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Romans (Series 1)

Church and State

Romans  13:1-7

It is of particular importance to Christians in the United States of America to understand the relationship of the church and the state. This is so, for we are the government. We are not privileged to view the government as Paul was, as something external. We must see both the Christian’s duty to the government -- both good and evil -- and the government’s duties as well.

(Rom 13:1-7 NIV) 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. {3} For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. {4} For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. {5} Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. {6} This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. {7} Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Basis of Government

The first thing a Christian must understand about governments -- good or evil -- is that they are ordained by God. Paul is explicit: there is “no authority” except those that God has established. For those who accept God’s control of history, this poses no problems. The difficulty for the American Christian is that he’s part of the problem. We sometimes think that because our government does evil things, we are under no obligation to it. Hear, then, how Jeremiah was told about the oppressor of his people -- Nebuchadnezzar:

(Jer 27:5-8 NIV) With my great power and outstretched arm I made the earth and its people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please. {6} Now I will hand all your countries over to my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; I will make even the wild animals subject to him. {7} All nations will serve him and his son and his grandson until the time for his land comes; then many nations and great kings will subjugate him. {8} "' "If, however, any nation or kingdom will not serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon or bow its neck under his yoke, I will punish that nation with the sword, famine and plague, declares the LORD, until I destroy it by his hand.

Nebuchadnezzar -- of whose life we know so much from the record of Daniel -- is explicitly declared to be the “servant” of God! Daniel makes it clear that this is not an isolated example of God’s will:

(Dan 2:20-21 NIV) and said: "Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. {21} He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning.

All this is fine for most Christians of most times. We are Americans, and are self governing (or so we presume). We must therefore think of our government somewhat differently. To understand this, we must consider the nature of authority.

The joke runs in my house: “I am lord and master of my house, and I have my wife’s permission to say so.” It’s quite true. I am lord and master of my house, for both my wife and I accept and embrace the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. He gives me authority over her. But note: in taking that authority I acknowledge the authority of Jesus Christ -- who then commands me to love her as He loved the church.

So it is with our government. We take the authority to govern; we must acknowledge the source of that authority, and govern by his wisdom. The principle of that government is a recognition that all our sinners -- which is the source of our famed doctrine of “separation of powers.” This system of checks and balances has served us very well. Indeed, only one government on the planet has lasted longer than ours -- and that one is based on the same principles which animated the American Revolution (specifically, the English Revolution). The principle has long been accepted by the English speaking peoples. It is the idea that the state is the servant of the people (as befits a true leader) under the law. The king is under the law.

The oldest written expression of this idea -- that the king is under the law -- is found in Magna Carta. Winston Churchill praises it, and warns us of the dangers of neglecting this doctrine, thusly:

The underlying idea of the sovereignty of the law, long existent in feudal custom, was raised by it into a doctrine for the national State. And when in subsequent ages the State, swollen with its own authority, has attempted to ride roughshod over the rights or liberties of the subject it is to this doctrine that appeal has again and again been made, and never, as yet, without success.”

By this principle our nation has lived. We now have entered an age where our political thinkers have raised the will of man as the true basis of government. By abandoning the sovereignty of law as our basis of government we shall soon place man supreme, and abandon the doctrine that there is a law which is above even the king. Should this be allowed, our government will be swept away -- and one may not even add, “unfortunately.” But take heart: God still rules. Governments are temporary; we are eternal -- and God reigns.

Christian duty to good government

Paul seems to outline here the response of the Christian to “good” government. Most Christians of most times live under a governmental system that bears no particular hostility to the Church, and in particular no hostility to Christians. This picture is a happy one, and never entirely accurate. Let us take it, for the moment, and ask the question, “what is the duty of the Christian to a ’good’ government?”

·         First, we are to “fear the sword” -- that is, the police powers of the state. Not just because we could be punished, but also because of our consciences.

·         More generally, we are to “render unto Caesar” -- particularly in the form of taxes -- which implies we are to determine what is due our government, and then deliver such. Our Lord’s words:

(Mat 22:15-21 NIV) Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. {16} They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. "Teacher," they said, "we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. {17} Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" {18} But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? {19} Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius, {20} and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?" {21} "Caesar's," they replied. Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

·         Not only are we to “render” to our rulers; we are to pray for them:

(1 Tim 2:1-3 NIV) I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone-- {2} for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. {3} This is good, and pleases God our Savior,

·         The principle is the same, always: honor him to whom honor is due. It is an exercise in Christian character. The Christian, like his Lord, is to be a servant. Shall we interrupt this servant character with a rebellion against those whom God has appointed?

·         In all these things we must consider the reputation of the church. People are eternal, going to heaven or hell; governments are temporary. Our reputation in the world must aid our efforts in saving the lost:

(1 Pet 2:13-17 NIV) Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, {14} or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. {15} For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. {16} Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. {17} Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.

·         As Peter makes clear in the passage above, we are to consider our relationship to the government as an exercise in Christian liberty -- an exercise in submission “for the Lord’s sake.” We are not to use our freedom in Christ as a “cover-up.”

All the above might seem to imply an attitude of unconditional obedience. This is not so. We are to be “in the world, not of the world.” How then do we do this?

