Here's the text of a sermon I preached back on Sunday, July 4, 2004:
“The Marks of Christian Citizenship”
July 4, 2004
Pastor Jeff Riddle
We live in an era in American history when many are questioning the appearance of Christian symbols in the public square.
Maybe you have heard about one recent example of this, as the ACLU threatened to bring a lawsuit against Los Angeles County, California because the county seal contained a tiny cross. Somehow they overlooked the fact that the most prominent figure on that same seal is a representation of Pomona, the Roman goddess of gardens and fruit trees!
The ACLU has argued that the small cross’ appearance might make non-Christians fell unwelcomed, so the County commissioners caved on a 3-2 vote to remove the symbol. We may surmise that in our society today the image of a pagan goddess is more acceptable than the cross.
Many Christians are, rightly, bothered by actions such as these. It seems freedom of religious expression has been taken to mean freedom from religious expression. Still, we as believers should not be discouraged. Try as they might to remove symbols, no one can remove the influence of the church as salt and light or of God’s sovereign rule over the nations.
This morning I want us to reflect on four marks of Christian citizenship. Certainly this list is not exhaustive but merely suggestive of the Biblical witness on the subject of Christian citizenship.
1. Christians are to submit to civil government when it is going about its God-given purpose of restraining evil (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17).
The Bible tells us that God has created three institutions to govern human society: the family, the church, and civil government.
Of these three, the family is the only one created prior to the fall of humanity in sin. It is the basic building block of human society, and it rests on the foundation of marriage between one man and one woman who live in a covenant commitment for a lifetime.
The other two social institutions were created after the fall (after Genesis 3) and their focus is remedy for the sinful human condition.
Jesus himself founded the church (Matthew 16:16-19). It is built on the confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God (not on Peter). It is given spiritual authority represented in the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus then commissions the church to go, make disciples, baptize, and teach (Matthew 28:19-20).
The final institution is that of civil government. The purpose of government, according to Scripture, is to restrain the consequences of sin and the fall in the day to day lives of men as they exist in the world.
The Bible tells us that God is a God of order and perfection. In 1 Corinthians 14:33, in response to disorderliness in the church at Corinth, Paul said, “For God is not the author of confusion but of peace.”
What about the Biblical picture of humanity? The Bible presents a very realistic picture of the human condition. That is to say that it takes the consequences of sin seriously. The Bible says that the natural human tendency is not toward order and goodness and mutual concern. The natural human tendency is toward unbridled and unrestrained pursuit of self-interest, even at the expense of others. Without divine restraint our natural human tendency is toward chaos and disorder. We get a picture of this in the days of Noah, when “men began to multiply on the face of the earth” (Gen 6:1), and we are told, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (6:5). God’s response in the days of Noah was just to wipe the slate clean, save for Noah and his family. What God also did was set in motion a plan in which he would call out Abram and create from his seed a covenant people from whom would come a blessing for the nations (Gen 12:1ff.).
Just because they were God’s chosen people did not, however, eradicate the problem of sin in the covenant people. The Bible describes their slavery in Egypt, their Exodus under Moses, and their Conquest of the Promised Land under Joshua. But the people’s problems do not end after they arrive in the Promised Land. We get a vivid picture of the human social tendency toward chaos at the end of the book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25). In response to this disorder, the people cried out for a king.
This leads in the book of 1 Samuel to the description of the establishment of a human king or human government for the covenant people. Samuel was the last Judge and he set up his sons to rule in his place, but they were worthless men (1 Sam 8:1-3). The people come to Samuel and say, “Now make us a king like us to judge us as like all the nations” (v. 5). Samuel sees this for what it is—a rejection of God’s rule over them, and so he prays (v. 6), and the Lord answers and tells him: “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them” (v. 7).
What we see then in Scripture is God’s provision of civil government in order to restrain the influence of sin in human society. It is clear that God has not meant this to be the permanent solution. That task will be realized in the mission of the church as it preaches Jesus.
