BRYN MAWR, July 11, 2006 – One school of libertarian political thought is that of the so-called anarcho-capitalists. Here’s a good summary: “Anarcho-capitalists reject the state as an unjustified monopolist and systematic aggressor against sovereign individuals, and would replace it with cooperatives, neighborhood associations, private businesses and similar non-monopolistic organizations.”
I think this view is incompatible with biblical Christianity. Perhaps you think that this conclusion is rather uncontroversial and obvious. Even so, Christians who are broadly in favor of limited government and classical liberalism need to be careful to recognize the various types of positions and views that this larger umbrella category often covers. It’s worth looking at some of the reasons that anarchism and Christianity cannot be reconciled.
The most basic perhaps is that the government is a divinely mandated institution. The exact nature and scope of its mandate is a point of some important debate, but the divine institution of government cannot be denied on the basis of the Bible. One important feature of this mandate is the responsibility to adminster temporal justice.
As Paul writes in Romans 12, Christians are forbidden from taking personal vengeance for wrongs committed against us. He says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay.'” (Romans 12:17-19 NIV)
Paul goes on to describe the means that God has instituted for the administration of retributive justice. Thus he writes in the next chapter that the civil ruler “is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:4 NIV)
Again, this gets at the role of the State, but it also assumes the validity and necessity of the existence of civil government. In this latter regard, Paul also writes, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (Romans 13:1-2 NIV) This section is a good summary of what the Bible says on these topics, and is consistent with the traditional interpretation of many other parts of the Scriptures, including the commandment to “Honor your father and your mother.” (Exodus 20:12 NIV) This commandment is understood to refer not only to our actual parents but to all temporal authorities that God has instituted.
One specific feature of anarcho-capitalist theory is that all taxation by government is necessarily invalid and by definition theft. This is because any state action, but particularly one like taxation, violates the basic principle of non-agression because it is inherently coercive. As we have seen, Paul clearly legitimizes a role for the State’s use of coercive force, i.e. “the sword”. But he also specifically addresses the question of taxation (as Jesus had also done previously with regard to the Roman tax). Thus Paul writes, “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” (Romans 13:6-7 NIV) Here we can see that Paul implicitly regards governing as a valid and sacred calling or vocation, as it is participation in a divinely instituted ordinance and is a “full time” job.
With this basic framework in mind, we can understand how anarchism has always been viewed by the Christian tradition as a fundamentally problematic and heretical doctrine. One might say that it dishonors God because it denies the validity of a divinely mandated institution. In this context, the magisterial Protestant reformers were consistently suspicious of what they perceived in some Anabaptist and other so-called “radical” groups. In this way, the Belgic Confession, penned by Guido De Bres and a confessional symbol of Reformed Christianity, included in its original form in the context of the discussion of civil authorities the following denouncement: “And on this matter we denounce the Anabaptists, other anarchists, and in general all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings.”
Having established the basic validity of the existence of the State for Christianity and the incompatibility of anarchism with the biblical faith, we will examine in more detail tomorrow the scope and nature of government authority. We already see an initial element in our discussion above, that is, the administration of civil justice.