Subjection to the Governing Authorities

 Romans 13 was one of those parts of Scripture that were formative for me in my later teenage years.  I had to think about it quite a bit since I served in the U.S. Army (Reserves).  And it’s still a text that I think about quite a bit since submitting to the civil government is part of God’s good and acceptable will for us (Rom 12:2). Speaking of being “subject to the governing authorities” (Rom 13:1 NIV), here are some reflections on that theme from various helpful commentaries.

Chrysostom (d. 407 AD) wrote this – and I appreciate how he said that a Christian’s submission to the governing authorities will “stop the mouths of those that malign us”:

For lest the believers should say, You are making us very cheap and despicable, when you put us, who are to enjoy the Kingdom of Heaven, under subjection to rulers, he shows that it is not to rulers, but to God again that he makes them subject in doing this. For it is to Him, that he who subjects himself to authorities is obedient. Yet he does not say this—for instance that it is God to Whom a man who listens to authorities is obedient—but he uses the opposite case to awe them, and gives it a more precise form by saying, that he who listeneth not thereto is fighting with God, Who framed these laws.

…When then you show our common Master giving this in charge to all His, you will at once stop the mouths of those that malign us as revolutionists, and with great boldness will speak for the doctrines of truth. Be not then ashamed, he says, at such subjection.

 John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Romans,  (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 512.

John Stott mentions cooperation rather than subversion:

That church and state have different roles, and that Christians have duties 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.’ Now Paul enlarges on the state’s God-appointed role and on the role of Christian people in relation to it, although his emphasis is on personal citizenship rather than on any particular theory of church—state relations. What he writes is specially remarkable when we recall that at that time there were no Christian authorities (global, regional or local). On the contrary, they were Roman or Jewish, and were therefore largely unfriendly and even hostile to the church. Yet Paul regarded them as having been established by God, who required Christians to submit to them and cooperate with them.

…The state is a divine institution with divine authority. Christians are not anarchists or subversives.

 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 339–340.

Here’s F.F. Bruce, who also notes the role of conscience that Paul mentions in Rom. 13:5:

Christians of all people, then, ought to obey the laws, pay their taxes and respect the authorities—not because it will be the worse for them if they do not, but because this is one way of serving God.

The Christian has a higher motive for obeying the ruler than the unpleasantness of the consequences of disobedience; the Christian knows that such obedience is in accordance with God’s will, and by rendering it will preserve a good conscience in relation to God.

 F. F. Bruce, Romans: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 6, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 237.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Civil Authority as God’s Institution (Luther)

 I’ve been enjoying Martin Luther’s commentary on the Genesis Flood; it’s been interesting, helpful, and even encouraging in a Christian way.  Today as I was studying Genesis 9:1-17 I came across the following statements Luther made on what this text has to do with civil government. These comments are based on Luther’s exposition of Genesis 9:4-5 (But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood, I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed [NIV]).  Can you hear some echoes of Romans 13?

…Now God adds a commandment pertaining to civil government. Since it was no more a sin to kill an ox or a sheep for food than it was to pluck a flower or an herb growing in the field, there was some danger that men might misuse this God-given power over the beasts and go beyond it even to the shedding of human blood. Hence, he now adds a new law, that human blood must not be shed…

…Here, however, God bestows a share of his authority upon man, giving him the power of life and death, that thus he may be the avenger of bloodshed. Whosoever takes man’s life without due warrant, him God subjects not only to his own judgment, but also to the sword of man. Though God may use man as his instrument in punishing, he is himself still the avenger.

This is the source from which spring all civil laws and the laws of nations.

Heed, then, this passage. It establishes civil authority as God’s institution…

The importance of this text and its claim to attention consists in the fact that it records the establishment of civil authority by God with the sword as insignia of power, for the purpose that license may be curbed and anger and other sins inhibited from growing beyond all bounds. Had God not granted this power to man, what kind of lives, I ask you, would we lead? He foresaw that wickedness would ever flourish, and established this external remedy to prevent the indefinite spread of license. By this safeguard God protects life and property as by a fence and a wall.

