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

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On Honoring Caesar (Tertullian)

The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols.   -              Edited By: Alexander Roberts       Tertullian’s (145-220 AD) Apology is an outstanding early defense of Christianity.  I’ve written on Tertullian before, but here and now I want to highlight a section (chap. 31-34) where Tertullian said that Christians neither hated Caesar nor dishonored him.  Rather, they prayed for him and gave him high honor, as the Scriptures commanded.

“[Do you think that we care nothing for the welfare of Caesar?] …Most clearly the Scripture says, ‘Pray for kings, and rulers, and powers, that all may be peace with you.’ …We respect in the emperors the ordinance of God, who has set them over the nations.”

“…Why dwell longer on the reverence and sacred respect of Christians to the emperor, whom we cannot but look up to as called by our Lord to his office?  So that on valid grounds I might say Caesar is more ours than yours, for  our God has appointed him.  Therefore, as having this propriety in him, I do more than you for his welfare, not merely because I ask it of Him who can give it…but also because, in keeping the majesty of Caesar within due limits, and putting it under the Most High, and making it less than divine, I commend him the more to the favor of Deity, to whom I make him alone inferior.”

“But I place him [Caesar] in subjection to one I regard as more glorious than himself.  Never will I call the emperor God….  If he is but a man, it is his interest as man to give God his higher place.  Let him think it enough to bear the name of the emperor.  That, too, is a great name of God’s giving.  To call him God, is to rob him of his title.  If he is not a man, emperor he could not be.  Even when, amid the honors of triumph, he sits on that lofty chariot, he is reminded that he is only human.  A voice at his back keeps whispering in his ear, ‘Look behind thee; remember thou art but a man.'”

“I am willing to give the emperor this designation [lord], and when I am not forced to call him Lord as in God’s place.  …For I have but one true Lord, the God omnipotent and eternal, who is Lord of the emperor as well.”

In other words, though early Christians absolutely refused to call Caesar Lord (as in “Most High God”), they did call him lord (as in “Your Majesty”), they did pray for him, and they did show him honor.  They did not mock him, ridicule him, or make jokes about him – instead they showed him respect.  Therefore, Tertullian argued, rather than be charged with treason, Christians should have been commended for showing such great honor to Caesar.  Indeed, Christians from the past can teach us lessons for today.

(This is a re-post from June 2014)

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

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