What do we do when we are facing leaders we don’t want to follow issuing orders we don’t want to keep? The response by most people throughout history has been either passive acceptance or else violent rebellion. As followers of Jesus, though, there is another option. As we continue our series, Being Good Kingdom Citizens, this week, thinking together about how we need to respond to the current political climate as followers of Jesus, we are going to join the apostle Paul as he lays out what this third way is. Thanks for being a part of the conversation.
Getting in Line
Have you ever been faced with a rule you didn’t want to follow? I suspect so. I remember when I was a sophomore in high school, and we took the standardized science tests for the state at the end of the year. I remember thinking the whole test was a joke in terms of covering ideas and topics we hadn’t touched on at all in the previous nine months, but the question that took the cake for me was this: Draw a picture of the universe and mark the approximate location of the earth. By this time, I was beyond frustrated with the content. We had never even come close to talking about the shape of the universe. I was a science geek and didn’t know the shape of the universe. Modern astrophysicists only have guesses about it (incredibly educated guess, yes, but guesses all the same). The rule was, though, that you had to answer all the questions. So, I sat there and for five continuous minutes put dots all over the page with my pencil, added a random X, and then moved on to the next question. I’ll confess that it was not one of my finer moments in academia.
Okay, well, how about this one: Have you ever been faced with a person you didn’t want to follow? That person may have been a boss or a supervisor or a project director or a teacher, but I suspect the answer is, “Yes,” here too. Also in my sophomore year of high school, my drum teacher retired on me. I needed to find another. One of the guys I tried a lesson with was named Gary Vai. Gary was a nice enough guy and good teacher, but our personalities clashed. Badly. One lesson and I knew I would be content not ever seeing him again. Then, in my senior year, he got hired to be the percussion instructor for our high school band. Guess who the top student was who would have to be working closely with him throughout the year. Yeah…me. It was a rough year. We finally worked out an uneasy peace by the year’s end which mostly involved his leaving me alone and me not openly contradicting him. It wasn’t a good situation.
Well, in twenty-three days, we are going to elect a new president and the odds are 100% that tens of millions of Americans are going to be faced with the prospect of a leader they don’t want to follow directing Congress to pass laws they don’t want to keep. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? I guess the obvious question here is this: What are we supposed to do about that? How should we respond to that? More specifically for us, how should we respond to all of this as followers of Jesus?
This morning finds us in the second part of our new teaching series, Being Good Kingdom Citizens. All this month and wrapping up on the Sunday before the election, we are having a conversation together about how we as followers of Jesus should be thinking about the election, and, more broadly, the state of politics in our nation in general. Last week as we kicked off this journey, we established an important baseline for Christians when it comes to thinking about politics: no matter how much you may love or hate a particular party or candidate, your first allegiance is to the kingdom of God. Or, as we put it then, the church’s first allegiance is to God, not the world. We left things last week, though, in kind of an awkward spot. It’s good and important to know that our first allegiance is to God and not the world, but what does this actually look like in practice? That’s what I want to talk about with you this morning.
You see, whenever we are facing the prospect of having to potentially follow a leader we don’t want to follow—you pick the reason why—we are faced with a choice. Do we go against our first preference and do it; or do we refuse? Both approaches can be spun to make us look pretty bad. Both can be spun to make us look like courageous heroes. It all depends on the perspective of the spinner. The right path forward for followers of Jesus is somewhere in the middle. This middle path, however, has an important context to it. This context is laid out for us by the apostle Paul in his letter to the church in ancient Rome.
Romans is easily one of Paul’s most beloved and studied letters. The first three quarters of the letter lay out the beautiful theology of the Gospel in tantalizing terms. At chapter 12, Paul shifts gears to explaining what we should be doing with the theology he’s been delivering. This breaks down into basically three parts: personal implications, societal implications, and implications for the church body. Paul’s implications for society at large are…tricky. Let me read these for you and then we’ll talk about them for a bit.
“Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience.”
