Church, Christian and State
When it comes to the law of the land, Peter seems to contradict himself in just a few short sentences!
“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor.”
Are we to submit ourselves…to every human authority? Or are to be live as free people under no compulsion or obligation to obey the laws of the land? Are we to be God’s slaves and fear Him or to honour the emperor?
Do you see the questions this raises?
Are we to surrender to the rules and regulations of the land (good, bad and ugly) or be unconcerned about them?
Are we compliant and placid or antagonistic and fervent?
Do we challenge the authorities or do we capitulate to them?
Do we assimilate indistinguishably into society or withdraw from it entirely?
Are Christians and the church by default patriots (literally the state’s church) or revolutionaries?
Do we have to choose between being a good citizen on one hand and a good disciple on the other?
And what is going on with Peter? Has he lost his convictions retracting his opinion in the earliest days of the church that ‘we must obey God not men’ (Acts 5:29)
What’s going on here?
Let’s take each in turn. We’ll find they are an unexpectedly good combination – like strawberries and balsamic or bacon and chocolate or marmite and garlic (go on, try it!).
First he says follow the rules! Submit to those rules that honour God and help others (even if uncomfortable or costly for us!).
Do you see the qualification in the first sentence: submit yourselves, for the Lord’s sake, to every human authority. Notice it is for the Lord’s sake. We submit to those rules, regulations, and legislation that honours Jesus.
Do you see the expansion: who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. The purpose of government is to protect society against evil and wrong and promote and expand good and right. Follow the rules that do this.
So we are to strive to be good citizen in every way that honours Jesus and helps people.
But second he says be free of the rules! Stand against those that dishonour Jesus and harm people. Peter reminds them that ultimately they are slaves of God not citizens of the state. When the state’s laws fail to honour God or cause harm to people it is time to act as the truly free people Christians are, answerable ultimately only to God our master.
But how are we to do that? Certainly not in a way that is just covering up evil. Peter’s final sentence gives four principles of dissent. It describes the way we challenge authority.
1. Respect everyone. Courtesy, respect, politeness, being civil should hallmark Christian dissent. Even as we disagree, challenge and battle against unjust rules our resolution and determination is matched by our respect to others, all others – including those we deem are ‘enemies’.
2. Love the family of believers. Issues of conscious will vary between Christians. The risk is we turn on each other and fail to love those in the church we disagree with. Yes we might try and persuade and convince fellow Christians to change their views and actions, but we do it as brothers and sisters and not as enemies.
3. Fear God. Is there a danger that an issue, starting well motivated, becomes a personal crusade? A win at all costs? A saving of my face? True Christian dissent maintains a fear and reverence of God as the primary drive.
4. Honour the emperor. Somewhere behind every legislation and law is a person or people in power who advocate or create such laws. True dissent does not fall into the trap of vilifying a person but honours those in power, even as we disagree with their use of that power.
Of course this is complex – the military, medical and political worlds are just three examples of many where the complexity of capitulation verses challenge are enormous. In James 1:5 we are reminded that God loves to abundantly give his wisdom to those who ask.
Wisdom to strive to follow the rules that honour God and help others, especially those rules which do not ‘help’ us but through our adherence to them, benefit others.
Wisdom to courageously and sacrificially stand against those state rules that dishonour Jesus and harm others.
Wisdom that our dissent would be marked by respect, love, fear of God and honouring of the powers that be even as we resolutely and unflinching obey God not man (Acts 5:29).
Wisdom to be thankful for the good government we do have and not to be complacent in areas where reform or change can and should be made.