Sunday, September 16, 2012

How Are Christians to Regard the Government?

I was perusing the archives at Tim Challies' site recently and came upon this fantastic article on how Christians are to regard the government.  These are some important things to think about, especially considering that our country is on the verge of either electing or re-electing a president.  But even if there were no impending election, I think it's a very profitable exercise for Christians to think about how they are to regard those in authority.

Challies posted some reflections on the Christian's responsibility to pay taxes, and to do so with honor and respect to those who are collecting them.  That sounds like a strange and even foreign concept to most of us, considering that nobody's really excited to give up their hard earned money at the end of a sword.  Nevertheless, scripture has some important things to say about this issue.  For that, I commend you to Challies' site.

What I wanted to think about here for a minute is something else that Challies' post brings up in a roundabout sort of way, and that is how Christians regard the government in general.  Challies writes this about the historical context of Romans 13:
He [Paul] was writing to people who lived in Rome, people who were under the authority of a government that worshipped idols, that was systematically out to conquer and subjugate the world, that made death a form of entertainment, that promoted slavery, that was utterly ruthless and actively opposed to God.  This was the government that was always on the verge of breaking out in persecution against the church.  It was the government that had put Jesus to death.  Paul was telling these Roman Christians to give honor, respect, and taxes to the very government that paid the wages of the men who crucified Jesus, who mocked him, who spat on him, who rejoiced in his death.  
The opening verses of Romans 13 go on to say that the very authorities Challies describes in the paragraph above have been placed in their position and given their authority by God.  Furthermore, resistance to these authorities is resistance to God, since God is the one who has put them there.  In fact, those who resist the authority of earthly rulers will incur the judgment of God upon themselves (probably through the very rulers that one intends to resist).

Two things come to mind when I think about this

1. 21st century America sounds a lot like first century Rome.  When compared to Challies' description of first century Rome, we likewise have leaders that worship idols; we likewise have leaders that are set on systematically conquering the world; we likewise have leaders that are obsessed with death, slavery (of other sorts), and who are actively opposed to God.  Furthermore, our government is (I believe) largely opposed to the Christian faith.  We can't claim that it's just a different context than what the Roman Christians experienced, because in many ways it's quite similar.  We also can't use an excuse like "I respect the office, not the man," as a reason for ragging on elected officials (which I've heard many times, almost always from Christians).  I don't think this is a biblically tenable position to take.

2. A proper understanding of these concepts is difficult in the context of a representative republic form of government.  C. S. Lewis once commented something to the effect that he appreciated the fact that he lived in a monarchy, because it was always clear who was in charge.  There was always someone that was clearly defined as the ruler, and the knee was to be bent to such a person, regardless of his or her decisions or decrees.  Here in America, if our rulers don't do what we want, we vote the bums out.  We are perhaps inclined to show less respect to our governing officials simply because of the nature of the way our government is structured.  This is something I think we need to be careful about.  It can be easy to disrespect, belittle, and dishonor those with whom we disagree politically - even on very important issues that we would consider to be crucial.  If nothing else, rest assured that the Christians in Rome likewise had to deal with authorities that held unbiblical positions on important issues, and Paul commanded them to show honor and respect.

The crux of the issue is how I actually go about showing honor and respect to someone who believes differently than I do, say on the issues of abortion and gay marriage.  These are big issues that I feel strongly about.  Nevertheless, respect and honor is due to those whom God has put in this position.  How do I do this?  A few things come to mind.

1. Recognize that each leader is in place by the authority of God and nothing else.  God has placed leaders where they are for his purposes.  They have not achieved their end by their own means.  Realize that God is still sovereign, no matter who is on the throne or holds the office of the presidency (or governor, or senator, etc.).

2. Realize that in honoring leaders, I am honoring God.

3. I can hold elected officials in prayer, always seeking their best.

4. I can pray for myself, that God would help me to view all people in love and give me a desire to reach the lost with the gospel (yes, even those elected officials that we can't stand).

5. I can read the Bible to study the ways in which God has ordained leaders in the world for our good in order to gain a better understanding.

6. I can watch the way I talk about these people in public discourse.

7. I can realize that there but by the grace of God go I.

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