Results tagged “civil government” from Reformation21 Blog

"Hagar, servant of Sarai." So the angel of the Lord addressed the Egyptian slave (Gen. 16.8) who had the great misfortune to be drawn into Abraham and Sarah's scheme to assist the realization of God's promise (Gen. 16.1-6). Upon the surface, this address -- and especially the appellation "servant of Sarai" -- may seem fairly innocuous. But Calvin discovers profound truth in these words.

"By the use of this epithet," he writes, "the angel declares that [Hagar] still remained a servant, though she had escaped the hands of her mistress; because liberty is not to be obtained by stealth, nor by flight, but by manumission." By addressing her as "servant of Sarai," in other words, the angel makes it clear to Hagar that her goal -- namely, riddance of a jealous and harsh master -- is not really within her power to obtain. She remaines a "servant of Sarai" no matter how much distance she puts between herself and Sarah; all she has really secured by her flight, then, is culpability for that flight. Calvin reinforces his reading of the angel's intent in so addressing Hagar by highlighting biblical texts which, to his thinking, confirm the responsibility of servants to remain subject to their masters, however "unjust" such masters might be (cf. Eph. 6.4).

Calvin's point is fair (though arguably curious in light of his previous claim, with reference to Gen. 12.5, that slavery as such constitutes a violation of the "order of nature"). The subsequent point he draws from God's address to Hagar is perhaps less (exegetically) obvious or persuasive, though may be more practical to at least the majority of present-day readers. "Moreover," Calvin continues, "by this expression God shows that he approves of civil government, and that the violation of it is inexcusable."

Given the absence of any obvious reference to "civil government" (or the Christian's responsibility toward the same) in the text, Calvin's transition to this subject seems strange. It's tempting to dismiss this as a random effort on Calvin's part -- largely unrelated to the biblical text in hand -- to reassure civil authorities (say, Geneva's small council or the French crown) that he and like-minded reformers (and their followers) posed no threat to any given state (i.e., that they were not Anabaptists). But as he continues, the logic of Calvin's transition becomes clearer (if not more compelling).

Calvin views the relationship between Sarah and Hagar -- the relationship, that is, between master and servant -- as paradigmatic for the relationship between "lawful authorities" of every kind and their rightful subjects. Thus he ultimately discovers in Hagar's flight and God's corrective to her assumed success in "shaking off the yoke" of Sarah's authority a lesson not only for other slaves (though he judges, somewhat prematurely as it turns out, the "barbarity" of slavery to be largely "abolished" in his time), but also civil subjects (in relation to civil authorities) and children (in relation to their parents). "If the flight of Hagar was prohibited by the command of God, much less will he bear with the licentiousness of a people who rebel against their prince; or with the contumacy of children who withdraw themselves from obedience to their parents."

Calvin is not blind to the reality that "lawful authorities" of each named kind regularly abuse, to some extent or another, the power they lawfully hold over others. "They who have proudly and tyrannically governed shall one day render their account to God." But abuse of authority provides no license to disregard or disobey the same: "meanwhile their asperity is to be borne by their subjects." Elsewhere Calvin qualifies this point ever so slightly by reminding his readers that obedience to God trumps obedience to human persons and institutions. He thus provides some space for (civil) disobedience, but only that which is entirely passive in form, and likely to lead to persecution if not martyrdom.

In sum, then, we gain a rather practical exhortation from Hagar's example: "Whenever it comes into our mind to defraud any [authority] of his [or her] right, or to seek exemption from our proper calling, let the voice of the angel sound in our ears, as if God would draw us back, by putting his own hand upon us." When tempted, in other words, to offer our parents, employers, and/or civil authorities anything less than proper obedience, or otherwise to challenge our station in life, let us hear the words "servant of Sarai" spoken over us and repent of our own rebellious flights (whether real or metaphorical in kind).

But if we stand to learn, from Hagar's flight, a lesson on proper submission to "lawful authorities," we also stand to learn something about Almighty God's tender and fatherly care -- even for the runners -- from God's dealings with Hagar. Calvin discovers tenderness and grace in God's response to Hagar in at least three regards. Grace is evident, first of all, in the gentle, questioning approach the angel of the Lord takes towards Hagar. "Where have you come from, and where are you going?" the angel asks, obviously knowing the answers since he has just addressed her by name ("Hagar") and station ("servant of Sarai"). These questions are, of course, pointed, and intended to produce repentance, but nevertheless tender in comparison to more direct words which might justifiably have been spoken.

