Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. - Matthew 10:28
As redeemed Christians who have been saved and continue to experience the wonders of salvation, we are called to live in a certain manner. Last week Paul challenged us to display several characteristics that are indicative of a godly life. Before that, he urged us to diligently serve God as laborers in His kingdom. This morning we will consider a third behavior that we as God's children are to practice - we should strive to be good citizens.
Before we delve into the text, let me preface this sermon by saying that the opening verses of Romans 13 have been misused over the centuries to convince Christians that submission to the government is always the correct course. In the late 1930's for example, virtually every German preacher taught their congregations to obey the atrocious decrees of the Nazi government as an act of allegiance to God. Hitler, along many other ruthless dictators, have greatly benefited from an improper interpretation of this text. Unfortunately, millions have died at the hands of these infamous leaders. Absolute and unquestioned submission to any human government is completely unbiblical and ignores the preponderance of what is taught in Scripture.
As Americans, we should understand this truth better than most. Our forefathers were British citizens who were appalled by the behaviors of their own government. They tried for years to resolve these differences through peaceful compromise. Finally, having failed to reach any meaningful agreement, and being increasingly persecuted and mistreated by the royal crown, the colonists revolted.
In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson wrote that it is the "right" and the "duty" of the people to "throw off" a tyrannical and abusive government. This historic document was signed by fifty-six of our nation’s founders, many of whom were professing Christians. These devout men understood that blind submission to a corrupt and sinful government is not the will of God. While we should seek to be good citizens to the extent possible, certain occasions may arise in which we must resist the evil dictates of human authority in exchange for the timeless truths of God.
Generally speaking, the children of God should exhibit exceptional citizenship. We should be obedient to the higher authorities that govern us. Our dedication to country should be unmatched by others in society. If and when our leaders begin to stray from doing good, we show seek to restore them through the example of our Christian character.
I. THERE IS NO AUTHORITY EXCEPT FROM GOD (Romans 13:1-2)
There is no authority except that which is from God. The LORD is sovereign in that He alone exercises supreme, complete, and permanent authority over all things. Any other individual or entity that holds some level of authority derives it solely from God. The LORD sets up or establishes civil governments as a means through which He implements His authority. As Christians, we are to live in submission to these civil authorities, recognizing that the source of their power is ultimately God Almighty.
A person who resists the legitimate authority of the government opposes the ordinance of God. Such disobedience will bring about condemnation, both from the governing authorities and from the LORD Himself. People who violate the laws of their state and/or nation should expect to be punished as a just consequence of their misconduct. This is the primary function of civil government - to serve as an agent which seeks to rightly enforce the moral laws and principles of God.
Because all authority is from God, and none other exists apart from Him, then we must understand that no person or entity possesses any authority of their own merit. Therefore, no one has the natural right to rule over or control anyone else, unless so ordained by God Himself. The only valid, legitimate, and binding authority is that which comes from the LORD. Thus, laws or dictates that are not from God as indicated by their clear violation of His word are unfounded and carry no real authority at all.
There are numerous examples of men and women in Scripture who resisted the illegitimate control of the civil powers, some even to the point of their own martyrdom. We must understand that our call to live in submission to governing authorities is not a blanket command to comply with or defer to everything that they say or do. We should strive to be good citizens, but if the statues and laws of our government are not of God then they carry no authority. We must first remain obedient to the LORD even if it violates the laws or decrees of the state.
II. THE PROPER FUNCTION OF GOVERNMENT (Romans 13:3-4)
When a government is acting in accordance with its God-given purpose, it protects and secures the rights and well-being of its citizens. In these instances, those who are in power become a source of comfort to law-abiding citizens and a source of fear to criminals. By practicing that which is good, as specified by the morally upright laws of the land, any person is free to live without fear of or intimidation from their government. In some cases, they might even receive praise or accolades for their fine display of citizenship. This is to be the behavior of a born again Christian.
If, however, a person chooses to do that which is evil and disobeys the just authority of the government then they should expect to receive punishment. God intentionally grants civil magistrates with the power and means to inflict consequences upon law-breakers. In this manner the state serves as a minister of God through which He executes His wrath upon transgressors.
There is a profound difference between that which is legal and that which is right, just as there is between that which is illegal and that which is wrong. Right and wrong carry far more weight than legal and illegal. Godly authority legitimizes that which is good and penalizes that which is evil - ungodly authority does the opposite. When civil governance legalizes that which is sinful, or it makes it illegal to practice that which is right, then it is functioning outside its established purpose. Such is the nature of corruption.
Notice in this text that Paul describes the government as one acting in a just and right manner, as ordained and established by God. Therefore it is completely logical and appropriate that we should submit to it. However, Paul never provides a counter example of an unethical and ungodly government, nor does he tell us what to do under those circumstances. The command to submit assumes that the governmental authorities being submitted to are functioning as God intended.
III. HONOR AND SUPPORT THE CIVIL GOVERNMENT (Romans 13:5-7)
As Christians, we should live in subjection to our civil government because it has the power to punish us if we don't - but even more so because it is the right thing to do. God has established governing authorities to rule over us for our benefit. Those who work as public officials are servants of God who have devoted themselves to this cause. Therefore, we should pay our taxes and customs unreluctantly as a means of supporting our governing authorities.
Supporting the activities of the government by paying taxes is by no means an endorsement of everything that they do with the money. I have met many people who refuse to pay taxes because they believe that by doing so they become partly responsible for the government's corruption. While there are many examples of government spending that I wholeheartedly disagree with and would like to see ended immediately, I refute the notion that I am responsible for the actions of another person or entity. Scripture teaches that each person is held individually accountable for their own deeds. Therefore, we should pay our taxes in obedience to the LORD's command. If the government misuses the money, they we be judged accordingly for their own actions.
Jesus said that we should render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and render unto God the things which are God's. With this statement, the Lord revealed that we are under obligation to both the civil government and to the living God. We are to respect and support our governing authorities, but our ultimate allegiance must always be to the LORD. The honor that we show to our government is undergirded by our reverence for and obedience to Him. Because we fear God and understand His reasons for placing human authorities over us, we can then voluntarily honor the king. (1 Peter 2:17)
God established government and granted it with authority to rule. While we may disagree with some of the activities of the government, we should always respect the institution as an instrument through which God works to accomplish His will. The absence of all government is inconsistent with Scripture, while the existence of a large and intrusive one is dangerous to freedom. America's founders realized this and sought to create a limited government - restricted in both size and power. When the civil government functions as God designed it to, submission to it is not an issue.
Unfortunately, many Christians have taken this command too far. When churches revere the American flag more than the Christian flag there is a problem. When Christians seem to cherish Memorial Day services or Independence Day services more than Easter services something is wrong. Many so-called evangelicals today seem to worship the state more than they do Jesus Christ. Don't get me wrong... I deeply love my country and am truly appreciative of all the men and women who have served and are serving to defend it. I am a proud American who believes that this is the greatest nation on the earth. But if I am ever forced to choose between either my country or my God, it will be no contest. I am and will always be a Christian first, and an American in distant second.
Some might misconstrue this sermon to be a call for revolution. It isn't. I fully agree with and echo the words of Paul which encourage us all to be good citizens. We should respect and pray for our civil leaders knowing that God has granted them certain authority over us. They aren't perfect and will certainly make mistakes, just as we do. Still we must realize that the burden of leadership can be difficult to carry at times, and those who do so need our support. Ultimately we must remember that God's intent for the government is to make our lives better, not worse. We only have grounds to dissent if the governing authorities are in clear violation of God's commands.