In many evangelical circles, there is no schism over the use of a plurality of deacons within the life of the church. Perhaps the only schism related to a plurality of deacons is in relation to their function. Are they servants of God who serve the local church or are they administrators who exercise power to oversee the local church?
As we read through the New Testament, we find that God established his church with a specific function and order. From the early pages of the New Testament, we find the apostles (with an “s” at the end) serving as a plurality of pastors to oversee the early church. As the missionary expansion took the gospel beyond the borders of Jerusalem (primarily with the ministry of the Apostle Paul), there was a need to put into order and establish the structure of the local church.
One clear letter that is devoted almost entirely to this task is the letter Paul wrote to Titus. Paul and Titus had a close relationship and it was Paul’s desire to charge this young man with a very important task. The island of Crete which was positioned in the Mediterranean Sea between northern Africa and southern Greece. The land mass was approximately 160 miles in length and 35 miles wide (at its widest point). It was an island that had been influenced by pagan cultures from the north, and according to Paul—it was filled with human depravity.
Titus’ job was enormous. He was given the responsibility to put the local churches in various cities throughout Crete into order. At this time, there was approximately 100 cities in Crete and Titus was charged with establishing order in the disorganized and immature churches. How would he do such a thing? Paul explains in what is perhaps the clearest purpose statement in Titus in the opening chapter:
This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you (Titus 1:5).
From the very beginning, we find the need to have a plurality of elders (pastors) serving in leadership roles in individual congregations. We see this all throughout the New Testament. For instance, we find Paul addressing the elders of the church in Ephesus in Acts 20:17. We find James giving instructions to those who are sick to call for the elders of the church in James 5:14. Even here in Titus 1:5, there seems to be an emphasis upon the appointment of elders in every town—or every church in every individual town.
Why would God establish a plan for his local churches to be led by a group of pastors as opposed to one single elder?
The Need to Share in Shepherding Burdens
The work of pastoral ministry is a difficult task. When you talk to families that have a husband or wife who works in law enforcement, you will often hear them talk of the darkness that follows them on a day-to-day basis. They are tasked with enforcing law which means they consistently deal with lawless behavior and witness some of the most horrific scenes of human depravity. Such a constant contact with such depravity results in a burden that has an impact upon the family as a whole.
In a similar way, the work of a pastor is taxing on the man who serves as pastor and the family as a whole. He is often asked to give of his time after normal daily work hours for counseling. He has to walk with families through both joyful seasons and depressing sins. Beyond the shepherding, there is a need to spend long hours alone—isolated from people in an office where he can read, pray, study, and prepare to preach the Bible.
Since we remember that pastoral ministry is more than a preaching ministry—the task is so large that it requires teamwork. God has designed it to be that way from the beginning and we can see this pattern throughout the New Testament. The church that believes their single pastor can do it all has underestimated the task of pastoral ministry or overestimated the ability of their pastor.
The Purity of Church Leadership
Pastors are not perfect men. They are men who are pursuing holiness and seeking to walk with the Lord, but they are not perfect men. They make mistakes in parenting, in life in general, and even in pastoral service. With a plurality of elders laboring together, it provides a built-in system whereby the leaders can confront and bring about necessary correction when a pastor shows signs of sinful neglect or indicators of rebellion.
Church discipline is something that is necessary and mandated by Christ for his church (see Matthew 18 and Titus 3). Within the church membership is both general members as well as two offices—deacon and elder. Everyone must be subject to Christian accountability whereby the bride of Jesus remains pure and the church avoids the stamp of hypocrisy within the community. This is God’s design. It’s likewise his design for pastors to be subject to correction as well.
The Order and Stability of the Local Church
One of the characteristics of our God is orderliness. The church on the island of Crete was disorganized and filled with disorder. It was the plan of the Apostle Paul to charge Titus with the responsibility of bringing about order and stability. His plan began with the appointment of faithful men who would oversee individual local churches in order to bring the church to unity in the faith and order.
