Chapter 13 is coming in our series on Romans. I have preached many passages in many situations over the years and I can’t remember dreading preaching a passage, or fearing its consequences, more than this one. It reads,
...be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Romans 13:1-2)
I think you can understand why… given our current climate.
So I thought I would get ahead of our look into these verses by establishing some biblical-theological foundations. Even in moving forward in this manner I am greatly fearful. I am fearful because of the effect that politics has had on every aspect of our lives and the potential for misrepresentation of what is written here. Two years ago I never talked politics with anybody, ever. Like, never, ever, ever. Now it seems that politics, governmental authority, laws, rights, mandates and restrictions are the ONLY things any of us ever talk about. Politics and related issues have come to consume our lives, so much so that many Christians are more concerned with politics, with their ‘rights’, with the government's role in their lives, COVID related regulations, and the like than they are with Jesus, their maturity in his image, participation in Church, and the proclamation of Christ’s name. Things have been moving this way for a long time - we have Critical Race Theory to thank for that (a topic for another day) - but the COVID situation has accelerated the pace at which politics possesses our lives. This leaves me deeply concerned for many Christians, for our Church, and for the Church as a whole in Canada.
As always I will seek to find the truth of God’s word in the mess that is our current situation. What does the Bible say? That’s all that matters. The rest is left up to conscience based upon what is discovered in God’s word. The Westminster Confession guides us in this regard in Chapter XX, “Of Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience,” paragraph ii:
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.
What does this mean? Well it means that the Church and each of us as God’s children are only obligated to believe, follow, and proclaim that which “is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter I, “Of the Holy Scripture,” vi) The rest is up to the “liberty of conscience and reason” of each individual. The former is binding on all believers, the later, not at all.
The issues of politics, COVID protocols, and government regulations need addressing. But they need addressing within the parameters of biblical revelation. If Scripture is our authority, if the Bible truly is sola scriptura for us, then the issues that lay before us in our time must be evaluated according to the “whole counsel of God” given to us in order that we may receive the profit of its teaching, its reproof, its correction, and training in righteousness, so that as disciples of Jesus we may be complete, equipped for every good work. (cf 2 Timothy 3:16-17)
In this rather extended blog I want to examine, ever so briefly, what the Scriptures tell us about the relationship between human authorities - specifically governments - and the Church as an organization, and Christians as individuals. This connection has been called “thick,” meaning that attempts to define these relationships must be aware of the depth, flexibility, and subtlety of the relationship between Church and state in order to be faithful to the totality of the biblical witness. (cf Carson)
Let’s begin with an attempt at definition. In doing so we are immediately confronted with a problem in the above trifecta of categories. The Bible does not provide a definition or even a clear working set of parameters for the state or secular government. We have an explicit understanding delivered in Holy Writ of the first two - kingdom and Church - but not state or government.
In the New Testament it was understood that the government had a role to play in society even when that government was non-Christian, somewhat tyrannical, and often ruled in opposition to Christians and their faith. The role of the government, according to Scriptural ideals, is to fulfill the cultural mandate. More on this below. It is to formulate law, rule over its citizens, subdue those who are unruly, protect its citizens, allow for worship, etc. Obviously this is the ideal which is rarely, if ever, met by our secular authorities. But in this ideal we recognize three things about government from Scripture. First, their authority is given by divine decree. Second, God holds governments accountable for their violation of his moral standards. Third, governments must allow for freedom of worship. One last point. There is no one type of government that is more biblical than another. By this I mean that the Bible does not prescribe one form of government over another. It prescribes the foundations and goals for governing authority but not the means by which to establish these things.
The Church is fairly easy to define. In one sense, it includes all believers from Adam to the present. In another sense, it includes all true believers on the earth in the present of which the gathering of God’s people in a specific location is an expression. This local gathering is called a Church even though it may include those who are not, in fact, saved. The former is the invisible Church, or the Church as God sees it; filled only with his elect children. The latter is the visible Church, or the Church as we see it; filled with a potential mixture of elect and nonelect. In this blog we will go back and forth between these two; context should make clear to which one I am referring.
