Alfred Place Baptist Church

13:1-6 The Two Kingdoms

Romans 13:1-6  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.”

 

There is a lot of unhappiness with the government these days and it has become the butt of the humour of cartoonists and comedians. Many of us enjoy anti-government jokes, and even some politicians enjoy them. We Christians are taught the highest view of governing authorities in these verses of Romans and yet we are confronted with the reality of the corruption and self-seeking of some politicians in every political party and we have more politicians these days than ever before. The self-importance of these men has become allied to their cheating, and so the media is full of drollery.

 

1. THE ATTITUDES WE MUST AVOID.

 

It is essential we maintain some irony about tyrants like Herod the fox if we are to be followers of the Lord Jesus. Caesar is not our shepherd. He cannot be nor ever will be. There are two attitudes we have to avoid. There is first the litany of despair. You meet a man in a train and he discovers you are religious and so he sets out detailing everything that is wrong with the country, our society, our culture, young people, families and schools. Finally he stops and then you can say to him something like this, “These may be bad times, but they are the only times we are given. Despair is as much as sin as deceit.” Then, secondly, we dare not as Christians hate the government in general. I might be droll about our governments and of the attitude of my fellow countrymen from South Wales who began turning from the gospel in their thousands a century ago and put their hopes in Karl Marx. I say to them that if you sow to Marx then you will reap from Marx a social and economic view of life and the class warfare, but if you sow to the gospel of Mark you will reap from the gospel of Mark an inward and eternal and holy view of life. My concern now is for those others who despise the government, who have no respect for politicians and bureaucrats, or for courts and police. That spirit cannot live in the light of our text. Of course the governing authorities have many faults, but they generally recognize their limits. Even when they want to help their fellow men there are many things they know they can’t do That is why the Bible says, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save” (Psa. 146:3). So I don’t mind joining in the teasing that members of parliament are getting these days. It is healthy not to count on the government too much, but it’s not a Christian view either to despair about government or to hate the powers that be. What’s right with the government? Our text in the first six verses of Romans 13 supplies the answer: the authorities that exist have been established by God.

 

When Paul wrote these words it was hardly at a time of perfect government. We may not always like the way our elected officials have been conducting themselves, but in the Roman Empire, there were no elections. We may think our government doesn’t do enough for working people, but back then slavery was commonplace. We may think government should protect unborn babies from being killed, but Rome’s government didn’t even protect babies who’d been born. Many unwanted babies were left outside a house overnight to die of cold or eaten by scavengers. We may think our government uses money from taxation for some questionable projects, but what about the government-sponsored Coliseum of Paul’s day where gladiators fought to the death to entertain others? Animals were encouraged to fight and kill one another for entertainment. We may not like the character of some of our leaders today, but at the time Paul was writing, Nero had just become emperor of Rome in the year 54 and this letter was written probably in 55. Not long before Nero Caligula had been emperor. There are sickening details about Caligula and Nero, two sexual perverts and cold-blooded murderers. Nero made Christians the scapegoat for his own folly. He had them rounded up, dipped in tallow, tied to stakes and burned like candles in his garden. He had ordered Rome set on fire and then blamed the Christians, setting off the first w
ave of official persecution. We’ve largely forgotten how wicked and pagan ancient Rome really was. No British government has ever been as pagan as the government of ancient Rome. More than their evil these men were worshipped as divine, and prayed to, and still Paul wrote that the authorities that exist had been established by God.

 

Then consider also that Paul knew the darker side of government through personal experience. He was publicly whipped without a trial (Acts 16:22-24). He once sat in prison for more than two years without ever being convicted on any formal charge. Felix the governor kept him hoping that Paul would give him a bribe, and also as a favour to Paul’s opponents (Acts 24:26). Later on Paul spent even more time in prison and was facing capital punishment simply because he happened to be a Christian at a time when Nero wanted Christians dead. You would think that Paul would become politicized as some people have over the last hundred years. They adopted a certain political position because they saw terrible poverty and injustice and they thought that big government was the best way of dealing with it. But Marx and Engels never suffered at the hands of governing authorities like the apostle Paul. Stalin, Mao, Castro, the leaders of Burma and North Korea and the heads of many African countries were never whipped and beaten with rods as Paul was. When he wrote Romans 13, he was under no illusions. He was no wealthy capitalist writing these words, no government lackey. He could have come up with a very long list of what was wrong with the government, but instead the Lord moved Paul to remind the Romans and all of us what’s right with government. He writes, “The authorities that exist have been established by God.” That statement is astonishing, almost unbelievable, coming from a persecuted Christian, but it’s the key to understanding what’s right with the government even when there’s a great deal wrong with it. When we’re tempted to lose all respect for government, we need to look at it again in the light of God’s power and plan.

