The Biblical Response to Governing Authority

      Today is November 3, 2020.  It is election day.  It will be a greater turnout for voting than we have ever seen before.  Many issues concerning our nation are before the voters.  The personalities and their lives have been under close scrutiny by the press. We are told many things that will happen in the future to our country if the right people are not elected.  A sense of anxiety and foreboding prevails among many.

     In our country, we have the privilege of openly supporting candidates for office without fear of reprisal.  The freedom to cast our vote is assured.  Honesty in counting the votes and reporting is the norm.  Over the centuries since society, cultures, and nations have existed, our situation is a rare privilege.  Throughout the history of the world, kings, dictators, and tyrants have ruled with no regard for anyone but themselves.  In the first several centuries after Christ, the Christians were scattered.  They faced abuse and persecution from their own countrymen.  Their nation was ruled by a foreign power.  They were hunted down, imprisoned and many retreated to the catacombs.  It was during these early years of the church that the Apostle Paul was used of the Lord to give direction to the church in regard to their response to the governing authorities.  These principles are still relevant today.  “The counsel of the LORD standeth forever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations.” (Psalm 33:11) KJV 

     The first of these principles is given to us in the letter to the Romans.  “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.  The authorities that exist have been established by God.” (Romans 13:1)  “Give everyone what you owe him:  if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” (Romans 13:7)  The spirit of grumbling and complaining is to be avoided, because ultimately it is God that we grumble about and to whom we complain.  “Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life.” (Philippians 2:14-16a)  Living as light in a crooked and depraved generation, without complaining or arguing, is greatly used by the Lord as we hold out the word of life.  It is in this setting that the Gospel is advanced.  “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men:  whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.  For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” (I Peter 2:13-16)  If there is a conflict, however, between the authorities and God, then we must answer as Peter and the other apostles did.  “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29b)  

     The second of these principles is given to us in I Timothy 2:1-4.  “I urge, then, first of all that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone-for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives-in all godliness and holiness.  This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”  During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, my wife and I were invited to attend the Presidential Prayer breakfast in Washington DC.  At one of our meetings, Dick Halverson, former Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, spoke to our small group.  His message focussed on this passage and he challenged us with the thought that, to some measure, the advancement of the Kingdom of God is dependent upon our faithfulness in prayer for the authorities.  Our prayer, for example, for the president should be that the Lord would guide his decisions, his selection of those in the cabinet and direct (like a watercourse) his agenda for our country.  We need to ask that the legislation and court decisions would be those which would glorify God and allow His work to continue in our country.  We need to ask that the Lord would turn our country and its people to Him.  

     This responsibility and privilege, to pray for our governing authorities, extends not only to our own nation, but to every tribe and tongue in all the nations.  Operation World, written by Patrick Johnston, is an invaluable guide to prayer that is needed for those in authority throughout the world.  Does not the Lord care about all the nations, and not just our own?  Does He not challenge us in Isaiah with the following?  “You who call on the LORD, give yourselves no rest, and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth.” (Isaiah 62:6b-7)  Is a lack of prayer delaying His work in this regard?                

     The third principle which is given to us throughout the scriptures, is that our trust is not in our governing authorities but in a sovereign God who rules over all authorities.  This is what Isaiah saw during the days of absent and ineffective leadership of Judah and Jerusalem.  “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.  The Lord does not allow the misdirection, the folly, and the evil purposes of rulers to alter His plans for His people and His world.  He makes the wrath of man to praise Him.  He will raise up a Pharaoh, if needed, to accomplish His purposes. “The kings’ heart is in the hand of the LORD, he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.”
(Proverbs 21:1)   

     Ray Stedman relates the following thoughts regarding the Lord’s control of authorities.  “What was the best way to spread the Gospel in the first century?  It was to appoint Emperor Nero as chairman of the committee to evangelize the Roman Empire!”  Under his direction, two sons of Roman noblemen were chained to the Apostle Paul every six hours!  Every twenty four hours eight soldiers heard the Gospel.  You might say that they were the captive audience!  The effectiveness of this approach was such that entire legions (7,000 men) became followers of Christ during the first several centuries.  Paul reflects this success in ministry with his comment in Philippians 4:22.  “All the saints send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household.” 

     The early church, as well as the generations that followed, needed further understanding of what Christ did for us and how we are called to live.  To achieve this end, the Lord allowed the authorities to imprison Paul so we could have Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians and Philemon as directions for our spiritual walk. (The Prison Epistles)  Later, toward the end of his life, I and II Timothy and Titus were written from imprisonment as well.  The grace of God saw the need of the church in advance and gave Paul this opportunity to write for them and for us.   

     What the Apostle Paul gained from the opposition he experienced was of immense worth to Him.  “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (II Corinthians 12:10)  Many Christians, in similar situations in the last 2,000 years have found comfort from these words in their lives and been partakers of His strength in their weakness.  God permitted the authorities to interact with the Apostle Paul so that we might obtain similar comfort and encouragement in our lives as well.  

     The short journey that each of us has during this lifetime is one of preparation.  Jerry Bridges once remarked that we, during this journey, are looking for comfort, whereas God is looking that we be conformed.  God’s work in us is to conform us to the image of Christ.  His work through us is to bring others to Christ and be used by him to transform their lives as well.  During this journey, there are no accidents, only incidents.  The Lord is in control of all circumstances, including any authority that will touch our lives, whether it is to our liking or not.    As J. I. Packer noted, when we are with Him in His Glory, we will see that nothing that hindered His work in and through us was permitted and that nothing that was necessary to His work was omitted.  As the psalmist says, “The LORD will perfect that which concerneth me:  thy mercy, O LORD, endureth for ever:  forsake not the works of thine own hands.” (Psalm 138:8) KJV   

     Our task, then, as Christ followers, is to submit to the governing authorities, pray for them, and trust God’s sovereign rule over them.  As we do so, we can trust in His promise to us in Deuteronomy 31:8.  “The Lord Himself will go before you.  He will be with you.  He will not leave you or forget you.  Don’t be afraid, and don’t worry.”   His infinite love, unfathomable knowledge, and complete control affirm to us that He, Himself, and not any other authority, is our shield and our security.

In Christ, Richard Spann         


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