Thomas Jefferson once asked the rhetorical question: “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?”
In the 18th Century, on both sides of the Atlantic, there might have been a consensus that the answer was self-evident – at least in Britain if not in France. When the same revolutionary spirit infected the North American Colonies it became a more debatable question there also. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which Jefferson helped write, provided one solution – separate church and state.
While originally intended to protect the church from the state, since 1947, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted it to mean that religion and government must stay separate for the benefit of both. Not so today. Most people believe the Church should keep its nose out of politics. Which is why our Bible reading from Romans may have sounded somewhat reactionary or fundamentalist depending on your political affiliation?
Even the idea of holding a religious ceremony to inaugurate the appointment of a new civic leader may to some, appear eccentric or inappropriate. What has religion got to do with politics? I suggest a great deal, and worthy of our attention today. Please turn with me to our Bible reading from Romans.
That we have responsibilities to both God and the state was clearly implied in Jesus’ enigmatic epigram, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’ (Matthew 22:21)
Now the Apostle Paul enlarges on the state’s God-appointed role and on the responsibility of Christian citizens in relation to it. His emphasis however, is on personal citizenship rather than on any particular theory of church—state relations.
1. The Authority of the State
2. The Role of Government
3. The Responsibility of Citizens
1. The Authority of the State
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (Romans 13:1-2)
Paul begins with a clear command of universal application: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities” (1a). He then gives the reason. The state’s authority is derived from God. This he affirms three times. 1. “There is no authority except that which God has established” (1b). 2. “The authorities that exist have been established by God” (1c). 3. “Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.” (2a).
While we may have no problem with this logic in a Western liberal democracy, what is remarkable, is that when written, Europe and Palestine were under foreign military occupation. And the Roman authorities in power were becoming increasingly ruthless and hostile toward Christians. Nevertheless, the state is regarded as established by God, who requires Christians to submit to them and cooperate with them. So whether we enjoy good or bad government, the Bible insists, the state is a divine institution with God-given authority.
But surely this injunction cannot be taken to mean that all the Caligulas, Herods and Neros of the 1st Century, and all the Hitlers, Stalins, Amins and Saddams of our generation, were personally appointed by God, or that God is responsible for their behaviour, or that their authority cannot be questioned or resisted? No. Paul means rather that all human authority is derived from God’s authority. This means we can say to rulers what Jesus said to Pilate at his trial, ‘You would have no power [authority] over me if it were not given to you from above.’ (John 19:11).
Having asserted, the Authority of the State, the passage goes on to outline secondly,
2. The Role of the Government
“For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” (Romans 13:3-5)
The statement that rulers commend those who do right and punish those who do wrong is not of course invariably true. But it sets forth the divine purpose of government, not necessarily the human reality. The problem is that the requirement of submission and the warning against rebellion are couched in universal terms.
For this reason they have constantly been misapplied by oppressive – usually right-wing regimes, as if Scripture gave them carte blanche to develop a tyranny and to demand unconditional obedience. But, as the context shows, and Cullman insists,
“there can be no question here of an unconditional and uncritical subjection to any and every demand of the State’. How, then, do we determine when submission is not absolute? Just as Paul has affirmed three times that the state has authority from God, so now he affirms three times that it has a ministry or calling from God.
1. “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good” (4a). 2. “They are agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (4c). 3. “They are God’s servants,” (4, 6). What, then, is the ministry which God has entrusted to the state? To uphold that which is good and restrain evil. These are the essential and complementary ministries of the state and its accredited representatives. ‘God’s servant for your good’ (4a) and ‘God’s servant … to bring punishment on the evildoer’ (4b). However unpopular, and I don’t want to get into a debate over capital punishment or whether a life sentence should mean life, when the state punishes evildoers, it is functioning as ‘the servant of God to execute his wrath’. Now the Bible teaches that God’s wrath, will one day fall on evil doers. In the here and now this is seen in lawlessness, criminal behaviour and the breakdown of the social order (1:18ff.).
