Alfred Place Baptist Church

13:1&2 Submission to the Powers that be

Romans 13:1&2  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.”

 

It is God’s will to govern the world of mankind through human civil authorities. That is God’s plan and so that is exactly what happens. If there were no governing authority there would be anarchy, and that is worse than a tyranny. The world cannot live without a governing authority. It was not man who dreamed up government. It was not created by evolution. From time immemorial, back to the Pharaohs, there have been governing authorities and that is because men have been made by a God of order and rule, the God who gave men a conscience and has written the things of his law in their hearts. So the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has established the governing authorities that universally exist, and that same God sustains them. I am talking of the rulers to whom the population of the British Isles have to pay 42% of their earnings in taxes or be put in prison. God has established them. I am talking about those authorities who take from the money which we in this congregation have set aside for God’s work. In other words, the money that you put in the collection boxes to keep me in this pulpit, and the church open and attractive, Caesar takes a big chunk of that, over 2,000 pounds last year. We in this congregation are paying for our members of parliament with the money that we give on Sundays for the work of preaching and evangelizing and pastoring. Caesar demands to take a portion of that offering.

 

Of course we suffer a minor inconvenience compared to what 100 million persecuted Christians are suffering today. Caesar at the time of Paul and this Christian church in Rome could be utterly arbitrary and cruel, exiling Christian Jews, making them abandon their homes and businesses in Rome or anywhere else and become refugees. Soon Nero would be inflicting all kinds of unspeakable cruelties on people for believing in Jesus Christ, and yet we are being taught by the Holy Spirit that the office of Roman Emperor was devised and appointed by God. Men in positions of authority today are God’s chosen instruments to rule the world of men, and as I’ve said, without them there would be chaos. That is what confronts the citizens of Somalia today and one result is not a single Christian congregation meeting together. So we are to pray for our government, that God would give us brave and moral rulers, and we are to live such exemplary lives under their authority that they would be persuaded to give us all the liberty we require to live peaceful and godly lives. Let me first open up this theme;

 

1. GOVERNING AUTHORITIES ARE ALL DIRECTED BY GOD.

 

Consider the decision taken by Caesar Augustus that everyone should be taxed. Caesar Augustus was thinking of money and power by deciding to take a census. He was not aware that God’s transcendent purpose in the decision he had freely taken in Rome was to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem where her boy child Jesus must be born, just as Micah had prophesied many centuries earlier. God is absolutely sovereign and he controls everybody and everything, from the most powerful men in the world to the fall of a sparrow, as he works out his own foreordained purpose and plan. Yet while we say that we insist that everyone in authority is 100 percent responsible for all his actions. God is in no way responsible for the bad behaviour of Pharaoh and Caesar and Herod and Nero and all the tyrants of modern times. Such men freely choose to misuse the authority they’ve been given by God to take foolish and iniquitous actions. Now the natural man cries out, “That is a contradiction; it must either be God or it is Caesar who makes the decision” but the word of God declares both of those things to be true. God is absolutely sovereign in controlling tyrants such as Caesar Augustus and all their decisions, and yet Caesar is responsible for his every thought and word and deed including the freedom that such responsibility demands.

 

Let me put this in a classic statement; these are the words of one of the Puritans: “What God sovereignly decrees in eternity, man will always demand in time.”  What exactly did God eternally decree would happen to his Son? He would be born in Bethlehem, and so Jesus was born there although his mother conceived him miles away in Nazareth. Through the decree of Caesar Augustus the family had to travel, late in Mary’s first pregnancy, and register in Bethlehem at the very time he was to be born. What else did God decree? That he would be killed on a cross. Again, what God sovereignly decreed in eternity man freely chose in time. The only thing that could satisfy the character of a holy God was the shed blood of Jesus Christ, yet the only thing that could also satisfy the hatred of the Sanhedrin and the chief priests and the blood-lust of the mob was the shed blood of Jesus Christ. What God sovereignly ordained in eternity leaders chose by their own free will in time. So both the anti-Christian Roman leadership and the anti-Christian Jewish leadership chose exactly what God determined.

