Friday, January 30, 2009

Do I Have to Support the Government?

Jimmy’s candidate lost. “Does the Bible really tell us that we have to support the government?” Someone threw this verse at him, saying he was in disobedience to God if he didn’t get behind and support the new leadership. Scripture is often misquoted when someone is trying to win an argument. Instead of quoting “submit to,” Jimmy’s friend read it as “support.” Nice try!

“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”
Romans 13:1

This is not a verse to begin a thought on. Time to get the whiteout! The book of Romans is a letter. There are no chapter headings. So if you have “Submission to the Authorities” and a big number “13” in your Bible, this was not in the original text. For context let’s go back to chapter 12 and start with verse 17. It reads, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” That’s a better place to start this discussion.

Paul has just been describing what Christian devotion to one another will look like. This community of persecuted believers was going to be “joyful in hope, patient in affliction, and faithful in prayer.” They were going to “live in harmony with one another.”

In verse 17, he tells the reader “Do not repay evil for evil.” Then comes, “Do not take revenge” but to “leave room for God’s wrath.” Following are instructions on how to treat enemies. In a nutshell, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” There we are told how to live, and it is radically different than how unbelievers live.

So finally at Romans 13:1, Paul’s original letter just flows on. You could almost read in, "...and speaking of evil..." This is no place to start a new thought, but a place to gulp. Despite evil times, they were told to submit to their governing authorities.

Rome’s Emperor at the time was Nero! By this time, Nero’s advisor Seneca was having less and less influence. As he grew up, Romans could see that their ruler was psychologically unstable. Nero seemingly enjoyed shocking people with his ever increasing immorality.

Perhaps Paul’s letter was prophetic, or perhaps it was just obvious. This same Nero in just a few years would try convincing Rome that it wasn’t himself, but Christians who had set the devastating fire of 64. He tried to turn public opinion against the Christians. After rounding up some leaders, and through torture gathering names of other believers, Nero killed Christians publicly for sport.

Paul isn’t saying to support Nero. To do so Christians would be supporting murder! He is saying to submit to “the governing authorities.” Who are your governing authorities? No matter where we are, we are all under some governing authority. If we rebel against those set over us, our consciences will suffer.

“Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.”
Romans 13:5

The governing authorities over me are my local police, and if I need one, court judges. Mayors, governors, and elected officials who are hundreds or thousands of miles away from me, I will probably never speak to. Yes, they make laws that I either like or dislike. But it’s my local police who “keep the peace.” If our neighborhoods are rioting, our police have to answer to those who are in authority over them.

As Paul explains, our taxes pay for them to keep this peace. Our submitting to them helps them do so. Those who rebel against them, endanger others. We are told in verse 2 that if we rebel, we rebel against the covering that God has put into place for us. Then also, we can expect to be punished. I think this is also what Peter was saying when he wrote:

“But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.”
1 Peter 2:24

There are many countries where Christian activity is unlawful. This has always been so. Paul is not writing for Christians to “support” these laws. But we submit to the police who uphold these laws. People following Jesus there will suffer if caught with Bibles, or baptizing new believers. Peter is saying if we suffer, to make sure it is for obeying God, not just for rebelling.

Paul was arrested for teaching others his faith. He submitted to his jailers. As a result, we have several books of the Bible. To hear Jesus talk, rather than overthrow them, we'll more likely as His followers, be dragged before kings and thrones.

“On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”
Matthew 10:18

He isn’t instructing us to overthrow unfaithful rulers. God has a message for them! People tend to look to those in leadership positions as the source of either their suffering or their blessings. They are neither:


”Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
James 1:16,17

People may want change, but God is unchanging. To think blessings come from human leadership is to be deceived. Likewise, human leadership is not the source of human suffering and evil. It can certainly seem that way, but we are exhorted to remember:

“… our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
Ephesians 6:12

For the rest of chapter 13, Paul talks about living with the “armor of light.” We are to do battle true; but our weapons are spiritual. If you want to go on the offensive, our weapons are twofold: standing in truth, and fervent prayer.

“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.”
1 Timothy 2:1,2

Paul goes on to explain how this is pleasing to God, and helps create an atmosphere where more people can be “saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” That is what is important to God! If you feel that the government is evil, you have permission to act. But:

“… though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.”
1 Corinthians 10:3,4

Paul is talking about taking every thought captive and making it submissive to the truth that God has revealed. This is the weapon of standing in truth. And when evil comes, we are to overcome it with good.

“But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.”
1 Peter 2:20

I’ve lived in one country whose dictator practiced voodoo, and in another country whose government was officially atheist. The Christians in both these places live very fruitful and impressive lives. Regardless of their human governments' regulations they live powerfully fruitful lives:

“…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. Against such things there is no law.”

Galatians 5:22,23

There aren’t any laws that prevent you from fruitful service to God. For Christian activity, you may need to be a bit creative of course. Instead of holding a Bible Study for instance, try having a “birthday party.” Someone somewhere must be having a birthday, and so might as well bake a cake and celebrate it, right? And if you recite something life changing for you, like a Psalm, to your friends….. You aren’t breaking any laws having a birthday party, right? Submit to governing authorities, let them keep the peace, but let God be your leader.

People were tempted to give in to the culture and times, but Paul exhorts: “Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.”

“The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
Romans 13:11,12


Oh, and while you have the whiteout handy, erase the chapter 14 heading that says, “The weak and the strong,” along with that big number "14," as if Paul were changing subjects again. He is not:

“Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.”
Romans 14:1

Apparently we're to help one another along when evil comes, eh? Go figure!