The church had been plagued by loose living and heretical teaching. Therefore, the elders would need to teach the churches how to pursue holiness in everyday living and how to recognize false teaching that created division. If necessary, the elders would lead the churches to excommunicate people who persisted in sin after being corrected (see Titus 3:9-11).
God’s design for his church is unity and order which enables the congregation to accomplish the work of discipleship, missions, and faithful weekly worship of our God. A team of pastors laboring together will be able to counsel, confront, preach, engage in missions, and plan and establish orderly worship services that bring glory to God.
This is God’s plan for leadership in the local church. This is why every local church should desire to have a team of pastors who work together for the glory of Christ in the context of their local church.
Needless to say, the past six months have proven to be difficult for the functionality of the local church as a result of the pandemic. Regardless of where you stand on the issues from a political standpoint and whether or not you see this COVID-19 as a genuine pandemic—the cultural mandates have been impactful for the worship and functionality of the church.
As we look back over this season in our history, how will this COVID-19 season impact local churches as a whole? Although it has had a financial impact in some cases and brought about various different challenges, there are two distinct marks that COVID-19 will leave upon local churches.
Expose the False Believer
Many local churches have a certain number of members who are not true Christians. They come to church for various reasons. In some cases, it’s social and familial. In other cases, it’s traditional or financial. As we see in the parables in Scripture, not all of Israel was Israel. Today, we can certainly say that everyone claiming to be the church is not the church. In Matthew 13, Jesus tells a parable that involves good seed and weeds. The good seed represents the true believer whereby the weeds represent unbelievers. Often the weeds are among the good seed.
God can use persecution or pandemics to expose false believers. We are living in a day where some people have continued to keep much distance between themselves and their local church—although their lives have returned to normal on many different levels. When you see people returning to recreation, going on vacations, reporting to work, and yet remaining socially distanced from their local church and barring themselves from the Lord’s Table for 6 months—it appears that everything else is essential business except the church.
While attending a preaching workshop in Arkansas recently, one pastor was explaining to me that he expects that some of the people in his church will never return. He believes their faith was never genuine in the first place. Through this pandemic, it has exposed them as merely having a traditional habit of church attendance rather than a genuine relationship with Christ.
The challenges faced by the pandemic has strengthened many people in the local church. Even the genuine believers who have not been able to return to normal life—including their church gathering. They have used technology to the best of their ability, made intentional connections with their church online, and refused to forsake the fellowship of the saints. Even through the challenges—they have experienced spiritual growth.
Through all of the fear and political jargon—many have returned to the assembly of their local church and their faith has been strengthened as a result. They have learned to have an increased trust in the sovereignty of God in the midst of the disease. They have likewise learned to live with the reality that we live in a fallen world filled with sickness, disease, and death. We will all die—yet we trust in the Lord for our next breath.
Some true believers have experienced spiritual growth by contracting COVID-19 and walking with the Lord through the process of disease and trusting in the Lord for restoration of health. This has been a means whereby families have had to learn to trust in our God and pray with hearts pleading for restoration. In some cases, their loved one has recovered while in other cases, they held the hands of their family member as they slipped off into eternity. Even then, the church looks to God and trusts that he guides and controls the steps of us all. Whether we live, or whether we die—we are the Lord’s.
As we continue to look to the future and navigate these challenges, may the Lord grant us patience with one another and wisdom to see through the political dust storm with clarity. As we make decision, may the Lord enable us to trust him as we return to worship and normal Christian fellowship in a way that honors Christ and shows the world what real fellowship looks like in the minds of confusion, isolation, and darkness. May God’s church shine brightly—like a city set on a hillside in the dark of night.
As I reflect this week on a decade of ministry with the people of Pray’s Mill Baptist—my heart is elated and filled with joy as I consider the privilege of serving the church where my wife and I grew up as children. When I’m asked about what it’s like to come home and serve in the context of the local church where we were nurtured and discipled as children—I explain by stating that it’s joyful, humbling, sanctifying, challenging, and fulfilling at the same time.