The kingdom of God is that sovereign exercise of God’s rule “where not merely God is supreme, for that is true at all times and under all circumstances, but where God supernaturally carries through his supremacy against all opposing powers and brings man to the willing recognition of the same.” (Vos, Jesus and the Kingdom of God, 50) The Church is a part of the kingdom, but the kingdom is greater than the Church. Put simply, the entire created order, all people as individuals and in whatever form they gather, are under his rule and serve his purposes. Everything is under God’s sovereign rule. Modern nations, regardless of what kind of leadership they have - democracy, oligarchy, socialist, dictatorship, etc. - are simply objects and tools of God as he uses them to serve his ultimate purposes. The Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world are different kingdoms. But the latter exists only under the authority of the former. This means that the Church relates to both the Kingdom of God and the state, because it is a part of both, but it relates to each of them in obviously different ways. We will return to this below.
We need to establish an important point; one that, if forgotten, will cause massive mission drift for the Church as an organization/organism. Christians - individual believers - are called to different responsibilities in relationship to ruling authorities than is the Church as an organization. We see this clearly in the difference between the cultural mandate and the Great Commission.
The cultural mandate is found in Genesis 1:26-28 - “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” It was an encouragement to Adam and Eve to extend God’s reign to the ends of the earth through civilization, farming, houses and even empires and nations. Every person, regardless of religious commitment, receives this distinct calling in the world and the Holy Spirit equips each one, through common grace, to fulfil their place in the Kingdom of God. (cf Horton) All human persons, believers and unbelievers alike, remain God’s image bearers and thus they must fulfill the cultural mandate.
After the Fall in the Garden a new community is created, the Church, and that group is given a new mandate - the Great Commission. The Church is to fulfill the same mandate but in a new, spiritual way. Rather than rule and subdue, the Church is called to advance God’s kingdom through the preached word and the sacraments.
The Church and the state are related then as two overlapping groups which occupy the same territory. Both the Church and the state serve the kingdom of God but in different ways. The Church is the organization which has as its goal the spreading of God’s kingdom through the gospel to all the earth. The state does not have that same goal. Individual believers, on the other hand, continue to pursue the cultural mandate in their individual vocations alongside unbelievers, but they pursue this as members of the Church meaning they pursue the cultural mandate alongside the Great Commission. As Michael Horton articulates, “Believers and unbelievers continue to share equally in cultural vocations, by God’s common grace. However, Christ’s kingdom of grace is advanced in the Great Commission, by God’s saving grace.” To put it simply, “governments serve to protect this present age of creation, while churches serve to present and proclaim the age of new creation.” (Leeman)
The implications of this are massively important. We are not living in the theocratic nation Israel where religion and politics were intertwined. Instead we live in a time where the sacred and secular are to remain institutionally separate, but not necessarily opposed. The Church is called to minister the gospel by word and sacrament. It is not to be a political organization, nor concern itself with political issues. The Church is to be about the ministry of the gospel and only the ministry of the gospel. The Church does not get involved in lawsuits against the government, nor does its leaders sign its name to petitions against the government. To do so is to violate our divinely given mission for which we are uniquely equipped through the Holy Spirit.
But let’s not take the separation of Church and state too far. If a Church violates the laws or mandates of the land the state is perfectly within their God-given rights to come after the Church for its lawlessness. The obvious exception, as we will see below, is if the state requires the Church to disobey the clear witness of Scripture on a particular issue.
