Authorities Instituted by God

Authorities Instituted by God

Please look for the announcement at the beginning of online worship tomorrow. We will describe provisional plans for in-person worship in coming weeks. In this and all other things, we ask for your patience and forbearance. As elders we are seeking to lead you as the Lord would have us lead but, as you know, the context in which we are serving is changing frequently. God alone does not change like shifting shadows (James 1:17), and Christ alone is our cornerstone and solid rock (Eph 2:20).

For this note I kept thinking of Jude v.3, “although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” I’ll try to hit some highlights of germane matters of faith that have been delivered to us. Maybe by the end we will be pointed to the glory of our common salvation.

I studied Ethics in seminary under an actual ethicist (rather than a general systematic theologian), Dr. David Jones. For Dr. Jones I worked on topics grounded in Romans 13:1-7, the seminal NT passage on submission to civil authority. Here’s Paul, writing to urge submission to the very authority that will execute him in slightly more than a decade: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” While there are places where Paul is difficult to understand (2 Pet 3:16), this is not one of them. In fact, these words are so clear and binding that German believers under Nazi rule debated at length whether Hitler could be disobeyed. In the end, many came to believe Hitler had disqualified himself as a Pauline “governing authority” because he was killing his own citizens (Jews, elderly, developmentally disabled). Only then were steps taken to “resist what God had appointed.

Going back to Paul, there’s no doubt Roman law was detested by Jews and there’s clear evidence the Caesars were all but crazy men. (I urge people to read the Roman historian Suetonius for proof of this.) Zealots of Jesus’ day (Simon the Disciple was a Zealot) made a strong case that paying taxes was actually a violation of Jewish law, and argued to the death that you could not pay taxes and be faithful to God at the same time. This was known as the Fourth Philosophy (after the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes), and is the backstory for the very important question in Matt 22:17. So, again, it’s difficult to overestimate the force and clarity of Paul’s words in Romans 13:7, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” Zealots would have hated Paul for this, all the more because as a former Pharisee he was betraying a view he once held himself.

But we all need to understand this: Paul had come to see God as so much greater than any merely earthly authority that he was no longer troubled by the whims, the comings and goings, of emperors, armies, governors and tax collectors. There was no power struggle between Rome and Jerusalem in his mind. God alone held all power. He knew — and believed — Prov. 21:1 “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” The Lord, through Luke, takes pains to show us Paul benefiting from the presence of regional and local government (the proconsul Gallio in Acts 18:12; the cool-headed town clerk in Acts 19:35). Even more compelling, when Paul employs his right as a Roman citizen and appeals to Caesar in Acts 25:11 before Governor Procius Festus, he knows he is submitting himself to a formal process, already ancient in the empire, that will culminate in an audience before a ruler who was a known psychopath (Nero). Still, he knows God alone rules in all things. He has not entrusted himself to Nero; he has entrusted himself to God.

Time to wrap this up. Speaking for myself, I am no fan of governmental over-reach. It seems to me the point of Democracy (“government of the people, by the people, and for the people” in Lincoln’s phrase) should not begin to feel like monarchy or imperialism. A pastor friend has begun to refer to Gov. Inslee as “Lord Inslee,” his not-so-subtle way of suggesting we’re back to being ruled by an aristocracy. The jokes are a nice stress-release and I laugh as much as anyone else. But at the end of the day, it’s impossible to take Paul seriously and not take the directions of Gov. Inslee seriously. Even though much of what he has done relative to churches has puzzled me and seemed logically inconsistent, he is a long, long way from ceasing to be a biblically valid authority. In the end we trust not that God will honor our submission to Gov. Inslee himself, but our submission to the “authority instituted by God,” who, in our case, happens to be Gov. Inslee. Our trust is in God, and he will not fail us. Can we continue to use all of our rights as citizens to speak to governing authorities (voting, courts, peaceful protest, etc.)? Of course. We should and we do. I suspect the announcement this past week regarding worship was due to pressure in the courts — thank God. But between now and whatever changes may come, our calling in Christ is submission (to him).