Submission to Lawful Authority
Ligon’s excellent blog on praying for our new president has gotten me thinking: how can Christians, especially those who disagree with our President’s policies, glorify God and adorn the Gospel of Christ to a watching world? Of course, opposition to the President’s agenda is not the de facto Christian position. But it is probably not overstating the case to say that many (most?) conservative Christians take issue with some (lots?) of the policies and agendas of our President and his administration. In the first several weeks of President Obama’s presidency, it seems almost commonplace to encounter Christians who (1) gripe, and feel justified in doing so, since God is on their side; or (2) are dismissive and disrespectful in thought and speech, speaking of President Obama as if he were a small child misbehaving in the checkout line of the local grocery story. Christians seem not to have gotten off to a stellar start in the area of joyful submission.
Now, I understand that there are legitimate causes for disagreements, some very significant. Our President and his administration have significant responsibilities, and their actions have significant consequences. People may disagree with the discharge of those responsibilities, with the actions taken, and the results that are wrought, and do so on more than one ground. We may disagree over an issue that is clearly described in the Bible. Abortion would be one of those areas. Our President favors policies that at least allow for abortions and perhaps encourage them; the Bible teaches clearly that human life is sacred, and far from being easily ended, should be actively protected (see Larger Catechism questions 134-136). In this category, we note objections based on the clear and revealed will of God.
Second, disagreements may arise that stem from what we might call wisdom or discernment. We may view some policy and believe that it is an unwise course to follow. We wouldn’t put these in the category of sin and we wouldn’t have a verse that would lead us to our conclusions, but instead have considered an issue and have come to a different conclusion. Whether these things be centered around war, economic policies, or international diplomacy, we differ on decisions and policies that are being pursued. When ought a withdrawal from Iraq be implemented, and how? Should the government pursue some kind of ‘economic stimulus package’ and if so, what ought it look like? These questions might fall into this second category.
Third, and maybe a little uncomfortably, we may have a disagreement over something that we believe will negatively impact us. We hear of some agenda, and fear that its implementation will have some repercussions which we do not want to experience. Rumors may abound about the government’s intentions with respect to a person’s life savings, and we fear that what we intended to keep and pass on may be taxed in a way we deem detrimental to our own economic wellbeing.
There may be others areas for disagreement to be sure, but I do think it important to recognize that all reasons are not equally valid. Where God has spoken on an issue (the value of life), we operate from one kind of footing. Where he has not (tax rates on the richest citizens), we are on a different sort of ground. We would do well to remember that good Christians can differ on what may seem to us to be clear principles of wisdom or personal preference.
But even when we are certain that we are on the side of angels (and one of the things we learn from Job is that we can be terribly mistaken about assuming such a thing!), that does not provide carte blance to disagree in any way we choose. There is still the issue of submission to legitimate authority, which is what Paul is saying in Romans 13. Every legitimate authority that exists does so because God has established that authority, and as such, all of our disagreements are subject to the criteria of submission. What does it mean to submit to someone with whom we disagree? And what if those disagreements are informed by biblical mandates?
Let me suggest a few things. First, even when opposition is based upon clearly articulated principles of divine authority (or those drawn by good and necessary consequence), there is yet a difference between a government advancing an immoral agenda, and a government requiring Christian citizens to violate the mandates of God. When obedience to government requires disobedience to God, the Bible is clear. We are to serve God and not man. But being asked to sin in order to conform to civic code is not the same thing as living as a citizen under the authority of a government that is itself pursuing evil. Ought a government pursue things contrary to the revealed will of God? No. Does that thereby remove the command to submit? I think not. After all, Paul would not have been a proponent of lighting the roads into Rome with the burning carcasses of Christians, and yet he can still say that the Roman emperor was put in place by God, and as such, deserved honor, respect, and revenue. Peter, whose letter was received by those who most assuredly were suffering, could say, “honor the emperor.” Daniel continued to pray even when it was illegal since such a law would have caused him to sin. But we have every reason to believe that Daniel was normally a faithful, helpful, competent servant of the Babylonian Empire which was itself an evil nation. By performing his responsibilities, an evil nation was helped, even though Daniel would not obey any particular statue that would cause him to sin.
Second, even under administrations that severely deviate from the biblical purpose of government, we can and should be thankful for the policies which do punish evil and reward good. To imagine that American in 2009 is devoid of any such officially sanctioned, governmental agenda is to be willfully ignorant. To ask a brother or sister in Christ living in North Korea for commiseration in times like these would be insulting. Or compare the United States to some of the brutal regimes that followed independence in African countries in the latter half of the 20th century. There is more that a world’s difference between former Ethiopian Dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam’s policies during the 1980s famine that contributed to the deaths of an estimated 1,000,000 people, and unwanted government spending in the US. No comparison at all.
Third, a little self reflection on motivations may also be in order. That we may find legitimate, biblical reasons to stand opposed to easy abortion or the degradation of the institution of marriage is one thing; to think that we are always motivated by a desire to see righteousness abound may be giving ourselves too much credit. It is easy to begin our criticisms on solid ground, and then careen off into areas without such sure footing, believing that our traction remains the same. To stand up for the weak and powerless is admirable. But admirable arguments may serve as convenient smokescreens for the things which truly motivate us. To stand up for the powerless and weak is to do good; to then continue to criticize policies which may negatively affect our tax bracket, assuming that our previous good offers sufficient cover is an evidence of the our own selfishness. That Christians may have a diminished role to play in setting the national agenda may be lamentable, but let us not assume that the voices crying out are necessarily doing so in order to prepare the way for the Lord, and not lamenting their own personal loss in stature. Just because we may be able to articulate a criticism from the side of the angels does not always mean that our angelic rationale is the motivation behind our criticism.
Fourth, if it is true that Christians in the west are about to find themselves increasingly marginalized, such a development may prove to be something other than negative. Who says that brighter lines separating the Church and the world is bad for the Church? Nominal Christianity seems to flourish in a “Christian America.” Perhaps hearty, robust Christianity will do likewise in an America that seems more hostile to Bible. If grace grows best in winter, perhaps Christianity can likewise flourish in a hostile environment.
Fifth and finally, there is a tremendous opportunity being presented to Christians who oppose the agenda of our current administration. This is not to say that all Christians adopt such a stance. But for those that do, it provides an opportunity to demonstrate joyful submission. It is easy to submit when we agree; it is another matter altogether to give due respect to the one who leads in a direction which is not where we would chose to go. The aroma of submission is sweetest not when it is easy but when it is hard. Christians who favor different politics can adorn the Gospel by joyfully submitting and respecting an administration that has been given by God for our good. Are our water cooler conversations indicating that we honor God’s servant even if we do not favor his policies? Or are we showing something less than the respect which his office is due?
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Submission to Lawful Authority