What is the attitude toward civil government that we find in the New Testament? There are two premier passages that we can turn to find the answer. The first is Romans 13:1-7:
Romans 13:1 Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. 5 Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience' sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God's ministers attending continually to this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
What do we glean from this passage? First Christians are called on to be subject to (hupotasso, submit to) those in civil authority (v. 1). For Christians, “submission” is not a dirty word. It is the natural posture of Christians.
We are first and foremost submitted to the will of God: “Therefore submit to God” (James 4:7). We see this principle of submission operative in every institution ordained of God. In the family wives are to submit to husbands as to the Lord, and husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church (Eph 5:22, 25). Children, likewise, are to obey their parents, and parents are not to exasperate children (Eph 6:1-4). In the church, believers are to submit to one another in the fear of God (Eph 5:21). In Hebrews 13:17 we read: “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” And so, here in Romans 13 we read that Christians are to submit themselves to the civil authorities, because they recognize that these authorities have been ordained by God for their good and for the good of their fellow countrymen.
How terrible it is to see a marriage where this principle of submission has broken down. A husband and wife at odds with one another, battling and competing with one another. How terrible also to see a church where the members do not show proper respect for the God-ordained roles that each part has in the whole. How sad to see a church where there is no submission to the recognized leaders but rebellion and assertion of rights.
And, I think, Paul would also say, how terrible it is to see those who take the name of Christ and yet who show no respect for the civil authorities that God has ordained to govern human society. Just because one is a believer does not mean that he is beyond the reach of civil law. Christians should be model citizens in their desire to obey and conform to the civil law. We should, in fact, see it as a part of our obedience to God. Are you a Christian contractor? Then, this means you should be scrupulous in conforming to building codes. Are you a Christian employer? Then this means you should be scrupulous in conforming to the civil laws that govern the right and fair treatment of employees.
I think what Paul sees is that most civil law is there merely to see that men conform to the basic moral principles that God has revealed and written on the hearts of men: that it is wrong to steal, to bear false witness, to kill, to do harm to ones’ neighbor, etc. Christians should be even more scrupulous, because we know where these kinds of laws have their true origin. This is what Paul is saying in Romans 13:3.
In v. 4 Paul even goes so far as to call the civil authority “God’s minister (diakonos) to you for good.” Paul continues in v. 4 to describe another role that has been given to civil government in the divine economy of God. As God’s minister, civil authorities act as “an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.” Earlier in this verse, Paul says, “he does not bear the sword in vain.” Civil government is given the right by God to use physical force to punish evil doers.
This has at least two practical applications. In the first place, this verse tells us that God has ordained that civil government is given the authority to punish those individuals who break the civil law. Some Christians even see it, under some extreme circumstances, as justifying capital punishment.
In the second place, this verse tells us that God has ordained that civil government is given the authority to take up arms in war. With all due respect to all those who come from the peace church movement, I think this verse means that Biblical Christians cannot be absolute conscientious objectors. The writer of Ecclesiastes said long ago, there is “a time of war, and a time of peace” (3:8). Certainly we can look back on events like WW2 and say that there was a time when God ordained that this nation take up arms to punish evil doers. This is something that Christians do only reluctantly. In fact, in later Christians theology there would develop the “just war” theory to guide believers in determining the grounds for deciding whether they would submit to the civil authorities in this matter. Just War theory held that there must be:
A. Jus ad bellum: a just reason to go to war
• Just cause
• Right authority
• Right intention (last resort; probability of success; results in peace)
B. Jus in bello: just conduct within war
• Discrimination (non-combatant protection)
In his 1983 essay “Who is For Peace?” Christian theologian Francis Schaeffer wrote:
This is why I am not a pacifist. Pacifism in this poor world in which we live –this lost world—means that we desert the people who need our greatest help.
Let me illustrate: I am walking down the street and I come upon a big, burly man beating a tiny tot to death—beating this little girl—beating her—beating her. I plead with him to stop. Suppose he refuses? What does love mean now? Love means that I stop him in any way I can, including hitting him. To me this is not only necessary for humanitarian reasons: it is loyalty to Christ’s commands concerning Christian love in a fallen world. What about that little girl? If I desert her to the bully, I have deserted the true meaning of Christian love—responsibility for my neighbor. She, as well as he, is my neighbor.