When I arrived ten years ago, the church had gone through a rough season. I remember receiving a phone call from an older pastor in our community when he heard that I was being considered for the office of pastor. He called me and discouraged me from coming. He likewise encouraged a completely different ministry approach from the beginning that looking back would have harmed our church. You know what they say about unsolicited advice, right? It’s never asked for and seldom followed. I chose to go a different direction. I wanted to build stability, trust, and set the stage for longevity.
Through the years, it has been a joy to serve a church with such a high view of Scripture. If the Bible teaches something—the people within our church desire to obey. That makes pastoral leadership joyful and effective at the same time. A high view of Scripture has enabled us to accomplish many goals such as church planting in the mountains of Ecuador, the establishment of a plurality of elders, the practice of biblical church discipline, and more. Having a proper view of God’s Word allows the church to accomplish big goals for the glory of God.
When a church calls a younger pastor, often they fail to forget that just as you would expect younger men to grow in grace and mature in the faith—so must a younger pastor be afforded that same process. Unfortunately, many churches do not view pastoral ministry through a proper lens, and they become angry when their pastor makes changes or adopts a new position based on a theological conviction. This often creates division and perpetuates the statistics whereby pastors rotate from pulpit to pulpit every 2-4 years—dragging along their wife and children from church to church. I’m grateful that has not been my story. I’m thankful for our church’s patience with me through the years as I’ve adopted new positions, grown in my knowledge of Scripture, made my fair share of mistakes, and sought to grow in my ability to serve well from the pulpit and in the work of shepherding souls—which is the calling of a pastor.
The Scriptures say much about love (1 John 4:7), and I can honestly say that my family and I have been loved well within the context of our local church. In 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, Paul encourages the church to have a proper love and respect for their pastors. He writes:
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.
A church that loves their pastors will enable their leaders to serve them with joy which is far better for the life of the pastor, his family, and the entire church as a whole. Not only has the church honored me well, but they have loved me and befriended me. My closest relationships are within the context of our local church. That is something that I will cherish the rest of my life.
Longevity has afforded my children stability during formative years. It has allowed me and my family to model longevity by way of church membership—in essence practicing what I preach regarding a high view of membership and resistance against the prevailing tide of evangelical consumerism. While ten years sounds like a long time to some people, when you consider the fact that Adrian Rogers served in Memphis for 32 years, John Calvin served in Geneva for 25 years, Charles Simeon served in Cambridge for 50 years, Martyn Lloyd-Jones served in London for about 30 years, and W.A. Criswell preached through the entire Bible verse-by-verse as pastor of First Baptist Dallas, Texas for nearly 50 years—I have a way to go. Most recently, just last year one of my heroes in the faith, John MacArthur surpassed 50 years as pastor of Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. I’m grateful for a church that desires longevity from pastoral leadership as opposed to a rotating door. It’s good for pastors and the entire church family.
One of the greatest joys of my life is to serve with a group of faithful elders and deacons who love God, pursue holiness, and seek to lead and care for the church faithfully. When I arrived ten years ago, I was the “CEO pastor” who had a staff surrounding me. Today, we have a staff structure, but we likewise have a plurality of elders who oversee the church spiritually, lead from God’s Word, shepherd souls, engage in the work of discipleship and missions, and labor alongside a plurality of deacons to serve in practical service roles. To see the unity among a plurality of elders and a plurality of deacons is a tremendous blessing on my life and the life of our church family.
I am grateful for God’s immense blessing through the gift of my wife, Kari. We met as children in the church I serve now as pastor. Who knew that the adults were shaping and discipling a future pastor and pastor’s wife who would eventually return home and serve the body? It’s a story of God’s providence. Yet, not only has God gifted our home, but he has gifted our church with a pastor’s wife who truly loves the people and seeks to engage with other women as a means of friendship and Titus 2 discipleship. I consider myself to be doubly blessed. Kari is my wife and the mother of my children, but also a co-laborer in ministry within the context of our church. She’s one of the hardest working people I know.
As I look forward, I can only imagine what the Lord has in store for the future of our church. Many of the things we were able to accomplish in these last ten years I had set as goals from the beginning. However, the founding of G3 Conference which has exploded into a ministry that serves to encourage and equip the local church in sound biblical truth was nowhere on my radar screen. I continue to dream big, but more than that, I trust in a big God who has a much greater vision for the church than I could ever imagine or dream. I want his will more than anything for our church.
