionaries, performing acts of civil disobedience, with the obvious exception being when the state would have us do immoral acts. Rather, the Christian is to obey the authorities that are in place as God uses them to accomplish his ends, just as he did with Christ. There is no inconsistency between peacefully advocating for a different social order while also obeying the current one.
In verse 3, Paul must be speaking in generalities, because there clearly are rulers who are terrors to good conduct i.e., those that crucified Jesus. Again, the anarchist can readily affirm this verse, as an anarchist society would also have authorities which punish bad conduct. Verses 4 and 5 would also apply to those authorities which govern in an anarchist society. Verses 6 and 7 mean that, so long as there are taxes to pay, Christians are obligated to pay them. So long as the anarchist does not resort to tax evasion, it seems there is no inconsistency in advocating for the abolition of taxation. In fact, to argue that one cannot advocate for the abolition of taxation because of verses 6 and 7 would also prevent advocating for a reduction in taxes at all. For what is the abolition of taxation other than reducing one’s tax burden to zero? Where is the line of appropriate taxation for which one can advocate? What seems to follow from these verses is an obligation to compensate those who are in positions of authority.
Under the system which Paul is writing, the mechanism by which the authorities are paid is taxation. Under an anarchist society, one would be expected to pay some sort of fee to the authorities in exchange for their services. Again, the point is not to argue that Paul had some sort of anarchist society in mind when writing these verses. The point is that the foundational ideas spurring on this section in Scripture would still apply in a different context, namely an anarchist society.
Another common text raised against anarchists is 1 Peter 2:13-14.
“13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.”
The same line of thinking applies with these verses. As a Christian, one is to be obedient to the institutions that currently exist to govern. This does not mean one cannot advocate for different institutions.
In fact, if one were to interpret the text in that way, one would have to advocate for the same form of empire that existed during the time of this writing. For if it is wrong to advocate for an anarchist society because this does not respect the institutions God has put in place, then it is also wrong for anyone to advocate for any change in the current social order at all. Advocating for a western-style constitutional republic is advocating for a different “human institution” than the one Peter had in mind when writing his letter. And so, if one wants to defend the current constitutional republic, one would have to interpret these verses in the same manner as has been done in this article.
Finally, let’s examine Jesus’ thoughts on taxes by taking a look at Matthew 22:15-22.
“15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.”
It seems the only conclusion one can draw from this passage is that one is to pay the taxes that are owed. Christians are not at all prohibited from advocating for lower taxation, or even the abolition of taxation altogether for the same reasons stated earlier when examining Romans 13. If there are no taxes to be paid, then there are no things that are Caesar’s. In fact, these verses highlight one of Jesus’ other teachings found earlier in the Sermon on the Mount. Here’s Matthew 5:38-40.
“38 You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”
If taxation is, as many anarchists believe, theft, then Jesus’ teaching Matthew 22 is essentially telling his followers to turn the other cheek. If there is someone, even one who is evil, who would take something from you, do not resist him but pay him willingly. With this teaching in mind, one could readily affirm that taxation is theft and still be consistent with what Jesus taught on taxation.
The verses examined above present no issue for the non-revolutionary anarchist. To advocate for an anarchist society is not inconsistent with any teachings of Scripture. It’s important to keep in mind that Jesus came to bring about the kingdom of God. He was not interested in being a worldly political revolutionary and in fact, he resisted that very notion. The Jews expected the Messiah to come and overthrow the Roman Empire and establish God’s kingdom on earth right after Jesus arrived. Jesus’ entire message was that the kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom, and the kingdoms (or states) of this world are temporary ways of ordering society. With this in mind, it is of no surprise that the New Testament writers did not give prescriptions on how to order society in their letters. They merely wanted to direct the focus of the early church towards making disciples, not being political revolutionaries.
So, it seems the New Testament leaves open a variety of ways in which society can be organized. Which means that whatever type of society one might find himself in, one should submit to the authorities while also having the option of advocating for a better one in which more people can prosper.
This article has had very little to say on the practicality of anarchism or how an anarchist society might organize itself. There have been numerous theories debated amongst anarchist scholars. Perhaps they are all wrong. And if so, one ought not be an anarchist. However, anarchism, at least as laid out in this article, seems to be perfectly consistent with a Christian ethic and with Scripture. Whichever form of government one advocates, it’s important to remember that Jesus will return one day, “and the government will be on his shoulders.” (Isaiah 9:6)