- Scriptural framework
In relation to the civil magistrates whom God has appointed, the Lord’s pilgrim people live in the space between our Christ’s declaration that His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36) and His command that we are to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s (Matt. 22:21). There is a divinely appointed and righteous tension at this point. We are of the kingdom of Christ, and that situates us finally and ultimately in and of Christ in the heavenlies. While we are here, that allegiance must be reflected in our giving to God’s appointed authorities what is their rightful due as well as rendering to the Lord that which belongs to Him alone.
It is precisely because Jesus Christ’s kingdom is not of this world that we obtain perspective on the world and its authorities. It is because we serve the eternal King, being citizens of heaven, that we are the best citizens on earth, measured by divine standards. I remember the story of a pastor called before a communist dictator in Eastern Europe before the collapse of the Iron Curtain. The autocrat upbraided the man of God for being subversive and rebellious. “Not at all,” answered the pastor humbly. “We Christians respect our leaders. We are faithful citizens, and we pray for you every day.” What if we were brought before men like Claudius Caesar or Nero Caesar, men like Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Ceausescu, and others who may yet be raised up in our nations, perhaps superintending and even directing what we are persuaded is a moral decline and advancing wickedness? Would we be able to say with a clear conscience, “Sir, I am one of your best citizens. I hear what you say even when I cannot heed it, and I pray to my God for you every day”?
As citizens of heaven we recognize that we are sojourners here and that our convictions, character, and conduct should reflect our true homeland and bring honor to our true King. Part of our duty as we make our way through the world is to regard and respect rulers and authorities as God’s appointed temporal vicegerents in the civil sphere to promote righteousness and to prevent wickedness. At their best, they provide a peaceful environment in which the church can go about its gospel business in peace, simply being what God has called us to be. At their worst, the civil authorities make themselves the agitators and architects of all that is most vicious and violent about opposition to the church, employing all the machinery of government in an attempt to crush the people of God.
If the influence of the authorities is benign, we should be genuinely thankful and express that thanks to God, but we should not make the mistake of yoking our hopes for Christ’s heavenly kingdom to the vehicles of political, social, or economic power or renewal. Our confidence does not lie in the politics and parties and pressure groups of any culture. If the rulers over us are malign, we should not orchestrate campaigns of civil resistance or rebellion nor despair of the kingdom of God because that does not rise or fall depending on the state of any nation or nations. In one sense, the progress of God’s kingdom has nothing to do with the civil authorities. Christ is our king, and His kingdom is not of this world.
Even if we face explicit opposition, even if a government should forbid what God commands or command what God forbids, even if we reach the point of confessing that “we ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), the Christian’s noncompliance should reflect his supreme commitment to the God who governs all and who will one day subdue all. As such, his demeanor, behavior, and speech should all communicate an acknowledgment of the subordinate authority, even as he obeys the higher one.
The Christian’s spirit is to be one of cheerful, willing, comprehensive submission as required of him by God. We are to offer legitimate support and reverence wherever we are able to the rulers appointed over us by our sovereign Lord, and to pray for them and for ourselves, that the gospel may readily advance as the church pursues the mission entrusted to her by her Redeemer.
- Scriptural framework
Our Heavenly Hope
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself. Therefore, my beloved and longed-for brethren, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, beloved. (Phil. 3:20–4:1)
The governing power of the saints is a heavenly one. The church takes her identity, her sense of privilege and priority, her direction for behavior, and her enduring hope from her heavenly King and the realities of citizenship in His kingdom. This conditions all our relationships with the authorities here. The men of the world set their minds on earthly things, but the citizens of Zion set their minds on heavenly things. The saints operate here as belonging there. Our character, conduct, and convictions are conditioned by the world to come rather than by the world that is passing away. Paul is probably quite deliberately employing the language that would be used of Caesar to ascribe to him semidivine functions in order to emphasize that the saints have a Savior and a Lord who is most certainly not Caesar. Caesar is a lord and a deliverer by the Lord and Deliverer’s appointment. Commentator G. Walter Hansen explains: “Their hope for the future is not fixed on Caesar, the savior and Lord of the Roman Empire, but on Jesus Christ, the heavenly Lord and Savior…. The power of earthly tyrants to humiliate the followers of Christ will be overcome by Christ when he subjects all things to himself and transforms our bodies of humiliation to be like his glorious body” [The Letter to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 270, 275].
