"Respect the Authorities": Specific Counsels 1 and 2
July 11, 2015
Almost nothing agitates Christians as much as discussion of the relationship of the church to the state. Some seem to imagine that theological and political allegiances are inextricably bound together. Others set out to avoid any kind of commitments. Some practice an extreme separatism, as if no Christian should care about or be involved in any political, social, or economic discussions or processes. Others fling themselves into this realm with what can appear to be thoughtless abandon. I trust that the discussion of this issue so far has at least provided a measure of clarity. Without the deliberate intention of slaying any particular sacred cows, let me offer what I hope are some clear and coherent principles based on what we have seen from the Word of God.
First, we must remember the distinction. Do not mix or confuse the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of God. Perhaps one of the most helpful volumes in assessing our attitude and developing our responses to this issue is a very old one--The City of God by the theologian Augustine. Written at a time when the Roman Empire was collapsing, when many believers feared that the kingdom of God would collapse with it under the ravages of the barbarians, when many were confused about God's intentions and perhaps feared that the unshakeable was being shaken, Augustine's weighty work provides a corrective to such shortsightedness and a counterbalance to such fearfulness.
Augustine looks at the world from the perspective of the last day, recognizing that there are really only two peoples on the earth, citizens of two kingdoms or cities. One of those kingdoms is marked by supreme love to the Creator, and one by supreme love to the creation. These cities exist in stark antithesis to one another. Each has its own distinctive identity, activity, and destiny, although at present they coexist in one environment--those who worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25) and those who worship and serve the Creator rather than the creature are side by side in this present age. Every person on the planet belongs to one city or the other. Each person bows to only one sovereign. You are either God's in Christ or of this present world, building your hopes and dreams here. The church cannot confuse her identity. We are the Creator's, and we do not wed ourselves to this present creation. The church is the city of God, and it is separate from the cities of men.
Here is the key point: though the citizens of the two kingdoms necessarily mingle as they make their way through this world, God's people cannot be finally identified with any nation, party, society, or institution in the earth. There is no such thing as a Christian nation, though there may be nations in which we find many Christians. There are no Christian governments, though there may be governments well seasoned with Christians. As we saw before, "this City has no home here in this world, but is on its way to its true home in the world to come" [Michael Haykin, "'The Most Glorious City of God': Augustine of Hippo and The City of God," in The Power of God in the Life of Man: Papers Read at the 2005 Westminster Conference ([London]: Westminster Conference, 2005), 51].
All this taken into account, it is vital that every one of us consider the issue of our allegiance. Where do you belong? To whom do you bow? Are you wedded to the creation, or waiting for the Creator? Where is your treasure, your home, your hope, your heart? Are you a resident here, with all your anchors dropped in this present world, or are you a pilgrim here, with your eyes fixed on the heavenly city? It is only when the Christian understands himself to be unequivocally and distinctively a citizen of heaven that he knows how to relate to the kingdoms of the earth.
In the church I serve there have been people from many different nationalities who have been in my country temporarily. If you ask them where they live, they know that they are in England. If you ask them where they belong, they know it is somewhere else. They know what it is to be resident aliens. Christians too recognize where they are and where they belong, and they do not blur the lines.
Once he knows who and whose he is and where he belongs, the Christian can then recognize the appointment of the earthly authorities by the God of heaven. He can both see it as true and respond to it in righteousness. God has appointed subordinate authorities in various spheres. He has appointed His regents in the home, the church, and the state. If we rebel there, we are rebelling not just against men but against the God who has put those men over us. Children would do well to remember this as they arrogantly react to their parents. Church members would do well to remember this as they contend or buck against the shepherds appointed for them. Citizens would do well to remember this as they carelessly and carnally complain about, ignore, or despise the civil authorities in their nations. This is not the same as saying that parents, pastors, and governments are infallible. Nevertheless, our underlying attitude toward them reveals something about our attitude to authority in general and--by virtue of the particular relation that underpins them--our attitude to God's authority in particular. Raise the fist against whom or what God sends, and you are raising the fist against God Himself.
With specific regard to governments and rulers, it is because our allegiance is ultimately to God and to His Christ that we submit to the authorities He has called into being and into whose hands He has put a measure of responsibility. This recognition conditions even the manner in which we express our ultimate allegiance when there is a conflict between our obedience to God and our submission to God's appointed authorities. Who can submit even while he disobeys without wisdom and grace from God? The examples of Daniel and his friends and later of the apostles and the early church demonstrate what this can and should look and sound like.
The fact that God has put these authorities in place governs how we should think about, speak of and to, and act toward civil magistrates. Often it will show itself in smaller things: in our driving habits, in our tax returns, in our patience with what seems like so much nonsensical bureaucracy. The fifth commandment has penetrating implications that must be embraced. We are to uphold and respect God's authorities.