God, Government and You

Romans 13:1-2

January 3, 2010 | Brian Bill

After an exceptionally long and boring sermon, the congregation filed out of the church not saying a word to the pastor.  After a while a man came up to him and said, “Pastor, that sermon reminded me of the peace and love of God!”  The pastor was pretty happy about that because no one had ever said anything like that before.  Fishing for some more compliments, the pastor asked him how his sermon reminded him of the peace and love of God.  “Well,” said the parishioner, “it reminded me of the peace of God because it passed all human understanding and it reminded me of the love of God because it endured forever!”

I was going to make a resolution to preach shorter messages but I knew I’d break it today.  I will do my best however, to make the sermons understandable and applicable.

How many of you are ‘rule-keepers’?  When you see a rule do you try to do everything possible to not break it?

How many of you are ‘rule-breakers’?  When you’re faced with a rule, do you find yourself wanting to inwardly disregard it or outwardly disobey it?  I was accused of this on Friday night by my family when we were playing a card game.  They claim I was cheating.

Now for all you ‘rule-keepers,’ before you start feeling smug about all the rules you keep, don’t most of us pick and choose which ones we’re going to follow?  Driving 55, well that’s just too slow. We tend to evaluate rules according to what we think should be right.  

On their December 30th show, Nightline dedicated the whole half-hour to the topic: “2009: The Year of Behaving Badly.”  Dubbed the “Red Carpet of Rogues and Wrong-doing,” they invited people to vote for the worst of the worst in several categories – celebrities, politicians, and financiers.  Our own ex-governor not only won in the politician department, he was voted the biggest bad guy of them all.

As we begin 2010, I want to propose that Scripture presents a far different paradigm.  If you not only want a new year but more importantly, a new you, then remember this: It’s not about ‘what,’ it’s all about ‘who.’  

As we come to chapter 13 in our continuing series in the Book of Romans, I’m guessing that in our politically-charged culture, there is going to be some pretty major push back this morning as we tackle this topic: “God, Government and You.”  While many would say that God and government don’t mix very well, I want us to see that government can only be understood to the degree to which we understand God.  And actually, according to what Jesus said in Matthew 22:21, we owe an allegiance to both God and to government: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

In an effort to be as understandable as possible, I want to make some preliminary comments.

1. Our topic for today is what comes next in our verse-by-verse study of Romans. 

I’m not sure I would have picked “What God Says about Government” if it weren’t for our expositional approach to preaching.  That’s one of the clear advantages to studying a book of the Bible – we’re forced to tackle topics that we might otherwise avoid because they make us uncomfortable.  One person told me this week that after seeing the sermon title, she thought about not coming because she hates government and politicians. My guess is that she’s not alone.

2. My intention is not to lift up one political party or denigrate another. 

If you’re looking for a political gun fight, you can put your weapons back in your holsters.  I recognize that this topic can be emotionally explosive and so I want to make an appeal for us to be open to what the Bible has to say.

3. I’m no political expert. 

I did major in political science in college (one of the many majors I experimented with) but since most of my classes were taught by Madison Marxists, I quickly lost interest.  On top of that, my grades were in the gutter (that’s the real reason).  While I do follow politics with great interest, my understanding is pretty basic.  Having said that, as a Christ-follower, there are moral issues that I unashamedly speak out on – two that come to mind are the sanctity of human life, including the protection of the preborn and the preservation of marriage as one man and one woman in a life-long covenant commitment. 

4. Personal conversion through Christ, not political conviction, leads to lasting change. 

The church’s primary task is evangelism and discipleship.  That’s why our mission is to connect people to Jesus and equip them to be growing and faithful followers.  While we’re prone to divide people according to political affiliation, the Bible classifies people according to whether they are believers or unbelievers.  Friends, our task is to win people to Jesus, not to prove that our political views are right.  We often get so worked up that we forget our role is to be winsome witnesses.  Evangelism is God’s primary way to deal with the world’s problems.  Here’s a thought.  What do you think goes through a non-Christian’s mind when he or she hears us verbally assassinating a politician that he or she might support?  What kind of opportunity will we have to evangelize after this?  Some of us would benefit greatly by watching news channels less and reading Scripture more.  

