Monday, August 04, 2008

The Christian and the State (Part 1)

1 Peter 2:13-17: "13 Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, 14 or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men— 16 as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. 17 Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king."
Peter is writing to elect exiles, who have been chosen by God (1:1-2). They have been called to be holy as he is holy (1:14-16). These elect exiles have been gathered out of the world to be the holy people of God (2:9&10). Peter addresses them as "sojourners and pilgrims" (2:11 & 12). Their citizenship is in heaven, but they have to live in the present world to the glory of God. In our verses, the apostle shows us how Christians are to relate to the State. Evangelicals have sometimes tended to withdraw from the world, but we are pilgrims, not hermits. We are not simply to focus on our personal salvation. The Christian life is much bigger than that. Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian who became Prime Minister of his country said,
"There is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'"
So, then, how are Christians to relate to the governing authorities?

I. Christians should submit to the ruling authorities

i. Submit to all ruling authorities

“Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man…whether to the king…sent by him”. The idea of submission cuts across the grain of the modern mindset. We emphasise the right to self-expression over the obligation to submit to authority. Our fictional heroes like Inspector Morse “have a problem with authority”. The boss puts him off the case. But Morse, the old maverick goes ahead and solves it anyway. We tend to view authority with suspicion as a manipulative exercise of power and control. But there has to be order in society. The alternative to submission is anarchy where everyone does what is right in his own eyes. We know that when law and order breaks down, evil soon breaks out. Think of what happened in America in the wake of hurricane Katrina. Armed thugs ruled the roost, looting, plundering and intimidating the weak. God in his wisdom has ordained the human institutions of the state for our good. Paul Romans 13:1. This idea of submission applies not only to the state, but to all human relationships, see 1 Peter 2:18, 3:1, Ephesians 6:1-3.

Now in our democratic system, we get to elect the governing authorities. Our Queen is a constitutional monarch. Most of her powers are exercised by the Prime Minister and his cabinet. If we don’t like what the government is doing, we can vote them our every four or five years. That was not the case when Peter wrote this letter. The “king” was Nero, the Roman Emperor, an absolute monarch whose word was law. He was corrupt and despotic. He instigated persecution against Christians. But believers were still to submit to his authority, and the authority of those who governed on his behalf, vs. 14. Even rule by a tyrannical depot is better than no rule at all. Systems of government do not have to be perfect in order to command our submission. You may not agree with all that out present government has done, but we must sill obey the laws of the land.

What Peter says regarding the “king as supreme or governors, as those who are sent by him” also applies to us today. We have to submit to all tiers of government, national and local. And submit to those who act with the authority of government: the police, health and safety inspectors, the Inland Revenue, have our cars MOT tested etc.
ii. The task of ruling authorities

The reason why we should submit ourselves to the power of the state is given here in, vs. 14, "the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good." According to the Bible, the primary task of the State has to do with the implementation of law and order. Now, in the modern world the chief function of the State is often seen in terms of wealth generation . When Bill Clinton's first ran for president of the USA, one of his aides asked what the campaign was all about. Clinton replied. “It’s the economy stupid!” But more important than running the economy is the State’s obligation to enforce the law. Note the emphasis here on punishment. People don’t like that these days. All talk is of correction and rehabilitation. That has its place. But the Sate has been called to punish evildoers who break the law. Romans 13:3-4. Now in the most serious case this means that the state has the right to execute those who have been found guilty of murder. But it also means that the state has the right to incarcerate serious criminals and to levy fines against those who break the law.

In addition, the State should "praise those who do good" by encouraging and rewarding virtuous behaviour. I'm no great fan of the UK's class-bound honours system that rewards the great and the good with titles or "gongs". But giving some kind of public recognition to good citizens who have served their communities well can't be a bad thing. Note that the State’s task is essentially negative, to restrain evil. The governing authorities cannot change human nature. When Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a boy, he heard a conversation between his father and another man. The man said "Lloyd-George [early 20th century UK Prime Minister] is going to to more good for this country than Jesus Christ." People really thought that politicians could build the new Jerusalem on earth by acts of Parliament. What utter folly. The history of 20th century bears witness to this. Marxist Communism seems like a very good idea in principle. It would be nice if wealth was equally shared among the people and all things were held in common. But such Utopian ideals cannot be foisted upon people against the grain of human nature. Look at what happened under Mao Tse Tung in China, Stalin in Russia and Pol Pot in Cambodia. The State has to do with fallen humanity. Goverments cannot change that. Their basic task is a more modest one, to curb the worst excesses of humanity by punishing lawbreakers. It is not enough simply to encourage the sinner to do what is right. There must be the threat of punishment. Granted, this must be just, fair and appropriate punishment once guilt has been properly established. But there must be punishment none the less. The powers that be "do not bear the sword in vain".