 

So I am saying that the history of the world is unfolding to achieve the purposes of a sovereign God. Who would have thought that the expulsion of the missionaries from China would have accomplished so much for the spread of the church in that vast nation? Who would have thought one consequence of the unpopular Korean war in the 1940s should have been such a vibrant Christian church in south Korea?  Or again, who would have imagined that Gorbachev’s relaxing of rules governing the movement of Jews in Russia would permit many Christian Jews to emigrate to Israel? What comfort for us to know that God brings all things to pass so that Jesus Christ will be glorified in his church in both peace and persecution. Governing authorities are directed by God.

 

2. EVERYONE MUST SUBMIT HIMSELF TO THE GOVERNING AUTHORITIES.

 

Paul does say this doesn’t he? They are the opening words of this chapter. They could not be starker or simpler. The reasons are all plainly set out:

 

i] It is the living God who has established this authority, so that resisting this authority means resisting God’s appointment (vv. 1&2). The civil magistrate is God’s servant (v.4). The authorities are ministers of God. That’s the first reason and that fact seems to say it all and we can go home. There is nothing more to be said. Just submit to Caesar, but Paul has not finished.

 

ii] The authorities are there for our good. It is better to have really hardline tyrannical authority than anarchy (v.4). That is never an option for a Christian. We may disagree; we may vote against a certain person; we may picket and write letters but we may never join the anarchists and cry “Down with all government.” Bad government is better than no government at all. Paul is saying that the governing authorities are God’s servant for our good. It is for the good of its citizens that a country has policemen, and secret police, and M.I.5, and F.B.I, and even the infamous K.G.B.  That is still better than everyone doing what is good in their own eyes, and lynch law, and vigilante rule. I fly around the world and arrive in airports several hours before the flight departs in order to go through security. It’s always a pain to take off my jacket, my belt, my shoes, my mobile phone, remove my lap-top from my bag, put any liquids in a little plastic bag, put my money in a plastic dish and after all that still trigger something as I walk through the electronic gate. I liked it a lot more in pre-9/11 days when you could walk into an airport, check your bags and go straight to your departure gate. That day is gone for ever. Even in the tiny airport of Stornoway on the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides north of Scotland the security is the same as Heathrow, but meaner! They took my nail-clippers even though I protested that for two years a nail-clippers with a file under two inches long was permitted on any plane. A hard-faced Scottish lass would not let me on the flight of 50 minutes to Inverness if I refused to hand over my nail-clippers. She called for her supervisor, another little woman with a frowning face. I console my anger with this thirteenth chapter of Romans. There are bad people out there, and there has to be airport security. It is all for our good. That girl was a servant of God, though ignorant of the rules.

 

iii] Submit to them because they have the power of the sword (v.4). Better a live dog than a dead lion. Better for you to be ‘almost free’ while living under house arrest or under many restraints than locked away in prison or facing execution. In other words, if you don’t submit they will punish you. They may take your life. Caesar is an avenger; he exercises God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. They have that power and we do not. In the last month in the USA an abortionist was shot dead in his church. How cruel and evil an action. Insurrection, lawlessness and murder do not advance the cause of Christ.

 

iv] Beneath and above the civil authority is conscience and the moral law of God. There is such a thing as ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ If you do wrong things you are not submitting to the government and you will be punished. Rulers are not a terror to good conduct. You won’t be thrown in prison for helping an old lady across a zebra crossing. Rulers are rather a terror to bad behaviour. Troublemakers get into trouble while those who live by the rules don’t. Yes, sometimes in a fallen world things get turned upside-down, but it is still better to be a law-abiding citizen. There is right behaviour and wrong behaviour, and so beyond keeping the law of the land there is your conscience, and there is the moral law of God. Might does not make right. Might enforces what is right. So Paul says, “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” (Roms 13:3&4).  So doing right is not “I submit to whatever the government says.” No. Doing right is doing what the moral law of God tells me to do. Submission is doing what God defines as right.