Oh my! Right? How is something like that even in the Scriptures? What was Paul thinking writing this? Maybe he just misunderstood what the Spirit was saying. Maybe someone snuck this into his letter after he finished writing. These five verses contain one crushing blow after another. I mean, it doesn’t start out too badly because it’s generic. Everyone should submit to the governing authorities. We can deal with that. We can find ways to weasel out from under that when it gets especially inconvenient. But then Paul goes on and it gets a lot harder really quickly.
There is no authority except from God. Just let that one sit on you for a second. There is no authority except from God. In other words, God is the source of all the authority there is. He is absolutely sovereign over His creation. If there is someone with authority in this world, that authority necessarily exists under the auspices of God’s sovereignty and thus only exists because He has allowed it to exist. And just as we are starting to fire up a whole list of whatabouts, Paul goes one step further, doubling down on this idea. If there is an authority, God put it there. What?!? Really?!? God put Kim Jong Un in place? He instituted Hitler? Stalin? Come on, Paul, you can’t be serious. Oh, but he is. And he’s got more to say. Those who resist the authority over them are resisting God’s command and will be liable for judgment from it.
Let’s just lay on the line what Paul is saying here: As followers of Jesus we are to submit—notice that Paul does not use the word “obey” there, but “submit;” there is a distinction there that is important, but not one we should think we can exploit when it is convenient—to the people who are in authority over us as they are only in such a position because God has allowed them to be there. In resisting their authority, we are resisting the authority of God Himself. If we want to get along well and without fear in whatever situation we are in, we need to strive to do good in all circumstances. And Paul here is defining good as submitting to the authorities over us. That means that if they ask you to do something and it is not something the Scriptures explicitly forbid you from doing, you do it. End of story.
But Paul, you just don’t understand. I mean, we could have Trump for four more years if things don’t go right in November. We could have Biden and the radical left calling the shots. How are we supposed to submit to someone so evil?!? Oh, I’m sorry, did I not talk about the circumstances out of which Paul was writing this letter? Yeah, Scripture doesn’t come without a context. You see, Paul wasn’t writing under something like the administration of George W. Bush which, regardless of your personal feelings about him, was really friendly to Christians. Paul was writing during the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero. Remember Nero? He was the crazy one who blamed Rome’s burning on Christians and eventually started dipping them in wax and using them to light his garden path at night. Paul didn’t write these words with an exemption for leaders we really don’t like. Rest assured, he really didn’t like Nero. He wrote them for whatever leader under whose authority we happen to be living.
Okay, fine, but what about… There are a lot of those for this passage, aren’t there? What about this? What about that? What about this or that set of circumstances in which we couldn’t possibly be expected to adhere to his words here? Well, Paul didn’t really allow for those. But what about if the authorities demand you do something that contradicts what the Scriptures proclaim? You go back to last week’s big idea: the church’s first allegiance is to God, not the world.
There is a precedent in the Scriptures for believers refusing to obey their God-given authorities in circumstances like that. Consider the apostles telling the Jewish ruling council that they would obey God rather than man. Consider Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refusing to bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s statue. But just because a particular leader is abusing his or her God-given authority, doesn’t mean that authority is suddenly going to be taken away upon initiation of the abuse. The trio standing before Nebuchadnezzar fully expected to be thrown into the fiery furnace and they had no real plans for surviving it. They knew God could do something like that, but they weren’t expecting it. The apostles standing before the Sanhedrin fully expected to be beaten and were even ready to be killed for their refusal to obey. Or, let’s look to something more modern than that. Martin Luther King, Jr. held a racial justice rally in Alabama in violation of that state’s laws against just such gatherings. In fact, King’s followers did a lot of things that were in violation of unjust laws. They were all taught a theology of getting arrested. Doesn’t all that set a precedent for us to do the same?