Martin Luther, Luther on Sin and the Flood: Commentary on Genesis, ed. John Nicholas Lenker, trans. John Nicholas Lenker, vol. II, The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin Luther (Minneapolis, MN: The Luther Press, 1910), 277.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54002

The Government and the Christian (Luther)

 The Christian faith is not opposed to civil authority.  For example, Scripture calls followers of Jesus to respect authority, pray for leaders in positions of authority, and live peaceful lives for the benefit of society.  In fact, it is a proper interpretation of the fifth commandment to include obedience to those in authority over us.  Martin Luther understood this when he gave instructions on the fifth commandment and civil government.  Here’s a summary of what he said in light of that commandment and Romans 13:

[We owe the government] first, the payment of taxes, namely that each shall give the authorities such money and labor as is required of him.

Second, respect, that is, that we have sincere respect for government….

The third duty we owe government is honor.  …This means, first, that we recognize that government is from God and that through it he gives us much greater benefits.  For if God did not maintain government and justice in the world, the devil, who is a murderer, would everywhere bring about murder, so that none of us could be sure of life, wife, or children.

But God sustains government and through it gives peace and punishes and guards against the wicked, so that we may support wife and children, bring up children in the discipline and knowledge of God, have security in our homes and on the streets, that each may help the other, and communicate and live with another.  Such gifts are altogether of heaven, and God desires that we consider and recognize them as gifts of God.  He desires us to honor government as a servant of his and to show gratitude to it because through it God gives us such great benefits.  …If you knew that someone had saved your child from death, you would thank him warmly.  Why then are you not grateful to the government which saves you, your children, your wife, daily from murder?  If the government did not restrain the wicked, when could we be secure?

Luther goes on to note how we should pray for the government.  He also writes that it is true that some people abuse the ordinance of government, but government itself is not a bad thing since God instituted it.  It’s similar to marriage: sometimes marriage is abused by the wicked, but marriage itself is not wicked since it is an ordinace of God.

I appreciate Luther’s perspective on government.  It is true that no country is perfect.  There are sinful people in every government and every government rules over sinful people – that’s not a good mix!!  But when a government maintains even relative justice and relative peace in the land, we can thank God for that. It’s a common grace blessing.  Here in the United States there are many aspects of our government’s policies and laws that I disagree with, but I’m very glad that my family can sleep safely every night.  I’m also glad that I almost never have to worry about violent crime.  Reminder to self: Thank God more often for the protection and safety our government provides!

[Of course, there are governments that are so crooked that people are constantly worried about violent crime.  I don’t have time and space to expand upon that here and now, but Luther does talk about that as well in this context.  You’ll have to find it on your own or perhaps I’ll come back to the topic later.]

The above quote is found in volume 40 of Luther’s Works, page 281-284.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

An Ancient Prayer for Government

Apostolic Fathers, The, 3rd ed.: Greek Texts and English Translations The Bible clearly calls Christians to honor, obey, and pray for those in authority over us, such as our civil government (Jer. 29:7, Rom. 13, 1 Pet. 2:13-17, Titus 3:1, etc.).  Although it’s not always easy to do, God’s people have been doing it for a long, long time!  One ancient example is found in 1 Clement, a letter written to Christians in Rome somewhere between 80 and 100 AD.  Here’s the excerpt of a prayer for civil government, found in 1 Clement 60:4-61:3:

“…[Lord], give harmony and peace to us and to all who dwell on the earth, just as you did to our ancestors when they reverently called upon you in faith and truth, that we may be saved, while we render obedience to your almighty and most excellent name, and to our rulers and governors on earth.”

“You, Master, have given them the power of sovereignty through your majestic and inexpressible might, so that we, acknowledging the glory and honor that you have given them, may be subject to them, resisting your will in nothing.  Grant to them, Lord, health, peace, harmony, and stability, so that they may blamelessly administer the government that you have given them.”

