Copyright © 2011, John W. (Jack) Carter. All
What do you see as the appropriate relationship of a Christian to state and national government? How often do we have to make decisions concerning our relationship with government? We are familiar with the continual task of paying taxes, and we have opportunity to take part in regular elections of local, state, and federal leadership. We are bombarded with media opinions about every facet of government, though such immersion in the affairs of government does serve to keep us informed, and with the application of godly wisdom, we can separate fact from fanciful and capricious opinions. Christians who live in non-democratic, non-republic nations experience a quite different, but just as significant, relationship with their government. Like it or not, we all probably spend a good amount of time thinking about the government and what is taking place in our society.
The early Christians faced many of the same issues. We may be able to identify better with the early Christians since, within the last several years governments that heretofore stood on a foundation of faith in God have continually turned away from Judeo-Christian morality and toward a secular and humanistic leadership model that is increasingly fostered by the media and the liberal elite. We see the government enacting legislation allowing its influence into every corner of our lives. American government, like many other western governments has traded Judeo-Christian morality for secular humanism with a correspondingly diminished concern for morality all across the culture. Harry S. Truman said, "If we don't have a proper fundamental moral background, we will finally end up with a government which does not believe in rights for anybody except the State!” Like the early Christians, we may find a conflict between what we observe in our government and between what we would prefer to have.
Certainly, the circumstance of the early church and its relationship to the pagan Roman government was dramatic. Making no pretense of godliness, the Roman Caesars demanded to be worshipped as gods themselves, and they persecuted those who refused to do so. Consequently, the early church (as well as the Jewish community) found itself persecuted by the Roman government in ways that are far beyond anything that the church typically experiences in western cultures today. A close parallel may be experienced today by those Christian fellowships that reside under the authority of some of the world's Muslim theocracies.
When presented with conflict, it is our natural response to strike back at the source, to seek revenge or retribution, or at least overthrow those who exercise their positions in government with ungodly behavior. When Christians seek the appropriate response to conflict, they can look to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and to the Word of God for guidance. Paul gives us some instruction in this matter in the thirteenth chapter of Romans, and his advice may be quite surprising.
Romans 13:1. Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
When Paul refers to "higher powers" he is referring to worldly civic government, and for his readers this was both the Roman authority and the local governments that exercised this authority; individual states and city states that answered to Rome. Paul is clearly teaching that, despite the ungodliness of the government, and despite the persecution that the faithful receive at the hands of the government, Christians are still to submit to it. Such a teaching rankles against human logic's demand for justice. Consequently, this passage has engendered no little controversy.
This verse, and those following, are not considered authoritative to many. Those who pick and choose which scriptures to follow and those to reject will often turn away from this passage. Some believe that those who fully submit to God are of a different Kingdom, and are not subject to earthly government in any way, completely rejecting this teaching. Many who call themselves Christians have a similar disdain for the government and deny the correct interpretation of this passage. I am reminded of the Montana Freemen, who radically reject government authority, justifying on religious grounds their abuse of law and their involvement in criminal activity. Their standoff with the federal government in 1996 drew attention when concerns rose that the conflict would end in a manner similar to that of the Branch Davidians cult of Waco, Texas. Certainly, the church's response to secular government varies widely, and some fail to seek the LORD's leadership on this very important issue.
In the twelfth chapter of his epistle to the Romans, Paul wrote in great detail of the characteristics of Christian love, a love that is without hypocrisy, a love that demonstrates uncompromised integrity. It is immediately following this discussion that Paul turns his description of the relationship with one another to the relationship that Christians must have with the government, and Paul's imperative is simple: submit to the government.
That word that is rendered, submit, is often used in the New Testament, and literally means to willingly and voluntarily place yourself under the leadership of another as you work together toward a single goal. An illustration of the application of this word is evident from its original military context. When one creates a new army, a ranking order is needed in order to avoid chaos. As the group comes together they choose among themselves who will be the commanders, who will be the Privates, etc as each chooses a position and a place. This is biblical submission; this is hupotasso. Let's look at a few examples of those to whom we are to submit.
Romans 10:3-4. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. 4For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.
Hebrews 12:9. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?
