The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘civil authority

The church and the plague

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“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, honour to whom honour” (Rom 13:1–7).

“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Lk 20:25).

“And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb 10:24–25).

“Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss” (1Thes 5:26).

“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’” (Acts 4:19).

“You shall not murder” (Ex 20:13).

“But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise” (Lk 6:27–31).

And then the government said, “Thou shalt not gather, no, not for religious worship, not even on the Lord’s day.”

So what do we do? How do we proceed? Are we capitulating to anti-Christian authorities if we fail to gather together on the Lord’s day? Or are we honouring the authorities which God has put in place over us? Where and how do we obey the civil authorities, and how does that connect with our duties to the Lord our God? I have some kind of innate resistance to the idea of civil government regulating the worship of God. I trust that I have developed, over time, a principled commitment to being among God’s people on the Lord’s day, and making the most of those opportunities. However, I am most concerned to work out how to honour the Lord in all of this.

In this regard, I have read some amusing comments suggesting that, because—as is well known—all Europeans are basically socialists, therefore they will obey their governments without question, demonstrating mindless submission to their near-totalitarian authorities, whereas free Americans, of course, will resist their government the moment the big boys start throwing their weight around. Not quite following the logic there, but it seems a somewhat simplistic reading of the situation.

So, we are to be subject to the governing authorities, appointed by God. If we do what is good, we shall have nothing to fear from them. We are to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. All this would include recognising the measure of oversight and national direction a competent and well-disposed civil government might be able to provide, and at least honouring the government’s intentions to preserve the health and life of its citizenry, maintain the economy, and so on. So, for example, if the government assures us that it has stockpiles of toilet paper, we don’t need to go on binge-buying toilet paper on the working assumption (working suspicion?) that they are trying to deprive us of toilet paper and hoard it for departments and officials of the state. If the government, for the preservation of life, urges or requires that we avoid public gatherings, including religious worship, we have—at the very least—an obligation to take that into account. In doing so, it is proper to take into account the difference between counsel and command: the government might advise us to do something which we choose to do or not to do, or to do in a certain way. In such an instance, we have a little more freedom of manoeuvre.

But what if the government forbids what God commands or commands what God forbids? Does it make a difference if it is temporary and a matter of outwardly good governance? God has commanded us to meet as a gathered church, has appointed the first day of the week as the proper day on which that should take place, and has made sweet promises in connections with those gatherings. Our love for God would surely carry us toward a dedicated commitment to gathering with his people in his presence for his praise. If we are healthy saints, we will have both a sense of our proper obligation and a proper appetite for the worship of God together. And, when we gather, there usually ought to be proper expressions of affectionate fraternity among us—whatever may be the equivalent of the holy kiss. Indeed, we might argue that such times as these are times when the gathering of the saints becomes more significant, not less so, as we come together to cast ourselves upon God, and receive the spiritual sustenance our souls need to keep faith keen, hope bright, and love strong amidst these challenges.

Now, what of the sixth commandment? We are told not to murder, and that commandment requires (to employ the language of The Shorter Catechism) us to use all lawful endeavours to preserve our own life, and the life of others, while forbidding the taking away of our own life, or the life of our neighbour unjustly, or whatsoever tends toward that end. Earlier this year I was struck down, for what may be the first time in my life, with proper flu. I was in bed for about a week, careful about exposing others to any potential infection for several days after that, especially when resuming my public pastoral duties, and particularly careful about not visiting more vulnerable members of the congregation for a further period of time. Under normal circumstances, I would probably encourage people with a high level of sickness to take particular precautions about spreading their illnesses. While I do not encourage people to cry off the worship of God for petty reasons, if someone is sick (especially infectiously sick), then—for their own sake and that of others—they should probably ‘self-isolate’, to use the current jargon. In that sense, we are simply applying the regular principle to an irregular situation. If someone is either unwilling or unable to make a wise decision for themselves, perhaps some diaconal counsel would be appropriate, even to the point of advising them to return home for their own wellbeing, and that of others.