Not only will the saints themselves be transformed at the coming of Christ but all things will be subdued under Him—all things, including all those who stand over and against the church, which is His body. Our home is heaven, and we are here only for a little while. All too often our problem is that we are reaching into the future and trying to bring our hopes and expectations into this world rather than anticipating them in the next. We try to build our empires here. We see things in terms of time, and we lose sight of eternity. But we are Christ’s heavenly kingdom, and our citizenship is in heaven. Our King is in heaven.
This ought to be a transforming realization. If my hope is heavenly, then I know who and what I am in relation to the things of this passing world. I show proper honor to my earthly rulers but am not bound to this world as if it were the only thing that matters. With this confidence, the church is able to stand fast in the Lord. Her convictions, character, and conduct are conditioned by her relationship with her heavenly King establishing a heavenly citizenship and providing a heavenly hope.
So when they heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord and said: “Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, who by the mouth of Your servant David have said:
‘Why did the nations rage,
And the people plot vain things?
The kings of the earth took their stand,
And the rulers were gathered together
Against the LORD and against His Christ.’
For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done. Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word, by stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4:24–31)
Here Luke depicts the response of the righteous when the God-appointed authorities set out to play God. The context is one that goes well beyond background antagonism—it is one of outright opposition and persecution. The Sanhedrin “called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard’” (Acts 4:18–20). Again, as in Acts 5:29, God’s authority is ultimate, man’s authority is subordinate, and the church is now facing a human civil and religious authority that is requiring her to disobey God.
In the verses that follow we see the response of the church as a church, the people of God gathered together in a particular place. It may be that some of them in this place were converted priests, perhaps Roman soldiers or officials, members of Herod’s or Caesar’s households, or women with extensive circles of contacts or the wives of men with particular influence. There may have been some or many who might have had personal opportunities to do good in the circumstances. Doubtless such sincere believers, given the chance in the days following, might have used whatever legitimate influence they had or whatever means lay lawfully at their disposal to protect the apostles or to divert the march of persecution. But notice what the saints do as a church: They do not begin to organize and orchestrate a plan of civic resistance. They do not plan marches and establish alliances and coalitions and institutes to carry their voices to the upper echelons of society. They do not reach out to other oppressed and concerned parties to establish campaigns of co-belligerency. They do not make contact with lobbyists nor print leaflets and redesign their websites, working up a more effective advertising campaign. They do not draw up petitions, design banners with catchy titles, print T-shirts with telling slogans, and work up posters with vivid images. They do not conclude that they need to engage the world on the world’s terms. They do not seek to obtain a voice on the political and cultural stage. They do not pursue larger numbers, greater prominence, cutting-edge websites, pithier sound bites, all the while whipping up publicity campaigns to sweep the floor with the opposition. None of that is remotely what you find in Jerusalem (allowing for a little modernization).
Rather, they get on their faces before God Most High and pour out their hearts to the One who governs, appoints, ordains, and judges—the Lord to whom all in heaven and earth are ultimately accountable. They raise their voices not to men but to God. This is most assuredly not mere mindless quiescence or fawning, grovelling submission to human authorities. If you read their prayer, you will see that they first recognized the divine authority and government, ascribing honor to God as the King enthroned over all, the Creator of all things, the Governor of all things, and the Revealer of Himself to men. They also reckoned with the human opposition as it really was, fierce and united against the Christ and all those who named His name. Natural enemies found a common cause in opposing Christ and His kingdom. Like Hezekiah reading Sennacherib’s letter (Isa. 37:14–20), they spread the whole matter out before the Lord. Therefore, faced with such a challenge, they requested divine equipment from God’s hands. But note the specific requests. They do not pray against the government, but rather for the gospel. They do not ask to be made able to avoid the threat, but rather to be given grace to meet it as true and steadfast believers: “In the face of opposition, make us yet more distinctive as those who live for and proclaim Jesus the Christ. Take away our fear, and give us courage to declare the truth.” And so they received specific answers to their prayers, being filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking the word of God with boldness.