God’s power is more clearly seen in the message of the cross than in any political or social plan that we might devise

I love the title of one of Irwin Lutzer’s books: “Why the Cross Can Do What Politics Can’t.”  He argues that the problems of America are too far gone to be remedied by a change of administrations in Washington and that our so-called cultural war is really a spiritual battle.  God’s power is more clearly seen in the message of the cross than in any political or social plan that we might devise.

5. Believers have a dual citizenship. 

As Americans, we do have rights and privileges afforded us, and we should take advantage of them by voting and being involved in the democratic process.  But as believers, we are first and foremost citizens of heaven as Philippians 3:20 says: “But our citizenship is in heaven.  And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  No politician, political party, or president will provide salvation for us.

6. Keep politics in perspective. 

When we see governing authorities doing things that we don’t understand, or people getting elected that we don’t agree with, remember this promised prophecy from Isaiah 9:6-7: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.”  

Wouldn’t it be great if more of us could quote the King of Kings and less of what we hear a political pundit say?  Here’s a fundamental proposition: Jesus Christ must be Lord of our political views and the attitudes in which we share them with others.  Incidentally, as we get closer to the return of Christ, things will get worse and the chasm between believers and unbelievers will become more pronounced.  It’s time for us to get totally serious about our faith because it will become increasingly difficult to live as Christ-followers in the days to come.

7. God has established three primary realms in which he works: the family (Genesis 2:18-25), the church (Acts 2) and government (Genesis 9:1-7). 

Each one of these institutions originates with God and is accountable to Him.  

  • God works out His plan through the family.  The family is foundational because the state and the church cannot exist without it.  Children and teenagers, your parents are God’s delegated authority in your home, and it is your duty to submit to them.  As we’ve been praying about how we can do a better job of equipping parents to be the primary spiritual influencers of their children, a phrase keeps rolling through my mind.  Let me try it out to see if it resonates: Saving families, one home at a time.  
  • God works out His plan through the church.  
  • God works out His plan through government.  While we know about what God says about the family and the church, in general, we know less about what God thinks about government.

8. This sermon will not answer all your questions. 

My guess is that this message will leave you a bit mixed up, perhaps confused about how to apply everything, and maybe even upset with me.  That’s OK.  My aim is to do my best to communicate what God says in His Word, whether or not it is politically popular with the “left” or the “right.”  I don’t want to say anything more than what the Bible says, but I also don’t want to say any less than what the Scripture teaches.  Having said that, I’ll probably end up saying something that is more opinion or preference, but that’s not my intention.  My approach will be theological and not filled with prepackaged answers for every situation.  My goal is to lay down some tracks for you to run on so that we will think biblically about the subject of civil government.

I initially decided to preach on the first seven verses of Romans 13 but because this topic raises so many issues, I then decided to preach on the first two, but after studying this passage some more I realized that we must first lay the foundation, and so we’re going to focus just on verse 1 today.  As we will see, It’s not about ‘what,’ it’s all about ‘who.’  

Putting the Text in Context

After establishing doctrine in chapters 1-8, discussing the future of Israel in chapters 9-11, the Apostle Paul turns the corner in the remainder of the book by focusing on how our faith should be lived out.  According to Romans 12:1-2, we must live surrendered lives of worship to Christ, submitting to Him as He renews our minds in order to think and live differently than the ways of the world.  As members of the body of Christ Romans 12:18 tells us that we are to live at peace with everyone, as far as it depends on us.  In chapter 13, Paul reflects on how we’re to respond and relate to civic government.

This letter was written to believers in Rome.  Shortly before this, many Jewish people had resisted Roman imperialism and caused such an uproar that they were ordered to leave the city and now they had been allowed back.  To the Roman government, Christianity was regarded as a Jewish sect.  Because of that, some commentators suggest that Paul wanted Christians to model civil obedience to distinguish themselves from those who were rebellious and intent on overthrowing the government.  Nero was the emperor at the time of the writing and a few years after this book was written he burned Christians at the stake and fed them to the lions.