·         We must begin by remembering that the governments of this world are as nothing compared to the reign of God. Jesus had a particularly fine way of emphasizing this point (and who says Jesus had no sense of humor?):

(Mat 17:24-27 NIV) After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, "Doesn't your teacher pay the temple tax?" {25} "Yes, he does," he replied. When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. "What do you think, Simon?" he asked. "From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes--from their own sons or from others?" {26} "From others," Peter answered. "Then the sons are exempt," Jesus said to him. {27} "But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours."

·         The Christian is called to be a servant, just as His master was so called. On what basis then can the servant say that he wants to change the rulers God has appointed? It is not so much that they are righteous and to be obeyed as they are temporary and to be borne.

·         The Christian must remember that in Christ he has liberty -- and a duty to use that liberty only for the cause of Christ.

We are in the world, not of the world. Even if our good deeds are praised by our government, that is not why we do them. We do them for the Lord of All.

Reaction to an “evil” government

What then is our reaction to be to an “evil” government -- by which I mean a government which oppresses the church, and deliberately chooses to govern in Satan’s way?

·         We must be willing to suffer for the cause of Christ. In such a way we can earn the commendation of our Master. Peter says it this way:

(1 Pet 2:19 NIV) For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God.

·         In all circumstances, we must be respectful of these authorities, ever mindful of the fact that they have been placed their by God. Here are three examples.

The Hebrew Children

(Dan 3:17-18 NIV) If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. {18} But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up."

Note the attitude:

·         God can save us if He wants to -- you, O King are not the final authority.

·         Even if He doesn’t, your attitude doesn’t change a thing -- we will do good, no matter what.

·         And we’ll tell you so respectfully.

David and Saul

(1 Sam 24:1-13 NIV) After Saul returned from pursuing the Philistines, he was told, "David is in the Desert of En Gedi." {2} So Saul took three thousand chosen men from all Israel and set out to look for David and his men near the Crags of the Wild Goats. {3} He came to the sheep pens along the way; a cave was there, and Saul went in to relieve himself. David and his men were far back in the cave. {4} The men said, "This is the day the LORD spoke of when he said to you, 'I will give your enemy into your hands for you to deal with as you wish.'" Then David crept up unnoticed and cut off a corner of Saul's robe. {5} Afterward, David was conscience-stricken for having cut off a corner of his robe. {6} He said to his men, "The LORD forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord's anointed, or lift my hand against him; for he is the anointed of the LORD." {7} With these words David rebuked his men and did not allow them to attack Saul. And Saul left the cave and went his way. {8} Then David went out of the cave and called out to Saul, "My lord the king!" When Saul looked behind him, David bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. {9} He said to Saul, "Why do you listen when men say, 'David is bent on harming you'? {10} This day you have seen with your own eyes how the LORD delivered you into my hands in the cave. Some urged me to kill you, but I spared you; I said, 'I will not lift my hand against my master, because he is the Lord's anointed.' {11} See, my father, look at this piece of your robe in my hand! I cut off the corner of your robe but did not kill you. Now understand and recognize that I am not guilty of wrongdoing or rebellion. I have not wronged you, but you are hunting me down to take my life. {12} May the LORD judge between you and me. And may the LORD avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you. {13} As the old saying goes, 'From evildoers come evil deeds,' so my hand will not touch you.

Even to save his life David would not raise his hand against Saul; he felt remorse about cutting out a little piece of cloth from his garment. But note also how his actions are translated into testimony!

Christ and Pilate

(John 19:10-11 NIV) "Do you refuse to speak to me?" Pilate said. "Don't you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?" {11} Jesus answered, "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin."

The ultimate in power in the universe personally acknowledged that the one who was sending him to death on the cross held his power at the will of God. One wonders whether or not His servants have the same respect.

Not only are we to be respectful, and ready to suffer, we must also be ready to present a defense of the faith in these circumstances. There is power in such a defense. Says Peter:

(1 Pet 3:13-16 NIV) Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? {14} But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. "Do not fear what they fear ; do not be frightened." {15} But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, {16} keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

“The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church,” said Tertullian. Faced with the ultimate in persecution, we can go to death knowing who is triumphant.

Governments rule by power and force; the Christian triumphs by God’s methods. We should not forget that the chapter divisions in Romans were not in the original. Do you remember the verse just before this section?

(Rom 12:21 NIV) Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.


·         Governments are temporary; the saints are eternal -- and God rules.

·         We are in this world, not of it, and therefore do not need the approval of government (or of any other human being either).

·         When faced with evil government, we must overcome evil with good.

Martin Luther, in his commentary on Romans, summed it up this way:

“By faith the Christian makes all things subject to himself; for he is neither ruled by them nor does he put his trust in them. He compels them to serve his glory and salvation. That is what it means to serve God and to rule as kings. That is the spiritual rule, of which we read in Revelation 5:10,

(Rev 5:10 NIV) You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth."

The world is conquered and subdued in no better way than despising it. The spirit of the believer therefore is subject to no one, nor can it be subject to anyone. It is exalted with Christ, and all thinks lie subdued at his feet.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the martyr to Adolf Hitler, put it more simply:

“It is immaterial whether the power be good or bad, what matters is that the Christian should overcome evil by good.”

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