 

v] Another reason, and maybe this will lift our spirits a little (I got it from Ray Pritchard). Submission means believing that God is able to accomplish his will in my life through those he’s placed in authority over me. That’s a crucial definition because it focuses the attention on God, not on the person over you. We’ve all had to contend at times with such authorities as non-Christian husbands, mean-spirited parents, difficult bosses, and teachers who can’t wait for the end of term to come. Some of you have to work for people you can’t stand. Some of you actually live with people who treat you badly. There are millions of Christians who suffer under governments that consistently promote evil. Now, facing such pressures, you have many options. You can demonstrate on the streets as they are doing in Iran right now. You can quit your job. You can fight back. You can suffer in silence. You can complain to others. You can hold regular pity parties. You can get angry and try to get even. You can appeal to the authority over you asking for a redress of your grievances. You can take action to change your situation.

 

However, the most important thing of all is the attitude of your heart. You submit to the one in authority in the sense that you believe that God has put such a person with such an influence in your life for a purpose. Somehow God’s will is being done in you through that person even if you don’t see it and don’t understand it. You always need more of such graces as wisdom, and humility, and self-control. You acknowledge this and constantly ask God to give these graces to you. My point is that one way he is a
nswering your prayers for Christ-likeness is through the powers that be, through the government, through your non-Christian family, and through your difficult boss. Do you think that at the dawning of that day when they’ve been removed, that finally then you’ll be holier and happier? I am saying, please think hard and long before you want that elder, or that landlord, or that teacher, or that head of department to be removed because he may be there today precisely to make you a more disciplined, careful, useful, godlier person.

 

vi] Another reason for Paul to tell Christians to submit is in parallel to what I have just said. Paul is more concerned with our characters, our graciousness and self-denial and trust in Christ, than about civil liberties, and the rights of everyone. As John Piper says, “In other words, Paul risked being misunderstood on the side of submission because he saw pride as a greater danger to Christians than government injustice. I cannot imagine Paul writing these words in chapter thirteen if the apostle thought that the ultimate goal in life was everyone being treated fairly by the government, but I can imagine him insisting on submission to the governing authorities if the most important duty was trusting in Jesus Christ, and growing in humility, and self-denial and being ready to be persecuted for righteousness sake. You can see that can’t you? Being persecuted unjustly is not the reason why anyone goes to hell, but being arrogant and self-righteous and self-indulgent is why most people go to hell. Jesus never promised his people a fair fight. He promised them the opposite. If they treated the Master of the house as a devil how much worse will they treat you who are mere servants in that house? The main issue before the church is not one of being treated justly in this world by civil authorities. The main issue is trusting Christ, denying ourselves for the glory of Christ and the good of others. Let us humble ourselves under the thousands of laws that have been made in London, the thousands that are coming out of the European Parliament, and the handful that are coming out of the Welsh Assembly. Let us pray for all those law-makers and give thanks that we have governing authorities and let us use our liberty for spreading the gospel.

 

3. THE POWERS ESTABLISHED BY GOD ARE TO BE TREATED WITH RESPECT.

 

Christians ought to lead the way in showing honour to human authorities because we understand they are appointed by God. This touches all of us at a personal level when we see members of parliament cheating on their expenses. The anger we all feel towards men and women who should know better is dangerous because it tends to make us speak with contempt of the governing authorities put in place by God. But no matter how stirred up I may be, when I am speaking to those in authority or when I am speaking about those in authority, I must do so with a certain gravity because they are God’s servants. Whom God has appointed, I must not treat lightly.

 

Ray Pritchard says, “As a side note, we desperately need to hear this word in an Internet-driven age. How many of us have written an email in anger, only to regret it the second we hit the Send button? But there is no way to undo what you have just done. Once that message flies off into cyberspace, it takes on a life of its own. It can be copied and forwarded in seconds. It can be posted on a website for everyone to read. It’s easy to become frustrated about some foolish act by someone in authority and then write comments on a blog that come back to haunt you later. The immediacy of modern technology makes it easy to write ill-considered, angry things in a moment of passion that you may have to apologize for later. And sometimes the consequences may cost you a friendship, a job, a marriage, a career, and in some cases, your thoughtless words could end up getting thrown in jail. Be careful what you say when you are angry. Be careful what you write when you are upset. Take a deep breath. Think about it. If you are still angry, walk away from your computer. Delete the message. Don’t send an email when you are angry.” Lloyd-Jones would say, “Don’t take a big decision when you are ill.” It is not the time.