Before we jump in, remember that the Apostle Paul carried on his back the scars from floggings he received from various government officials.  He was stoned by a mob while government officials turned their back on him.  He knew all about the bribery and corruption that was rampant, he witnessed fellow Christians martyred and he knew well how pagan the authorities were from top down.  We’ve largely forgotten how wicked ancient Rome really was.  Abortion flourished, sorcery and black magic abounded, homosexuality was accepted as normal and masses of people worshipped Caesar as Lord.

And with that, let’s look at Romans 13:1.  Notice right off the bat that this passage is for all of us: “Everyone…”  This could also read, “Let every soul.”  The very next word tells us that what God is about to say is not a suggestion: “Everyone must…”  The third and fourth words are where some of us will really get hung up: “Everyone must submit himself…”  Let’s face it.  We’re not sweet on submission, are we?  Let’s take a time out.  Does God really expect us to do that?  Can’t we just evaluate that expectation and conclude that submission is a thing of the past?

That leads us to the first point from this passage and it answers the ‘what’ question.  What is it that we’re supposed to do?

1. Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities. 

Let’s unpack the word “submit” because it’s also found in verse 5: “Therefore it is necessary to submit to the authorities.”  This is an explicit directive – no ifs, ands, or buts.  There is no exclusion because Nero wasn’t nice.  Submission is a military term that means, “To rank under, to take one’s proper place under those who are in authority, to be in subjection.”  It’s the idea of curbing one’s will to the will of another.  A technical definition is helpful: “The willing, intelligent submission to the authorities, out of humility, because one is conscious of God’s appointing and working through them.”  Ray Pritchard offers the best definition that I’ve heard: “Submission means believing that God is able to accomplish His will in my life through those He has placed over me.”

Many of us have an emotional allergy against submission

The key in all this is our attitude toward authority.  Many of us have an emotional allergy against submission.  This is not a stand-alone passage of Scripture.  Let’s turn to some other passages so that we’re not guilty of “proof-texting” from just one verse.

  • In 1 Samuel 24:6, after David had an opportunity to eliminate King Saul, we read these words: “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lift my hand against him; for he is the anointed of the Lord.” 
  • Titus 3:1-2: “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.” 
  • 1 Peter 2:13-17: Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.  For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.  Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.  Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.”  That last phrase sums it all up for me: “Fear God” and “honor the king.”  That’s the proper order: God, then government.  We submit “for the Lord’s sake.”  Why?  Because it’s not about ‘what’; it’s all about ‘who.’

I know most of you think I only reference one football team but today I want to draw out an illustration of submission from the Indianapolis Colts.  On Christmas Day, Randy Kindred wrote an article in the local paper called, “Coachable and Unified, Colts a Gift to Us All.”  He starts out by talking about the selfishness and unrestrained egos in professional sports.  In contrast, when the Colts were undefeated with a 14-0 record, some key players discussed their attitude about playing the last two games of the season in order to have a chance to go undefeated – or to rest so that the team would be fresh for the playoffs.  For some players, sitting out could mean missing out on awards or statistics-based incentive clauses.  Surprisingly, Colts players said they will follow Coach Caldwell and do whatever he says.  Quarterback Peyton Manning put it simply: “It’s not really set up that way, to lobby one way or the other.  We’ve followed his (Caldwell’s) orders all year, and I think that’s a good plan.  Whatever decision he makes, I think will be the right one.”  Randy Kindred concludes this way: “Call it class, unity, loyalty…above all, respect.”

Let me point out that the word “authorities” or “authority” occurs seven times in the first six verses and literally means “to be above.”  Friends, for the sake of the Savior and His mission of saving the lost, it’s important for us to practice good citizenship through submission to the authorities.

Point number one is the ‘what’: everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities.  And the best way to do the ‘what’ is to focus on the ‘who’ because it’s not about ‘what,’ it’s all about ‘who.’  That leads us to the second half of verse one: “…For there is no authority except that which God has established.  The authorities that exist have been established by God.”