The church’s response to the assaults made on her is not a rallying cry to civic resistance or even civic engagement, but to get on her knees before the living Lord and to seek His face, crying for heavenly power to declare divine truth faithfully and fruitfully even in the face of opposition and persecution.
A Godly Life
Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:11–12)
At the core of Peter’s exhortation is the principle that a godly life—honorable conduct—provides a measure of defense to strangers and pilgrims in this hostile environment. The saints are given instructions that have to do more with the inward life: “abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul.” There follows the evidence of those working principles in the outward life: “having your conduct honourable among the Gentiles.” The saints, conscious of the eye of the world upon them, ought to cultivate attractive and blameless lives. Our interactions with those around us ought to be truly righteous. This is so that when our religious convictions bring a measure of reproach or persecution, those who speak evil of the children of God will be obliged to acknowledge the practical and generally beneficial godliness of the saints.
As they see your righteous living they will be caught between their rejection of the Christ whom you follow and the undeniable difference that your following of Christ makes in your treatment of those around you. They must acknowledge that your life is exemplary; that your Christian convictions raise you above the aggressive and bestial living that increasingly characterizes our societies; that our fundamental neighborliness is on open but unostentatious display (Luke 10:36). Such good works of the church will ultimately lead these critics to “glorify God in the day of visitation.” This is a difficult phrase that some suggest refers to a personal and searching encounter with the Lord, perhaps prompted by or certainly driven home by the testimony of the believers in the world. There may come a day when God deals with the souls of our friends, neighbors, and colleagues who may presently pour scorn on our convictions, dismiss our religion, or deride us as mere do-gooders. In that day the honorable conduct of the saints may be one of the means that the Lord uses to press home the realities of His salvation in Jesus Christ. The following verses spell out what this looks like with regard to the state:
Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men—as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king. (1 Peter 2:13–17)
You will notice that Peter establishes absolutes that are similar to those which Paul makes clear in Romans 13. Peter explains that if the saints are to suffer, at least it ought to be for the right reasons and not because of their rebellion against God’s appointed authorities. What is particularly interesting is the way in which Peter connects lawlessness and rebellion in relation both to God and to men. As with Paul, rebellion against the authority that the Lord has appointed is de facto rebellion against the Lord who appointed it. Rebellion against one authority often reflects an ill disposition to authority in general, including divine authority. It is no surprise that a generation in which sinners very willingly and eagerly enthrone themselves as the only authority worth heeding tend to disregard both the laws of men and the laws of God. Verse 17 provides a potent summary of what Peter has been addressing: “Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17).
In the course of his marvellous treatment of the theme, Christ Precious to Those Who Believe, John Fawcett occasionally breaks out into prayer on the pages of his book. Sometimes those prayers seem to rise from his own heart, at other times he puts into words the kinds of expressions he hopes might rise from other hearts as they read. At the end of the second chapter, which deals with the character of the people to whom Christ is precious – that is, those who believe – he offers a model of the awakened sinner’s address to God, as his own soul is moved with the truths he is handling. This is his petition:
Almighty and everlasting God, my Creator, my Preserver, and my Judge, before whose awful tribunal I must shortly make my appearance:
I am a poor individual of the fallen race of mankind, brought forth in iniquity, conceived in sin, and chargeable with actual transgressions almost without number. I have brought myself under the condemning sentence of your righteous law, and made myself deserving of your everlasting displeasure. It is high time for me to awake out of sleep, and to inquire, with the utmost seriousness and the deepest concern, whether there is any possible way of escaping from that wrath which is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.