Paul says in v. 5 that Christians are to be subject to the civil authorities not only “because of wrath but also for conscience sake.” We should obey the civil authorities and its laws, and we should respect its God ordained use of force not only out of fear of punishment for wrong-doing, but most importantly because our informed Christians conscience reminds us that the civil government is ordained of God and it serves as God’s servant for our good and the good of our fellow citizens.
Apparently Paul knew of some who thought that being a Christian meant that one should withdraw from the world entirely. Maybe there were some who thought that if one were a Christian he should have nothing to do with the civil and secular government. Perhaps some of these, in their zeal for Christ, were saying that Christians should even stop paying their taxes. But Paul will have none of this (see v. 6: “For because of this you also must pay taxes….”). In fact, in v. 7 I think Paul is echoing the teaching of Jesus on this topic. You’ll recall that the Pharisees once tried to entangle Jesus is a debate about paying taxes (see Matt 22:15-22) and he said: “Render (apodote) therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (v. 21). Paul begins v. 7 with an echo of Jesus’ words: “Render (apodote) therefore to all their due.” Fear and honor are to be given to those in authority, not because of who they are, but because of the Lord who has established them in their places to restrain the evil of men.
The truth is that we live in a rebellious and anti-authoritarian age. We live in a generation that believes the best thing to do is to question authority. The spirit of this age works its way into our homes and into our churches and it works its way into the hearts of believers in the way they look at and respond to those in civil authority. The political scientists tell us that America is a nation almost equally divided between reds (Republicans) and blues (Democrats). There is a rebellious and anti-authoritarian spirit that can creep even into the hearts and minds of believers. I saw just yesterday a table on the downtown mall selling t-shirts that had obscene things to say about President Bush. This may be the way world-lings act, but it is unbecoming for believers. By the way that goes just as well for those who vehemently disliked Clinton when he was in office. If you cannot respect the man, then you must at least respect the office. The Christians does this, because he knows that “the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (v. 1).
Now if you know Paul and his life, you find his words truly amazing if not contradictory. Why? Because this same Paul who urges that Christians submit to the governing authorities (which for him was the Roman Empire) was also continually getting into trouble for creating disturbances for preaching the gospel.
This leads us to a very important point: Christians are not to submit to government when its actions are contrary to the commands of Jesus.
There is a rich Biblical tradition on this.
The Hebrew midwives were ordered to kill the male Hebrew children, but in Exodus 1:17 we read: “But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive.”
The three Hebrew youths in bondage in Babylon were ordered to worship the image of gold set up on the plain of Dura at the pain of death by annihilation in the burning fiery furnace. This is how they responded to King Nebuchadnezzar:
Daniel 3:16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego answered and said to the king, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 "If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. 18 "But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up."
And in the New Testament, we recall when Peter and the apostles were warned to stop preaching Jesus, they responded: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
One thinks here also of the persecuted church. Certainly there are believers all over the world this morning who love their countries and their peoples. They would love to be obedient to Paul’s words in every way, but their governments will not allow them to worship the Lord Jesus Christ in freedom. Just this week we have seen pictures from the Sudan about persecuted brothers. Go to persecution.com and read accounts from the ministry of “The Voices of the Martyrs.” Read Nina Shea’s 1997 book, In the Lion’s Den, offering eyewitness accounts of believers suffering for their faith in Vietnam, China, and throughout the Islamic world. Certainly these brothers have found that, like the apostles, they must obey God rather than men.
In 1 Peter 3:17, the apostle says, “For it is better, if it is the will of God, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” In other words, if you are going to suffer at the hands of civil authorities, do it for the right reasons.
Finally I want to reinforce this first mark by reading another passage that speaks in perfect harmony with Paul’s words, this time coming from Peter in 1 Peter 2:13-17:
1 Peter 2:13 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. Honor the king.
2. Christians are to pray for those in authority (2 Timothy 2:1-2).
Christian citizens are commanded to pray for those in authority:
1 Timothy 2:1 Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, 2 for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.
