“Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.” (1 Peter 2:17)
The scriptures teach us to respect authorities, whether they be spiritual, civil, or domestic, and the Bible has plenty to teach us about all three. Romans, chapter thirteen in particular teaches us to respect those in positions of civil authority as they are “God’s minister for your good” (Romans 13:4). In fact, the entire passage clearly teaches us that civil authorities are given to us by God and that the authority He has given them is not to be despised. One cannot rightly say that he is truly subject to God and be disdainful of the authorities that God has given for our good. They represent His authority on our behalf.
Even corrupt men who held positions of authority in biblical times were deemed to be worthy of respect for their office’s sake. Though they may not be men of integrity or honor themselves, they still occupied what was recognized as a position of authority and were to be accorded the respect due that office. We see this played out in the life of the apostle Paul when he stood on trial before the Sanhedrin. When the High Priest commanded him to be struck for speaking his in his own defense, Paul shot a sharp verbal retort back, rebuking his unlawful deed. However, when the others in the Council made known to Paul that he had “reviled” God’s High Priest, the humbled apostle apologized, citing the Old Testament reference, “‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people” (Exodus 22:28).
In our modern society, such respect for civil authority is quickly vanishing. Whether it be through real or perceived instances of police misconduct, revelations of political scandal, or general disillusionment with the government’s inability to deal with the crises we face as a nation, respect for civil authority is very low, while pessimism and cynicism is generally very high. Beyond this, there is currently a growing divide between the Church and the State in our society due to what many perceive to be an anti-Christian bias by many in positions of power. The recent punitive measures taken by government officials against people of faith who refused to compromise their biblical convictions by offering their services to same-sex couples is one example of the widening gap between the Church and State. Such conflicts often foster a growing sense of enmity in people of faith toward their government, which can even grow into a virulent form of antagonism.
This is a problem for the true disciple of Jesus, however, for while our form of government gives us the right and privilege of dissent, the scriptures are clear that we must never lose the sense of God’s over-arching purpose for civil authority. The loss of respect for such authority is the beginning of our failure to appreciate the role God intends that we play in the shaping and influencing of our society for His glory. For one thing, we are told to pray for those in positions of authority.
“Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1-4)
The role of government is to maintain peace and an orderly society. When respect for such authority is lost, regardless of how it comes, it gives place to hostility and ultimately, anarchy. This is why we are seeing such mayhem in many of our urban areas where there are fierce clashes between protesters and police. There is an utter loss of respect for authority, and coming on the heels of that, a loss of regard for the rights and safety of others. Innocents become the victims of random acts of violence committed by those who have lost all regard for their fellow man. That’s not to say that there is not room for a redress of grievances on behalf of those those who feel they have been wronged, but when a society collapses entirely, and the rule of law is abandoned by those seeking to advance their own personal agenda at the expense of others, there are no winners, only losers, as history has demonstrated time and again.
As believers and followers of Jesus, we must be careful to be a part of the answer and not a part of the problem. Anyone can complain about the failed policies of a given administration, point out the obvious disparities and injustices we see played out in our court rooms, or use the all-too-frequent stories of corruption by those in power to paint all politicians with the same brush. However, while we are encouraged in a democracy to speak up and hold our leaders accountable, we must not abandon our respect for the importance of maintaining good government, accountable to God and to those whom they serve.
Historically, we see many examples of how God’s people worked to influence the State for good and for God. We see it in the lives of Daniel and Joseph in the Old Testament, each of whom served as advisors to the most powerful men in their respective times and well represented their God to those in positions of influence and power. The founding of our own nation was a beautiful example of biblical principles influencing and informing the creation of a government that would recognize the inherent value of all men, acknowledging that they were “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”
One of the most beautiful examples of this marriage of Church and State is found in the story of the relationship between William Wilberforce, the brilliant young Member of Parliament who ultimately succeeded in leading the charge to abolish the slave trade in Great Britain, and John Newton, Anglican Vicar and author of the immortal hymn, Amazing Grace. While space does not give me liberty to share the story in detail here, it is worth the reading. In short, however, it was John Newton, former slave ship captain turned minister, who encouraged young Wilberforce to serve God, not as a clergyman, but as a Member of Parliament. In fact, John Newton took an active role in helping Wilberforce in his campaign and served as a spiritual guide and mentor to his young friend. Had this union of Church and State not taken place, the world would certainly look different today, for the reforms Wilberforce was able to bring about forever changed, not only Great Britain, but the world. May it be so today, that the Church will rise up and be salt and light in those arenas of human endeavor where power of Christ most desperately needs to be known.