Grace is evident, secondly, in the angel's subsequent affirmation to Hagar that "the Lord has listened to your affliction" (Gen. 16.11). Hagar's plight with Sarah, in other words, is fully on God's radar screen, and he will take up her cause. Calvin deems God's interest in Hagar and her predicament all the more remarkable since "we do not read that Hagar, in her difficulties, had recourse to prayer." In other words, God heard Hagar's complaint even when such wasn't directed to him in the form of petition. "It is therefore to be observed," Calvin reasons, "that there are two ways in which God looks down upon men, for the purpose of helping them; either when they, as suppliants, implore his aid; or when he, even unasked, succours them in their afflictions."

But God's tenderness and grace is most evident, thirdly, in the instructions given to Hagar to "return to your mistress and submit to her" (Gen. 16.9). This is counter-intuitive, of course. How can it be gracious to send Hagar back into the storm (as it were) -- back into the hand of a master who resents her and has mistreated her? The profoundly gracious nature of this command stems from the true identity of that specific home towards which Hagar is here (re)directed. As Calvin explains, "that house ... was then the earthly sanctuary of God." In other words, the command issued to Hagar to "return to your mistress" was really a command to return to the bosom of the Church, the peculiar object of God's love and recipient of his promises. By sending Hagar back into "the earthly sanctuary of God," God was essentially situating her as an heir and beneficiary of those things he had pledged to Abraham -- namely, a Seed who would come to rescue God's people from guilt and sin, and a heavenly land in which God himself would be the principal joy and delight.

To put it another way, God sent Hagar back into slavery in order, ultimately, to make her truly free. Armed with that perspective, one suspects Hagar returned to her rather unsavory circumstances with much joy and confidence in her God (cf. Gen. 16.13).

"Respect the Authorities": Summary Thoughts


Summary Thoughts

In relation to the civil magistrates whom God has appointed, the Lord's pilgrim people live in the space between our Christ's declaration that His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36) and His command that we are to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's (Matt. 22:21). There is a divinely appointed and righteous tension at this point. We are of the kingdom of Christ, and that situates us finally and ultimately in and of Christ in the heavenlies. While we are here, that allegiance must be reflected in our giving to God's appointed authorities what is their rightful due as well as rendering to the Lord that which belongs to Him alone.

It is precisely because Jesus Christ's kingdom is not of this world that we obtain perspective on the world and its authorities. It is because we serve the eternal King, being citizens of heaven, that we are the best citizens on earth, measured by divine standards. I remember the story of a pastor called before a communist dictator in Eastern Europe before the collapse of the Iron Curtain. The autocrat upbraided the man of God for being subversive and rebellious. "Not at all," answered the pastor humbly. "We Christians respect our leaders. We are faithful citizens, and we pray for you every day." What if we were brought before men like Claudius Caesar or Nero Caesar, men like Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Ceausescu, and others who may yet be raised up in our nations, perhaps superintending and even directing what we are persuaded is a moral decline and advancing wickedness? Would we be able to say with a clear conscience, "Sir, I am one of your best citizens. I hear what you say even when I cannot heed it, and I pray to my God for you every day"?

As citizens of heaven we recognize that we are sojourners here and that our convictions, character, and conduct should reflect our true homeland and bring honor to our true King. Part of our duty as we make our way through the world is to regard and respect rulers and authorities as God's appointed temporal vicegerents in the civil sphere to promote righteousness and to prevent wickedness. At their best, they provide a peaceful environment in which the church can go about its gospel business in peace, simply being what God has called us to be. At their worst, the civil authorities make themselves the agitators and architects of all that is most vicious and violent about opposition to the church, employing all the machinery of government in an attempt to crush the people of God.

If the influence of the authorities is benign, we should be genuinely thankful and express that thanks to God, but we should not make the mistake of yoking our hopes for Christ's heavenly kingdom to the vehicles of political, social, or economic power or renewal. Our confidence does not lie in the politics and parties and pressure groups of any culture. If the rulers over us are malign, we should not orchestrate campaigns of civil resistance or rebellion nor despair of the kingdom of God because that does not rise or fall depending on the state of any nation or nations. In one sense, the progress of God's kingdom has nothing to do with the civil authorities. Christ is our king, and His kingdom is not of this world.