Then there are those principles of love to our neighbour which are the very essence of our obligations to our fellow men, and which lie behind the sixth and other more ‘horizontal’ commandments. In encouraging God’s people last Sunday to think through this, I emphasised that much of what is required is simply the extensive and intensive application of Christian courtesy as well as particular wisdom. This might include properly washing your hands, especially if handling food others will eat; not shaking hands, embracing, or whatever your equivalent of a holy kiss might be, if the other party is not comfortable with it, or obliged to refrain from it for their own sake or yours; not being offended by someone who wants to take more precautions than you; taking particular care around the particularly vulnerable, whether the elderly or those whose immune system is already compromised or whose health is poor; taking unusual pains with cleaning the church building, especially those spots or rooms where the transfer of a virus might be more likely. How would love to our immediate neighbour work out if the government were to forbid gatherings for religious worship, or gatherings over a certain size? In the latter case, some smaller churches might be fine, while others would be over the threshold. What about love to the souls of men? How do we regard their eternal wellbeing? Incidentally, loving courtesy and care should extend to our ministry to those within the congregation who might need particular assistance, should they be necessarily self-isolating, and so isolated, or in need of particular care. Are we ready, if need be, to risk our own well-being for the sake of our brothers and sisters? What of those who are outside the kingdom, and may go to face the judgement unwarned and uninstructed if we do not warn and instruct them? That is a question that all Christians, especially the pastors of a flock, need to answer in principle now, before a crisis presses it upon us. What if other congregations have pastors laid aside by sickness, or by sensible precautions against sickness? Are we ready to travel to minister the Word of God? Are churches ready to adapt their meeting times and circumstances in order to accommodate every proper opportunity to hear the truth which saves?

And what of celebrating the Lord’s supper? That might present a particular challenge. It may depend on whether or not you believe that the Lord positively requires that you come to his table every Lord’s day. If you belong to a church or group of churches which celebrate less regularly, or much less regularly, it might not make much difference. What about the use of wine as against grape juice? Would the presence or absence of alcohol help? What about the use of a common cup? What about breaking or cutting the bread into smaller pieces ahead of time, if you use a single loaf? Does any of that make much difference if plates or cups are being passed hand-to-hand? This will likely say something about our theology of the Lord’s table. If it is nothing more than a memorial, perhaps we might more readily dispense of it. If we approach it as something talismanic, perhaps nothing will stop us taking it (unless the perceived danger renders our superstitions void for the time being). If we consider it a genuine means of grace, we will doubtless acknowledge that we need and desire it now, of all times, but other considerations may influence how or when or how often we celebrate it. Of course, given that it is not an ordinance for families, mates, or small groups, but for when “when you come together as a church” (1Cor 11:18), it may be that—leaving aside the context of division within the congregation—you acknowledge that, under these circumstances, the church is not truly gathering (and I am not suggesting that you cannot come to the table unless every member is present). Perhaps you can simply wait until the hopefully brief storm is over.

Let us try to work out some principles and some practices. I would suggest that we should be eagerly disposed to gather for the worship of God. Our primary commitment and expectation should be that, whenever and wherever possible, we gather with God’s people for worship on the Lord’s day. Let that be your working assumption. Let all your planning and preparing be carried out with the aim of enabling God’s people to come together to worship him and enjoy fellowship with each other as regularly and easily and as safely as possible.

If such gatherings were to become ill-advised, actively unwise, or even temporarily illegal, how might we then respond? There are a number of possibilities. First of all, I would expect that anyone actually or probably sick with coronavirus or any other such disease would be taking care of themselves and others by embracing such an illness as a genuine providential hindrance to gathering. I hope that goes without saying. So what of others? Perhaps a church could gather outside, with families in self-isolating units, with the requisite or recommended space between them. It might be a wonderful opportunity for evangelising, especially if there were properties nearby from which people could hear the good news. I think of the centre of our neighbourhood, with a square space surrounded by benches. One bench per family unit? Others standing or sitting in the spaces between? The opportunity to listen from the surrounding homes? It may be that the church building is big enough or the congregation small enough for such a gathering to take place within the building, with people sitting apart from each other, and proper care taken about the possibility of infection from mutual touching of surfaces like door handles. Under any such circumstances, proper measures for minimising risk would be essential (including parents taking pains to make sure that their children are looked after in this respect, like the young lads last Sunday who insisted to me that they didn’t like hot water and so were not going to wash their hands properly). Perhaps hand sanitisers (if they are still available) could be put at entrance points, with regular written or spoken reminders of good practice.

We might need to do a little ecclesiastical triage. Perhaps we could begin by stripping back some of the added extras to the essential rhythms of church life. For example, the church I serve has a number of additional meetings during the week, over the course of a month, or as one-offs, which we might need to review. While part of me says it is all the more important to preach the gospel under these circumstances, it is not necessarily a good idea to try to gather a crowd of strangers into one room at such times as these. So, we might focus on the morning and evening gatherings of the Lord’s day, and perhaps also meetings for prayer, which become more pressingly needful.

