September 6, 2020 Sermon — The Office of Christian Citizen
Scriptures: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:1-10; Matthew 18:1-20
Now is the season of political persuasion. The ads are almost shrill and insistent enough to distract our attention from the real news—the invisible menace that hangs in the air, dividing us. But I like political advertising. I like to analyze the strategies that long-timers and up-and-comers use to try convincing us that they, and only they, are the hope for “truth, justice, and the American way” (cue Superman). But have you ever noticed—the Word of God never attempts to persuade. The Word of God declares, commands, inspires.
Today we’re going to look at our second reading and talk about the office of the Christian citizen. Now that may seem unlikely and a little tricky. Nobody wants to tread on toes, and our tax status prohibits partisan speech. But we will avoid any of that and simply see what God says. Without question, Romans 13:1-10 declares four simple truths:
Truth one: All authority comes from God and is vested in Jesus Christ. When Pilate, the Roman governor, said to Jesus, “Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above’” (Jn 19:10b-11a). Jesus makes no bones about it. He says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Mt 28:18).
Truth two: Christians owe their ultimate allegiance to that ultimate authority, Jesus—“King of kings and Lord of lords” (Re 17:14b). The Word of God proclaims that. No more need be said.
Truth number three: Out of his ultimate authority, God grants authority to civil governments to promote the good and punish the wrongdoer. Long before Paul wrote to the Romans, the prophet Daniel spoke these words: “Blessed be the name of God from age to age, for wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; [he] set ups kings and deposes them” (2:20-21a). Civil authority is God’s chosen instrument to govern the human world. And civil authorities have a specific obligation: They are authorized by God for the “good” of God’s people. Governments are not given unlimited authority, and they always remain God’s servants.
Therefore, truth number four: Because all authority comes from God, Christians owe their allegiance to God, and God sets up civil authorities to govern, Christians should submit to the authority of civil governments. “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1Pe 2:13). Christian citizenship is first in the kingdom of God and only secondarily, in any other nation.
That’s a very straightforward logical sequence. And it solves a lot of problems when you can simply read a Scripture passage and apply it full force without considering the rest of what God says. It was that kind of simplistic reading that led the German Lutheran Church not only to stay silent when Hitler was rising in power but also to actively support him and his administration even when they were saying and doing things clearly contrary to the will of God. In hindsight, we see the error of their ways. The question is how are you and I to understand the words of Romans 13 today and going forward.
To respond to that question, let’s look at this passage in light of the whole witness of Scripture, to draw out three key truths it communicates.
First, given the political context of this letter, Paul wants to assure the Roman government that Christians were not political troublemakers. And he wants to urge his Christian readers to live according to that truth. Declaring that “Jesus is Lord” was then, and is now, a political statement. In the Roman Empire, Christians were regarded as the scum of the earth, so they could not afford to get the additional reputation of revolutionaries. So Paul sets out God’s design for the relationship between the government and the governed.
But this passage communicates another truth that, from his human perspective, Paul may not have realized when he was writing. This letter was written before the Roman authorities began extreme persecution of Christians. So when Paul wrote that governments are established “for your good,” rewarding the righteous and punishing the wrongdoer, that description may have felt reasonably accurate. But in the years following, that description would seem more idealistic than actual. You don’t have to know much history to know that governments do not always function in godly ways toward godly ends. What happens then? That brings us to a second truth. And this may surprise you.
The obligation of Christian citizens to civil authorities is submission, not obedience. Read the text. Let me say that again. Christians are commanded by God to submit to governing authorities because those authorities are established by God, but Christians are not commanded to obey all governing authorities in every circumstance. “To submit” (“to be subject”) means to acknowledge and respect the reality of the political structure under which one stands. When on rare occasions our ultimate loyalty to God puts us in opposition to the way a government is exercising authority, we stand in a long line of godly individuals who faced that situation and chose civil disobedience:
Early in the Old Testament story, when the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, their captors feared that when there were enough of them, the Hebrew would revolt. So “the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives . . . ‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.’ But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them; they let the boys live (Ex 1:15-17).
Later, when the Israelites were again captive, this time by the Babylonians, we see a government acting contrary to the worship of God and a godly man taking action: When Daniel, one of the captive Israelites, distinguished himself and was appointed by the king to a position of power, his political opponents set a trap. They convinced the king—apparently not much of a “sharpie” himself—to “establish an ordinance . . . , that whoever prays to anyone, divine or human, for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into a den of lions.” And the king signed the law. But “although Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open toward Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him (Da 6:1-10). Bad government, civil disobedience, next stop—the lions’ den.
And, in the New Testament, we encountered Peter and John only a couple of weeks ago, countering religious authorities who ordered them to stop talking about Jesus. But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority’” (Ac 5:29). The religious authorities intended to kill them for that disobedience, but they settled for a simple beating. And the apostles went right on witnessing to Jesus.
So it’s clear from Scripture: God does not command obedience when a governmental authority is acting against the express will of God. Still, a Christian who chooses to disobey authorities can obey God by willingly submitting to the penalties for such disobedience.
But let’s say you and I see no need for civil disobedience. We’re not at that point. So what, then, is the office of a Christian citizen today? The answer to that question is in our rear-view mirror; we’ve already learned it: We are ambassadors for Christ. God has given us the ministry of reconciliation, the responsibility of witnessing to Jesus and living so that others may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.
So let’s think about our opportunities for witness and good works in our current political climate:
First, we should pray.
Pray for God’s protection on those who govern and those who are governed.
Pray for God‘s wisdom for all those involved.
Pray that God will hold back the hand of evil so that legitimate concerns can be heard and addressed.
Pray that those whose responsibility is to listen and address the concerns of all those they govern will be able to look away from their own pursuit of power, to reason and determine what is best for those under their charge.
Second, we should resist.
Resist the temptation to think of “us” against “them.” No matter how sharp the differences, harboring hate or mentally or verbally rejecting others does not obey Christ’s standard of love. Jesus calls us to love our enemies and those who go a different way.
Resist the urge to spread rumors and negative commentary on Facebook, Twitter, or in personal conversations.
Resist the flow of propaganda and persuasion that masquerades as “news” coverage. Don’t bury your head in the sand, but use your godly sense to distinguish between information and indoctrination.
And third, we should avoid conflation. These days (and for a long time), it has become all too easy for Christians to conflate faith in Jesus Christ with patriotism. “To conflate” means to combine two things into one, sometimes two things that don’t belong together—in this case, combining love and loyalty to Jesus with love and loyalty to a political entity or idea. Conflating those two things is not in keeping with the will of God. There’s nothing wrong with loving our country or having strong views for or against a person or a political position. I’m not talking about that. But I’m going to say something now directly because we the Church need to get this: No flag ever flies over Jesus. And when a person tries to encourage your patriotism or win your vote by distorting Scripture—saying we should “fix our eyes on Old Glory” instead of Jesus, which is what the actual verse says (Heb 12:1-12), that distortion of the Word of God is blasphemy! We are citizens of the kingdom of God, first and always—subjects of the King of kings and Lord of lords. Everything else bows to that!
God establishes governments for good order, and we as God’s people are commanded to respect and submit ourselves to those governments because God instituted them. We don’t need persuasion to do that. We have the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the power of the Word of God.
All Contents (except quotations) Copyright 2020 Beverly C. DeBord.
All Rights Reserved.