 

Again, when Paul wrote the words of our text, he was addressing people who had recently become Christians. These new Christians had a new ruler, King Jesus, and they may have been tempted to think that as followers of this perfect Lord, they could reject their earthly rulers, especially those who weren’t Christians. That attitude became an Anabaptist error at the time of the Reformation. They said they were living by the Sermon on the Mount, and so they had no need of earthly rulers and laws and courts, and they soon came under the most autocratic petty-minded leaders. Paul sets the record straight. He makes it clear that these earthly authorities, even with all their faults, even if they didn’t acknowledge God at all, have still been put in place by God to serve his purposes. The Romans didn’t need to be reminded of what’s wrong with government, and neither do we. We know all about it, and it makes us angry. That’s when we need to realize what’s right with government: that despite their flaws, people who have authority have received it from God.

 

2. KNOWING THE PURPOSE OF GOVERNMENT.

 

Why does God establish them at all? One of the main reasons is to keep evil in check and to impose order on a society that might otherwise be chaos. Paul writes, “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” (v.4). Government is not capable of turning a bad society into a good one. But it can help prevent a bad situation from getting worse. When Paul wrote Romans 13, the Roman government was far from ideal, to say the least, but things were far worse in many of the barbarian regions outside the empire. At least under Roman law people couldn’t kill and plunder each other as they pleased. The apostle Paul had to be brought to court. He was not killed as a rabble-rouser. He was put on trial and was protected from assassins by a troop of Roman soldiers. He presented his case to kings and local government leaders. He could appeal to the Emperor himself. There was the rule of law.

 

Again, the empire had a system of money, roads and communication, which brought increased order and prosperity to a situation which might otherwise have been complete disorder. But remember that today we don’t communicate to one another by courtesy of the government. This message gets heard and read all over the world on the internet but that internet, you remember, was not devised or created by any government. It is the product of free initiative, creativity and enterprise. It reflects that men are made in the image of God and desire to communicate with other persons. We don’t ask Caesar for permission to proclaim this message far and wide.

 

One thing worse than a bad government is no government at all. Police brutality in places like Iran and Burma is bad; anarchy is worse. Life without government isn’t freedom; it’s chaos. We’ve seen this in various countries where bad governments have been toppled, only to give way to anarchy where various factions keep destroying property, killing each other, and leaving the country worse off than ever. Perhaps the most important job of any government is simply to keep people from destroying each other, protecting the weak from the strong, and maintaining some kind of stability. Even if a government isn’t providing heaven on earth, at least it may be preventing hell on earth. We can get on with our task of peaceably presenting the kingdom of God to men and women. So what’s right with the government? It’s there! What would Somalia give to claim that. That may not sound like much, but it’s a lot better than having no governing authorities at all.

 

In our system in Wales today we usually get the leaders we deserve. When we don’t like what’s happening, we often like to blame our M.Ps, those few people at the top – but who put them there? We did; “we the people.” If we don’t like our leaders, we not only have the freedom of speech to voice our complaints, but we also have free elections to vote our convictions and pick somebody else. I suspect that a big reason some of us can’t see what’s right with the government is that we expect too much of it and then become bitter when it doesn’t meet our excessive expectations. Our anger isn’t just due to the well-publicized sins of our leaders. If we’re honest, the thing that bothers us most is the fact that things haven’t been going as well for us as we’d like, and we need somebody to blame. So if there is a train crash, we blame the government. If people are out of work, we blame the government. If our families are falling apart, we blame the government. If our educational system isn’t what we want, we blame the government. If health care is fearfully expensive, we blame the government. If people take drugs, we blame the government. If there is crime, we blame the government. “Surely our lives would be better if only the government would get its act together!” We demand that the government get e
ven more involved in education, child care, banking, house-building, entertainment, medicine, research and whatever else we’d like improved – all without borrowing any money, of course – and then we complain when we end up with a monstrous bureaucracy and a huge budget deficit. We have turned from the Lord Jesus Christ; we have made an idol out of government, and then, when our idol doesn’t perform all the miracles we expected, we’re upset.