“For you, heavenly Master, King of the ages, give to human beings glory and honor and authority over the creatures upon the earth.  Lord, direct their plans according to what is good and pleasing in your sight, so that by devoutly administering in peace and gentleness the authority that you have given them may experience your mercy.  You, who alone are able to do these and even greater good things for us, we praise through the high priest and benefactor of our souls, Jesus Christ, through whom be the glory and the majesty to you both now and all generations and for ever and ever.  Amen.”

This section of 1 Clement was taken from The Apostolic Fathers, ed. by Michael Holmes.

shane lems

Grudem’s “Politics” – A Review

  I just finished Wayne Grudem’s Politics According to the Bible, so I thought I’d write a brief review while it is still on my mind.  In case you haven’t heard of it, this 600 page book was published in 2010 by Zondervan.  The subtitle is “A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture.”  Since it is such a large book, I can’t really give an exhaustive review here, but I can state the basics.

The structure of Politics is as follows: Grudem first lists what he thinks are five wrong views about the relationship between Christians and government.  He then gives his position that Christians should influence government and how they should do so.  After that, Grudem gives a biblical outline of government and the Christian worldview.  Grudem says the Bible teaches the importance of liberty, separation of powers, the need to obey authority, and what the government’s “sword” is (among other things).  At the end of this section he also explains the role of the Supreme Court and how it has become far too powerful (in his opinion).

The bulk of this book is dedicated to specific political issues in America.  Here are a few things Grudem tackles: abortion, capital punishment, marriage, pornography, school vouchers, private property, Social Security, the free market, global warming, nuclear weapons, just war, the CIA, the United Nations, immigration, freedom of speech and religion, earmarks, tariffs, and tort law (among many others).  The last short section of the book is where Grudem talks about the media, the difference between Republicans and Democrats, and how this all applies to Christians in the United States.

There are many strengths in this book.  It is well written, easy to read, and the format is outstanding (Grudem’s chapter outlines and divisions are helpful).  Grudem has certainly done his homework; I was amazed at all the detailed issues that he discussed and explained (from cap and trade to health care to farm subsidies to affirmative action).  I actually learned a lot in this book – it got me up to speed on the political landscape in the United States.  And I do agree with quite a few of Grudem’s positions in this book; I think he generally did a good job presenting his position and backing it up logically and with biblical concepts.  Some parts of this book are pretty much ethics discussions, which I also appreciated.

At the same time, there are also many weaknesses in this book.  First of all, the title, Politics According to The Bible, is absolutely incorrect. While Grudem does from time to time give clear biblical teaching on a subject (such as marriage, capital punishment, obedience to authority), other times his proof-texts are less than helpful (i.e. in his immigration discussion, his explanation of democracy, and separation of powers).  I think it is safe to say Grudem misused (or stretched) Scripture from time to time as he was attempting to solidify his positions.  I realize that sometimes Grudem was arguing his position from a general Christian worldview and informed reason, but there were times he used texts in a way I was not at all comfortable with.

Furthermore, I don’t think there is a “biblical” view of automobile emission regulation, a free market, or school vouchers (for just three examples of many).  The title of this book should be: “Politics According to Grudem’s Well Informed Christian Perspective,” or “Politics From the Perspective of A Thoughtful Conservative Republican American Christian.”  Those titles, however, aren’t as catchy!

I didn’t agree with Grudem’s premillennial “take” on some issues.  He is also very much pro-Israel in a nearly dispensational way (though Grudem is not a dispensationalist).  It was very clear in this book that Grudem does not agree with President Obama, the Democratic Party, and the media (he sounded like Sean Hannity from time to time!).   I also think he over-used the Romans 13 phrase where Paul says governments are “for your good.”  It is true, of course, but what is “good” for citizens is not always as black and white as Grudem makes it look.

Having given these substantial critiques, I still must say I’m glad I read it.  I enjoyed reading the book because even when I disagreed, Grudem’s arguments made me re-think some issues.  To be sure, this book is only for Americans and it will be outdated very soon, but it is a decent resource.  Even though I would not recommend it as the definitive Christian book on politics, and even though I think there are major weaknesses in it, it is generally helpful in certain areas.  If you’re going to read it (or if you have read it), forget about the title and treat it like a decent political resource written by an intelligent conservative American Christian.  And don’t forget to read other viewpoints and angles on these issues!

Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).

rev shane lems

sunnyside, wa

Natural Law and Two Kingdoms in Reformed Orthodoxy

  In my studies of the Reformers and Reformed Scholasticism, two of the more practical and helpful teachings I found were the doctrines of the two kingdoms and natural law.  In other terms, it was a great learning experience to see 1) how Reformed theologians typically distinguished between many aspects of the church and the civil government and 2) how they explained that God’s law is engraved on every conscience to some extent, which forms the regulations in the civil realm.  I appreciate how David VanDrunen summarizes a few of these things after discussing the teachings of some key Reformed theologians.

“A first respect in which the natural law and two kingdoms doctrines were related in Reformed orthodoxy is that both natural law and the civil law were grounded in God’s work of creation and providence rather than in his work of redemption. As considered above, the Reformed orthodox writers perceived natural law to be given originally in the creational covenant of works and sustained along sinful human beings even apart from the redemptive covenant of grace.  Similarly, they understood the civil kingdom to be established and governed by the triune God as creator but not by Christ in his specific role as mediator of redemption.

“This fundamental relationship between the Reformed orthodox natural law and two kingdoms doctrines is important background for the next point: natural law was considered the primary standard for the civil kingdom but not for the spiritual kingdom, where Scripture was primary. …In this, Reformed orthodoxy made a claim common to the Reformation and medieval traditions before it.  That this grounding of civil law in natural law was closely related to and even incorporated into the two kingdoms doctrine is evident in [Francis] Turretin’s sevenfold distinction between civil and ecclesiastical power, in which he contrasts civil power as that which is regulated by ‘natural reason, civil laws, and human statutes’ and ecclesiastical power as that which is regulated by ‘the word of God alone.'”

“By such statements, Turretin and other Reformed orthodox writers did not mean to say that Scripture is irrelevant for the civil kingdom nor natural law for the spiritual kingdom.  As discussed above, they drew instruction on civil concerns from the Mosaic law and Old Testament history.  Nevertheless, they applied these things to the contemporary situation, at least in their more theoretically reflective moments, when they believed that they were rooted in natural law and therefore generally applicable rather than uniquely suited to the Mosaic theocracy.  On the other side, they also believed that natural law has relevance for the spiritual kingdom, as illustrated in Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6….”

Based on my own readings and studies of the Reformation and Reformed orthodoxy, I believe that’s a good summary.  You can find it on pages 208-9 of VanDrunen’s excellent book, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought. 

shane lems

N.T. Wright on Romans 13: Civil Government

If you’ve been reading “The Reformed Reader” for quite a while, you know that I’m at major odds with N.T. Wright when it comes to justification, imputation, and faith alone. That is still the case; yet to be honest, I think that other things N.T. Wright has written are helpful and worth while. His brief comments on Romans 13.1-7 are one of those helpful things.

“…Christians, who were regarded as the scum of the earth in Rome at the time, must not get an additional reputation as trouble makers. No good will come to the cause of the gospel by followers of Jesus being regarded as crazy dissidents who won’t co-operate with the most basic social mechanisms. Paul is anxious, precisely because he believes that Jesus is the true Lord of the world, that his followers should not pick unnecessary quarrels with the lesser lords. They are indeed a revolutionary community, but if they go for the normal type of violent revolution they will just be playing the empire back at its own game. They will almost certainly lose, and, much worse, the gospel itself will lose with them.”

“The Old Testament had denounced pagan nations and their rulers – but some of the very prophets whose denunciations were the fiercest also told Israel that God was working through the pagan nations and their rulers for Israel’s long-term good (Assyria, in Isaiah 10; Cyrus, in Isaiah 45; Babylon itself, in Jeremiah 29).” Wright notes that there was much tension in the OT between Israel and the pagan nations – and this tension “came to its head when, in John’s story, Jesus stood before the Roman governor and declared that, even though he was about to execute him, the power by which he did it had come from God in the first place (John 19.11).”

See Wright’s Paul For Everyone, Romans: Part Two (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 85-87.

shane lems

sunnyside wa