God and Governments

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Introduction

Consistent Christians are not anarchists or scofflaws. We are gathered together today in this particular way precisely because we are not scofflaws. Every Christian who reads his Bible knows and understands that we are supposed to submit to the authorities that God has placed over us. What every Christian does not know, however, is that there are various understandings of how we are to do this. So yes, this is what we are to do. But how are we to do it? Are there different approaches to this assigned task? Are there disagreements we must work through first? And the answer is yes to both questions.

The Text

“Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king” (1 Peter 2:13–17).

Summary of the Text

In this passage from 1 Peter, we are told that we do whatever it is we do for the Lord’s sake. We obey magistrates in the Lord’s name, and we are not to obey them in their own name (v. 13). Their authority is not original with them. Their authority is derivative. In Romans 13, a similar passage, we are told a number of times that the authorities are God’s servants (deacons). This starts with the king, who is supreme. This means, in context, the supreme servant, the head servant. It then moves down to governors, and Peter again says the same thing that Paul does in Romans 13. The magistrate is there to punish evildoers, and he is there to praise those who do well (v. 14). It says nothing about the magistrate rewarding evildoers, and punishing the righteous. But this is God’s will for us, so that we might through our manner of life silence the slander of ignorant men (v. 15), presumably those who accuse us of being the lawbreakers. We are slaves or servants of God, which is precisely the thing that makes us free (v. 16). We are not to use the liberty we have been given as present possession as a cloak for malice or wrongdoing. And so we are to honor all men, love the brotherhood, fear God, and honor the king (v. 17).

The problem we face is that these kinds of passages are often cherry-picked in way to represent them as saying that our submission to the civil magistrate is to be absolute. God put them there, so shut your mouth.

The problem with this is that you have been taught a basic interpretive principle. We are to interpret any particular passage of Scripture in the light of all Scripture. And so I would remind you that the man who wrote these words for us was soon to be executed by the magistrate as someone who was a grave threat to their civil order (John 21:18-19). This was the same man who was broken out of jail by an angel, and who disappeared from the book of Acts as a wanted man (Acts 12:10, 17). The guards who lost him were executed because of his disappearance (Acts 12:19). This was the man who was in jail in the first place because he was a leader of the Christians (Acts 12:3), and who earlier had told the Sanhedrin that he wouldn’t quit preaching (Acts 5:29), no matter what they said. And he was the man who was writing this letter to prepare law-abiding Christians for the time of persecution that was coming, in which time they would be accused of being scofflaws (1 Pet. 4:7, 13-16). So whatever his words in chapter 2 mean, they have to be consistent with the life of the one who wrote them.

Three Governments

Among the governments that exist among men, only three of them were created directly by God. Now none of these can function smoothly without the foundational government of self-government, or self-control. Men who cannot control themselves are incapable of living within the context of free institutions of any kind. So these three governments are family government, created by God in the Garden (Gen. 2:22; Matt. 19:6), civil government, also established directly by God (Rom. 13:1-5), and the government of the church, which was a gift to us directly from Christ (Eph. 4:10-12).

Other governments that exist are merely creations of men—political parties, service organizations, chess clubs, and so on. The three above were all three created by God directly, and so He wrote the by-laws for all of them.

Now Arrange Them All in the Right Order

If you have been a Christian for more than ten minutes, you know that there are different doctrinal positions on all kinds of stuff. On eschatology, there is premill, postmill, and amill. On baptism, there is paedo and credo. On polity, there is independent, presbyterian, and episcopal. On soteriology, there is Calvinist and Arminian. We know the different positions, and usually we have a rough idea of what kind of church we belong to. Often our position on such issues is the reason we choose a church in the first place.

Now here is the surprise for some. Christians also disagree about the right relationship of the church to the state. This is a denominational issue as well. Some believe that the church is and ought to be the supreme government on earth (this is the Roman Catholic position), holding authority over the civil magistrates. The second position is called Erastianism (after Thomas Erastus, a 16th century Swiss physician and theologian). This position holds that the state is supreme over the church. The default position of many Christians today is an Erastian one. The third position, which is a classic Reformed position, and the view that Christ Church holds, is that these various government are in a “checks and balances” position, on a horizontal plane, not stacked in a vertical hierarchy. And this is commonly referred to as sphere sovereignty. Each God-created government has authority within its assigned sphere.

On Paper

Having all of this sketched out on paper can help resolve any number of intellectual tensions. But you still have practical problems to solve. It might help you to know that a mugger with a gun taking your wallet doesn’t really “get to” do that, but at the same time, it should be recognized that he is doing that. So the first level is to understand that we are talking about how things ought to be. We are talking about the ideal. In the meantime, on the way from here to there, you will at times have to do a cost/benefit analysis—just like with the mugger.