If other options are more limited, technology might be a particular help. For example, could the preacher go to the church building with his family, if healthy, and any others willing and able to attend? He could preach so that it could either be live-streamed to those who are not able to gather, or even recorded and/or streamed if no-one else can attend? We know, I hope, that there are spiritual dynamics associated with the gathering of God’s people to hear God’s word that cannot be replicated or transmitted by digital communication of the event, but such options at least keep in the loop those obliged to be absent, and might provide a temporary alternative (perhaps some instruction as to the pros and cons of such an arrangement might helpfully be given). Some churches already do this as a help to people already unable to attend, and this simply extends that provision on a temporary basis. It certainly has an impact on celebrating the Lord’s supper, as outlined above. Presuming I am available (and making plans if I am not), I currently intend to be at the church building on the Lord’s day, perhaps ahead of the usual hour if live-streaming proves a challenge with our limited resources, and making sure that audio and video recordings of the ministry were available for people to tune in at the regular times in order to give them some sense of normality and some necessarily reduced but still profitable dimension of church life. If things became more difficult, perhaps an elder could provide some kind of broadcast or recording from home, ministering to God’s people so that they could at least feed from the Word of God. If such technology lies beyond the church, there may be other faithful congregations providing a service that the saints could employ and enjoy, though every step of distance from the regular life of the covenanted congregation may well diminish something of the blessings that we derive, though the Lord knows how to shepherd his people in all seasons. Take into account, too, that in some cultures and contexts, such technological shortcuts may simply not be available. For some congregations, there may be older saints without the apparatus or awareness to use such means, and they might be the very ones who need most care of body and soul.

And what if the civil authorities were temporarily to ban all gatherings, including for religious worship? What then? I think I would be content, for the time being, to employ some of the means above to maximise the opportunities to preach the gospel to as many people as I could, within and without the walls of church buildings, and by as many legitimate means as I could find or devise. I am not persuaded that extravagant displays of civil disobedience, under these circumstances, are warranted or wise. And if, down the line, such government intervention became coercion or persecution, then I would feel perfectly at liberty to resist with a polite and humble disobedience any attempt to prevent the exercise of my God-given privilege to gather with the saints to worship him, despite my previous acknowledgement of the government’s counsels or commands in another context.

And liberty is important. It is worth taking into account the principle of Christian liberty. Not everyone will make all the same judgements at all the same points at all the same places. Some of our hypochondriac brethren may well already be living in a sealed unit with a lifetime supply of tinned goods and toilet paper, and have decided that the gathering of the saints is simply too dangerous for them and their families. I might not agree, but—as long as this is not taken to foolish extremes—I am unlikely to rebuke them for non-attendance under the circumstances, though I might counsel a little more robustness, in dependence on God. We do not honour God by blind panic, though we should by a loving caution. On the other hand, some who boast in God’s sovereignty might choose to display their confidence with a sort of bravado or abandon, turning convictions about providence into a sort of carefree or miserable fatalism. I might encourage them to use the means God has provided for their wellbeing, and that of others, and need to rebuke them if they are risking the sixth commandment. There may be many times when we simply give people the option and the opportunity, and leave them to judge in accordance with the light that they have, remembering that we are, in a real sense, a voluntary gathering. Liberty is also corporate. Some churches will take a different line to the one which you might take; they are free to do so, under God, so long as they do not violate clear principles of scriptural conduct.

Bear in mind, too, that current indications suggest that this will be a temporary measure. If the figures we know are to be believed, such restrictions might only last for a few weeks, perhaps a month or a little more. If the restrictions were maintained for longer with good reason, then we might need to consider again how we respond. If they were maintained without good reason, then we might more readily return to our more default positions.

In all this we do need to remember that there is a God in heaven, who does whatever he pleases, in accordance with his goodness, mercy, wisdom, and love. Bear in mind that you could take all precautions, and still fall sick, or even fall asleep in Jesus. You might take no precautions, and remain well. Believing in the sovereignty of God should not make us careless of the use of the means that God has appointed to accomplish certain ends. Even Hezekiah, promised a recovery from his deadly sickness, applied the poultice of figs which the Lord appointed the means to the ends of his recovery (Is 38:21). Neither mindless panic nor thoughtless bravado will honour the Lord. Stability and even serenity belong to those who trust in the Lord.