This is to be resisted impartially through the processes of law enforcement and the administration of justice. Granted that the authority of rulers is derived from God, what happens if they abuse it, if they reverse their God-given duty, commending those who do evil and punishing those who do good? Does the requirement to submit still stand in such a morally perverse situation? No. The principle is clear. We are to submit right up to the point where obedience to the state would result in participation in evil, in disobedience to God. If the State commands what God forbids, or forbids what God commands, then our moral duty is to resist, not to submit. Our responsibility is to disobey the state in order to obey God and so contribute, with our lives if necessary, the return to good government.
A day spent in Auschwitz and Birkenau recently was a sober reminder of what happens when good people do nothing. As Peter and the other apostles responded to the Sanhedrin when forbidden to evangelise in the name of Jesus: ‘We must obey God rather than men!’ (Acts 5:29). This is the moral justification for civil disobedience. To trespass and organize a sit-in. To obstruct the authorities may in specific circumstances be justified. Whenever laws are enacted which contradict God’s law, civil disobedience becomes a Christian duty. There are notable examples in British history of Christians who opposed slavery, who fought for trade union rights, who lobbied for an end to the use of child labour and for the emancipation of women. Sadly there were also those, usually in high office, who opposed these reforms.
A month or so ago I was involved in a peaceful demonstration protesting at the confiscation of land belonging to a family just outside Bethlehem. We were fired upon by Israeli soldiers. This sound bomb sits by my computer alongside tear gas canisters and rubber bullets from pervious skirmishes to remind me of my civic duty to do justice, love mercy – and where necessary resist evil. I have always found it helpful to view the role of the Church, irrespective of whoever is in government, to be Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Loyal, submissive, prayerful, but holding the government, whichever party is in power, to account in fulfilling its God-given role. We are to submit to the state’s God-given authority, but remain opposed to both tyranny and anarchy.
The role of the state is not only to punish evil, however; it is also to promote and reward goodness. This positive function of affirming good citizenship and service to the community is much neglected today. The state tends to be better at punishing than at rewarding, better at enforcing the law than at fostering virtue and service. Yet this is the motivation every citizen needs, especially the young. That is why it is so encouraging to know that in Runnymede at lease on an annual basis, those who have given service to the community are affirmed and acknowledged. We have considered, first, the authority of the state, second, the role of the government.
3. The Responsibility of Citizens
“This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:6-8)
If calling for submission to those in authority is a controversial subject, surely the call for the payment of taxes must be one of the most unpopular. Taxation was widespread and varied in the ancient world. There was a poll tax, land taxes, royalties on farm produce, and duty on imports and exports. “This is also why you pay taxes: it is because the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing” (6).
Political parties of the Right and the Left differ over the desirable size of the state’s role in the nation’s life, and whether it should increase or decrease taxation. All agree, however, that there are some services which the state must provide. These have to be paid for and this makes taxes necessary. So Christians should accept their tax liability with good grace, paying their dues in full, national and local, direct and indirect, and giving proper esteem to the officials who collect and apply them. “Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour” (7).
But Paul instructs us to go beyond the letter of the law, or the Inland Revenue regulations. “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” (8). Christians, who recognize that the state’s authority and ministry come from God, will do more than tolerate it as if it were a necessary evil. Conscientious Christian citizens will submit to its authority, honour its representatives, pay its taxes and pray for its welfare. They will encourage the state to fulfil its God-appointed role but in so far as they have opportunity, they will actively participate in its work. That I suggest will lead not only to better government but also a more stable society. And that is I hope our reason for being here today. To affirm, celebrate and pray for our Mayor and Civic leaders in Runnymede. Our next hymn will assist us to do that, speaking of our dual citizenship, both earthly and heavenly.
This sermon was delivered at the Borough of Runnymede, Mayor’s Civic Service, 17th October 2010 in the Chapel of Royal Holloway University of London. It draws, with thanks, on John Stott’s The Message of Romans (Leicester, IVP, 1994) and Oscar Cullman, The State in the New Testament (SCM, 1957)