 

But how can any government be expected to make a perfect society out of imperfect people? Even if our government were doing its job perfectly (which it never will), marriages would still fall apart, parents would still abuse their children, people would keep on using drugs and alcohol, many immoral people would still get AIDS, students would still not pay attention to their lecturers and run into debt, enemies would still threaten to use dirty bombs, some bankers would still make horrendous mistakes, and it would still be cheaper to make everything we want on the other side of the world. That’s because much of what happens in the world is simply beyond the control of any or all governments. You can rearrange six bad eggs in any way you choose yet you are never going to make a good omelette with rotten eggs. A government cannot make a perfect society out of imperfect people. God never intended that it should do so.

 

3. HOW WE ARE TO SUPPORT THE GOVERNMENT

 

Paul says, “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing” (v.6). This verse is so clear that it needs little comment. See how the apostle calls human rulers “God’s servants.” As such, they deserve three things from us: taxes, rates and honour. We may think we are heavily taxed but hardly more so than in the first century. Rome had an income tax, a head tax, a poll tax, a road tax, a wagon tax, a crop tax, an import tax, an export tax, a harbour tax, and a bridge tax – to name only a few. The Caesars liked to live in style and it cost a lot of money to maintain that huge empire, so they taxed their people heavily in order to pay for everything. Tax collectors were hated. The worst thing people could say about Jesus of Nazareth was that he was a friend of tax-collectors. No one befriended them because they were unscrupulous, powerful, greedy cheats and robbers.

 

Now I believe that there are some things that nations have no right to do, or governments have no right to get into. The Bible is clear on what those kinds of things are. This is what Jesus clearly referred to in that famous incident when he was asked about paying taxes. He took a coin and held it up and said, “Whose image is on the coin?” They said, “Caesar’s.” He said, “All right, then ‘give to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar; but give to God the things that belong to God,’” (Matthew 22:20). Caesar has an image on a coin then you pay taxes to Caesar. But boys and girls are not made in Caesar’s image but God’s image. Caesar has no children. So there are limits to the power of government. Caesar has his image on certain things; banners which his army carried into battle; flags over his ambassadors’ residences, and therefore those things are his sphere – and rightfully so, but when the government gets involved in eugenics and breeding programmes, and making secret plans to sterilize people with learning difficulties or to wipe out minority races, or when it claims it has supreme authority to educate our children then it is transgressing into an area where it has no divine right to intrude. Give to God those entities that bear the image of God.

 

Caesar has no right to command the worship of man or forbid his obedience to the word of God. Rulers are under God; therefore they have no right to command men to do what God says ought not to be done, or to command men not to do what God says should be done. These are the limits of governmental powers. Governments are not to enslave men, because men belong to God. Governments are not to oppress men, because men bear the image of God. What bears God’s image must be given to God, and not to Caesar – just as what bears Caesar’s image must be given to Caesar, and not necessarily to God.

 

However, here the apostle is dealing with our actual response to government. If we withhold taxes because we believe that the government is breaking its promises or using them immorally then we do so prepared to submit to the penalty that the government will require. I am not sure that this is a helpful response. Governments are made up of fallible men and women just like us, and we can’t insist that the government always handles everything perfectly. Therefore what Paul wrote to these Romans, who had the same problems we have about taxes, was, “If you owe taxes, pay them.” Don’t act like everybody else acts about taxes. The world grumbles and gripes and groans at paying taxes. It says, “Look at the empty shops in town; another big shop closed down this very week. Do you know the amount of rates (the local taxation) that they’ve had to pay on their shops? It seems so high. No wonder the shops are closing.” You hear local people saying things like that and we sympathize with local businessmen. Surely we have a right to comment on that fact, as does everyone, to protest injustice and to correct abuse. We have a free press; there is no question about that. I’m just pleading that you don’t forever grumble about the taxes that you have to pay.