So, commit to doing all you can to obey God’s commands and embrace the privileges of the saints. Plan and prepare to make the most of every opportunity for this, now and under any future circumstances. As and when the wisdom either or the elders (in the ecclesiastic sphere) or the government (in the civil sphere) dictates, you may need, temporarily, to make the kinds of adjustments outlined above, seeking in all this to “honour all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king” (1Pt 2:17).

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 12 March 2020 at 09:19

“Respect the Authorities”: Specific Counsels 5 and 6

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Manage the expectations and approach the throne

With all this in mind, we must manage the expectations. Those who rule on the earth do not have the answers; they are not our saviors. There seems to be a constant temptation for the people of God to believe that if only we can marshal enough rich and important people, if only we can obtain enough celebrity endorsements, if only we can generate a big enough wave of public opinion, then we can help the church out of its troubles. But such men and women, however well meaning, cannot sustain or prosper the church in the world. Again, it is to look for apples on an orange tree.

Earthly authorities and celebrities are not the answer to the needs and pursuits of the church, any more than the world is its home and destiny. There are certain things that we can and should expect of civil governments, and there may be certain times when the church, through appropriate spokespeople given appropriate opportunities, might remind government of its obligations to God. But human authority and power are not the solution to the church’s problems. The kingdom of God is not yoked to any nation, party, policy, platform, coalition, or organization and will not rise or fall with any kingdom of the earth:

Through the rise and fall of nations
One sure faith yet standeth fast:
God abides, His Word unchanging,
God alone the first and last.

Or, singing of the providence of God:

The kingdoms of this world
Lie in its hand;
See how they rise or fall
At its command!
Through sorrow and distress,
Tempestuous storms that rage,
God’s kingdom yet endures
From age to age.

As we wrestle with these things, we need to remember that God does know what He is doing. Even those things that men mean for evil He has intended for good. Kings and kingdoms rise and fall by His divine and all-wise appointment. Even the individual activities of rulers are not outside his control:

The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD,
Like the rivers of water;
He turns it wherever He wishes. (Prov. 21:1)

We may look at some of those who have risen to prominence or power, who have abused that platform horribly, and wonder how this can be securing the glory of God or the good of men. Often the answer will simply be that we do not know, and we may never know. Perhaps heaven itself will not make plain the answers to all the questions we may now have.

But we must bow before God. Our hopes for the kingdom of Christ—whether the advance of the gospel or the health of the church itself—hang upon the divine King and not upon mortal men. Ultimately, we are waiting upon Him and waiting for Him.

That being the case, we should approach the throne. Prayer ought to be our first port of call as the church—whether institutionally or individually—in dealing with the civil magistrates. We should pray and give thanks for the rulers and authorities themselves, seeking “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (1 Tim. 2:2), able to live as saints without unnecessary difficulties or distractions. We should pray to God for His appointments, that His glory and our peace might be secured. We should pray concerning the Lord’s kingdom, that all God’s purposes would be accomplished for the ingathering of the elect and the building of His church. We should pray for the equipping of the church in all her circumstances, whether at peace or persecuted, not looking to worldly powers nor relying upon worldly means to accomplish kingdom ends. We should pray that the Lord would fill us with His Spirit and give us bold speech, enabling the saints to be witnesses for Christ in every circumstance that we face, not looking to or relying upon worldly means (Acts 4:8, 31). We do not trust in legislation, adjudication, or intimidation to obtain the things we desire for the glory of God and the good of men, but on the proclamation of the truth as it is in Jesus with power from on high. To that end we should remember who is on the throne and call upon Him. We pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).

We remember that there is One who sits enthroned above the earth, and He is our God and our King.

 

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

Friday 10 July 2015 at 08:29

“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

“Respect the Authorities”: Specific Counsels 3 and 4

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Appreciate the protection and use the freedoms

Then we should appreciate the protection. Paul was not ashamed to appeal to Caesar when threatened with unjust judgments and unlawful imprisonment. He relied upon the protections afforded by the rule of law under Nero (Acts 25:11), the man who was becoming the great enemy of the Christian church. Even oppressive and persecuting governments may provide a measure of control against open sin, a measure of legitimate protection against lawlessness. I travelled some time ago to a country that had for many years lain behind the Iron Curtain. It was interesting to hear even younger people, including Christians, reminisce about the perceived benefits of the days of communism when their parents had work and homes, when they had little to eat but were thankful when it came, when they could play outside in safety until all hours of the night. They recognized the privations and oppressions that communism involved. They valued their newfound liberty, and in some cases had labored long and hard to obtain it. Many had waited years for such freedoms and suffered much in seeking them. But they also suggested that they could now buy everything and afford nothing, and that a materialistic spirit was increasingly evident in society. They found that the church too had lost something of its edge, its sense of community and its expressions of loving sacrifice in the face of difficulty and opposition. Neither were they nor am I offering some kind of apologetic for any form of totalitarianism with all its typical abuses and cruelties. Nevertheless, there was a tacit recognition that even this oppressive form of government, with all its evils, afforded them something valuable and appreciated. Despite the iniquities of totalitarianism, life under that system still offered a measure of protection in society at large, but also put an edge upon their sense of belonging to another kingdom. In a more developed liberal democracy, we ought to be properly thankful for the rule of law as it provides us with a measure of peace and stability and freedom, even if we might bemoan the spiritual flabbiness of the church under the circumstances.