It is my prayer that our church family at Pray’s Mill Baptist will remain “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).
One of the greatest challenges for the church through the season of social distancing has been the need to maintain and cultivate Christian fellowship. We have been told to isolate into our personal bubbles and to forsake assembly as much as possible through this pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control have encouraged social distancing practices from the beginning in order to flatten the curve.
If local churches are not intentional—this season of social distancing will flatten far more than a COVID-19 curve.
The Call to Assemble and Fellowship
The basic component of the local church is our visible identification with Christ in a public manner. Our conversion is something that happens internally as a work of the Holy Spirit. Our repentance may or may not be visibly seen at the moment when we call out to God. However, our profession of faith in Jesus Christ and the subsequent reality of our conversion is very much a public event at our baptism (Acts 2:38). Following our baptism, we are called to assemble together on a normative basis as the Christians gather in local churches for the purpose of worshipping and serving our Lord (Acts 2:42-47; Heb. 10:24-25).
The early church prioritized Christian fellowship in a way that is almost embarrassing to the modern local church. In short, there should be a clear difference between the friendship that is developed at the local ball field and the friendship that is developed in a small group Bible study in the local church. A friend that you fellowship with in Sunday school on Sunday mornings should have a deeper and more solid connection than your friend at your place of employment.
Social distancing is antithetical to the calling of the local church to assemble. Limitations on personal interactions and fellowship is a true hindrance to the God ordained functionality of the local church. We must beware of the damage that a pandemic can do to a local church family. We must see the threats of politicizing a pandemic and how that will have a massive impact upon the health and strength of the local church. We can do without restaurants and college football, but we cannot do without the local church.
The Threats of Social Distancing
With all of the talk of flattening a growth curve of the pandemic, many Christians have likewise flattened the growth curve of their local church. No, I’m not just focused on the numerical growth curve of membership. I’m referencing the growth curve of friendships that occur through the bond of Christ as well as Titus 2 discipleship opportunities.
Friendships take time to grow. The strongest and most valuable solid Christian friendships are cultivated over long periods of time where trust is earned and much of the development of such friendships occurs through service and worship opportunities within the life of the local church. While deep conversations over a good cup of coffee help—it’s the normal ebb and flow of serving together, worshipping together, and breaking bread together that serve as the bedrock foundation to genuine Christian fellowship. This doesn’t happen during a season of social distancing.
Social distancing threatens the unity of a local church. With more than five months apart, the members of the local church have navigated the pandemic differently. Some have taken in far less information from the media than others who are watching every news report and news briefing on a weekly basis. Just as our world is divided on many different political issues, the pandemic has created new dividing points regarding data on masks and other vaccine related controversies.
Add to the COVID-19 politics the ethnic division surrounding George Floyd and opportunities for division drastically increase. Unless the pastors and members are very intentional about maintaining the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3), the cultural controversies can sweep right into the church and create massive dividing points.
What does maintaining the unity of the Spirit look like during a season of social distancing? How do pastors shepherd people when they aren’t assembling? How do members love one another and work out differences through pixels on a screen? All of this requires great sensitivity and intentionality in demonstrating love toward one another.
Personal Responsibility of Membership
It doesn’t matter if you are a member of a local church that does not have a specific church covenant that is recited every time you gather for the Lord’s Supper or if you have no official church covenant that makes up your governing documents. In either case—as a member of a local church, but the very nature of church membership, you are in a covenant with one another that is established by Christ.
We live in a day where there is a prevailing low view of church membership. People join local churches flippantly and then “transfer” their membership to another church down the road if they have something more attractive to offer their family. The idea of consumerism has replaced the covenant in the membership of the local church.
As membership who covenant together—we have a responsibility to engage in the life of the church. What does this look like during a season of social distancing? Regardless of the size of the church, both members and pastors have a responsibility to connect with the church family during this pandemic season.