I feel a ray of hope spring up in my soul, since you have said, in your holy word, “you are destroyed, but your help is from Me.” Jesus Christ, your only begotten Son, came into the world to save sinners, such as I am. This is no delusive supposition, no uncertain report. It is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptance. But I learn from the sacred Scriptures, that he who disregards this testimony, who does not receive it in the love of the truth, who does not believe in the Son of God, the appointed Saviour, must everlastingly perish. I learn from your word that pardon of sin, deliverance from condemnation, and the enjoyment of eternal happiness, are inseparably connected with true faith in his name.
O Lord, please mercifully grant to me that divine illumination without which I shall neither know the way of peace nor believe the truth to the saving of my soul. O teach me to know myself, the deep depravity of my nature, the guiltiness of my whole life, the purity of that law which I have violated, the inflexibility of that holiness and justice which I have offended, the exceeding sinfulness of sin, and my own utter inability to do anything towards delivering my own soul out of that state of sin and misery into which I have brought myself. Bring me to an acquaintance with you, the only true God, and with Jesus Christ, whom you have sent to redeem and save the lost and the undone, whom to know is life eternal. May your Holy Spirit set before me, in the most powerful and engaging manner, the glory of his person, the sufficiency of his sacrifice, the efficacy of his blood to cleanse from all sin, the perfection of his righteousness to clothe the naked soul, the fulness of his grace to supply every need, and his ability in every respect to save to the uttermost all that come unto God by him.
May that precious gospel, of which Christ crucified is the sum and substance, appear to me, in all its truth, as the testimony of God; in all its sacred importance, as the word of life; in all its fulness, its suitableness to my case, its preciousness, and its glory, that I may be enabled to receive it with full and entire approval, as a system most honourable to God and safe for man, and that I may believe it with my whole heart.
Let me be a partaker of that faith which is connected with unfeigned repentance of sin, a sincere attachment to Jesus Christ, a subjection of heart and life to his will and government, a holy indifference to all that this present world can offer, and a sincere and constant endeavour to obey your commands. May I receive and embrace the truth as it is in Jesus, so that it may dwell and abide in me, in all its sacred energy and sanctifying power, working effectually in me, as it does in all those who believe. So let my heart be purified by faith, and give me an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith which is in you. Nor let me be a stranger to the joy of faith, but fill me with all that joy and peace in believing, which arise from the view and manifestation of pardoning mercy, through the precious blood of your dear Son – to whom, with yourself, and the blessed Spirit, the one eternal God, be equal and endless praises. Amen.
Following on from the introduction, here is the first element of a scriptural framework helping us through the issue of respect for civil authority.
A Proper Subjection
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor. (Rom. 13:1–7)
This is part of the apostle’s treatment of practical Christian living in the real world, and here Paul traces a tight, logical sequence. What he says may be considered an outworking of the full spiritual force of the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you” (Ex. 20:12). The implications of this commandment concern our relationship to God-appointed authority, and its demands reach far deeper and wider than parental authority. The Shorter Catechism helpfully expands the essence, reminding us that the fifth commandment requires us to preserve the honor of and perform the duties belonging to all people in their various places and relations, whether as superiors, inferiors, or equals. By way of negative contrast, it forbids the neglecting of or doing anything against the honor and duty that belong to all people in their various places and relations.
Here Paul takes that principle and applies it to the relationship of believers to the civil magistrate. It is a rule for all people: each one must be subject to the governing authorities, “the powers that be,” in the evocative phrasing of the King James Version. It is a call not merely to grudging quietism or passive acceptance but to an active and comprehensive embrace of submission in all lawful duties and services. It is not a mere matter of obligatory constraint or restraint, but a positive pursuit of a disposition and deeds that show one’s awareness that the Lord has appointed authorities.