There is an exegetical tradition that interprets the restraint of the man of sin—the man of lawlessness—in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 as the rule of law. The suggestion is that the man of sin himself will thrive in and arise out of an environment of undiluted and aggressive self-determination, unrestrained by strong and just government. Whether or not one accepts this interpretation, it at least underlines that we ought to be more thankful than perhaps we are for what we presently have. How many freedoms do we enjoy of which countless thousands past and present have been and are deprived? Many Christians ought to be slower to complain and quicker to express gratitude for the rulers and authorities over us.

This being so, we ought to use the freedoms we are presently afforded, wherever we might be. While we have the opportunity to live undisturbed and pursue our mission as the people of God, we ought to get on with the job. Many readers of this book still live in an environment of almost unprecedented civil liberty, and we ought to seize the day, pursuing open, frank, and full obedience to our Sovereign, carrying out our happy duty as the church of Christ in relative peace and safety. One of the tragedies is that we often use our freedoms not to labor but to relax and take our ease. We have scope to live righteously, to worship faithfully, and to preach truthfully. We should readily walk, worship, and witness as unashamed Christians while God provides us a safe environment in which to do so. We should pray that these blessings may long abide and labor as private citizens of our particular nations to preserve them.

We should remember that it is a relatively rare thing, historically and geographically, for believers to enjoy such freedoms as these. The kind of honor that has been afforded to Christian truth in much of the Western world in recent centuries is not the norm, and we might have come to assume too much. We are probably returning to the real historical norm of persecution, and we should be the more thankful for our relative freedoms while we have them, remembering those who do not as if we suffered with them (Heb. 13:3).

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

Tuesday 7 July 2015 at 06:55

“Respect the Authorities”: Scriptural Framework #2 ~ The Prayers of the Saints

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Having introduced the topic of respect for God-constituted authorities, and considered a proper subjection, we move on to account for the prayers of the saints.

The Prayers of the Saints

I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. (1 Tim. 2:1–2)

Paul calls Timothy to fulfill his appointed role with fidelity. Part of that requires Timothy to be truly and righteously publicly minded. We may be separate from the world, but we do not cut ourselves off from those around us, from the world in which we live. One of the ways in which we show our engagement with the world is by prayer.

Here is a command that all kinds of prayers be offered for all kinds of men, including and especially kings and all who are in authority. Paul speaks of various approaches made to the Lord God: seeking to obtain needful things, making requests, having close dealings with God on behalf of ourselves and others, also giving thanks to God for His goodness bestowed on others and on ourselves. Why does Timothy need to pray in this way? The desired consequences are not to obtain wealth, power, influence, or prominence in society or among its rulers, but simply to be able to get on with the job of beingthe saints of God without interference or oppression. God’s people wish simply to conduct themselves in godliness and reverence, discharging the duties we have toward God and men. The commentator Patrick Fairbairn says that these are prayers that we “may be allowed freely to enjoy our privileges, and maintain the pious and orderly course which becomes us as Christians, without the molestation, the troubles, and the unseemly shifts which are the natural consequence of inequitable government and abused power.” [1 & 2 Timothy and Titus (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), 112.] Up to a point, we wish merely to be left alone to get on with the life that God has called us to lead.

Here is a new covenant echo of the prayer that the exiles of Jeremiah’s day had commended to them: “Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace” (Jer. 29:7). We do not wish to suffer from rapid shifts of power, from abuses of authority, or from threats to civil order. Pray, then, that the Lord would guide those in authority so that you may have peace to pursue righteousness. Paul goes on to say to Timothy that such a disposition to pray and such a righteous expectation is pleasing to the Lord God.

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

Tuesday 30 June 2015 at 07:00

“Respect the Authorities”: introduction

with 10 comments

Passing-3DIt 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.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 27 June 2015 at 20:14

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