Intentional Connection Opportunities:
- Physical Letters
- Phone Calls
- Text Messages
- Private Gatherings (unofficial church gatherings)
Some individuals who have underlying health conditions are unable to return to the life of the church as fast as others. However, there are still opportunities for such individuals to engage with the church. Consider online meetings and fellowship opportunities. While it’s not the same as in-person gatherings, it’s nevertheless an opportunity for reconnecting and having much needed conversation with church members.
If you have simply turned into a hermit and avoided the church for five months, you might be feeling the pain of isolation and the coldness that comes with a lack of Christian fellowship. In such cases, rather than blaming other people for how you feel, consider asking yourself what you’ve done to engage in the life of the church and overcome the challenges of social distancing during this season.
Since the call to Christian worship and church fellowship involves the basic component of public assembly—it is our duty to avoid isolating ourselves away and cutting ourselves off from the church for lengthy periods of time. Fight through this season. Exercise wisdom. Maintain unity. In order to make your church strong rather than weak, it will take effort on your part and other members and leaders in the church who are striving for God’s glory to be made visible through the love and fellowship of the local church.
When Paul wrote to the church in the city of Rome, he labored the point of submitting to governing authorities for a reason. All authority comes from God and if we are to remain a faithful light of Christ in a dark world of rebellion, one means of consistent Christian character is faithful submission. Faithful submission to governing authorities glorifies God. Paul goes on to make the point that the government is a blessing for all people—including the church of Jesus (Rom. 13:1-7).
However, it is quite possible for the government to become a burden for the church of Jesus—and at whatever point the ruling authorities demand something from God’s people that would cause us to actively or passively disobey God—we must obey God rather than man. While our primary calling is to submit whenever possible, there are times where submission would be sinful and rebellion would be glorying to God. Wisdom and discernment is necessary at this juncture, because the stakes will be high when it’s time to rebel against the very people who bear the sword and have the authority to use it.
America and the Story of Rebellion
Four hundred years ago, in the fall of 1620, more than one hundred colonists sailed for the New World on a well-known sea vessel known as the Mayflower. These Separatist Christians renounced the religious practices of the Church of England and believed that the Church of England was beyond redemption. In 1630, another group would join the Separatists in the New World. This group is known as the Puritans.
During the “Great Migration” of the 1630s, some 21,000 English settlers came to New England. This group was made up of farmers, fisherman, merchants, lawyers, and entire families. When they came off the ship, they brought their personal belongings—including an important book. It was the Geneva Bible. The Geneva Bible was birthed out of the Protestant Reformation and was the very first study Bible—complete with study notes in the margins that pointed out the errors of the Roman Catholic Church.
The United States of America has a rich history of rebellion against ungodly leadership and the pursuit of religious freedom. The First Amendment of the Constitution provides us luxuries that the church in other nations do not enjoy.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
We the people have freedom to exercise religion and the US Government is not free to prohibit the practice of our religion. We likewise have an ability to petition the US Government regarding grievances—which is not a luxury for the church in China.
According to the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, we have a right to form a militia and to bear arms.
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
This is a unique freedom established from the beginning in order to have a built-in system of free rebellion against the Government in order to prevent overreach and burdensome rule that would be harmful and potentially dangerous to the welfare and religious freedom of the people in America.
Can God Be Glorified Through Rebellion?
While submission, even during difficult circumstances, is glorifying to God; is it possible to glorify God through rebellion?
When the midwives were given the charge to murder the Hebrew babies, rather than obeying the command of Pharaoh, they defied his wicked command and spared babies (Ex. 1:15-22). The Hebrew midwives had God’s law written on their hearts and they knew that murdering those babies was wrong. At that point, they chose to obey God rather than the king.
When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were accused of not falling on the ground and worshipping the golden image of King Nebuchadnezzar, as they had been instructed to do upon hearing the music from the instruments, they were brought before the king to answer the charges and subsequently threatened with the fiery furnace. At this point, the three men responded by saying:
If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up (Dan. 3:17-18).
