— By LOU TISCIONE
The church in the Old Testament lived under a theocracy. That is, both the church and state were one. God anointed kings. Civil laws and religious laws were one and the same.
Today we don’t live in a theocracy. In fact, there is only one society in the world that is considered a theocracy. It is Islam. As you may know, in Islam-controlled countries the civilian population lives under religious law.
In the New Testament, God revealed three circles of life over which He rules: the family, the church and the government.
The Apostle Paul wrote of the Christian’s relationship to civil government. “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.” (Romans 13:1)
The first principle under which Christians live in relation to the civil government is to submit to the governing authorities. “To be subject to” is to live under by submitting oneself to authority. This command is crystal clear. Yet what if the governing authority is evil?
Before answering this, it is necessary to understand the historical context under which Paul wrote this letter. The likely date for the writing of Romans is approximately 57 A.D. At that time, the Roman Empire was ruled by Nero. Nero’s rule was between 54 A.D. and 68 A.D. One need not do a great deal of research to discover the behavior of Nero.
Tacitus, a Roman Historian who lived during Nero’s reign, wrote of some of Nero’s atrocities: “Before killing the Christian, Nero used them to amuse the people. Some were dressed in furs, to be killed by dogs. Others were crucified. Still others were set on fire early in the night, so that they might illumine it …” (Annals 15.44)
I include this as evidence that we are not living in the most evil of times, especially concerning the world’s persecution of Christians. Yet, we must face the fact that more and more Christians are facing increased persecution.
None of this is a surprise to God. He is sovereign over all the affairs of men. He ordains those who are in authority both good rulers and evil rulers. He ordains everything for His good purpose. But, God is never the author of sin. He ordains all things and that includes the evil behavior of second causes. We refer to those second causes as evil men.
The principle outlined in Romans 13:1 is not a sliding scale. That is, it is an absolute standard. Christians are to submit to the governing authorities because God has ordained all authority.
God has given instruction concerning what believers are to do when forced to submit to a human authority that commands that which is opposed to God’s law. For example, when a ruler commands killing for evil purposes, we who profess Christ are to obey God rather than man. (Acts 5:29) In so doing we must understand that the evil ruler will likely execute his own wrath against us.
I immediately think of those who resisted the Nazi mandate to exterminate the Jews. Many were executed by the Nazis for harboring Jews. Now this is an extreme picture. But it serves to remind us of consequences for doing what God requires. Jesus told His disciples not to be surprised when the world expressed hatred for them because it hated Him first. (John 15:18)
So then, from God’s word here are several things He has commanded concerning the Christian’s relationship with civil government:
• Believers are to submit to the governing authorities.
• God ordained civil authorities for the good of all.
• Civil authorities have a granted authority under the sovereign God.
• Believers must obey God rather than man when man’s law conflicts God’s law.
• Christians are to “pay to all what is owed them …” (Romans 13:7)
• Christians are to live in peace with others to the extent that we are able. (Romans 12:18)
We in the church must be aware that we have been set apart by God for God. Our lives are to be lived in accordance with the word of God. Believers live under God’s word. When we are persecuted let us not wander from the truth. May we all have the strength to bear up under persecution for the glory of God, keeping before us the truth that He has promised never to leave us or forsake us. (Hebrews 13:5)
Lou Tiscione is pastor of Weatherford Presbyterian Church (PCA).