Even if we face explicit opposition, even if a government should forbid what God commands or command what God forbids, even if we reach the point of confessing that "we ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29), the Christian's noncompliance should reflect his supreme commitment to the God who governs all and who will one day subdue all. As such, his demeanor, behavior, and speech should all communicate an acknowledgment of the subordinate authority, even as he obeys the higher one.

The Christian's spirit is to be one of cheerful, willing, comprehensive submission as required of him by God. We are to offer legitimate support and reverence wherever we are able to the rulers appointed over us by our sovereign Lord, and to pray for them and for ourselves, that the gospel may readily advance as the church pursues the mission entrusted to her by her Redeemer.

Excerpted from the book Passing Through: Pilgrim Life in the Wilderness ( or or Westminster Bookstore or RHB).

Our Heavenly Hope

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself. Therefore, my beloved and longed-for brethren, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, beloved. (Phil. 3:20-4:1)

The governing power of the saints is a heavenly one. The church takes her identity, her sense of privilege and priority, her direction for behavior, and her enduring hope from her heavenly King and the realities of citizenship in His kingdom. This conditions all our relationships with the authorities here. The men of the world set their minds on earthly things, but the citizens of Zion set their minds on heavenly things. The saints operate here as belonging there. Our character, conduct, and convictions are conditioned by the world to come rather than by the world that is passing away. Paul is probably quite deliberately employing the language that would be used of Caesar to ascribe to him semidivine functions in order to emphasize that the saints have a Savior and a Lord who is most certainly not Caesar. Caesar is a lord and a deliverer by the Lord and Deliverer's appointment. Commentator G. Walter Hansen explains: "Their hope for the future is not fixed on Caesar, the savior and Lord of the Roman Empire, but on Jesus Christ, the heavenly Lord and Savior.... The power of earthly tyrants to humiliate the followers of Christ will be overcome by Christ when he subjects all things to himself and transforms our bodies of humiliation to be like his glorious body" [The Letter to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 270, 275].

Not only will the saints themselves be transformed at the coming of Christ but all things will be subdued under Him--all things, including all those who stand over and against the church, which is His body. Our home is heaven, and we are here only for a little while. All too often our problem is that we are reaching into the future and trying to bring our hopes and expectations into this world rather than anticipating them in the next. We try to build our empires here. We see things in terms of time, and we lose sight of eternity. But we are Christ's heavenly kingdom, and our citizenship is in heaven. Our King is in heaven.

This ought to be a transforming realization. If my hope is heavenly, then I know who and what I am in relation to the things of this passing world. I show proper honor to my earthly rulers but am not bound to this world as if it were the only thing that matters. With this confidence, the church is able to stand fast in the Lord. Her convictions, character, and conduct are conditioned by her relationship with her heavenly King establishing a heavenly citizenship and providing a heavenly hope.

Excerpted from the book Passing Through: Pilgrim Life in the Wilderness ( or or Westminster Bookstore or RHB).

In Calvin's estimation, the Christian life is properly one of constant gratitude. Gratitude bears fruit in holiness -- we can and should say "thank you" to God with our lives as well as our lips. The root of gratitude is constant and careful attention to God's remarkable gifts to us in spite of our creaturely finitude and culpability both for Adam's sin and our own. God's greatest gift to us, of course, is Jesus Christ, to whom we are joined by the power of the Spirit as the basis of our forgiveness, renewal in the divine image, and restoration to fellowship with the Triune God. But God has given other gifts to us -- gifts that are common to believers and unbelievers alike, but should no less be noted and appreciated.

Government is one such gift. Any reflection upon civil government which does not ultimately lead to gratitude (and therefore greater holiness) is faulty by Calvin's standard. Thus he introduces the subject of human government in his Institutes by observing: "It is of no slight importance to us to know how lovingly God has provided in this respect for mankind, that greater zeal for piety may flourish in us to attest our gratefulness."