James 4:7. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
To spiritual laborers:
1 Corinthians 16:15-16. You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints. I urge you, brothers, to submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work, and labors at it. (NIV)
Husbands and wives, to each other. Be careful not to take verse 22 out of context, as each passage following verse 21 that speaks of mutual submission, first to the form of wives’ submission to their husbands, then husbands’ submission to their wives.
Eph 5:21-22. Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. 22Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.
1 Peter 2:18. Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.
Hebrews 13:17. Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.
1 Peter 2:13-15. Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; 14Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. 15For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men:
Christians are to be a submissive people, placing themselves under many authorities. According to these verses, it is God who has established this set of authorities so that we can live lives of peace and order when still embroiled in a sin-sick society. For anyone to state we are to submit ourselves only to God is either ignorant of the Word of God, willfully not following the Spirit, or is not defining their terms in this way. Clearly, faithful Christians are to place themselves under the authority of their governments. Consequently, we will find that the responsibility for godly governing falls on those who have influence in the government of our societies.
Romans 13:2. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
Does this mean we have to blindly agree with all the government does? In fact, if the people are under the authority of either a socialist or a democratic republic, then Christians have an opportunity to express their opinions on matters of governing as well as to take part in the governmental process. Submission does not mean blind obeisance, it means maintaining the form of government authority in its proper context. Consequently we are not rebelling against government when we protest within the limits of the law. The difference between protest and rebellion is that the former is done within the boundaries of existing civil law, and rebellion involves actions that are outside of those boundaries.
What kind of judgment do we bring upon ourselves by rebelling against this authority that God has ordained? We should be careful about getting too excited about the KJV translation that could be misunderstood to imply "spiritual damnation" for disobeying government ordinances. We could come away with a theology that declares that one can lose their salvation simply by breaking a government law. The word translated, "damnation" refers to one receiving the just consequences of their rebellious choices. Breaking laws of government as a means of rebellion is certainly contrary to all of the teaching of Chapter 12, and is not defensible in scripture. The consequences of one's action can involve any manner of punishment including the payment of civil penalties, and imprisonment. Such behavior also damages the witness and testimony of the church among the vast, lost, majority of citizens.
Governments are ordained by God, and have the responsibility to provide basic community services, provide for the general welfare, provide social guidelines and punish those who will not live within them. These are some of the things that God has promised to provide for us. It is quite reasonable that God uses the government to provide for some of our needs.
Imagine what life would be like to live with no government at all. Without the protection of social law, unrestricted sin would abound. There would be little or no possibility for God to work in the lives of people. Government, good or bad, has a purpose and responsibility under God, and even those governments that we consider the most grievously ungodly may be more successful at meeting that end than we often might consider.
Romans 13:3-4. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 4For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
These verses counsel that we do not have to fear the government if we are obedient to God. By submitting to the authority of government, the government will have no case against us, and we will be free to be God's agent. Furthermore, we will have a more influential witness when our motives are clear, and not made ambiguous with anti-government bias.
Notice the use of the word servant/minister here. It is not the same word used when describing a person as a servant, or bond slave, of God, doulos. It is the word diakonos, from which we get the word deacon. One who is characterized by diakonos is one who humbly ministers to another with no thought for themselves. The government is established by God to minister to, to provide for the needs of the society.
God has also given government the authority to punish those who do evil. Verse 4 refers to government properly baring the sword. Many will skip over this verse, limiting the power of government on issues of crime and punishment. The sword is not used as an encouragement or even a threat: it is used to take life. The full spectrum of social justice is both the responsibility of government and ordained by God.
Romans 13:5. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
We have two powers influencing our submission to the authorities, one being the authority itself, and the other, the authority of God. Little room is left for question. Submission to the government authority is a command, not a suggestion.
Romans 13:6. For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.