 

We have many temporal blessings. We can meet this morning – as they can’t in countries in the Middle East and Mogadishu and North Korea. We don’t have to hide behind locked doors. The very fact that we generally have freedom from muggings as we walk about is due to the existence of a government that God has brought into being. We want to make every effort we can, as good citizens, to improve the government and see that it does things better. So thank God for the privilege of paying taxes. This is what the apostle is encouraging. He wants us to have a different attitude from the world around us about these matters. We are not to come on with gimlet-eyed fanaticism, attacking the government and seeking to overthrow it because it doesn’t behave quite as we think it ought. But rather, we are to understand that God has brought it into being, and he will change it as the hearts of the people of the land are changed by regeneration in an awakening and they long for a more holy and righteous society

 

4. OUR DUAL CITIZENSHIP.

 

What does it mean to be a good Christian and a good citizen? Very simply, it means that we have dual citizenship – on earth and in heaven. As members of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland God calls us to submit ourselves to those who are in authority over us, to obey the laws, to do what is right, to pa
y our taxes, and to show honour and respect to everyone who is over us. However, as members also of the kingdom of God we are called not to neglect our rightful duty as the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16). Salt preserves; it stops the putrefaction; it stings and it flavors, while light, of course, dispels the darkness.

 

There is a sense in which all of us are called to be godly rebels. The conflict is inevitable because there are issues where the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man are at war with each other. When the kingdom of man is characterized by the religion of humanism then there is bound to be a fight. Many times our Christian faith will force us to stand against the status quo and take positions that are unpopular and politically incorrect. It seems likely that we will increasingly be put in that position in the future as our culture becomes increasingly secular. We long that that won’t happen, that the work of God will be revived and that our rulers and many people in society with live justly, love mercy and walk humbly before Almighty God.

 

Until that happens we should use the Bible to guide us in what behaviours we seek to put into law. There is conduct revealed in Scripture as essential to the common good – essential to the survival of a society. This should be aggressively commended by Christians by every available means for enactment as law. We do this in both biblical arguments and natural arguments. So we expect that pornography should continue to be kept on the top shelf in newsagents and not kept by libraries. Again, addictive harmful drugs should not be legalized though a million people in the U.K. take them regularly. What lost empty people! Again, the first day of the week (as it is observed across Europe) should continue to be made a special day for the millions of British people who go to church – ten times the number of those who attend soccer matches. Again, attempts to legalize assisted suicide should be constantly resisted. Thou shalt not kill. Again, we insist that marriage is strictly limited to members of opposite sexes. There can be friendships between people of the same sex but not marriage; the bits don’t fit. Marriage between a man and a woman is so fundamental to the survival of society that Christians should work for its legal protection. If someone says that we are legislating our morality we should respond: laws protecting marriage are in the same category as laws protecting life and property and contracts. But no one complains that the prohibition of murder and stealing and perjury is the legislation of morality. So no one should complain that the protection of marriage is the legislation of morality. Marriage between a man and a woman is a moral and natural reality so profoundly woven into the fabric of human life and society that to undo it will probably be the undoing of our nation. That is our position and we commend it. We cannot allow same sex recognition services to take place in a church.

 

There are actions that destroy children. Men call it ‘abortion.’ We speak up for the unborn child and will not cease to do so. Again, we believe that a loving restrained slap on the bottom of your child for persistent defiance is a reasonable act for a parent, but parents who hit children should go to court. We all know the difference between those two acts. Again there are behaviours that destroy the environment. Are windmill farms on our beautiful mountains damaging the environment? Many of us think they are, along with huge electric pylons striding across Snowdonia’s National Park. Christians can make a case from Scripture that God prohibits us burning the very house down that he has given us to live in. Rather he says replenish the earth.

