Today Americans celebrate freedom. Over 200 years ago, those who previously lived under British rule established a self-ruled democratic government. We celebrate because we benefit in the 21st century from those 18th century actions.
Every four years, citizens of these United States of America cast their ballots, thus indicating their choice for Commander-in-Chief. Additionally, at other scheduled intervals, we elect other citizens to represent us at the local, state, and national level.
Broadly speaking, in my lifetime, so far at least, at the close of an election, roughly half of our nation's population rejoices while the remaining 50% lick their wounds. Whether a sign of a healthy democracy or a divided nation, the pattern continues.
Christians and non-believers alike live in that pattern. So, if you are a believer, you, as a Christ-follower, need to know how to honor Him with your living within a mix of happiness and disappointment.
Looking to God's word, the Scriptures, we seek the answer. Focusing our search on the New Testament, we find, surprising perhaps, very little counsel as to political decisions. Jesus clearly instructs His hearers to pay taxes; however, rather than focusing on the rule of Rome, the Lord spoke continually of the Kingdom of God. Moving further into the New Testament text, we discover that Paul, a devout Christ-follower, penned a word on faithful citizenship. Join me in hearing those words.
Sixty-nine years ago, theology professor Gerald Cragg wrote a reflection on Paul's call to submission to governmental authority. He wrote:
Those six-decade-old words explain well Paul's nineteen-hundred-and-one-half-year-old words. If we willfully prefer "our private aims to the well-being of society," we miss the point. Paul understood, as should we, that devotion to God, while calling us to answer to the Highest Power, does not remove us from submission to lower powers. Those lower powers, when leading well, call individual citizens together in efforts to strengthen their communities.
Whether quick or more in-depth, a study of history reveals that whenever the State controls the Church or the Church controls the State, nearly everyone loses. Freedom of and from religion proves most beneficial.
With that said, however, as for the Church, that does not mean that Christians should ignore the authority of the State. For example, in every war in which our nation has engaged, from the Revolutionary to Afghanistan, Christian soldiers have fought under presidents with whom they agreed and disagreed. If they disagreed, why did they fight? Because they respect the authority of the leader. On a broader scale, no matter your political persuasion and / or philosophical views, when the government limits your speed, you obey or you say "Yes, Officer" when receiving the citation.
Don't miss the key to Paul's divinely backed charge. He instructs his readers to obey because "there is no authority except that which God has established." Jesus testified to this same truth while standing before Pilate.
Perhaps, for most people in a country such as ours, accepting the fact that God establishes governments is manageable. How about for those in 1940s Germany, 1960s American South, current day Russia, China, or North Korea? Paul wrote the letter to the Romans one to two years into the reign of the Emperor Nero at a time of relative peace for the Church. Things changed within just a few years. Nero lighted his gardens nightly with human lamps - persecuted Christians aflame. Persecution continued as he blamed the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome.
Throughout history, believers, wanting to live by the word of God, struggled with Romans 13. The struggle continues.
First-century Christians, Paul, modern martyrs, and Jesus Himself submitted to authorities. In 1940s Germany, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer created the Confessing Church, speaking against Nazi rule. He also took part in an assassination plot targeting Adolf Hitler. In 1960s Alabama, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke out and led protests calling for equal civil rights for all people. When should we submit and when should we resist? Clearly, the question is hard. However, I believe there is an answer. We find the answer in the story of Bonhoeffer, King, and most importantly, Jesus.
Bonhoeffer spoke up when the rights and lives of Jews and others were taken.
King spoke up when the rights and lives of Black Americans and others were violated.
Jesus spoke up when children were rejected, the oppressed were ignored, when the poor were forgotten, and when His Father was insulted.
Notice the common theme. The three men, two of this earth and One also fully God, spoke up on behalf of and died for others. From their examples, I learn that there are times to speak up and stand up and those times are for the rights and lives of others. While the people mocked, beat, and ridiculed Jesus, He remained silent. When they blasphemed God, He flung tables.
As we have seen, submission may not be the right thing all the time. It is, however, the right thing most of the time.
Conscience. For Paul, obeying was not for avoiding punishment, although that was a nice benefit. Rather, obedience to governmental authorities, for Paul, was a way to keep his conscience clear before his God. He wrote these words calling for submission to an audience who found the temptation of perverting "his emphasis on the coming of a new era and on the 'new creation' into a rejection of every human and societal convention-including the government" (Moo 791). You and I may face the same temptation. Yet, while we answer to the Highest Authority, that does not excuse us from answering to the governmental powers that may be. See Romans 12:21 (NIV) - Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
As we celebrate our freedom in Christ each week and while we celebrate our freedom in our country this week, let us pause and pray for our brothers and sisters in the faith across this globe whose freedom is violated and stolen.
My library contains the book, Voices of the Martyrs. Published in 2007, John Foxe's work tells the stories of persecuted Christians beginning with Stephen of 34 A.D. Here are some of the locations of modern-day persecution. (ix - x)
For further reading . . .
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