We are called upon to pray for those in authority. This assumes that believers are committed to prayer both privately and corporately. It also assumes that we pray for leaders indiscriminately. Paul does not say, Pray for Christian politicians. In fact, all the political authorities of his day were pronounced pagans. There were no Christians in governing authority. Yet Paul urged prayer for them all the same. Why? Because God can make anyone, even a non-believer, to be the instrument by which he accomplishes his will.
I think of the way in which the prophet Isaiah was inspired to speak of the Persian King Cyrus:
In Isaiah 44:28, the Lord “says of Cyrus, 'He is My shepherd, And he shall perform all My pleasure, Saying to Jerusalem, "You shall be built," And to the temple, "Your foundation shall be laid." '”
In Isaiah 45:1, we read, “Thus says the LORD to His anointed, To Cyrus, whose right hand I have held—To subdue nations before him And loose the armor of kings, To open before him the double doors, So that the gates will not be shut:”
Compare also, Isaiah 45:13: “I have raised him up in righteousness, And I will direct all his ways; He shall build My city And let My exiles go free, Not for price nor reward," Says the LORD of hosts.”
That God was able to use the pagan Cyrus to open the doors out of exile for his people to return to Israel and rebuild the temple, ought to inspire us to pray for anyone who is in a position of authority that God might use him or her for good.
One of the most stunning landmarks in Budapest, Hungary is a statue of St. Gellert that overlooks the city from the cliffs of Gellert Hill over the Danube. In his hands are a cross, stretched out over the city. Gellert had been the first Christian missionary to the Magyar people. He died a martyr; nailed in a barrel and rolled off that cliff into the Danube. All during the communist era that statue stood as a fitting reminder that despite the rule of godless men, God was still on the throne.
3. Christians are to be salt, light, and leaven in the surrounding culture (Matthew 5:13-16; 13:33).
Christian citizens in a secular society are to be like salt, light and leaven. Jesus himself introduces these figures. What does it mean? First, it speaks of a small, perhaps to the visible eye insignificant group, which has an impact far beyond its size.
This is the role that Christians have always played in this nations. Why is it that America is a nation where human rights are respected and where religious freedom to granted to all? Because of the influence of believers. We as the people of God have a vital role to play in this culture. We are here to teach our culture the revealed truth of God’s word. We must not compromise that word or this culture will be like a ship adrift without a rudder.
Poet and hymn writer William Cowper once wrote in his poem, “Expostulation”:
When nations perish in their sins,
‘Tis in the church the leprosy begins:
The priest whose office is, with zeal sincere
To watch the fountain, and preserve it clear,
Carelessly nods and sleeps upon the brink,
While others poison what the flock must drink
Do not doubt for one moment the vital role of churches like ours as salt and light in this culture.
4. Christians are not to place their ultimate hope in any civil government, but they are to seek a heavenly country (Hebrews 11:13-16).
First, I want to tell you that I love this nation. I was never more patriotic than when living abroad. I truly came to appreciate so many things about our society that I had taken for granted. But as much as I love this nation, it is not where my ultimate hope rests (see Hebrews 11:13-16). Like the patriarchs of old, we seek “a heavenly country.”
This is not an American church. We will not in this church wrap the Bible in the American flag. I am grateful for this nation. I pray that should the Lord tarry it last for many more years. But I have no assurance it will last forever. My hope is in a kingdom that will last forever: God’s kingdom established in Christ.
We are like a diplomatic mission. Paul says that we are ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor 5:20). When you visit an American embassy, you are on American soil. And, in a similar way, when you enter the church you enter an outpost of the kingdom of God. Now it is far from the real kingdom. But it represents the kingdom of God here on earth.
Today we give thanks for this nation. We pledge to be good citizens who are submitted to our civil government, who pray for it, who work for its improvement, but who reserve our ultimate allegiance for a jealous God who will not share his glory with another (Isaiah 48:11).
God bless America! To the glory of God!