Taxes: not everyone's favorite word, and few people's favorite pastime. Most middle-class working people in America pay the equivalent of their first four months of work to the government in taxes through income tax throughout the year. Why do we pay taxes? We may grumble about the manner in which the government utilizes tax money, but it does take money to pay for the services we receive; services that we cannot go without and still remain in the manner of lifestyle that we would desire. How much should we pay in taxes? According to these verses, the correct amount is simply what the tax laws determine. Research has shown that the vast majority of tax payers cheat on their taxes by either failing to claim income, or by claiming illegal deductions. Recently one newspaper reported that of those who file long forms, about 78% cheat. I have met Christians who have bragged about their ability to "beat the system" and cheat on their taxes. Virtually all American Pastors know that they are to claim the fair market value of their parsonage or donated housing as income towards Social Security, but I have met many who ignore the law. All that is needed to cheat successfully in America’s ‘voluntary” tax system is simply to lie. It is obvious that such behavior is inconsistent with the integrity that is to characterize the Christian life, and of course the LORD is quite aware of such cheating. The government will exact the amount of money it needs to operate, so cheating on taxes simply shifts more of the burden onto those who are honest. We owe a debt to the government for the services we receive. Paul continues:
Romans 13:7-8. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour. 8Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.
Paul starts with the debt of taxes, but then extends the call to apply integrity in all forms of indebtedness. What is Paul's instruction on indebtedness? It might be interesting to note that Paul wrote the word 'no' three times. Included in his statement includes multiple debts of respect and honor. Agape love teaches Christians to love the unlovely, even when they are employed in elected, conscripted, or dictatorial office. Many government officials, such as those in law enforcement and in executive positions such as the president of the United States are employed in positions that carry an authority that transcends the individual in the uniform. Consequently, one can appropriately give full respect to the position without agreeing with the individual who currently holds it.
One of the circumstances that caused hurt in the early church was the burden of financial indebtedness experienced by many of their members. Persecution left many with a great amount of difficulty providing for their basic needs. It is the LORD’s purpose, as evident in the attitude of the church immediately following the Pentecost experience that when one was in need, others would give liberally, so there was no want among any in the body. However, this generosity gave way to less liberal support as the church grew, and more and more members copied secular culture and made loans to the poor, and often did so by exacting significant interest, or usury. Paul states that people of faith should not exact any interest when they minister one to another through the exchange of loans. His position is based upon the teaching of holy scripture:
Exodus 22:25-27. If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury. 26If thou at all take thy neighbour’s raiment to pledge, thou shalt deliver it unto him by that the sun goeth down: 27For that is his covering only, it is his raiment for his skin: wherein shall he sleep? and it shall come to pass, when he crieth unto me, that I will hear; for I am gracious.
Matthew 5:42-44. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.43Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. 44But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
How do you think this practice might effect your daily matters? What kind of debts does this refer to? Note that the context here has to do with the relationships we have with others. The primary instruction in this verse is to love one another. Love allows and inspires us to reconcile our obligations to others without being told to do so.
We must be careful to remember here, that we are not under the Law. Paul is not preaching law, though his instruction is in the form of imperatives. Paul is describing the spontaneous response of a Christian who is listening to the Holy Spirit. A very natural thing for one to ask when placing one's self under another's authority is, "what should I do", or "how should I act?" Paul is answering such questions. Here he takes the concept of citizenship down a level from our relationship with the government to that with other citizens. Paul states that by doing these things we are not fulfilling law, but rather, it is through the act of love that the law is fulfilled. If we act in love, these things he describes will simply be a natural response to that love.
Romans 13:9-10. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 10Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
Why are all of the commandments summed up in the rule, love your neighbor, noting that we are talking of agape love. This passage follows the in-depth discussion of love without hypocrisy in chapter 12, a love that, when exercised, results in the behavior described in these verses. A love that is without hypocrisy demonstrates grace, and grace does not commit adultery, kill, steal, etc. Again, no law needs to be written when love is expressed. Consequently, it is not a law that is followed, but rather it is the natural expression of love that fulfills what the law illuminates. Consider some other scriptures which state this truth.
Luke 10:26-28. He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? 27And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. 28And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.
Galatians 5:13-14. For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. 14For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
James 2:8. If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well:
Christians are to show obedience to the authority of government. God established the role of government in human society for the good of citizens. When governments fulfill their God-given role, they act as the servants of God.
Christians who obey the government avoid its punishment and show awareness that they are following God's command. Those who obey the law satisfy their consciences before God.
Obedience to the government involves the payment of taxes and giving of respect to leaders. Even leaders who are not Christians deserve the respect due their role in society.
Christians can never pay off the debt to love others. The foundation and fulfillment of good citizenship is to love one's neighbor.