Obedience To Government
Today is Canada Day and I am glad to be a Canadian. Even though we criticize our country and know that not everything is perfect, it is still a great place to live. I have not travelled outside of North America, but have done enough reading and listening to know that Canada is probably one of the best places in the world to live. For example, I would rather have blizzard’s than hurricanes and Carla would rather have mosquito’s than rattle snakes. For the most part, we are a peace loving people and have good living conditions. We do not have to worry about food and contaminated water is a newsworthy item rather than a daily occurrence as in many countries. So, I am thankful for Canada.
Since it is Canada Day, I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on our earthly citizenship as Christians and so have chosen a passage which addresses our responsibility to the government under which we live here on earth. The Bible talks about this and we need to understand what God wants for us in this regard. There are a number of passages which address this issue and I have chosen Romans 13:1-7. We have already read it and so I would invite you to turn to it now and we will examine what it has to say to us.
In order to understand this passage, perhaps it would be helpful to understand why Paul might have written it in the first place.
We need to remember that the government which was in power at this time was the Roman government. It is interesting that Paul should write this to the church in Rome, the very capital of the empire which was ruling over all of the world into which Christianity was introduced.
Paul himself was a Roman citizen, which in that day gave a person certain privileges. Roman citizens had significant protection under the law and that protection seems to have been respected. Paul appealed to that protection on a number of occasions. In Acts 16:37 after having been imprisoned in Philippi, he expected justice for being wrongfully imprisoned. Later, when arrested and tried because of the Jews in Jerusalem, he appealed to the high court of Rome and was sent there and according to Acts 28:30ff was treated well while he awaited his trial. Did Paul write this just because his experience with the governing authorities had been positive?
It is likely that many Christians were slaves and many others were simply not Roman citizens. Their experience was probably not as positive. Did Paul write this to encourage them not to make trouble for the empire of which he was a citizen?
The nation which gave the Romans the most trouble was probably the Jewish nation. In the early years of the church, Christians were considered a sect of the Jews and when revolts happened among the Jews, they may have been in trouble along with the Jewish people. Was Paul telling them to submit so that they would not get into this kind of trouble?
Is it possible that some Christians may have had such a heavenly mindset that they would have wanted to reject all human lordship? Were they rejecting earthly authorities because of their faith in their heavenly authority?
We may never know the exact reason for writing, but several things are clear. The Roman government was not pure. It was coercive, violent and demanding. Eventually, it would demand that Christians declare that “Caesar is Lord.” Whatever the cause of writing and in spite of the far from perfect nature of the Roman government, Paul teaches the believers in Rome that “the existing political situation is the God-given frame-work for their Christian life.”
Whatever the reason for writing, this is God’s word and therefore a word to us and the important question we need to ask is, “why do I need to hear this word from God?” As I examine my own actions and attitudes and also as I listen to others, I have to confess that we do not always honor the government. I am quick to laugh at jokes that ridicule the government and am also quick to join in to criticize our rulers. Is this an appropriate Christian response? I know that we do not always obey the laws of our country. Is this right for me as a Christian? Perhaps sometimes we also think that since we are citizens of heaven the government does not have authority over us. We are a people which has a history of avoiding involvement with government. Has this made us hesitant about obedience to it? Even more significant is that we are a people who have a history of civil disobedience because we have refused to go to war. Is it possible that this has made us think that we can judge the government on other issues as well?
As you can see, there are a number of good reasons why we need to listen to what God wants us to do as citizens of Canada.
I. The Problem of Submission
As we read this passage, I suspect that the first problem comes in the first few words and that is in the word “submit.” I wonder if our problem has less to do with the government than it has to do with the word “submit.” We don’t want to submit to anyone.
When our two year old son refused to recite the verse “Children obey your parents” he was manifesting the human tendency that we do not like to submit. When the Bible tells wives to be subject to their husbands, we have a huge problem in our society today because no woman is willing to submit to her husband. It is seen as male dominance and totally out of date. When we are reminded in the same passage in Ephesians 5 that husbands are to submit to their wives in love, how many men are ready to accept that scriptural teaching? Let’s be honest, our problem is that we don’t want to submit. Our problem with obedience to God is along the same line.
So when we read “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities,” we need to realize that part of our problem is with the idea of submission. Why do we have such a problem with submission?