In the New Testament, the apostles were arrested for preaching the gospel of Jesus (Acts 5). They were released by an angel in a miraculous covert operation, and the very next scene they’re in open defiance of the rulers by preaching the gospel in the most public venue possible—the temple. After being arrested again and threatened, they responded, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Five hundred years ago this year, Martin Luther was summoned to stand before the Diet of Worms to answer for his preaching and writing. After requesting for additional time to consider his answer, on the following day as he stood before the hierarchy of the Roman Empire—Luther answered with brilliant clarity by stating the following:
I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant of anything since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand – may God help me. AMEN.
As Luther was being escorted out of the room the loud shouts calling for Luther’s life were ringing in his ears. As he was taken back to his private quarters—upon entering the room he was instantly relieved that he had made his stand. He then turned to a friend and said, “If I had a thousand heads I would rather have them all lopped off than to abandon my gospel.” The Roman Catholic Church had the authority to execute Luther. They had already done so with Jan Hus in 1415. Yet, Luther openly defied their teaching and their authority. In essence, he was standing on the shoulders of the apostles who were unwilling to disobey God in order to obey man.
Resistance Results in the Sword
Several years ago, I was in Amsterdam and I had the privilege to visit the Rijksmuseum. I was able to stand in front of the famous painting by Rembrandt known as “The Night Watch.” However, one of my most vivid memories of that museum was a painting that was hanging in an adjacent room to the Rembrandt masterpiece. It was much smaller, but it was a painting that delivered a very sobering message. The painting is a vivid picture of Herodias’ daughter holding John the Baptist’s head on a platter. It was a striking reminder of the cost of faithful preaching and the results of resistance. While the sword can be a blessing to God’s people, it can likewise become a burden.
When a wicked plot was devised and set in motion by the servants of King Darius as a trap for Daniel, he was subsequently cast into the den of lions as a result of his faithful daily prayers to God. There are consequences to disobeying laws and orders given directly by the ruling authorities. Although God is the one who places the sword in the hand of rulers—sometimes they will wield the sword in a way that is sinful and ultimately destructive. We see this with Pharaoh, Herod, and various other rulers throughout history such as Hitler and other monstrous figures who surface from time to time.
Paul would eventually be arrested for faithfully preaching the gospel of Jesus. The very man who penned Romans 13:1-7 would be imprisoned in Rome. Paul understood well that no system is perfect and that no ruler is perfect, but when possible we are called to submit to their rule and glorify God. When their rule conflicts with the rule of Christ—a different path is mandated. When the kingdom of darkness clashes with the Kingdom of Christ—we are called to bow to Christ and accept whatever consequences may come our way.
Such persecution was promised by Jesus. This allegiance to Jesus’ throne is what caused James to be cast off the pinnacle of the temple and subsequently clubbed to death, Peter to be crucified upside down on a cross, and Paul to be beheaded in the streets of Rome. Such a commitment to the kingship of Christ is what cost Polycarp his life and is likewise what caused John Bunyan to be imprisoned for 12 years in Bedford, England.
There is a cost to obeying Christ and resisting evil rulers—and yet the cost is well worth it and the persecution—even the bloodshed of saints is particularly glorifying to God. Tertullian once said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
No matter if it’s imprisonment for “hate speech” or the loss of tax exemption status for openly defying wicked laws and defying government restrictions upon the regular gathering and worship of the local church—we must be prepared to accept whatever consequences will come our way as a result of defying Caesar.
Until Christ comes—we render unto Caesar what belongs to him, and we render unto the Lord what belongs to him. When we understand that principle properly—we see that Christ’s throne is far superior to Caesar’s throne and our ultimate commitment must be to Christ our sovereign King.
Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus!
One of the characteristics of our God is that he is orderly rather than disorderly. He is a designer—and our entire world is shaped by his genius. Everything from the creation of the universe to the establishment of a ruling government points to a sovereign divine designer. Therefore, any attempt to create a world, a city, a town, or a country that lacks law and order and is plagued by anarchy is a movement away from God.
