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"Respect the Authorities": Summary Thoughts

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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 (Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com 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 (Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com or Westminster Bookstore or RHB).


Respond Prayerfully

So when they heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord and said: "Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, who by the mouth of Your servant David have said:

'Why did the nations rage,
And the people plot vain things?
The kings of the earth took their stand,
And the rulers were gathered together
Against the LORD and against His Christ.'

For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done. Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word, by stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus." And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4:24-31)

Here Luke depicts the response of the righteous when the God-appointed authorities set out to play God. The context is one that goes well beyond background antagonism--it is one of outright opposition and persecution. The Sanhedrin "called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. 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. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard'" (Acts 4:18-20). Again, as in Acts 5:29, God's authority is ultimate, man's authority is subordinate, and the church is now facing a human civil and religious authority that is requiring her to disobey God.

In the verses that follow we see the response of the church as a church, the people of God gathered together in a particular place. It may be that some of them in this place were converted priests, perhaps Roman soldiers or officials, members of Herod's or Caesar's households, or women with extensive circles of contacts or the wives of men with particular influence. There may have been some or many who might have had personal opportunities to do good in the circumstances. Doubtless such sincere believers, given the chance in the days following, might have used whatever legitimate influence they had or whatever means lay lawfully at their disposal to protect the apostles or to divert the march of persecution. But notice what the saints do as a church: They do not begin to organize and orchestrate a plan of civic resistance. They do not plan marches and establish alliances and coalitions and institutes to carry their voices to the upper echelons of society. They do not reach out to other oppressed and concerned parties to establish campaigns of co-belligerency. They do not make contact with lobbyists nor print leaflets and redesign their websites, working up a more effective advertising campaign. They do not draw up petitions, design banners with catchy titles, print T-shirts with telling slogans, and work up posters with vivid images. They do not conclude that they need to engage the world on the world's terms. They do not seek to obtain a voice on the political and cultural stage. They do not pursue larger numbers, greater prominence, cutting-edge websites, pithier sound bites, all the while whipping up publicity campaigns to sweep the floor with the opposition. None of that is remotely what you find in Jerusalem (allowing for a little modernization).

Rather, they get on their faces before God Most High and pour out their hearts to the One who governs, appoints, ordains, and judges--the Lord to whom all in heaven and earth are ultimately accountable. They raise their voices not to men but to God. This is most assuredly not mere mindless quiescence or fawning, grovelling submission to human authorities. If you read their prayer, you will see that they first recognized the divine authority and government, ascribing honor to God as the King enthroned over all, the Creator of all things, the Governor of all things, and the Revealer of Himself to men. They also reckoned with the human opposition as it really was, fierce and united against the Christ and all those who named His name. Natural enemies found a common cause in opposing Christ and His kingdom. Like Hezekiah reading Sennacherib's letter (Isa. 37:14-20), they spread the whole matter out before the Lord. Therefore, faced with such a challenge, they requested divine equipment from God's hands. But note the specific requests. They do not pray against the government, but rather for the gospel. They do not ask to be made able to avoid the threat, but rather to be given grace to meet it as true and steadfast believers: "In the face of opposition, make us yet more distinctive as those who live for and proclaim Jesus the Christ. Take away our fear, and give us courage to declare the truth." And so they received specific answers to their prayers, being filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking the word of God with boldness.

The church's response to the assaults made on her is not a rallying cry to civic resistance or even civic engagement, but to get on her knees before the living Lord and to seek His face, crying for heavenly power to declare divine truth faithfully and fruitfully even in the face of opposition and persecution.

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


A Godly Life

Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:11-12)

At the core of Peter's exhortation is the principle that a godly life--honorable conduct--provides a measure of defense to strangers and pilgrims in this hostile environment. The saints are given instructions that have to do more with the inward life: "abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul." There follows the evidence of those working principles in the outward life: "having your conduct honourable among the Gentiles." The saints, conscious of the eye of the world upon them, ought to cultivate attractive and blameless lives. Our interactions with those around us ought to be truly righteous. This is so that when our religious convictions bring a measure of reproach or persecution, those who speak evil of the children of God will be obliged to acknowledge the practical and generally beneficial godliness of the saints.

As they see your righteous living they will be caught between their rejection of the Christ whom you follow and the undeniable difference that your following of Christ makes in your treatment of those around you. They must acknowledge that your life is exemplary; that your Christian convictions raise you above the aggressive and bestial living that increasingly characterizes our societies; that our fundamental neighborliness is on open but unostentatious display (Luke 10:36). Such good works of the church will ultimately lead these critics to "glorify God in the day of visitation." This is a difficult phrase that some suggest refers to a personal and searching encounter with the Lord, perhaps prompted by or certainly driven home by the testimony of the believers in the world. There may come a day when God deals with the souls of our friends, neighbors, and colleagues who may presently pour scorn on our convictions, dismiss our religion, or deride us as mere do-gooders. In that day the honorable conduct of the saints may be one of the means that the Lord uses to press home the realities of His salvation in Jesus Christ. The following verses spell out what this looks like with regard to the state:

Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men--as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king. (1 Peter 2:13-17)

You will notice that Peter establishes absolutes that are similar to those which Paul makes clear in Romans 13. Peter explains that if the saints are to suffer, at least it ought to be for the right reasons and not because of their rebellion against God's appointed authorities. What is particularly interesting is the way in which Peter connects lawlessness and rebellion in relation both to God and to men. As with Paul, rebellion against the authority that the Lord has appointed is de facto rebellion against the Lord who appointed it. Rebellion against one authority often reflects an ill disposition to authority in general, including divine authority. It is no surprise that a generation in which sinners very willingly and eagerly enthrone themselves as the only authority worth heeding tend to disregard both the laws of men and the laws of God. Verse 17 provides a potent summary of what Peter has been addressing: "Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king" (1 Peter 2:17).

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

"Respect the Authorities": introduction

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It 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.