But the situation for the individual believer is more nuanced. Believers are caught between two worlds, between two ages, and thus between two authorities. This world is where we live in our physical bodies at the moment, but it is not our home. Our true home lies elsewhere and awaits a future age. (cf Philippians 3:20-21; Galatians 4:26) Hebrews 13:14 is clear, “for we do not have an enduring city here; instead, we seek the one to come.” In this world we are citizens of two nations with two authorities to which we are asked to submit. Or better, we are members of two distinctive groups within the Kingdom of God - an earthly nation, in our case Canada, and the people of God, the Church which is the most tangible expression of the Kingdom of God on earth. As John Frame remarks, “[t]hough we belong entirely to Christ, we do not on that account renounce our citizenship in the earthly nation… Indeed we seek to be good citizens, for those earthly nations themselves, and their rulers, received their authority from God. (Romans 13:1-7)
Scripture requires that we obey our government and submit to its authority. That is clear in Romans 13 and elsewhere - Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13-17; 1 Timothy 1:1-2. Let’s stick with Romans 13 for the moment. It tells us three things. First, “every person” is to be subject to the governing authorities. That includes believers. Second, we are to be “subject to the governing authorities.” We are to recognize our place in the hierarchy of our society and live in submission to the authorities above us. Third, if we “resist” the authorities we are resisting God. In other words, a lack of submission to governmental authority is tantamount to a lack of submission to God’s authority. This issue is fairly easily framed - Do you trust God enough to submit to your governing authorities?
YES, BUT… That’s the usual response to this kind of explicit teaching. “Yes, but we are not called to submit to the government if they are compelling us to do something that is contradictory to the rule of God.” That is true. The government is to be “submitted” to but that submission must be measured in relationship to our all-embracing submission to God. (cf Moo; (see Exodus 1:17, 21; 1 Kings 18:4-16; Esther 4:16; Daniel 3:12-18; 6:10; Matthew 2:12; Acts 5:29; 17; Hebrews 11:23). ) But a word of balance is necessary. I think many of us are more focused on the exception than we are on the divine rule. Or worse, many of us use the exception as a means of allowing ourselves to stand against the government when the government is not, in fact, compelling us to disobey the word of God. On this we must be very careful.
Regardless of what we may think of our government, its leaders, and its rules, we benefit greatly from the order, protection, and opportunity that our Canadian and Manitoban governments provide us. For all of their faults we are privileged to live where we do. We have much to be thankful for in the way God has ordained our governments to serve his purposes here in Manitoba, Canada. (Romans 13:3-4) But this does not mean that our obedience to the government is universal and unquestioned - we cannot violate the clear mandates of Scripture even if our governments compel us or threaten us. When the state commands what God forbids, or forbids what God commands, we must obey God rather than men and be willing to suffer whatever may come our way from the governing authorities. (cf Acts 5:29)
But there is one more observation to make. It is possible for us to stand against our government and in so doing bring their ire upon us and to then suffer for our disobedience in things that are not Biblical issues but rather issues of personal preference. Christians, especially in our time, have a terrible habit of making government mandates into religious issues even when they have nothing to do with religion at all. For example, I have heard Christians argue against wearing a mask in public because it vandalizes the image of God which we bear. This is a bogus, unbiblical argument. Peter tells us that if we suffer on account of this type of civil disobedience then our suffering is our own and we should not make it a religious issue. (1 Peter 3:14-17) We must be careful not to cry “I’m being repressed!” every time the government cracks down on my lack of submission to their authority.
Matthew 22 is also informative here. In this text Jesus is interacting with Jewish opposition who are trying to trap him. They ask him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Jesus then asks for a coin and he is brought a denarius. Looking at it he asks, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They told him what was obvious, it was Caesar’s. Then he bluntly responded to their question, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Wayne Grudem observes,
This is a remarkable statement because Jesus shows that there are to be two different spheres of influence, one for the government and one for the religious life of the people of God. Some things, such as taxes, belong to the civil government (“the things that are Caesar’s”), and this implies that the Church should not try to control these things. On the other hand, some things belong to people’s religious life (“the things that are God’s”), and this implies that the civil government should not try to control those things.
This is where things get a bit fuzzy. Jesus did not specify any list of things which belong to each category. Therefore, Christians must be very careful when we place things into one of these categories - civil government and religious life. As a result a few significant dangers lie in the application of this text.
First, the danger of politicizing the Church. If the Church is not conscious of the differences that exist between the cultural mandate (given to all) and the Great Commission (given to the Church) we might become increasingly shaped by our culture and its message and our gospel will be changed. The Church can never become a political organization. It must be separate from political interests and must focus exclusively on the propagation of the gospel and the gospel-centered discipleship of its members.