When Paul penned his letter to the church in Rome, he laid a robust foundation of doctrinal clarity regarding justification by faith alone in the first eleven chapters of his letter. Beginning in chapter twelve, Paul directed the believers to put on display the gospel of Jesus in practical everyday opportunities. After outlining the characteristics of genuine Christianity, he moved on to chapter thirteen where he opens with the responsibility of Christians to submit to governing authorities. It’s here that Paul not only gives the command to submit, but he likewise details the blessings of a government.
Restraint of Evil
As we navigate through life, we spend time in three basic spheres of life. We spend time in a family structure of some kind. As Christians, we spend much time in the sphere of the church. No matter where we live, we spend time in the sphere of the state or under some form of civil law. God is the source of all authority, and he establishes all of the hierarchies of authority in these different spheres.
Regarding the family, it is God who has setup the father as the leader, provider, and protector of the family. He has called wives to submit to their husbands (Gen. 2; 1 Pet. 3:1; Eph. 5:24) and children to obey both mother and father in an honorable manner (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16; Eph. 6:1-3). This is God’s design for the family and through this structure of authority, it restrains evil by keeping children in subjection rather than running wild and free into lawless behavior.
Regarding the church, God established elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7) as the spiritual leaders and deacons as the servants within the church. The church is called to submit to their spiritual leaders (Heb. 13:17) as they seek to shepherd them and equip them for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12). When it comes to sin and lawlessness, Christ has commanded the church to be a pure bride. Not only are pastors to reprove and rebuke the church as necessary (2 Tim. 4:1-5), but Jesus gave a command regarding church discipline in Matthew 18 which serves as a means of reconciliation between members of the body, but ultimately between the church and Christ. This structure of authority and discipline is ordained by God.
As it pertains to the state and civil rulers, the call of the church is to submit to the governing authorities. We see this in Romans 13, but likewise in places such as 1 Peter 2:13-17:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Even as Paul wrote the words in Romans 13, he understood that the system itself and the rulers were not perfect. In fact, this is the very same government that would be responsible for his execution within a few years—yet so long as it was possible and so long as they did not mandate the church to disobey God, they were to submit. That same principle is true for us today.
One of the blessings of rulers and governing authorities is the restraint of evil. Paul writes, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:3-4). Lawless individuals should fear the rulers for they do not bear the sword in vain. They have been given the responsibility of establishing law and order in a civil society.
The church can be blessed by such an orderly rule established by governing authorities.
Execution of Justice
In a way that is quite different than the sphere of the family and church—the government is given the sword. Paul calls the rulers “avengers” which comes from a Greek term “ἔκδικος” that literally means punisher. It is the role of governing rulers to act as God’s servants which is another Greek term that comes from the same root word from which we derive the English term deacon. Rulers are to execute justice and the sword is not given to them in vain. They are to use it and when it’s exercised properly, it’s a blessing to the whole of society—including the church of Jesus.
In 1995, Timothy McVeigh placed a bomb outside of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In an act of terrorism, McVeigh detonated a bomb that killed 168 people and injured hundreds more. After being arrested and convicted for the crimes, McVeigh was executed by the State of Oklahoma by lethal injection on June 11th 2001. The sword was not given to the rulers in vain.
Today, months after the tragedy with George Floyd—we continue to see American cities filled with rioters, looters, and mobs who are interested in destroying businesses, government property, and creating mass chaos along the way. One of the common hashtags floating around on social media throughout this entire process has been #DefundThePolice. A movement away from law and order and toward anarchy is a movement away from God. The hierarchy of authority was established by God himself. Although every system is impure since every human system is operated by sinners, nevertheless, such impure systems are far better than lawlessness and anarchy.
The blessing of ruling authorities who have the sword and can lawfully execute justice is evident when mass murderers are put to death and when simple 9-11 calls are answered by police officers in small towns all across our nation. The entire society, as well as the church of Jesus, benefits from a ruling hierarchy of civil leaders and laws who not only restrain evil, but are given the authority to execute justice.
For that reason we can thank God for ruling authorities. We don’t want to live in a world plagued by anarchy. Thankfully, God has established an orderly hierarchy of rule for our good and his glory. In order to glorify God, we should not only submit to them, but we should strive to pray for them as well.
1 Timothy 2:1–2 – First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.