When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.
But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye.
In the last lesson we began to study the relationship between the normal Christian and the government. Some groundwork was laid in examining some guiding principles. In this lesson, we shall continue where we left off by studying a few more current issues that involve this relationship between Christians and government.
Let us begin this lesson with a very important issue that we will need to first settle. Just how far does the normal Christian's obligation to the government extend? Is there a limit to our subjection to their authority?
In Acts 4:1-22 Peter and John were arrested by the rulers and elders of Israel for teaching and preaching about Jesus. These rulers of Israel commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. To this they replied, "Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye". A similar incident took place later in Acts 5:26-29 where Peter explicitly said, "We ought to obey God rather than men".
When we studied the marriage relationship, we saw that the wife was to submit to her husband as long as this did not interfere with her obedience to God. Likewise, within the church, the members were to follow the pastor as long as he was following Christ. It should be no surprise then, that with God's institution of human government, there must be a limit to their authority. If the government gives a command that would cause us to disobey God, we are to obey God rather than the government. In other words, our obedience to God has priority to our obedience to human government.
Did our founding fathers do right in declaring independence from England? Let us recall their statement in the Declaration of Independence: "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights". Our founding fathers did not rashly choose to rebel against England, but rather "When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another". They felt compelled to declare independence from a government that took away their God-given rights - "whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it". That God has given man some unalienable rights is exemplified in the right the poor had to the gleanings of the harvest (Leviticus 23:22, see also 25:39). Are there some God-given rights that our government has taken from us? Having stated that there is a limitation to our submission to the government, there are two very important rules that we must maintain in order to maintain our testimony as good citizens:
1. Resolving Legally
When we see a law that violates a command or right from God, we ought to try to have the law changed or resolved through legal procedures. There was a man once who was against a particular speed limit. Believing that it was too low, he made the statement, "I vote with my foot". The Apostle Paul always did things legally when possible. When he was about to be scourged in Jerusalem, he used his Roman citizenship, and while at Caesarea when he was about to be sent back to Jerusalem he appealed to Caesar.
2. Reaping Lawfully
When the apostles chose to disobey the commandments of the rulers of Israel and were thrown into prison (Acts 5:18), they did not resist or try to overthrow the government. When we feel compelled to break the law, we ought to be prepared to reap the results in a Christian attitude and manner.
It is a sad and wicked day when we find Christians within the church who laugh about and even encourage the breaking of certain laws. It shows just how far we have drifted from the truth. The mentality of the average Christian has shifted from "what can I do to be a good citizen" to "what can I get away with". God help us! We need to wake up to the message we are sending to the lost world with our disobedience, and "walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time" (Ephesians 5:15-16). Therefore, let us spend some time discussing some of the situations in which the average Christian commonly disobeys whether through ignorance or just plain rebellion.
What are some common laws in our time that Christians often disobey? Should traffic-related laws be considered an "ordinance of man"? What impact might we have on this country if people began to notice that Christians obey the speed limits and other traffic rules? Peter has already given the answer: "with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men" (1 Peter 2:15). Another ordinance of man that we commonly break is the copyright. Many Christians copy tapes, videos, software, and documents with no thought to the copyright. We wouldn't want someone to do that with something we have copyrighted, and if we love Jesus we will be careful to obey this ordinance. Another law that is commonly broken especially in this area has to do with hunting and fishing regulations. Yet these too are ordinances of government to which God commands us to submit.
Let us remember that Peter pled with us to submit to every ordinance of man "for the Lord's sake" (1 Peter 2:13). He didn't say to submit to those we felt were right or to those that were convenient. Neither did he say only that we should submit because it is right. He said to submit for Jesus' sake. In other words, if we really love the Lord, we should do this!
There are some Christians that have refused to pay taxes, such as the Federal income tax, firmly believing that human government does not have the right to require one to pay such taxes. What is the obligation for the normal Christian with respect to taxes? Let us use a few of the guiding principles that we established in the previous lesson to come to the correct conclusion.
1. The Government's Authority
The Pharisees asked Jesus about the issue of taxes to which Jesus responded, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's" (Mark 12:14-17). In Romans 13:7, Paul says, "Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom". Clearly God's opinion (the only one that counts) is that human government has the right to levy taxes on its citizens. Therefore, we have a duty to render such taxes, for the Lord's sake (1 Peter 2:13).
2. The Christian's Testimony
One of the reasons that some Christians give for not paying the Federal income tax is that they believe it is unconstitutional. Whether this is so or not, we must remember our testimony! What kind of representation of Christ do we make when we fail to appear to be good citizens? Theodore Roosevelt once said, "The first requisite of a good citizen in this Republic of ours is that he shall be willing to pull his own weight." We can fight the constitutionality of an income tax by changing the legislation on taxes, but for the sake of our Christian testimony we ought to be good citizens and pay taxes until the law is changed.
F. Separation of Church and State
The issue of separation of church and state is quite a hot topic these days, and has unfortunately been greatly perverted. When Constantine became Emperor of the Roman Empire, he attempted to unite church and state becoming the head of the Catholic Church as well as the head of the government. What followed was that citizens were compelled to be Christians and to follow the religion of the state. This was the beginning of a new era of Christian persecution where such persecution would be carried out by other professing Christians. It was this evil that our founding fathers tried to eliminate.
The First Amendment begins with, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". Both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were greatly influenced in this by the Baptist Distinctive of soul liberty. Soul liberty is the belief that all men are entitled to the free exercise of religion according to their own conscience. Thomas Jefferson would later write, "I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises". The founding fathers did not want a repeat of the persecution they had left in England from a state religion. Even in colonial America, there had already been much persecution from colonies with a state religion. Many preachers were fined for preaching without a license. Still worse, some preachers were even thrown into jail for "preaching without proper credentials" where they might also endure attempts on their life. Pastor James Ireland spent six months in a jail where he was miraculously spared from a bomb that went off in his cell, and at a later occasion was saved from being smothered when someone filled his cell with smoke. The purpose of separation of church and state was to prevent these horrible situations through religious freedom. Today the idea of separation of church and state has been twisted to mean that there should be no religion at all in the government. Proverbs 29:2 says, "When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn". George Washington said, "It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible". From the very first inauguration prayer, the opening address of Congress, and a multitude of other quotes from the founding fathers, it is clear that they did not want to separate God and Christianity from the state. Patrick Henry said, "It is when a people forget God that tyrants forge their chains. A vitiated state of morals, a corrupted public conscience, are incompatible with freedom." Our freedom depends on having Christians in government.
Many Christians are disgusted and discouraged with the state of the current government. So, let us consider a few thoughts from Scripture:
Whatever human government rules a part or all of the world, let us remember that God is still in control. Proverbs 21:1 says, "The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will". In Psalm 103:19 we find that "The LORD hath prepared his throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all". Whenever we get discouraged with the condition of the government, let us take comfort in the knowledge that God is the absolute ruler of all having dominion over all creation!
We can try our best to set up a good government and yet fail to achieve a perfect world. Therefore, let us lay hold on and hope in the wisdom of God who can so order things in such a way as to cause even the most evil situations to bring out a greater good. Let us remember Romans 8:28, "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose."
Finally, let us find refuge in the grace of God. No matter how wicked the government becomes, the ultimate victory can be achieved through the grace of God that brings salvation and conversion. Paul and Silas did not change the world through politics or force but by the message of the gospel! It was through the message of God's grace that these soul winners received the reputation of having "turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6).