It is, importantly, not government in abstracto that should lead us to "gratefulness" but government in concreto. To put a finer edge on this point: it is this government -- this president, this congress, this parliament, this prime minister, this monarch, this mayor, etc. -- that should properly catapult us into a posture of prayerful gratitude before God. Calvin has little interest, in fact, in government in the abstract. Thus he dismisses debates/conversations about the "best kind of government" (whether monarchy, oligarchy, or democracy) as an "idle pastime" for persons who have no real influence upon the particular form of government where they live. He proceeds, ironically, to spend some time considering the advantages and disadvantages (and there are both) of each "kind" of government, but concludes the matter by highlighting the superfluity of even his own words: "All these things are needlessly spoken to those for whom the will of the Lord is enough. For if it has seemed good to him to set kings over kingdoms, senates or municipal officers over free cities, it is our duty to show ourselves compliant and obedient to whomever he sets over the places where we live" (emphasis mine). What really matters, in other words, is not what government would be best, but what government you've been given. That is the government to which you must submit; that, by the same token, is the government for which you should offer thanks, with both your lips and your life, to God.

Why should government inspire gratitude in us? Most obviously, of course, there is (or are) the benefits that accrue to us from the existence of government per se. These benefits pertain to the individual, the family, and the Christian church. Government preserves the "public peace" and "provides that each man may keep his property safe and sound." Countless families will sit down this evening to sup together in relative safety because their governments -- by virtue of exact laws enacted and enforced -- safeguard that privilege and joy. Government, moreover, prevents "public offenses against religion," and so -- without assuming any functions of the church -- creates safe space for the church to be the church. Countless ecclesiastical families will sit down to hear God's Word proclaimed and (ideally) to Sup Together this Sunday in relative safety because their specific governments -- by virtue of exact laws enacted and enforced -- safeguard that privilege and joy. Therein lies cause for gratitude.

There is further cause for gratitude in recognizing the giftedness which permits sinful human beings to devise, implement, and perfect government per se. Fallen human beings, in Calvin's understanding, make poor work of discerning anything true about God and his ways (apart from special revelation and saving grace). But they manage remarkably well, in his view, when they devote themselves to such human subjects and endeavors as "government, household management, all mechanical skills, and the liberal arts." Devising and implementing good government, then, is not a matter of poring over Scripture to discover a blueprint for some specific form of government or specific laws and penalties, but one of putting to good use "universal impressions" that "exist in all men's minds" of "a certain civic fair dealing and order," and constructing specific laws on the basis of that natural law which God has imprinted on every human heart.

Those who would insist upon discovering a biblical model of government and its laws are, in Calvin's words, both seditious (turbulentus) and stupid (stolidus). More to the point here, they fail to properly appreciate the gifts which God has given even (or especially) to unbelievers, gifts which allow unbelievers to craft good governments. Thus they fail to properly appreciate the giver of all good gifts. "We ought not to forget," Calvin writes, "those most excellent benefits of the divine Spirit, which he distributes to whomever he will, for the common good of mankind." Indeed "if we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth" -- including truth about good governmental theory and practice -- "we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God" (emphasis mine). These comments from Calvin's Institutes form the proper backdrop for understanding Calvin's claim in his Genesis commentary that "astronomy, ...philosophy, medicine, and the order of civil government" are sciences which have been perfected not, principally, by Christians, but by "the heathen" on the basis of those "excellent gifts of the Spirit [which have been] diffused through the whole human race." In sum, then, recognizing mankind's capabilities to create and carry on good governments, however diverse those governments might be in specific form, is a matter of admiring and giving thanks to God for "the riches of his favor which he has bestowed" on mankind in toto.

Calvin is not naïve. He's well aware that governments are prone to abuse the power they've been providentially given. Such abuse never provides license for private citizens to actively resist or disobey government. Christians must, of course, obey God rather than man when God and man impose contradictory obligations. Such obedience to God might create martyrs; it should never create militia with revolutionary aims. But Calvin provides no avenue of escape from governmental orders which do not directly contradict divine mandates. If a government orders its citizens to walk on one foot for one hour per day, Christian citizens will hop to it. If legally imposed "tributes and taxes" -- the "lawful revenue of princes" -- become a form of (supposed) "tyrannical extortion," Christians citizens will continue to ante up.

The simple fact that lawful authority can be abused serves as a sufficient reminder that gratitude is not the only legitimate sentiment that civil government might properly inspire in her subjects. But, if Calvin is right, it should be one such sentiment, perhaps even the most dominant one. Moreover, whatever other sentiments gratitude might properly make peace with in our posture towards the government(s) we find ourselves living under, I seriously doubt that contempt is one of them. I suspect that many of us need some reproving on this score.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.