 

So is our attitude to the government and members of parliament to be that they are always right? Do we refuse to entertain any criticism of the governing authorities? That cannot be. The Lord Jesus criticized them. There was the whole centuries-old network of the Pharisees. Our Saviour was scathing in his criticism of them. There was Herod and our Lord called him a fox. In his estimation Herod was a varmint, a pest, a murderer of God’s servants. That permits us to speak accordingly of a Hitler in such a way without sinning. How far can a Christian go in expressing opposition to an unjust government? Ray Pritchard says, “On one level, the answer is clear. You can go as far as the law allows you to go. You can picket, you can collect petitions, you can write letters to the editor, you can call a talk-show and sound off, you can write to your heart’s content on your own website, you can make a video and post it on YouTube, you can vote and encourage others to vote with you, you can visit your member of parliament, you can sit in a coffee shop and argue with your friends. You can take out an advertisement in the paper if you like. You can join with others to work for change.” Nine people stood for office in the recent election for the European Parliament. Submission doesn’t require you to keep your mouth shut about injustice and corruption. However, let me return to the issue of the heart. How important it is. It’s better to keep quiet than to speak out in burning anger. If you believe that God can work his will even through a corrupt leader, that will temper your comments, cool your emotions, and keep you from doing or saying something you may regret later.

 

4. THERE ARE OCCASIONS WHEN WE MAY DISOBEY THE GOVERNING AUTHORITIES.

 

I have taken my time to come to this, because the voice of the Bible speaks up and says, “Disobedience is very rare.’ The Bible encourages us far more to think of ways in which we can express our honour and respect to the powers that be. Our silence sometimes is bought by the socialist expectations of the Welsh culture that look to Caesar to be our provider, shepherd and protector. Maybe the events of recent months are making us more discerning because the corruption of the authorities is allied to their increasing intrusion into the lives of the citizens. It is also hard for conservative Christians who live their lives under a liberal government to show the state respect. It is much easier for us to theorize about the times we may disobey Caesar.

 

However, this is an important matter and it is not a mystery. In summary we say that a Christian must disobey his government when it asks him to

1) violate a commandment of God, or

2) commit an immoral or unethical act, or

3) go against his Christian conscience (a conscience which is informed by Scripture and is in submission to the Spirit of God)

 

John Stott summarizes the issue like this: “The principle is clear: We are to submit right up to the point where obedience to the state would entail disobedience to God. But if the state commands what God forbids, or forbids what God commands, then our plain Christian duty is to resist, not to submit, to disobey the state in order to obey God” (John Stott, The Message of Romans, IVP, 1994 p.342). Let me turn to some examples where Christians disobeyed the state. I got them from John Piper:

 

i] Acts 5:27-29 where Peter and the apostles declared, “We must obey God rather than men.”  What had happened? The Sanhedrin had decided about the Christian preachers, “We must warn these men to speak no longer to anyone in this name” (Acts 4:17), but the apostles refused and they continued to teach the people about the Lord Jesus. In other words, even though God has commanded Christians to submit to men in authority, he does not mean: ‘Obey them even when they forbid what I command, or even when they command what I forbid.’ The command to submit to man does not make man God. It gives the powers that be an authority under God, and qualified by God. Now the fact that we have a mandate from God to preach in the highways that does not mean that open air preachers can preach anywhere, obstructing the public highway, using loud amplification in the evenings, preaching in politically sensitive places like Red Square, or in front of Buckingham Palace. There was an earnest Christian who complained that his freedom in speaking to his work colleagues about the gospel was being curtailed by his boss who told him to stop being an evangelist. The boss has the right to do that during office hours. He is paying him to get on with his job, but during his lunch-break and on his way to and from work none can prevent him speaking about the gospel.

 

ii] Daniel 6:6-10 where we are told that “the presidents and satraps came by agreement to the king and said to him, ‘O King Darius, live for ever! All the presidents of the kingdom . . . are agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an interdict, that whoever makes petition to any god or man for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions. . .’ Therefore King Darius signed the document and interdict. When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem; and he got down upon his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.”

 

Notice how blatant Daniel’s disobedience was. It was, as we say, in your face. When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house, where he had windows in his upper chamber—upper chamber!—opened toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God as he had done previously. This was an open act of disobedience to the civil authority. It was a public act of putting God before the king’s decree. He took his place at an upper window, so he could be clearly seen. For it he was thrown to the lions . . . which he did not resist. Keep in mind that there is no explicit commandment that one must pray on one’s knees at an open window three times a day. This was Daniel’s conviction about God’s will, not an explicit command in the Bible.