But in the meantime, whether you are under constraint or not, whether you are having to deal with restrictions or not, remember than you are free in Christ. Remember this line from our text: “As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.” This should help you as you are deciding whether to comply with a particular restriction that the civil magistrate has imposed on you. Is it his sphere? Does he actually have that authority?

And remember, as you are sorting through all of this, that the Father is good to us, all the time. Christ is Christ for us, all the time. The Spirit is with us, all the time.

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Jeff S
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There’s some salt in there. Don’t taste the pepper, though. ;-)

Thanks for the good words.

John Callaghan
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John Callaghan

I’m curious where you got this idea:

Some believe that the church is and ought to be the supreme government on earth (this is the Roman Catholic position)

I’m not aware of anything in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Catholic Encyclopedia or other authoritative source that could properly be characterized that way.

Unless I’m reading you wrong, you’re suggesting that the Church is advocating for a theocracy – which is not the case.

Instead, as you’ve argued, the state has its own sphere of authority but, in that sphere, it must be subject to God’s Word.

john k
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john k

God’s Word is not the issue. The question is whether the Church has authority over the state, or vice versa, or whether the third option correct. The papal bull, Unam Sanctum (1302 AD, Boniface VIII), asserts the power of the Church, embodied in the pope, over secular rulers.

Ken B
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Ken B

I take the point about giving thought to where the legitimate authority of government ends because we are to obey God rather than man when there is a clear clash between the two. In the current crisis (isn’t that an overused word) the main problem it seems to me is medical; government is I hope doing the best it can in the light of medical knowledge from multiple disciplines. Now instructions given to us by the doctor may not have the force of law, but as a rule we are foolish to ignore them. In this present case it is… Read more »

Jane
Member

I don’t disagree with what you’ve said as far as it goes, but keep in mind there have been multiple attempts to punish the church for gathering in a way that jeopardizes no one’s health, on the grounds that “Well, they might go ahead and do something that DOES jeopardize people’s health.” That’s when you start questioning whether curtailing our freedom for the sake of others is good enough, or is it that what’s being asked of us is to relinquish to the state any claim to freedom whatsoever? This exhortation wasn’t given in a vacuum, but in a country… Read more »

JohnM
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JohnM

The fear that what’s being “asked” of us is to relinquish to the state any claim to freedom whatsoever is the legitimate concern here. However, to be clear about it, that legitimate concern is on behalf of all citizens and applies to more than just the freedom to assemble as the church. Where the government does have the authority to prohibit assembly for the sake of public safety, and where government is correct as to the advisability of doing so – at the moment I’m making no argument whether or not the government is correct -, then the world will… Read more »

Jane
Member

See Colin’s comment below. This exhortation is not about whether a church should gather, but how we should view the government’s role. They are closely related, but distinguishable, issues. I think there needs to be a little less fear of “what people will think if we actually say something true and justifiable out loud.” They arguably could reasonably think us selfish for insisting that we gather; that doesn’t mean we should cower in fear of what they might think if we explain that we are choosing not to gather for the common good, but that there are certain truths about… Read more »

JohnM
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JohnM

Jane, actually I was commenting with Colin’s comment much in mind. Possibly I misunderstood but, Colin wrote: “It’s not to say that there are not times when it would be wise to avoid gathering in person, but rather that the government has no authority to prevent the church from doing so regardless of what danger there may be.” If the government has authority to prevent gatherings under a given circumstance then the government has the authority to prevent church gatherings under that circumstance. Whether or not the government has justification for prohibiting assemblies is one question, and if not then… Read more »

Colin B
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Colin B

I think it would be better to view the position not as the church attempting to argue their right to gather in order to ignore any dangers there may be due to the virus, but rather to view it as the church protesting the civil government having any authority to prevent the church gathering. It’s not to say that there are not times when it would be wise to avoid gathering in person, but rather that the government has no authority to prevent the church from doing so regardless of what danger there may be.

Jane
Member

Yes, exactly.

Thomas Robertson
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Thomas Robertson

Hi Mr Wilson,

In other parts of Scripture another type of authority is described: that which a slave is under. In fact the verses following those from 1Peter 2 above, servants are told to be subject to their masters. Is this a fourth divinely appointed government or is this a human creation? And taking things one step further, which principles relating to servitude apply to employment also? If a boss concluded that a civil authority had breached their constitutional limits by shutting down his business could he call his workers back into the shop? I’m interested to know your thoughts.

Thanks

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