There is a recognition inherent in this submission that the power exercised by these authorities is by divine appointment (Prov. 8:15). God has devised, designated, and delegated the exercise of all earthly powers subordinate to His own. The highest and lowest civil authorities have been ordained in principle and in person by the Lord of heaven and earth. There is a clear sequence of corollaries: to resist these authorities is to resist what God has ordained, which is to resist God, which is to invite wrath or judgment. Although the context suggests that the primary reference is to the judgment meted out by civil magistrates in accordance with God’s appointment, there may be a hint of eternality in the language as well.
All this is bounded in the intended benefits of government. Rulers are appointed to be a terror to evil—to spook the bad guys, keeping evil at bay—so that the citizen who acts uprightly should have nothing to fear. We must recognize that God has appointed earthly authority to be a blessing to men. Civil magistrates have been granted the sword to defend good and to punish evil. Even usurped or abused authority—which we might and should as Christians and citizens speak against—ought to and often does provide a measure of control and order in a nation against the outbreak of open sin, a protection against those times when every man does what is right in his own eyes (Judg. 21:25).
Two reasons are provided for this principled submission. The first is “wrath,” the fear of temporal judgments against evildoing, but this is not the only reason and would in itself be a fairly shallow one. The saints also obey “for conscience’ sake,” recognizing their obligations to the God who has appointed those authorities and having their consciences bound ultimately to Him.
The implications are clear and practical. Christians are to offer to the government whatever belongs to the government by right— appropriate maintenance and appropriate reverence: “Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor” (Rom. 13:7).
Whether in the material or the moral spheres, governments ought to receive from us what God has called us to give. Before we begin to buck at this and start offering exceptions to the rule, we would do well to recognize that this commandment was not issued to a church basking in the hazy afterglow of the largely tragic Constantinian settlement. It did not float down to saints enjoying the benefits of a post-Enlightenment liberal democracy, but to believers who were living in the Roman Empire under the tyranny of such beasts as Claudius and Nero Caesar. These men were no friends to humanity, let alone to Christianity, but despots who ruled with the proverbial fist of iron as those who considered themselves gods. The issue is not first and foremost the character of the magistrate or his abuses of the power put in his hands, but the position to which he has been appointed by God as an agent of temporal justice in some measure.
We must acknowledge that this does not suspend the believer’s ultimate obligation to God. The apostles themselves were perfectly clear that they ought to obey God rather than men whenever the civil or religious authorities commanded something that God forbade or forbade something that God commanded. Peter challenged the Sanhedrin, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge” (Acts 4:19). Not long after, he and the other apostles were even plainer: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
While we will consider this tension in more detail as we move on, we should note that this understanding dictates the occasions on which and the tone in which some form of resistance or disobedience is legitimized. Perhaps the finest examples are found in the book of Daniel. In the first instance, Daniel’s three friends refuse to bow to the image of gold erected by Nebuchadnezzar. Threatened with death in the fiery furnace if they will not obey, their reply is a model of gracious refusal. Their language is polite and eminently respectful. Their recognition of the king’s authority is sincere and humble. Their refusal to obey is absolute. Their faithfulness to God is complete: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up” (Dan. 3:16–18). How infuriating it must have been to Nebuchadnezzar to have men who humbly and reverently accepted his right to throw them into a fiery furnace and politely refused to obey him anyway!
Daniel is no less noble and gracious when forbidden to pray to anyone but Darius. He will not lay aside God’s law in the matter and is willing to be thrown into the lions’ den as a consequence. And how does he respond to the concerned emperor who hurries down to the den the morning after? With words like these: “O king, live forever! My God sent His angel and shut the lions’ mouths, so that they have not hurt me, because I was found innocent before Him; and also, O king, I have done no wrong before you” (Dan. 6:21–22). Daniel honors his sovereign, testifies to God, and defends his actions, all at once. Recognizing the authorities as appointed by God conditions our attitudes and actions toward them, even when as disciples of Christ we are legitimately obliged to refuse particular demands.