“The Law and the Christian”Categories: M. W. Bassford, Sermons
During the church leadership meeting last November, one of the suggestions that was made to Clay and me was that we look for opportunities to preach timely sermons about topics that were on everyone’s minds. Then 2020 happened, and lo and behold! Opportunities to preach timely sermons have abounded!
Many of these opportunities have to do with the relationship between the Christian and the government. For instance, I have seen Christians who live in states that have made mask-wearing mandatory insisting that they are going to refuse to wear a mask anyway. Similarly, there are some who, in the light of the recent racial tension in our country, are arguing not merely that the police should be defunded (which can mean any number of things) but that the police should be disbanded (which means what it sounds like).
Where, as children of God, should we stand on these issues? What guidance does the Bible give us? Let’s answer these questions tonight as we consider the law and the Christian.
In this regard, we first must examine what the Scriptures say about THE ORIGIN OF GOVERNMENT. Here, let’s look at Romans 13:1-4. Right from the very beginning, Paul tells us where governments come from. No authority exists apart from God, and every government has received its authority from God. Thus, along with the family and the church, the government is an institution created by God.
Additionally, this text tells us what the government primarily is supposed to do. Our government today does all sorts of things, from issuing fishing licenses to supporting National Public Radio. Paul, though, regards government as doing two main things: terrifying would-be criminals into good behavior and punishing those who do wrong. Thus, it is not only true that the government is instituted by God. Law enforcement also is instituted by God.
Against this Biblical truth, I want to set a claim advanced by the disband-the-police people and even repeated by some brethren: that the police departments in our country were originally created to track down and capture escaped slaves. Though this may be correct in some places in the South, countrywide, it generally is not. The Los Angeles Police Department, for instance, began in response to a crime wave following the ’49 California Gold Rush. Now, certainly, the LAPD has plenty of racist incidents in its history, but to claim that it was founded as an act of racism doesn’t fit the historical facts.
This has significant implications for the way we should look at police departments nationwide. If indeed law enforcement were wholly evil in its origins, we ought to burn it down and start over. However, if what we’re dealing with is an institution perfect in its divine origin but imperfect in its human implementation, that should call us not to revolution, but to reform.
It is undeniably true that through the years, some police officers have trampled on the rights of black people in this country in many and serious ways. We must do better. However, if we abandon God’s plan for the ordering of humankind, that ultimately will help no one.
Second, let’s ponder the Christian’s responsibility to HONOR THE GOVERNMENT. Look at Romans 13:5-7. In v. 5, Paul instructs us to submit to the government, to obey its laws. Unlike would-be evildoers, we don’t abide by the law because we are afraid of punishment. We do so because we are subject to Christ, and those are His expectations.
This tells us all we need to know about mask-wearing. I live in a jurisdiction that encourages but does not require the wearing of masks in public spaces. That leaves us free to act according to our consciences. I personally choose to wear a mask as a show of respect for the government, but other Christians may decide to do differently, and that’s their right. However, when a state or locality requires mask-wearing, this text tells us that we don’t have any choice. Either we submit to the government, or we sin.
The only exception to this arises when a human government enacts a law that contradicts the commandments of God and we are forced to choose between the two. For instance, if Tennessee made singing in the assembly illegal as California has done, that might be a law that Christians have to seriously consider disobeying for the sake of conscience. When human law contradicts divine law, we must obey God rather than men.
However, our general duty to obey the government applies not only when the government is good and just, but also when it is tyrannical and oppressive. Paul wrote the book of Romans during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero, who was one of the most disgusting, evil, depraved human beings ever to sit a throne. Even when he took Christians and turned them into human torches to light his garden parties, Christians still were responsible for submitting quietly to the Empire.
Christians are not to be criminals. We are not to be rebels. We are not to cause civil disorder. We are to continue to live quiet lives and look to God to deliver us.
Honoring the government also extends to the respect that we show government officials. In similar language to what we see in Romans 13, Peter tells us in 1 Peter 2 that we are to honor the emperor as well as those who serve him. Anytime we encounter a member of law enforcement, whether we think they are worthy of the uniform or not, we are to treat them like someone who is doing God’s work.
This same honor should be evident in our speech when the government official isn’t around. Again, this is true regardless of who the official is. It has not escaped my notice that some Christians have been very loud about honoring the president for the past four years, while they spent the eight years before that saying abusive, insulting things about the previous president. Brethren, that’s hypocritical and ungodly! Lowering ourselves to the level of partisan strife is unworthy of the gospel of Christ.
Finally, though, let’s study what we can do as Christians in ASSERTING OUR RIGHTS. Turn here to Acts 22:23-29. If you’ll recall, Clay preached on the two verses right before this last week. It’s striking to see how issues of race and government arose together 2000 years ago too!
In any case, here’s what’s going on. The commander wanted to know why the Jews were rioting, so his solution was to scourge Paul until he started talking. However, Paul was a Roman citizen, and Roman citizens could not be examined by torture until they had been condemned of a crime.
Paul, then, as the soldiers are tying him down to start flogging him, asks if it’s lawful to do this to a Roman citizen, knowing perfectly well what the answer was. Once they figure out that he’s a citizen, the commander and all his men are terrified. Roman law was not kind to people who ignored the rights of Roman citizens! Thus, Paul uses his rights under the law to ensure just treatment for himself.
Today, Christians can do the same thing, even in response to unjust treatment at the hands of local officials. Under the Constitution, we have many rights that were not available to the Romans. We can elect our leaders. We can speak out against injustice. We can assemble peaceably to demand redress of our grievances. We can insist on due process of law before we are deprived of life, liberty, or property. We’re not being troublemakers when we exercise these rights. Instead, we are walking in the footsteps of the apostle Paul.
The only exceptions arise when our rights according to the laws of the United States exceed our freedom in Christ. For instance, the First Amendment gives me the right to say disrespectful, insulting things about the president. Christ, though, doesn’t give me that right, and ultimately, it is His will for our lives that must control us.