 

iii] Daniel 3:9-18 This is the case of Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and it was slightly different. The decree was made that all should bow down before the king’s image. In other words, Daniel was forbidden to do a thing, and his friends were commanded to do a thing. They would not. Instead, they said: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.” This was civil disobedience on the basis of religious conscience. For it they were thrown into the furnace, and they did not resist.

 

iv] Exodus 1:15-20 This is the incident when the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwifes . . . “‘When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the birth stool, if it is a son, you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, she shall live.’ But the midwifes feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. . . So God dealt well with the midwifes; and the people multiplied and grew very strong.” The midwifes disobeyed the king’s order to kill the babies.

 

v] Esther 4:16 This incident is when Queen Esther is honored for disobeying the law against an unsolicited coming near to the king. King Ahasuerus had decreed that Jews were to be annihilated young and old, women and children (Esther 3:13). Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, had asked Esther to intervene for the Jews to save their lives. Esther’s response was to remind Mordecai that any unsolicited approach to the King was against the law. She could be killed (4:11-12), unless the king had mercy on her showing this by raising his sceptre. Mordecai answered that Esther may well have come to the kingdom for such a time as this (4:14). So Esther calls for a three-day fast. Finally she resolves, “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish” (4:16). The effect of her intervention was that the Jews were spared.

 

There are at least three interesting features of Esther’s disobedience that stand out:

1) The law Esther broke did not require any active evil of her. It only stood in the way of trying to save the Jews.

2) There was no guarantee that her disobedience would be successful. It might have only galvanized the king’s opposition to the Jews. She risked it because so much was at stake. 3) Her act of disobedience to the state is not incidental to the main point of the book. It is the heart of her sacrificial faith: “If I perish, I perish!”

 

So we are to submit right up to the point where obedience to the authority over us would entail disobedience to God. If they command what God forbids, or forbid what God commands, then our plain Christian duty is to resist, not to submit, to disobey the state in order to obey God. Let us educate
our consciences and make sure that the issue is clear, and that we would indeed be sinning if we did what those in authority were asking us to do. Let us also be as wise as we can be in defying them. Remember how young Daniel in Babylon refused to eat the specially prepared Babylonish food. What did Daniel do? He certainly didn’t have a mar­tyr’s complex. He wasn’t pigheaded or surly. He sim­ply asked permission not to eat, and he did this so graciously. Daniel went to see the proper man. He took his courage into his hands and, as maybe a 14-year-old boy, he asked if he might be excused from partaking of the appointed food. The chief official’s initial response was that if he granted Daniel’s request it would cost him his life. ‘If you look pale and emaciated and the king dis­covers you have not been eating this food . . . it will be curtains for me.’ But Daniel wouldn’t be put off. ‘Just give us a trial for ten days’, he said. ‘See how we’ll be in that time.’ The man thought, ‘Well, there’s no harm in that. They are going to be here three years! I can give them ten days.’ ‘All right,’ he says. It was just as easy as that! With Daniel and the others fearing the worst, this Babylonian turned out to be as pleasant as could be. The boys discovered they had the boss on their side. What sort of God is ours? Even the heart of king Nebuchadnezzar was in their Lord’s hands. It was a great discovery for young men to make in Babylon.

 

So, we are saying, be wise as to which issues you are going to draw a line about, and always ask the Lord for help; and then be as courteous and as gracious as you can be in approaching people. I would even encourage you not to write letters, but rather, if it is possible, to see someone and talk to them. There’s a lot of power in a stammering tongue. Consider the result here: the chief official was won over, and at the end of ten days there was a glow of health on Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. God blesses those who obey, and he promises to spread a table before us in the pres­ence of our enemies. Daniel chapter one is urging us to remember the very simple rules for Christian living. ‘Love your authoritative neighbour as yourself.’ Do it! More, ‘Love God with all your heart.’ Do it! ‘Be as wise as a serpent and as harmless as a dove.’ Do it! Don’t admire these precepts. Do them!

 

21st June 2009        GEOFF THOMAS