The principal difficulty in the question of whether Christians are permitted to be employed by the government hinges on the government’s role as the administrator of force. Is it consistent with Jesus’ teachings to work as part of an organization predicated on the threat of violence? On this question we may oppose the answers of Luther and Lipscomb.
David Lipscomb was an American reformer living in the 19th and early 20th century. According to his book Civil Government, the very definition of government as the bearer of the sword made its service inconsistent with the Christian mission. As the necessity for civil government lies in sin, so it cannot be served without sinning. He quotes Isaiah 10:
Ho Assyria, the rod of mine anger, the staff in their hand is mine indignation! I will send him against an hypocritical nation, and against the people of my wrath will I give him a charge, to take the spoil, and to take the prey, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. Howbeit he meaneth not so, neither doth his heart think so; but it is in his heart to destroy, and cut off nations not a few. . . . Wherefore it shall come to pass, then when the Lord hath performed his whole work upon Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, I will punish the fruit of the stout heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his high looks.
The bearer of the sword is the bearer of the judgement of God, but unintentionally; and in doing so merits judgement on himself. He is a vessel of wrath prepared for destruction (Rom. 9:22). Indeed Satan himself is such a bearer of God’s judgement.
Against this view is Martin Luther, the German reformer of several centuries earlier. The prevailing wisdom of his time was that the Sermon on the Mount contained “counsels of perfection” – optional for lay Christians, but a worthy goal for the spiritual. The command to turn the other cheek, therefore, could be ignored at minimal peril by those who bore the sword of government.
In his book On Secular Authority, Luther first argues against the idea that there are two tiers of Christians. Every Christian is responsible for every command, hence the truly desperate state of the sinner. There is no special merit (and indeed there is demerit) in a life of pure monastic contemplation: the Christian life must be lived in the various occupations that Christians perform.
He then argues against the idea that to bear the sword is incompatible with the Beatitudes, noting in the first place that John the Baptist does not advise the tax collectors and soldiers to renounce their jobs, but to execute them honestly and justly (Luke 3:12-14). Do not avenge yourselves, Paul says (Rom. 12:17). It is morally different, Luther argues, to avenge crimes disinterestedly for the sake of peace, than to avenge injuries to one’s self for the sake of a vendetta.
Luther and Lipscomb both agree that the Church has no need of civil government, and that civil government is necessary for the maintenance of peace outside the Church. The difference is in Luther’s idea of calling, against Lipscomb’s separatism. For Luther it would be absurd to keep the holiest people out of a socially necessary institution, where for Lipscomb that necessity is one for the Church to escape from. Luther conceives of the Church in the world, Lipscomb out of the world.
It is important to note that neither solution posits a different morality for actions done under the sanction of a government. Neither Luther nor Lipscomb believe in a “magic dust” that government sprinkles on violent actions to make them morally legitimate, though Luther is perhaps the one who will be accused of this. He reads the Beatitudes not as a categorical rejection of violence, but as a categorical rejection of self-service. If we grant, as Luther believed, that in a fallen world organized violence (i.e. government) is necessary to prevent violent chaos, then to bear the sword justly is a calling to provide for one’s people (cf. 1 Tim. 5:8). For Luther, conceiving of the sword as a service for the maintenance of peace is what sanctifies it as a calling. It is no contradiction to sanction violence in one context and not another. That scripture does not rule out legal violence in principle can be seen in the fact that the civil laws of ancient Israel included recourse to the death penalty.
One does not, of course, have to grant that organized violence is socially necessary. Such a person would indeed be prohibited, as per Lipscomb, from assuming public office. But notice the causality is reversed: the conviction that public office is a sin does not lead to anarchism; rather, anarchism based on an empirical proposition leads to the conviction that public office is a sin. Such a dictate of conscience must be founded in a prior political ideology. It will not do to cry “taxation is theft, conscription is slavery” as if nonviolence were the core proposition of Christian ethics.