In the movie “Dead Poets Society,” the whole story raises the concept of individual freedom. When the teacher invites everyone to walk in the courtyard and they all walk in the same way, he encourages individual expression. Eventually, the teacher is fired from the school for the reason that he encouraged individual expression. This movie is an expression of the highest value of our society because it promotes individual expression and personal freedom. In such a society, submission is seen as bad, but is it really? Are there not times when submission is a higher value than individual freedom? I have found that the older generation understands submission better than the younger generation. They know that sometimes there is value in submission. In this passage we find that submission is God’s command and so we need to consider the value of it. Without removing the value of the uniqueness of each individual, we need to nevertheless affirm that there are times when submission is right. In our society, this is a radical concept. Can we grasp it? Can we live it in obedience to Christ?
II. Why Submit to the State
This passage teaches us that one of the times when submission is called for is in relationship to what the text calls “governing authorities.” Who are these governing authorities? Commentaries debate this, but I think that at the most basic level, it refers to all levels of government. For us in Canada, that means municipal, provincial and federal governments. At times, we may also think about other authorities. So, for example, for students it would mean school authorities.
In this text, God gives three reasons why we ought to submit to the governing authorities.
A. God Given Authority 1,2
How do you view the government?
When I go to the coffee shop and participate in conversation there, I sometimes hear some interesting views of government. I have joined in the criticism I have heard. I have heard statements which are critical of government policy, cynical about government, rejecting the laws which have been made and many comments about how stupid the government is.
That is a very different view from that of Scripture. These verses tell us that the government has been placed there by God. Listen to the powerful words that have been written here, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
When we remember that the government which Paul was encouraging these people to obey was a totally pagan government which did not follow God at all. When we understand that it was a violent government that had conquered many nations and exacted tribute from them and which ruled by violence with their head of state named “Lord.” When we remember that, we live in a democracy which is concerned about the rights of individuals and is known in the world as a peaceful nation, how much more should we be prepared to submit to the government. God has placed Jean Chretien in power. God has placed Gary Doer in power. The government we have now is there because it has been placed in authority by God.
One of the ways that we can look at this is to understand that obedience is provisional. Obedience to the government is only until Christ comes again and at that time all the governments in the world will be judged. The description of the judgement of all the world systems in Revelation 18 assures us that one day all the evil systems in the world, including all governments that do not follow God, will be judged and removed. That final perspective, however, does not give us the right to view the government as something to be dismissed today. At present, it is there under the authority of God and rebellion against the government or a careless attitude about obedience to the laws of our country is disobedience to God.
Such obedience is not always easy. I have heard stories that arise out of the ’97 flood about those who disobeyed the government to evacuate their homes and stayed behind to monitor their pumps and were able to save their property because of that. At times like that, it isn’t easy to know what obedience means.
The Bible also recognizes the validity of civil disobedience. When Peter told the authorities in Jerusalem that he would not stop preaching about Jesus, he defied them and was put in prison. In church history, the same thing has happened. Martin Niemoller stood before Chancellor Adolf Hitler and said, “God is my Fuhrer.” For this crime he was removed from his pulpit and placed in a German concentration camp.” John Bunyan was guilty of breaking the kings law. Arrested three times for failing to attend the Church of England and for preaching without proper credentials, he spent 13 years in jail. When we engage in civil disobedience, we need to be very careful that we do so only in full obedience to Christ and be prepared to suffer the consequences. When Peter was arrested, he told them, “I must obey God rather than men” but he also respected the authorities in the way he spoke and accepted arrest as the consequence of his civil disobedience. If we disobey government in our desire to obey God, we must be prepared to accept the consequences because we recognize that God has placed them in authority.
As difficult as it is and even though there are times when we may need to engage in civil disobedience, at all times, we need to recognize that God has placed the governing authorities in place and disobedience to them is disobedience to God.
B. Fear of Punishment 3-5
When a police car drives up behind you with its light flashing, what comes to your mind? Do you have a pretty good idea why you are being stopped because you know what you have done wrong or do you wonder why you are being stopped because you are sure that you did everything right?