But the work of governing authorities is made more complex and difficult by the widespread breakdown of moral order in UK. The values inculcated by the Christian faith have been forgotten or rejected, leaving a moral vacuum at the heart of our society. Family breakdown is widespread, young people are out of control on drink and drugs. They are stabbing one another on the streets. Politicians don't quite know know what do do about all this. Yet they must act to maintain law and order. The authorities and are having to intervene more and more to just keep a lid on things. In Cornwall, the Police are maintaining a curfew during the school holidays to stop young people running wild on the streets at night. ASBOS or Antisocial Behaviour Orders are used to punish and restrain bad behaviour in communities. The law is being used to enforce what used to be regarded as common decency and consideration for others. CCTV cameras constantly scan the streets on the look out for trouble. It seems that we cannot be allowed to live our lives in a responsible way with out the Big Brother State looking over our shoulders. David Wells comments,
"Lying between the law and freedom, however has always been this third domain. It is the domain of character, the practice of private virtue, such as honesty, decency, the telling of truth, and all the other kinds of moral obligation. It is the domain of public virtue, such a civic duty, responsibility, philanthropy, the articulation of all great ideas and good policies, all of those things which might be encompassed in Paul's statement that the Gentiles, 'who do not have the law do by nature what the law requires' (Rom. 2:14). This third domain is what must regulate life in the absence of legal coercion and governmental regulation. It is where law and restraint are self-imposed. The demands come from within not from without. In this area we find what John Silber, the former president of Boston University, has called 'obedience to the unenforceable.' This was the language of an English Jurist in the 20th century. John Fletcher Moulton, who went on to say that 'the real greatness of a nation, its true civilisation, is measured by the extent to which the nation trusts its citizens, and its area testifies to the way they behave in response to this trust.'
Today, this middle territory is shrinking daily just when our understanding of ourselves as moral beings collapses and it is being co-opted by the two domains that lie on each side of it. Law must now do what church, family, character, belief, and even cultural expectations once did by way of instructing and restraining human nature. What is going to happen, then if we keep stoking the fires with greater and greater amoral individualism and have to keep on dousing those fires with greater and greater recourse to litigation and regulation?" Losing Our Virtue, IVP, 1998, p.63-64.
Is this not a dangerous situation that we face? The law is having to do the job once accomplished by a sense of civic duty and basic human decency. It seems that we can we trusted less and less with our liberty as 'obedience to the unenforceable' declines. No wonder our freedoms are being eroded for the sake of restraining the tide of uncivil behaviour in our land. We are loosing our moral centre. Many are adrift on a restless sea of moral relativism. They care little for truth and virtue. What matters to them is the consumerist values of self-expression. Others react in horror against the tide of self-indulgence and turn to extremist fundamentalism as the cure for the ills of society. I am reminded of the words of W. B. Yeats,
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of a passionate intensity.
(The Second Coming)
In such a society, we can expect the State to be ever more invasive as it seeks to punish and restrain evil. In the wake of the chaos and destruction of the English Civil Wars, Thomas Hobbes wrote his Leviathan. He argued that life is "nasty, brutish and short" and that only a big Leviathan-like State can hold back the worst excesses of human nature. ASBOS, CCTV, and attempts by the Government to water down habeas corpus are perhaps ominous signs that Leviathan has begun to rear his ugly head once more. We must resist this by holding tenaciously to our civil liberties. But we need to do more than that. Our society needs to be re-moralised. We need to rediscover the value of self-restraint and obedience to the unenforceable standards of decency and good character. Then the State can safely withdraw to let us live our lives without too much interference. When a nation looses its virtue, it is difficult for the ruling authorities to fulfill their God-given role of restraining evil and encouraging good behaviour without resorting to increasingly invasive and tyrannical measures.
But how can we hope to re-moralise our country? It is a fact of history that the most morally elevated periods in our national history have usually followed periods of revival and awakening. The great social reforms of the 19th century including the abolition of slavery, health and safety improvements in the workplace, education for the poor and so on were the fruits of the Evangelical Revival associated with Whitefield and the Wesley brothers. With the momentum of that powerful movement of the Spirit behind them, men like Wilberforce and Shaftesbury were able to agitate successfully for social justice and moral reformation. The trend in contemporary secular politics it to sideline the voice of Christians. The disastrous results of this policy are all too apparent.
iii. A criterion for assessing the ruling authorities
In showing us the task of the State, "the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do good", Peter also gives us a criterion against which we can scrutinise the the governing authorities. Take one recent instance. Our Parliament failed in its duty to protect human life in passing the HFEA bill. The governing authorities did not act to safeguard vulnerable life in the womb by reducing the abortion limit. The State has no business allowing scientists to compromise the unique value of human life by allowing the creation of human/animal hybrid embryos for experimental purposes. The "powers that be" should praise those who do good by encouraging heterosexual marriage as the best context for bringing up children. In allowing “gay adoption”, the State has again failed in its God-given duty. Christians must not opt out of national debate on the big moral issues. When legislation is before Parliament, we must write to MP’s and government ministers about such matters.
Submit then to the power of the State, because the “powers that be” have been ordained by God to restrain evil and promote good behaviour. Pray for "kings and all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence." (1 Tim 2:1-4). Pray for our MP, that he will be open to the views of Christians in his constituency. An orderly society creates space for the life and witness of the church. We have every right to appeal to the State to uphold our religious liberties. Paul was willing to suffer for Christ’s sake, but he also expected the State to protect his rights as a Roman citizen, Acts 16:37, 25:11 etc.

iv. Submit to the ruling authorities for the Lord’s sake

Jesus is "the prince of the kings of the earth". We submit to rulers for his sake. This places limits on our submission. If there is a conflict between submitting to the "ordinance of man" and obeying the Lord, our allegiance to Christ comes first. We are called to "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Matthew 22:21). Caesar cannot lay claim unconditional obedience let alone worship. That belongs to God alone. Like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, we refuse to put human rulers in the place of God, Daniel 3:16-18. When pressed, we will say with Peter, "We have to obey God rather than men." (Acts 5:29).
[Part 2 here]
* Based on some sermon notes on 1 Peter 2:13-17

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