The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

“Respect the Authorities”: Specific Counsels 5 and 6

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Pay the dues and address the government

We must not forget to pay the dues. We must offer the civil authorities what is theirs by right of divine appointment, whether inwardly or outwardly. We do it because the civil magistrate bears the sword and because God has put it in his hands. This is not a call to pander to every whim of careless and thoughtless governments. It is not encouraging mindless quiescence of the most abject sort. It is not the suggestion that there is virtue in constituting yourself some craven holy doormat. It is the simple fact that—not just because of wrath but also because of conscience—we are to render to Caesar whatever belongs to Caesar. Whether it is a financial obligation (such as in the matter of taxes), a matter of legal recognition (obeying the laws of the land), or simply the expression of our outlook in speech and behavior, it ought to be clear from our attitudes and actions that we offer the civil authorities the support and the reverence to which they are entitled as those whom God has appointed.

We are also free to address the government. We must realize that it is not the task of the church to dictate policy nor to dabble in politics. That, again, is to confuse the spheres in which we operate: “Christ’s kingdom is not of this world.” The church is to declare the gospel to all, but she is also to make clear the duty of all to God, both as a prompt to true repentance and as a help to true obedience.

Gospel ministers have duties in several respects. First, God’s servants are—as occasion provides—to preach to authorities concerning their duties as men and ministers of temporal justice, accountable to the God who has put them in their place. It is, of course, perfectly appropriate for a Christian pastor to make clear the responsibilities of governing authorities, but that is not the same as preaching to the authorities. There may be legitimate opportunities to do this. Some legislatures or executives invite the preaching of the word of God in some measure. Perhaps there are those in authority in a congregation, and to them the word of God must be addressed as part of the regular ministry, publicly and privately, in accordance with their calling in the world. It may be that a preacher, in his capacity as a private citizen as well as a preacher, might address his local or national representatives, if he has them. Perhaps if a Christian is dragged before authorities, he might take the opportunity to declare the truth of God. But all this is very different from railing at rulers from the pulpit or in the street when they are not present. For example, you might hear hotheaded pulpiteers or throaty street preachers attacking some local or national policy that they consider unchristian, tearing into the legislators or executive powers even though they are not present to hear. To whom are they preaching? Certainly not to the people in front of them. They are on their soapbox, aiming high and wide of the souls before them who—though they might applaud or deplore what they are hearing—are hardly involved in the matter. If there were representatives of the authority present, perhaps even then it is not mere official failure (in which the individual may or may not have a personal stake), but real, personal sin that ought to be the core concern.

Further, God’s servants ought to instruct the church and her members—both as saints and as private citizens, as a matter of Christian witness and testimony—in their relations to the state in her specific roles. Preachers might also, publicly or privately, offer counsel and guidance in particular matters in which the saints as private and concerned citizens might speak. So, for example, there are issues with which the church as a church is not politically concerned. However, as a spiritual force for truth and righteousness, she might act for the good of those involved, and the members of the church might need particular instruction as to how they should engage. Think, to take one example, of the matter of abortion. Preachers might and should proclaim the sanctity of life and the crime of murder as it is appropriate. They might encourage and equip individual Christians to represent these truths. It would not be wrong for the church to draw attention to legitimate ways and means by which the feelings of believers might be communicated. A church might seek a particular opportunity to minister in various ways to women who face pressures to abort (perhaps because of social or economic demands) or who are wracked with guilt on account of their sin. A church might encourage Christians to consider adoption as a means of caring for unwanted children. But should the church be spearheading and organizing political campaigns, with pastors lobbying politicians and influencers on behalf of their congregations? I fear that this might distract from the work that the Lord has primarily given them to do.

We have already noted that in Acts 4 there may have been present Christian men and women who might have had some, even significant, opportunities to serve Christ in the world at large. As a church, though, they prayed. I am not suggesting that they returned to their homes and their employments, suspended their Christian convictions, and watched blithely or participated readily as the church was put under the hammer of persecution or as natural law was flouted and trampled upon. But there is a difference between how they acted as a church and how they might have acted as private individuals. We can and should discharge our responsibilities as Christians who have been placed in a particular time and place, living in certain nation-states by God’s appointment. We can write and speak and visit and engage with those who are in authority, but this is not the business of the church as a church. We must, then, both recognize the boundaries and discern the overlaps—those points at which our Christianity has a necessary impact on the way we relate to governments and authorities on particular issues.

I do not offer these counsels lightly. Every child of God, every church, must sincerely seek to discern—in the light of God’s written truth—where such boundaries lie. We need to work out where responsibilities as the citizens of heaven’s kingdom and members of earth’s societies touch and overlap.

Excerpted from the book Passing Through: Pilgrim Life in the Wilderness (Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com or Westminster Bookstore or RHB).

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 9 July 2015 at 19:10

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  1. […] Pay the dues and address the government […]


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