Faith and Worldly Authority – Pt. 1

Today we are continuing our series during June, July and August where you picked the themes for the sermons.  So let me introduce today’s topic with the question that was submitted to us:

To what degree should Christians strive to have our witness to and identity in Christ inscribed into a national constitution should there be an opportunity, for example after a national disaster, in order to turn back toward God?

Now this is an important question and it is not just a theoretical question.  Right now the people of Zimbabwe are contemplating writing a new constitution and this is a live question for them right now.  Some people are supportive of recognizing God in the new constitution and some are not.  There is also some talk in Haiti, as that country rebuilds, that maybe now is the time to also re-write the constitution, and if that happens, there may be an opportunity to recognize God in that country’s foundational document as well. In our own country of Canada, we have recognized God in our national constitution.  In the Constitution Act of 1982, the very first article states  “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law”  and then it continues on from there with the rest of the document.   So here we are in a church building and it is Sunday morning and we are gathered for a worship service.  So what do you think are the chances that I would come out with a “No” in response to this question?  Not very likely.  But it does gives us the opportunity to look at the issue of authority.

We tend to have an ambivalent attitude towards authority.  We love it when we have authority over others.  But we hate it when others have authority over us.  But what is the biblical view of authority?

Well, if we look at what the Bible says, what we see is that God is the one who has set up the authorities that are in the world and God world through those authorities so that, when those authorities are functioning as they should, they are a blessing to us.  And the two main authorities that God has set up are the Church and the Government.  As God works through the authority of the Church, the tool that he uses is Grace, the means that he uses are his Word and the Sacraments, and the results for us are forgiveness, salvation and everlasting life with God.  You might remember Jesus’ words to his followers when he gave this authority to the Church, “…whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19b).

But God also works through the Government.  Here are Paul’s words to the believers in Rome on this matter:

1Everyone 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. 2Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. 6This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Romans 13:1-7)

So God has established and works through the authority of government, and the tool that he uses here is power.  The means through which God works are laws, the Police, the judicial system, the Army, etc.  And the results for us are (when government is functioning as it should) peace, justice (that is the Rule of Law), and ideally, freedom to worship God.

And because God is working through our government authorities, then, as followers of Jesus Christ, we have certain duties that we ought to fulfill.  We are to obey government authorities, pray for them regularly, pay our taxes and give to them the honour and respect that are due to them because of their position.  And because we live in a democracy, we also have opportunities available to us that, as Christians, we should do.  We have the opportunity to participate in the democratic process by voting when the opportunity arises.  And we can also get involved by serving on a local administrative board or by running for political office.  Now I realize that politics are not everyone’s cup of tea but it is important for there to be some Christians who are willing to get involved in this way.

But what about when governments do not function as they should?  After all, our government authorities are human beings and humans are sinful and prone to making mistakes.  What do we do when our government does something wrong?  Basically, we have three options. The first of these is speaking truth to power.  This is the role that the Old Testament prophets would often take and it usually did not go well for the prophets.  And we have a recent example right here in BC of someone speaking truth to power.  In June of this year, BC Cabinet Minister Blair Lekstrom went to the provincial cabinet and then to the Liberal caucus and told them that he was opposed to the introduction of the Harmonized Sales Tax, not on moral grounds, but on principle.  He believed that this was a radical shift in taxation and it should not be introduced without greater consultation of the people of BC.  Also his constituents in the riding of Peace River South were strongly opposed to it and he believed that he had a duty to represent their views in the legislature.  Then he resigned from the cabinet and from the Liberal party.  Because we live in a democracy, Mr. Lekstrom was not in any physical danger as a result of speaking truth to power, so he wasn’t making that kind of a sacrifice for doing so.  But he did give up the power and prestige of a cabinet post and the extra salary that goes along with it, and he did it because he believed it was the right thing to do.

The second option available to us when the government goes astray is civil disobedience.  This is deliberately breaking the law when a law calls you to do something that is wrong and then being willing to accept the consequences of breaking the law.  In the 1960’s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the leaders in the American Civil Rights Movement used civil disobedience to confront the way that society was treating people as second class citizens because of the colour of their skin.

Eventually Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life for his cause when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

There is a third option available to us, though I mention it with hesitation, and that is to rebel against the government.  I hesitate because Romans 13 does not give us permission to rebel against the government.  There really is only one justification for doing so and that is a realization that the government has been completely given over to demonic forces.  And an example of this would be the Nazi government in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s.  The Nazis operated out of a neo-paganist worldview.  And their intention during the time they were in power was to hamper, then control, then destroy the Christian Church in Germany.  A young pastor by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was among the first to recognize the danger of the Nazi government and speak out it. And that’s speaking truth to power. And for a time, he also organized and led an illegal seminary for training pastors.  That’s civil disobedience.  And then, Dietrich Bonhoefer became involved in the German resistance and he used his contacts in the ecumenical movement to communicate information in and out of Germany.  He could have escaped the war.  In 1939, he traveled to the United States which would have been a safe haven for him.  He was there only a short time when he realized that he must return to Germany.  He wrote:

“I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people… Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose: but I cannot make that choice from security.”[1]

And so Dietrich sailed from America back to Germany on the last ship to travel between the two countries beore World War II began.  And there he continued his activities in the German resistance.  Among those activities was a plan to assassinate Hitler.  The attempt was made on July 20, 1944 and when it proved unsuccessful it was only a matter of time before Dietrich’s role in the plot was discovered.  On orders from Hitler, Bonhoeffer was hanged on April 9, 1945, less than a month before the end of the war in Europe.

The Bible tells us of a time when Jesus spoke on the question of authority.  Jesus had been arrested on false charges, beaten, whipped and then brought, once again, before Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judaea.

“Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10“Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”

11Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” (John 19:9b-11)

Was there evil that happened that day?  Yes, there was.  Was there injustice at work in that place?  Yes, there was.  And yet, Jesus, who had all authority in heaven and on earth recognizes and submits to the authority of Pontius Pilate.  You see, the one who handed Jesus over to Pilate is me, and you, and every other person in the world.  All of us deserve to die for our sins and yet Jesus, lovingly, willingly took our place and suffered and died for the sins of the whole world so that we might have forgiveness from him.

And Jesus not only loves and forgives us.  He also gives each one of us our own personal authority.  He gives us a domain over which we are to rule.  And the question each one of us faces is this:  Are we going to be the queen or the king of our own domain?  Or are we going to invite Jesus to be the King over our domain, over everything that we manage, control or influence?  You see when Jesus is the one who is ruling over our hearts and lives, that’s when lives are truly transformed.  That’s when families become centres of peace, refuge and encouragement.  And when enough people in a country have Jesus as their king, that’s when countries really do turn back to God and not only are blessed, but become a blessing to the rest of the world.

So should Christians strive to have our witness to and identity in Christ inscribed into a national constitution should there be an opportunity, for example after a national disaster, in order to turn back toward God?  By all means.  But even if the opportunity to do that does not happen, God is still in control and God will still work through the government of that country.  And we can still invite God to rule over our hearts, and work and serve in such a way that his kingdom spreads to more and more people.  Amen.

(This message, or something like it, was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC, on 18 July 2010.)

[1] Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:  A Biography (Revised Edition) (Fortress:  Minneapolis, 2000), 655.

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