Second, we cannot think that governments are inherently evil or demonic. We have already reviewed Romans 13:1-7 which speaks against this. Simply put, Satan wants us to think that governments are under his control and serving his purposes. But they are not! Peter reminds us of this, “[b]e subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” From a Christian perspective, all legitimate authority ultimately derives from the God of all authority. (Carson)
As R.C. Sproul puts it,
If you don't like the president of the United States, [or the Prime Minister or Premier] remember that the One who cast the deciding ballot in his election was almighty God. Of course, God doesn't sanction or endorse everything that the president does; neither is it the case that God turns the authority over to the president and says, "Go ahead and rule these people however you want." Every king is subject to the laws of God and will be judged accordingly. It may be that the president is completely ungodly, but for reasons known to God alone, God has placed him in that seat of authority.
Third, governments do not need to be Christian in order to function as God would desire. Of course it would be best for all people if the government and the judicial system were filled with gospel-believing, Bible-shaped disciples of Christ who desire his rule to be the center of all things in our culture. But that is never going to happen. Besides, Church history clearly shows that even when Christians have been the main influencer in government the government has never looked particularly Christian and the Christian faith suffers immensely. Further, the idea that the government should compel its institutions and the people under them to follow a certain religion or to support or follow one religion over another is biblically indefensible. (cf Grudem) It is simply not the role of the government to involve itself in religion in any way.
Politics or Jesus?
I am indebted to another pastor for pointing me to this conversation in The Screwtape Letters. In this book C.S. Lewis imagines how an experienced demonic servant might advise a younger, less experienced understudy in the strategies of counter-Christian spiritual warfare. In one passage especially relevant in light of our topic, Lewis describes how politics could be used to tempt and thwart a Christ-follower. Lewis was writing in Britain during World War 2 but the wisdom offered is providentially applicable to us. “Uncle Screwtape” says to his underling:
“Let [your patient] begin by treating… Patriotism or Pacifism as part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the ‘cause,’ in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism.”
Uncle Screwtape goes on,
“Once you have made the World an end, and faith as a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours.”
Note the progression: first, politics is viewed as the most important thing to the Christian. Then politics becomes part of that person's religion. Then, politics becomes the most important part of religion to the believer. Then, religion becomes part of politics. The faith is lost entirely. It’s a truly genius plan by the Father of Lies. (cf Stonestreet)
Lewis never advises that Christians ought to abandon political engagement or political causes. He does, however, warn just how easily the enemy can use political engagement to confuse what is truly important. David Prince points to the 18th century Baptist pastor Andrew Fuller and the Reformed pastor Jonathan Edwards as solutions to this potential difficulty. He reminds us that the problem of making politics or our political perspective an idol lies with our religious affections. Affections in simple terms, according to Edwards, are the inclinations of the soul which drive people to act the way they do. The chief distinguishing mark of a Christian is that our affections are directed toward God; we will be driven toward God and the things of God. But there is always a temptation to change our affections. Fuller recognized that politics has a distinctive power over the human imagination that uniquely competes for ultimate supremacy in our soul. Prince explains,
For those obsessed with politics, the glorious realities of Christ and his kingdom become uninteresting. The good news of the gospel loses its luster in the ever-changing spin cycle of Fox News and CNN... I am sometimes fearful that the voices of Ben Shapiro, Sean Hannity, and Rachel Maddow carry more weight for many Christians than the voice of the prophets, apostles, and their pastors.
Ouch! That one hits pretty close to home.
Scripture is clear - the world is battling for our minds. So we need to battle back. Hard. Renew your minds!, Paul says in Romans 12 and Ephesians 4:23. Protect your minds from godless philosophy and empty lies!, Paul says in Ephesians 2:8. We need to “see to it that no one takes [us] captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Love Christ above all things with heart, soul and mind!, Jesus says in Matthew 22:37.
How Should We Move Forward?