 

Increasing numbers of Christians are on the front line in this battle. Some of them have lost their jobs, especially those who work in offices that register marriages. This week a Christian woman who objected to officiating at a homosexual civil partnership was dismissed – the second to be dismissed this year, and any public sector workers who have such a conscience about civil partnerships were told by a Member of Parliament, “Get another job.” School teachers have been suspended who object to lesbian practices being promoted in schools. Open air preachers or leaflet distributors are threatened even when they have not mentioned the H word. On other issues maternity nurses are on the front line. The battle, I say, has commenced, and we must all play our part with wisdom and grace not fearing men..

 

One of the most important teachings of the Bible on public life is that Christians do not use physical force to advance their kingdom. Jesus replied to Pilate, when he was asked if he were a king, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting” (John 18:36). The kingdom of God in this age is established by one decisive means: God’s working in men by the Holy Spirit and the responsive faith in Christ that “comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17), but faith cannot be coerced or forced by physical means. It is awakened by the word. Therefore preaching and teaching the word of God are the most precious freedoms that Christians have in this world.

 

Therefore Christians are tolerant of other faiths not because there is no absolute truth or that all faiths are equally valuable, but because the one who is Absolute Truth, Jesus Christ, forbids the spread of his truth by the sword. Christian tolerance is the commitment that keeps lovers of competing faiths from killing each other. Christian tolerance is the principle that puts freedom above forced conversion, because it’s rooted in the conviction that forced conversion is no conversion at all. Freedom to preach, to teach, to publish, to assemble for worship – these convictions flow from the essence of the Christian faith. Therefore we protect freedom for all. So Paul appealed to Caesar and went to prison.

So government shouldn’t try to create faith in God. The Bible says God establishes the authorities; it doesn’t say the authorities establish God. The Lord has not assigned government the task of spreading faith in him. The government’s task is to defend the rights of people in relation to each other, not to make people right with God. Some of the saddest chapters in history have been written when political power is used to force a particular religion on people. Political force can’t change human hearts or lead them to God, and every time it tries, the results are disastrous. Religious persecution can produce hatred and bitterness, but it has never yet produced a transformed life. Government can’t create faith, and it shouldn’t try. There is something very much right with the government when it stays away from promoting faith or trying to enforce all the commands of God. Instead of trying to get the government to do the work of the church, we Christians should celebrate the freedom of religion that we enjoy under our political system.

We aren’t doing ourselves any favours when we expect a government solution to every problem. Even if everything were right with the government, that wouldn’t make everything right with us. Many of our most serious problems are personal, not political. Sometimes it’s helpful to stop asking what’s wrong with the government and instead deal with what’s wrong with us. A healthy relationship with Jesus Christ and a new perspective on life will help us far more than any politician or judge ever could.

This means that the most important decision you face is not who will you vote for at the next election, but who is going to be the Lord of your life. Jesus Christ can do for you and your family many things that the government can never do. The Bible says, “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes” (Psalm 118:9). Your happiness doesn’t depend on whether the right people are running the government for the next few years. Your ultimate happiness depends on whether Jesus is running your life. Politicians come and go, but the Kingdom of God lasts forever.

Once we know the Lord, we can also relate to the government in a healthier way because we recognize what’s right with the government. In a country with free elections and free speech, we do more than submit, of course. Some of us run for political office and win. All of us have a hand in choosing who will represent us as leaders. All of us have a voice in holding them accountable to what God expects of government. In other words, we ourselves have a role to play as governing authorities.

As a Christian, I want to use this power wisely. I don’t want government to force people to follow Jesus; that’s not the government’s job. This doesn’t mean, however, that Christian people should stay out of politics, or that our beliefs about right and wrong should have nothing to do with the way we vote. The Bible teaches us the value of every human life, and it’s the task of government to protect the lives and defend the basic rights of all people. That’s why Christians urged the government to abolish slavery; that’s why Christians pressured the government to affirm civil rights; that why many Christians today want the government to protect unborn children by putting a stop to abortion. It’s not a matter of forcing religion on people; it is simply protecting vulnerable people from being exploited or destroyed by others. We start by recognizing what’s right with the government, and then we do what we can to make it better yet.

28th June 2009   GEOFF THOMAS

 

David Feddes, John Piper and Ray Pritchard all helped me with this sermon.