2. All authority is established by God. 

Let’s be honest.  Many of us don’t like this verse.  That’s why it’s so important to focus on the who.  God Himself establishes governing authorities.  This Scripture would be easier to swallow if it were talking about religious authority in the church or even authority in the home.  But God says that He establishes all authorities, including the government.  Verse 1 uses the word “established” twice and verse 2 says that God has “instituted.”  People in government and in all authority serve by God’s ordained permission.

Here’s the deal.  God always works through human authorities, whether they are good or bad. By rebelling against those over me it’s like I’m rebelling against God.  That means that what I do at work is a spiritual issue and how I honor and obey my parents is a spiritual issue and how I prepare my tax return is to be an act of worship.

Remember this.  It’s not about the ‘what’ it’s about ‘who’s’ giving the command.  Friends, let me share this truth with you.  Without a big view of God, it will be impossible to submit to the authorities, especially if you think they are evil or you disagree with them in some way.  And, if you don’t submit to authority when you’re young (teenagers, listen), you will end up going down a bad path when you’re older.

To help us expand our view of the Almighty and to see His absolute sovereignty behind human authority, let’s ponder some passages of Scripture.

  • God allowed Rehoboam, a bad king, to rule in 1 Kings 12:15: “So the king did not listen to the people, for this turn of events was from the Lord…”
  • Proverbs 21:1: “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.” 
  • Isaiah 45:1 says that God used King Cyrus to accomplish His purposes: “This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut.”
  • Daniel 2:21: “He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them.”
  • In Daniel 4:32, after King Nebuchadnezzar boasted about building Babylon, the Almighty answers: “You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle.  Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.”  Then, after Nebuchadnezzar repents, he says these words that show us that he now knows God to be big and mighty and in control in verse 35: “He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth.  No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?’” 
  • In John 19:11, Jesus puts Pilate in his proper place.  After Pilate bragged about possessing power, Jesus says this: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” 
  • After the resurrection, Jesus makes this statement in Matthew 28:18: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
  • God works outs His ways and His will – even through evil rulers.  Check out Acts 4:27-28: “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.  They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”
God is not a republican or a democrat – when Jesus returns He won’t be riding an elephant or a donkey

And so we see that it doesn’t matter whether a government exists because a king appointed his son to rule, or a dictator came to power by force, or a tribal chief has defeated his rivals, or a people have voted for their candidate – all authority is there because God put it there.  It’s clear that the Bible does not endorse one particular form of civil government.  God is not a republican or a democrat – when Jesus returns He won’t be riding an elephant or a donkey.  God isn’t even an American.

Oh, and let me point out, submitting to authorities applies to democracies, aristocracies, autocracies, dictatorships, despotism, oligarchies, communism, and Wisconsoniasm (I just threw that one in to see if you’re paying attention).  This is exactly what Romans 13:1 says twice as we’re pulled from the ‘what’ to the ‘who’: “For there is no authority except that which God has established.  The authorities that exist have been established by God.”

Questions to Ponder

My guess is that all of this has raised some questions in your minds.  I plan to tackle some of them next week but you’ll have to work them out for yourself. 

  1. How do we positively engage with government in a country like ours where in a certain sense the government is us?

  2. Is there ever a time when a Christian should disobey a law?

Living it Out

While I certainly don’t have all the answers to these complicated questions, I do want to end with some ways that we can apply what we’ve learned today.

  1. Believe and be baptized.  One of the best ways to publicly demonstrate your submission to Christ is to be baptized. What are you waiting for?
  2. Read the entire Bible this year. 
  3. Plug into a group where you can grow. 
  4. When you find yourself getting angry about a political issue or a politician, stop and pray.  1 Timothy 2:1-2: “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” 
  5. Pray for those who are being persecuted.  
  6. Submit and surrender completely to the Savior.  After all, since God says it, that should settle it, right?  This is really the first place to start.  Have you ever humbled yourself, admitted that you’re a sinner, and then reached out and asked Jesus to save you from your sins?  Are you a believer and you’re ready to admit that you’ve been rebelling against the authority that God has placed in your life?  Have you been rebelling against God Almighty?  Some of us really hate the whole idea of submission and we refuse to do so.  Let’s call it what it is – sin and rebellion – and ask Christ to forgive us.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?