Edmund Clowney offers some exceptional wisdom,
Zeal for the righteousness of the kingdom will witness to the values that society must uphold. If Paul insisted on honouring the pagan totalitarian state of his day, he would find the democratic state, leavened by centuries of Christian influence, no less worthy of respect and support.
How do we offer our respect and support to our God-ordained government? A couple of thoughts:
Get involved - Vote, at the very least; get involved in politics or social causes that line up with biblical values if you feel that is your call. It is not our God-given right to have a vote, but it is a God-given privilege to be able to participate in the selection of our leaders. It may not seem like it makes much of a difference, but it is an important part of our democratic system that we must use with great wisdom. Remember, influencing our governments for good is part of the “good works” we are called to do and is a way to love our neighbors. Wayne Grudem asks, “Is it right that we simply enjoy [the freedoms of our nation] while giving back to our nation nothing in return?”
Educate yourself - There is no excuse for stupidity in the Church. Read across spectrums. Read people with whom you disagree. Don’t cherry-pick information. Be open-minded. Avoid partisanship. Welcome nuance. Remember the Devil is the Father of Lies. Remember that God hates a lying tongue. Remember that we are to speak the truth about our neighbor. The truth sets us free. Avoid ad hominem arguments. (personal attacks or assumptions of character and motivation) Lies are of the devil; avoid them at all costs!
Be open - God and his will are not associated with any political party or viewpoint. Be open to hear what people are saying. Don’t demonize people on the other side. Don’t engage in rhetoric, engage, instead, in discussion; open honest discussion. Don’t pass quick judgment.
Settle down - Don’t make life altering decisions during a time that will soon pass. Listen more than you talk. Remember that your words and actions have consequences that will reverberate well beyond whatever circumstances you are currently in.
Engage in godly love - Love your neighbor as yourself, love your enemies, and hold your faith with a good conscience. (cf 1 Timothy 1:18)
Preach the gospel - I agree fully with D. A. Carson, “I’m absolutely convinced that the most good we can ever do to anyone, any family, is to lead them to Christ Jesus. Even if we win all the political debates and lose that, all we’re doing is guaranteeing a self-righteous community that is on the brink of hell in any case..”
Humbly Offered Wisdom
Here is some of the best wisdom I’ve come across as I researched this issue. I offer them in the absence of great wisdom of my own. Prayerfully take them for what they are worth.
If political issues are important because people are important (and you want to do what’s right and what’s good and what’s best for the country and for the world, for the people that you govern and so on), and if you also have this larger perspective that you want to get people ready to meet God and that this life is not all there is, then that relativizes the intensity with which you have any right to invest your energy into the political process. (D.A. Carson)
Perhaps you’ve encountered people—maybe lifelong friends or even family members—who have become so utterly consumed with the latest political developments that normal conversations about life and the Lord are impossible. Perhaps they’ve fallen for wild conspiracy theories, or they’ve developed a cult-like devotion to a political hero, or they no longer seem capable of finding joy in the world or the Church due to excessive interest in spotting racism or injustice in virtually every human interaction… What’s the solution to such a dilemma? It starts with a diagnosis: politics has become an idol. The need of the hour, then, is to counter the disease with ruthless intensity: dethrone politics, by any means possible. We are not to play footsie with idolatry. Anything that captures our minds and hearts and rises to a level of primacy that competes with the kingdom of Christ must be destroyed. (Trevin Wax)
Anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give. (Tim Keller)
If a wise man wishes to gain over a nation to any great and worthy object, he does not enter into their little differences, nor embroil himself in their party contentions; but, bearing good-will to all, seeks the general good: by these means he is respected by all, and all are ready to hear what he has to offer. Such should be the wisdom of Christians. There is enmity enough for us to encounter without unnecessarily adding to it. (Andrew Fuller)
The gospel is offensive enough, so let’s allow people to be offended by it. When we replace the gospel with politics in our affections, we will draw the battle line in the wrong place and drown out the mesmerizing voice of Jesus beneath the tired drone of petty partisan squabbles. We must not allow our political alliances to block the path to the only one who has the words of life (John 6:38). (David Prince)
Soli Deo Gloria