Well, it does, but let’s think carefully about how it does. If you refuse the authority of someone to whom God has given authority over you, there is going to be a price to pay and there isn’t anything in the Scriptures that suggests you are going to be able to avoid paying that price. The Babylonian trio were tossed into the fire. The apostles were beaten. King was arrested. As Paul said, “if you do wrong [which in this case is defined as not doing what the authorities tell you to do], be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason.” The authority may be using its power unjustly, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still have its power. Unjust authorities—including whole governments—are occasionally going to be unjust. That shouldn’t surprise us. And it doesn’t mean we’re wrong to oppose them using every legal means available to us. In this country we happen to have many legal means for opposing unjust actions by the state at our disposal thanks to our brilliant Constitution. But, if we switch to using illegal means, even for truly legitimate reasons, we should be prepared to pay the legal consequences. Of course, if we expect to gain the favor of God for our opposition, we’d better be absolutely certain we are taking that course for the sake of righteousness and not merely because we just really don’t like that law or the leader and have found some passage in the Scriptures that seems to give us cover. And, by the way, it is really easy to convince ourselves we are when we aren’t really.
Still, though, we haven’t really figured out what we should be doing about what Paul says here and how it impacts how we should be thinking about the election as followers of Jesus. Let me share with you two things you need to know in light of what Paul says that should absolutely shape your life post-November 3rd. The first is just as obvious as it is uncomfortable. No matter who happens to win, we still need to plan to submit to the laws of the land. We are called to submit to the people in authority over us whether or not we agree with them politically. We’re called to submit whether or not we like them personally. The righteousness of Christ isn’t something we get to take on and off just because we are repulsed by a particular leader.
Here’s the second thing, and this one is important. We’ve already touched on this a bit, but this frames out why we can submit without fear. Remember what the second thing Paul said was? He said, “there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God.” Think about what that means. It falls right in line with the foundation we established last time. It means that no matter what human authority happens to be the direct object of the submission Paul commands, God is the ultimate authority. That means our first submission is always going to be to Him. It means that the authority in question is ultimately answerable to Him. While we should indeed seek to hold our leaders accountable to the laws of the land, the ultimate accountability is going to be enforced by God Himself. That takes all the pressure off of us. We simply trust Him, submit to them, and let the chips fall where they may. And this applies no matter who happens to be in charge in an immediate sense. Because in an ultimate sense, God is. No matter what. However the election goes, God is still in charge.
Do you see what this means? It means we don’t have to be worried about the outcome of the election. Not this election or any election. However the election goes, God is still in charge. There is nothing that will happen 23 days from now that will have even the slightest impact on our ability or duty to love the people around us in the name of Jesus. Our commitment to doing good in all the ways we can for all the people we can in as many places as we can for as long as we can doesn’t have to waver even a little bit. Whether the final vote falls in favor of our guy or the other guy, God is still going to be calling us as church to be a people with whom anyone can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom. That means there will still be plenty of good work left to do. In fact, as people around us fall to either gloating or despair precisely because they don’t understand what we do and have made politics ultimate, there will be even more good work for us to do as we share the hope that only the Gospel can offer. All of this because we don’t have to worry in even the slightest way about who happens to be in authority in a given season. However the election goes, God is still in charge.
So, what do we do? We have hope. We should be a people of hope in all seasons, but especially one like we are facing now. There will be another presidential debate soon. The last one was, by all account, a debacle, and left most folks fretting over the nature of the choice before us. We don’t have to fear. We can have hope. We can have hope and we can spread hope. God is still in charge. However the election goes, God is still in charge.
We can love. Because God is in charge, we are ultimately being shaped to reflect His image more or less by every choice we make. Loving one another is fundamentally about shaping the people around us intentionally to reflect Him more. As the world continues to be shaped by ideas that do not reflect our God and cause all the chaos such ideas naturally bring with them, our love is what can set things aright. However the election goes, God is still in charge, and so we still need to reflect Him in our lives. Love will do it.
Finally, we hold fast to the truth. The truth is that politics is not ultimate. Where we make it ultimate, only partisanship and deep divisions will result. When our entire worldview is dependent on the election of one person, that not happening can seem like an existential crisis. It’s not. Because politics is not ultimate. God is. And however the election goes, God is still in charge.
Fine, but if we do this, isn’t it going to make us stand out from the culture around us? You bet it is. Be here next week and we’ll talk about how to handle that.