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Romans (Series 2)

Church and State

Romans 13:1-7

Lesson audio

No subject engages the emotions of the conservative Christian today like that of church and state. There are those who believe that the church should not have anything to say in the public debate – and who believe the government should “regulate” the churches (for our own good, of course). It is only the latest in a long line of conflicts between church and state. From its first days through the present, the conflict is there. Church and state both claim supreme loyalty from the citizen; only one can prevail. Paul gives us a strong statement here, originally written to the Christians at the center of the world’s greatest empire.

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. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. 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 13:1-7 NIV)

Authority and Rule

We may begin by asking: just what is “authority?” I submit it has the following characteristics:

  • Authority has both the right (at least partially) and power (if limited) to carry out the responsibilities assigned to it. Correctly assigned, responsibility and authority match.
  • Such authority descends from the authority of Christ, which is complete.[1] Unless a government can show that it is exercising authority in the way Christ permits, it is not legitimate – it does not have the right.
  • Such authority exists for our good. God grants such authority for the benefit of his children.

A side note: then what is tyranny? It is the abuse of authority. Authority is a good thing; tyranny is the corruption of that good thing. God created authority; it is one of his attributes. Satan corrupted it.

For what purpose?

Why, then, does God commission human authority? His own is undeniable (it’s his universe); why does he hand it out to us?

  • First and foremost, for the good of his children. Think about it: when the fire truck roars by, sirens blazing, you submit by getting out of the way. Why? Next time, you might be the one with the house on fire.
  • One specific purpose is the spread of the Gospel. Under benign authority the Gospel spreads well (see, for example, the British Empire and the great evangelism of the 19th century.) Even under persecution the Christian flees – and takes the Gospel with him.
  • Sometimes God appoints a specific ruler with a task suited to the particular purposes of God. The ancient Israelites were conquered and carried off into Babylon – and Nebuchadnezzar was appointed that task.[2]
Conduct of authorities

As noted above, true authority matches the responsibility given it. If the fireman roars down the street, shoving all out of the way, only to pick up his pizza while it is hot, we complain to the fire commission. If he roars to the rescue of a heart attack victim, we praise him for it. Therefore, the first principle for those in authority is to neither exceed their authority, nor fail to perform all their responsibilities.

But note what Paul tells us: those in authority also exist as agents of God. At the least this implies that they should conduct themselves with the rectitude an agent of God. Seem strange? Just how do you feel when yet another public official is found to have taken a trip to Tahiti to study tropical water systems?

Our forefathers had it right: they are supposed to be public servants. When this attitude wanes, all sorts of evil comes in.

Christian’s Duty to a “good” government

We might next ask, then, just what does the Christian owe the government? We will start with the “good” government – not perfect, just good. A government whose attitude towards the church is favorable, one which is doing its best to fulfill its duties, should be supported by the Christian.

Satan teaches rebellion

Let’s take this in two easy steps:

  1. Rebellion against God is sin.
  2. Therefore, rebellion against God’s agents is a) sin or b) virtue?

If you listen to our culture, the answer is c): cool. God created authority; Satan twisted it by rebellion. So why do you have Che Guevara on your t-shirt?

Render unto Caesar

The classic statement of the Christian’s duties is summed up in Christ’s, “render unto Caesar.”[3] We may summarize the normal Christian’s duties, to most governments of most times, as follows:

  • “Fear the sword.” Remember that the police powers of the state are there for your benefit, and be obedient to the law.
  • Pay your taxes.
  • Give honor and respect to your leaders, such as custom and law demand.
  • Pray for your leaders.[4]

You do this not because they are so worthy, but for the sake of the Lord, as Peter tells us:

Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.

(1 Peter 2:13-17 NIV)

You see the point? The rulers – and the rest of the citizenry – ought to see the Christian as one who is a blessing, not a troublemaker; righteous, not evil.

Christians in a democracy

We must, I think, take some consideration of the fact that we live in a democracy. This imposes upon us particular duties by virtue of our form of government:

  • First is the ordinary participation of the citizen. Vote; run for office if the Spirit so wills; show up at the city council meeting.
  • Send, remember that “Republican” does not mean the same thing as “Christian.” In either direction.[5]

Our form of government, however, rests upon an assumption. We often think that one of being a government of, by and for the people. That’s not it. The assumption is that the king is not above the law. That doctrine – the core of the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence – is critical to the survival of democracy. We are “one nation, under God.” If the king is above the law, how long can government by the people survive?

Christian’s Duty to an “evil” government

It should not come as a surprise to the student (but often does): evil governments exist for God’s purposes as well. Think of these:

  • The early church was persecuted by the government – and Christianity spread like wildfire.
  • Nebuchadnezzar oppressed the Israelites – and refined their remnant. It is in his court that the prophet Daniel outlined the future.
  • Adolf Hitler killed six million Jews – and out of that came the nation of Israel, so important in modern prophetic interpretation.
  • The Chinese church now grows quickly in the spiritual vacuum left by Chairman Mao, one of the bloodiest tyrants of all time.

God allows no evil out of which he cannot make a greater good.

The Christian’s reaction

What should the Christian do about living under an evil government?

  • All the usual forms of respect and duty should be rendered – all but those which cooperate with evil.
  • It is likely enough that the Christian will suffer – and as so should suffer for Christ. How so? Your conscience is not suspended by government decree.
  • Remember, if it comes to it: the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.
Just what’s important here?

It helps to keep our eyes on what we are doing. I might point out three things that the Christian should see as most important in the struggle against an evil state.

  • First, remember that you are a servant, just as Christ was a servant. You serve a servant king; indeed, a suffering servant. If suffering and death came to Christ, why are you unwilling to imitate your Lord and Master?
  • Next, governments are temporary. The oldest government on the planet dates back only to the 17th century. In these things God is always in control; his purposes will be fulfilled. To be downhearted in the struggle is to deny the sovereignty of God.
  • Remember that you are commanded to spread the Gospel. You may have to do this from inside prison walls – but prisoners need Jesus too. You may have to flee – and bring the Gospel to new places. You may have to suffer or die – to be an example of the faith to others.
  • Finally, remember that the Christian does not overcome evil with evil, but overcomes evil with good. The battle belongs to the Lord.

[1] Matthew 28:18

[2] Jeremiah 27:5-8

[3] Matthew 22:15-21

[4] 1st Timothy 2:1-3

[5] Time for humor: during the Restoration period after the Civil War, carpetbagger Republicans would tell black voters that there were two political parties in the Bible: publicans and sinners.

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