This post is a response to a lengthy comment left by my cousin on my previous post. I’m afraid it may not make much sense, unless you read his comments. But it was just too long to include among the comments for that other post. 🙂
The section of my “Cornelius” post to which you have pointed is something of an intentional weak spot in the over all argument. I had sort of hoped that my young friend would notice it and bring up points like yours.
First of all, I do not mean to say that all soldiers everywhere are guilty of the sorts of things that John seems to know of the soldiers he addressed. (Yet it might be profitable to explore the extent to which soldiering through the centuries has coincided with such abuses of people. The crusades certainly come to mind as do some of the alleged abuses by some US soldiers in Viet Nam.)
A full treatment of the Luke 3 passage was neither what I meant to do nor what I have time for now. My point in bringing it up was to say that I thought it a better place for my friend’s question than the Cornelius story. But since I did bring it up, I thought I should offer at least a preliminary answer to the question.
Thinking about it a bit further, the question of the identity of the soldiers comes more sharply into focus. Who are these guys? I took a quick look at a couple of commentaries on Luke that I have here at home.
S. MacLean Gilmour says:
“The Romans farmed out the right to collect various taxes in Palestine to petty Jewish contractors. The tax collectors of the gospels were their deputies. They were heartily disliked and despised by their countrymen, partly because Roman taxes were regarded as an unwarranted imposition by a foreign overlord, and partly because the method of collecting the levies lent itself to extortion all down the line. Jews were not enrolled in Roman legions, but presumably native soldiers could be recruited by Herod Antipas for his own personal service. No doubt they were often able to supplement their wages by intimidating civilians.”
And Leon Morris has this to say:
“Luke does not say whether the soldiers were Jewish or Roman. Most agree that they were probably Jewish and some think they may have been associated with the tax collectors in providing the backing which enabled them to do their work. Either way they were in a privileged position over against the general public. Citizens could have little redress when troops used violence or false charges to rob them…. John told the soldiers not to presume on their position but ‘be content with your wages,’ an injunction with wide application. Note that John does not call either group to leave their jobs. Rather he wants them to act uprightly in them.”
These scholars more or less confirm my understanding of the text. The tax collectors are the slimy extortionists who work for Rome, and the soldiers most likely are local thugs in uniform who just may be the muscle who enforce the whole program by breaking people’s thumbs, etc.
My suggestion—which admittedly goes beyond the clear wording of the text—merely posits that John may have known that he was removing nine tenths of the motivation for their career choice by insisting on above board ethics. I did not mean this to be an argument against military service by Christians in America today.
One must use caution in making suggestions about trajectories of meaning which go beyond the text of Scripture; but that does not mean we should not do so. I would say we need to understand and communicate to others that that is, in fact what we are doing. “Leading the reader to infer a conclusion that is not stated” is exactly what the Scripture intends to do much of the time. This is a big part of biblical exegesis. Without it, we would not have a theology of the Trinity, for example.
You say, “It is without question that John did bless the act of tax collecting by issuing the guidelines…” I disagree. This is the whole point of what I’m saying here. I think there is great cause to question just exactly what John (and Jesus and the apostles after him) was doing in his seeming “approval” of such practices.
I think we are asking less than the best question when we begin our ethical thinking about vocation like this: “Is it okay for a Christian to do_______________?” That is, at best, a backhanded way to approach the subject. But for the moment, let us take that tack.
Is it “okay” for a Christian to be a lawyer? Not if it means working for injustice (e.g. getting a guilty client off). Can a Christian be a salesman? Not if it means tricking people into making poor choices with their money. And so on and so on. What is important to realize here is that many Christians have been in careers which, on the surface, would seem to be well within the realm of “okay,” but have found that as they really pursue the Lord Jesus and His kingdom, they have had to leave those careers.
My Dad, at one point in the early 90s, used to sell high-end vacuums. But he struggled with the idea that, to do well, he had to finagle young couples with low incomes into buying a $500 machine when a $50 Hoover from K-Mart would have sufficed. I believe this played a significant role in the fact that he ultimately did not “succeed” in that job. My brother sold used cars for a while and angered practically everyone he worked with, because he would not pull any of the slick garbage that their bottom line depended on. Again, ultimately, he was to find himself leaving that work and feeling a great sense of moral relief when he did. Can a Christian sell expensive vacuums or used cars? Is that “okay”? Of course! After all, the New Testament is “silent” on the subject. But then again…
It is, as you put it regarding the issue of slave-holding, “within our judgment” to do it or “to abstain from the act as well.” Do you think that that means that God is really indifferent to the matter? Is He just curious to see what we’ll do given the freedom to choose, without any concern that we actually make the right choice? I would be inclined to say something very much like that about a myriad little decisions in our day-to-day lives. But slavery, polygamy, tax-collecting, military service, and other career choices are not such ethically neutral decisions.
If “biblical principles” (very problematic language in itself) had been used in the American practice of slavery, it is doubtful that the institution would have survived a single year, let alone a century and a half. But even better–never mind biblical “principles;” follow the line of biblical teaching, and there is no question that enslavement of a fellow human being is out of the question. In fact, so is any kind of social oppression, ranging from Jim Crow laws to unspoken but widely practiced means of keeping “those people” from advancing in society.
Finally, in response to the last part of your response: I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood what I was saying about the choice of Cornelius. I did not see it as “a strategic evangelistic move.” I was suggesting that it was not that. Nor was my comment about “the mighty Roman Empire” meant to convey what you seem to think it was conveying. I was merely suggesting God’s choice of a Roman officer might be His way of laughing at the “importance” of the world’s high and mighty.
The point is not that the empire would, as you put it, “be over run by the gospel of peace,” but that it would be invaded by it. God has no interest in claiming the Roman Empire for Himself in the sense of making use of its power and prestige. (That kind of thinking was the mistake that the church made about three centuries later in the age of Constantine.) God’s kingdom does not work that way. It will, instead, subvert the empire with the likes of the poor and widows and orphans. And using a simple country fisherman to convert a high level Roman officer is a way to begin.