One of the reasons why God has put governments into place is to punish wrong-doers and reward those who do right. A second reason why we need to submit to the governing authorities is so that we can live free from the fear of punishment by the authorities. Paul says in verse 3, “Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you.” Equally clear is the next verse, “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing…”
What is to be gained by living disobediently so that you need to fear punishment? For some there may be some thrill in the danger of it, but is that how we as Christians really want to live?
The authorities reward good living and so I would suggest that all Christians ought to have a positive number of merits on their licence.
I have seen commercials from lawyers who will help you beat the charges if you get caught in a traffic offence. I have heard stories about Christians who flaunt the law and when they are caught, they hire these lawyers to help them beat the charges. Such an attitude is a direct violation of the word of God written here.
For many of us, this is deterrent enough and that is good. If this reason does not persuade you, then Paul gives another reason.
C. Because of Conscience 5b
A third reason is because of conscience. My understanding of this is that we need to submit to government because we are Christians and as Christians must live at a level which is above the rest of society. Instead of seeing ourselves as better than government or standing in judgement over government, we need to be in the forefront of obedience.
We should live in such a way, that when people, whether government officials or any other authorities, know us they know that we can be respected and trusted. I want to live my life with the kind of integrity that if there is ever an accusation made against me, everyone who knows me will know that it is false. Listen to Philippians 2:14,15, “…prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world…” If there isn’t a great difference between us and the rest of the world, what is the point?
One of the main reasons to live like this is exactly because of what this passage in Philippians says. We are “lights in the world.” We are here to witness to God. How can we be a light if we engage in the rebellious deeds of darkness? I heard about a man who went to Ontario to buy a new car. His sons were with him and on the way home, he tried out the new car and tested what it could do on the highway. As the story goes, he drove most of the way home at about 80 or 90 miles per hour. He was a poor witness to them and others at that point. It was the boys who told me the story and I discovered that those boys did not respect their father for it and both of them have not come to faith even though their father was a highly respected man in church work. He taught them about obedience to government by his negative example. We do the same thing in front of the whole world. We know that our words of witness only go so far. An important part of our witness in action ought to be our attitude and our actions towards the government.
So because government has been placed by God and in order to avoid punishment and for conscience sake, God tells us that we are to submit to the governing authorities.
III. What Does Submission Mean? 6,7
What does such submission mean? Verses 6,7 help us answer this question.
First of all, it says, “this is why you pay taxes.” In the August 1994 issue of Money it was reported that the “Percentage of Americans who say they would not report to the IRS $2,000 in cash they earned from sideline work is 32.” Tax avoidance in legal ways is one thing, but tax avoidance by not declaring income is quite another. Waitresses make a considerable portion of their income by tips. The tax forms expect that they will be declared. Are they declared? We need to be honest and upright in paying taxes.
Looking at it from another point of view, some people may wonder if as citizens of the heavenly kingdom we still ought to pay taxes to the government. I know of some Christians who choose this as an area of civil disobedience, but I do not agree exactly because of this verse. This passage gives ease to our conscience that we are to pay taxes.
The text goes on to expand the duty of submission beyond taxes. We also read the words respect and honour. Respect and honour probably have a number of aspects to them, but at heart they are about an attitude. Earlier we talked about how we view the government. How does that come out in the way we talk and live? I believe that included in honor, would be praying for those in authority. Do you pray for Jean Chretien or Gary Doer? Do you pray for Vic Toews? I Timothy 2:1,2 teaches us, “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”
Obedience to this command of God has been a journey for me and there are still times when I wonder how I should obey. Every once in a while, I have to go back to the issue of submission and wrestle with myself to convince myself that I really must submit. When I get critical about the government and when I see things that are done that I don’t agree with, it is easy to become cynical. I do not think that the government is above criticism and in a democracy we have ways of holding the government accountable. We have a voice and we ought to participate in the political system at least to the level of voting, but that does not mean that we should be cynical and certainly means that we should obey.
All of us will, from time to time, probably break the law. There are too many laws and we are not aware of some of them and so we will break the law. That is inevitable, but it is not an excuse. What I am most concerned about and have seen within myself and even here in Rosenort, is the attitude of judgement over government and arrogance about the authority of the government. I confess that I sometimes fall to that kind of an attitude. It is wrong and we need to change.
For me, the most important perspective is that since I am a citizens of heaven, God calls me to obey the government as a part of my obedience to Christ. May God help us to be a light in the world as we submit to the governing authorities.