“Respect the Authorities”: introduction
It was recently my privilege to have published a new book with the title, Passing Through: Pilgrim Life in the Wilderness. The fundamental premise of the work is that the church needs to recover its pilgrim identity, and from that work out its pilgrim activity, cultivating simultaneously a holy separation from and a holy engagement with the world around us. In the book, I try to offer not only a way of understanding that identity and activity, but also to offer ten pilgrim principles for kingdom life in a fallen world. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but it is meant to be a relevant and enduring one.
The seventh chapter is entitled, “Respect the Authorities.” It seems particularly pertinent in the light of recent events. With the permission of the publishers, I am going to reproduce, over the next few days, that chapter. The outline is the same as for each such chapter: a brief introduction, an assessment of the scriptural framework, a section of summary thoughts, and a series of specific counsels. Please bear in mind that the chapter is slightly out of context as given here. Other chapters in the book also bring appropriate counsels for the present time – chapters that help us to understand the environment, know the enemy, fight the battles, pursue the mission, relieve the suffering, appreciate the beauty, anticipate the destiny, cultivate the identity, and serve the King. If you are interested in more, you can get the book Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com or Westminster Bookstore, or direct from the publisher. If what follows is helpful, I shall be grateful. Herewith the introduction …
There are many common misconceptions about the role and priorities of the Lord Jesus Christ’s church. Many of those misconceptions arise from a failure to reckon with the identity of the church, not least in its relation to the world. Some people seem to labor under the misapprehension that the church is, or ought to be, a political force, a social force, or an economic force. Listen to some, and you might even imagine that she is a deliberately subversive, if not outrightly a rebel, force. I would go so far as to contend that if we see the church simply or merely as a moral force, we are again falling short of our calling.
All this is to put the church in entirely the wrong sphere, to assess her on entirely the wrong plane. To look for such priorities in the life of the church of Christ is to seek for oranges on an apple tree. The church, by divine design and intention, is a spiritual force, a gospel organism. Her involvement in and impact upon the world socially, politically, and economically may not be insignificant, but it will be substantially incidental. The church does not exist to have a political life or role.
By this I mean that when the church pursues her mission and fights her battles in this world, the specific intention is that sinners will be saved, in the fullest sense of the word: brought into the kingdom of God and trained up in the kingdom of God. What is the effect when that happens? Well, for example, the drunkard ceases to empty his glass. The thieves stop lifting their goods. The fanatics stop idolizing the people and things of the world, as it loses its sparkle in their eyes. The philanderers leave their bits on the side. The pornography consumers clean up their acts. The addicts begin to break their addictions. The lazy begin to work. The distant spouses begin to speak and to love one another. The liars begin to tell the truth. The parent begins to care for the child. The student begins to heed the teacher. The cheat begins to live with integrity.
Nothing is more practical in its impact than salvation! Such things as these are happening all the time on a small numerical scale in the lives of repenting, believing, saved sinners in countless countries on every continent. Suppose that were to happen on a larger scale. What would be its effect?
To take one example, consider the consequences of a revival of religion that took place in Ireland in the nineteenth century through God’s blessing on the preaching of W. P. Nicholson. As he declared the gospel in the dockyards of Belfast, men’s hearts were touched by the truth, and many were convicted on account of their sin, repenting of their transgressions and trusting in the Lord Jesus. As the work of the Spirit developed, the owners of the Harland and Wolff Shipyard had to open a warehouse to store all the tools returned by the repentant thieves of the dockyard, men who had once thought nothing of walking away with what did not belong to them—one of the unwritten “perks” of the job, as it were.
Similar stories can be told of pubs and brothels bereft of customers, of whole streets characterized by family religion and peace where strife had once reigned, of entire regions transformed by the power of the gospel. It happened in Ephesus when Paul preached the gospel there. The silversmiths of the city—the makers of the idol figurines of Diana—felt robbed of their customers as the appetites of fallen hearts were radically and practically redirected by the power of the Spirit of Christ.
And what would happen in your community? What pubs, bars, and liquor stores would close? What stores would cease trading, and which services would stop being offered? What download patterns would change? What antagonism might ensue? What transformations in schools, workplaces, homes, and streets there would be! But these would be the consequences of the church pursuing her priorities, not a reflection of their shift.
Again, I am not suggesting that individual Christians should be careless or dismissive of their place and opportunities in particular cultures and societies. We are not required by our Christianity to abandon, retire from, neglect, or despair of opportunities in the civic sphere. Indeed, this is one of those areas where Christian salt and light are desperately needed.
In the Old Testament, for example, we have Daniel advising Nebuchadnezzar to “break off your sins by being righteous, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor. Perhaps there may be a lengthening of your prosperity” (Dan. 4:27). Esther, like Daniel a relatively isolated figure under a pagan government, has to face a challenge: “If you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Est. 4:14). Stirred to action, Esther uses the position in which God has placed her and the influence He has given her to contend for righteousness. Doing so, she delivers both herself and her people.
In similar fashion, when John the Baptist was calling men to repent, he was asked by tax collectors and soldiers how they ought to live as citizens of God’s kingdom: “Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than what is appointed for you.’ Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, ‘And what shall we do?’ So he said to them, ‘Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages’” (Luke 3:12–14).
Notice that John did not tell the tax collectors to stop collecting tax nor the soldiers to give up their commissions and lay down their weapons. Politicians, officials, businessmen, entrepreneurs, soldiers, and civil servants—nothing prevents them from being Christians and nothing prevents Christians from excelling in those roles, with God’s blessing. When William Wilberforce was converted, some well-meaning counselors advised him to retire from politics as a sphere unfit for a child of God. It was John Newton who advised him to stay where God had put him and do all the good that he could. To be sure, someone already converted might find it hard to climb the slippery poles of the political or business realms simply because of the principles (or lack of them) that may be in operation in particular times and places. These things must all be taken into account, as we shall see below.
Nevertheless, we need to recognize that the blessings outlined above are the consequence of the church embracing her priorities, not the result of her altering them. It is not the business of the church as such, or of Christians individually, to get into influential positions with the aim of securing the progress of some political agenda. We do not set out to transform the world apart from the preaching of the gospel. That is potentially to conflate and confuse the priorities of two different kingdoms and quickly leads to the church losing her distinctiveness and effectiveness. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), and this transforms the perspective of God’s people on the world in which they live, their expectations, aims, and approaches. For precisely this reason the Scriptures give such clear light as to how the church of God is to relate to “the powers that be.” To be sure, there is much that could be said about the calling and responsibility of those powers, but our focus in the pages that follow will be on the calling and responsibility of the church in relation to those powers.
To come … the scriptural framework.
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