One of the ongoing debates within Christian circles is centered on the subject of government and authority. Should Christians submit to civil authorities or simply focus on their relationship to the divine King and Ruler—Jesus Christ? In a lawful state where governing authorities are placed into office as those who lead and oversee the people—Christians have a responsibility to submit. However, the Christian is also called to submit to Christ at the same time. So, how does this balance play itself out in the ebb and flow of everyday life?
One of the most difficult things to do as an American Christian is to submit. Red blooded Americans enjoy freedom and abhor the idea of submission, therefore, as a Christian who lives within that culture, it’s often difficult to strike a balance between the freedoms that we do have and the absolute necessity to submit both to Caesar and Christ. One is for our temporal good and the other is for our eternal life. In this life, there are laws and structures of authority that must be followed, and Christians are not to live as lawless rebels while passing through this temporal world.
The Civil Government
Like marriage, the civil government is temporal, but given for a purpose and for our good. According to Romans 13, God instituted the leaders who rule over the people and their authority comes from the Lord himself. The sword (ability to exercise authority and enforce law) has been placed into the hands of the government by God himself. Until such time that the civil leaders ask us to violate God’s law, we are to submit and live in an orderly and lawful manner.
It was Mary Queen of Scots who once remarked, “I fear the prayers of John Knox more than all the assembled armies of Europe.” A study of church history and the Reformation will reveal how John Knox and Mary Queen of Scots clashed, but she feared Knox because of he feared God. When the earthly leaders press the people to live in such a way that would violate God’s law—it’s time to obey God rather than man. We see a clear example fo this in the Scriptures as Peter and the apostles were arrested for preaching the gospel. They were threatened and commanded to cease their preaching. Peter spoke up by saying:
“We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:29-32).
The government is instituted by God and points to God as the ultimate Judge, Ruler, and King. Whenever an earthly judge violates his seat and power of authority—we are called to obey God rather than man. Until then, we are to live peaceably in this world as lawful followers of Jesus Christ.
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 (1 Pet. 2:16-17).
The Divine Government
We live in this world with an eye on the finish line. We don’t live as ignorant nomads, but as servants of God who are merely passing through this temporal world that is currently ruled by God’s sovereignty and divine providence. One day, Christ will return and will make all things new by ushering in his visible Kingdom. Although all authority has already been given to Christ (Matt. 28:18-20), he will one day return visibly and all things including death, the devil, and all ruling authority (including all human beings and angelic beings) will be placed under his divine rule.
Consider the words of the Christmas carol penned by Isaac Watts which states the following:
He rules the World with Truth and Grace,
And makes the Nations prove
The Glories of his Righteousness,
And Wonders of his Love.
How many red blooded Americans will stroll through shopping malls mumbling the words to this classic hymn while believing that Jesus is a King in a storybook sort of way, but he certainly isn’t King in the way that will have an impact on their lives today. At least, that’s they way they think of Jesus (if they think of him at all). If submission is hard for the ruler that you do see, how much more difficult is it for the Ruler whom you don’t see?
This present world is filled with lawlessness and corrupt government. However, even the ruling authorities today point to an eschatological hope that we have in Christ Jesus. We must remember the promise of Isaiah which was penned seven centuries before the birth of Jesus as the prophet wrote, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:6). Because this promise is true that one day the government shall be upon his shoulder—we live on this side of the cross in the era of time between the first and second coming of Jesus. Therefore, there is a constant tension between the already and the not yet.
But, because of the promise and the hope that Christ will return and make all things new (Rev. 21), we can sing the words of Isaac Watts during this festive and celebrate with hearts of joy! This temporal world is filled with earthly thrones, but we have joy because one day Christ will bring his throne to a renewed earth and rule his people with Truth and Grace.
Joy to the World; The Lord is come;
Let Earth receive her King:
Let every Heart prepare him Room,
And Heaven and Nature sing.