"Respect the Authorities": Specific Counsels 3 and 4
- Scriptural framework
- Summary thoughts
- Specific counsels
- Remember the distinction and recognize the appointment
Appreciate the protection and use the freedoms
Then we should appreciate the protection. Paul was not ashamed to appeal to Caesar when threatened with unjust judgments and unlawful imprisonment. He relied upon the protections afforded by the rule of law under Nero (Acts 25:11), the man who was becoming the great enemy of the Christian church. Even oppressive and persecuting governments may provide a measure of control against open sin, a measure of legitimate protection against lawlessness. I travelled some time ago to a country that had for many years lain behind the Iron Curtain. It was interesting to hear even younger people, including Christians, reminisce about the perceived benefits of the days of communism when their parents had work and homes, when they had little to eat but were thankful when it came, when they could play outside in safety until all hours of the night. They recognized the privations and oppressions that communism involved. They valued their newfound liberty, and in some cases had labored long and hard to obtain it. Many had waited years for such freedoms and suffered much in seeking them. But they also suggested that they could now buy everything and afford nothing, and that a materialistic spirit was increasingly evident in society. They found that the church too had lost something of its edge, its sense of community and its expressions of loving sacrifice in the face of difficulty and opposition. Neither were they nor am I offering some kind of apologetic for any form of totalitarianism with all its typical abuses and cruelties. Nevertheless, there was a tacit recognition that even this oppressive form of government, with all its evils, afforded them something valuable and appreciated. Despite the iniquities of totalitarianism, life under that system still offered a measure of protection in society at large, but also put an edge upon their sense of belonging to another kingdom. In a more developed liberal democracy, we ought to be properly thankful for the rule of law as it provides us with a measure of peace and stability and freedom, even if we might bemoan the spiritual flabbiness of the church under the circumstances.
There is an exegetical tradition that interprets the restraint of the man of sin--the man of lawlessness--in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 as the rule of law. The suggestion is that the man of sin himself will thrive in and arise out of an environment of undiluted and aggressive self-determination, unrestrained by strong and just government. Whether or not one accepts this interpretation, it at least underlines that we ought to be more thankful than perhaps we are for what we presently have. How many freedoms do we enjoy of which countless thousands past and present have been and are deprived? Many Christians ought to be slower to complain and quicker to express gratitude for the rulers and authorities over us.
This being so, we ought to use the freedoms we are presently afforded, wherever we might be. While we have the opportunity to live undisturbed and pursue our mission as the people of God, we ought to get on with the job. Many readers of this book still live in an environment of almost unprecedented civil liberty, and we ought to seize the day, pursuing open, frank, and full obedience to our Sovereign, carrying out our happy duty as the church of Christ in relative peace and safety. One of the tragedies is that we often use our freedoms not to labor but to relax and take our ease. We have scope to live righteously, to worship faithfully, and to preach truthfully. We should readily walk, worship, and witness as unashamed Christians while God provides us a safe environment in which to do so. We should pray that these blessings may long abide and labor as private citizens of our particular nations to preserve them.
We should remember that it is a relatively rare thing, historically and geographically, for believers to enjoy such freedoms as these. The kind of honor that has been afforded to Christian truth in much of the Western world in recent centuries is not the norm, and we might have come to assume too much. We are probably returning to the real historical norm of persecution, and we should be the more thankful for our relative freedoms while we have them, remembering those who do not as if we suffered with them (Heb. 13:3).