Summary: Who has authority for faith and practise? The state? The Word? The message explores the continuing tension between government and church.
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”
Throughout their long history as a people of faith, Baptists have consistently opposed any diminution of the rights of the individual to seek and to pursue their own faith, or for each person to decide to be without faith if that is the choice. Though Baptists today enjoy considerable respectability in North American society, they have been on the receiving end of state sponsored religious oppression, not occasionally, but frequently.
The First Baptist Church of Boston, Massachusetts was organised on June 7th, 1665, in defiance of two laws which had been passed by the General Court of the colony. One law stated that all persons wishing to form churches must first obtain consent of the “magistrates and elders of the greater part of the churches within this jurisdiction.” A second law declared that “if any person or persons within this jurisdiction shall … condemn or oppose the baptising of infants … such person or persons shall be subject to banishment.”
Thomas Gould, the first pastor of that congregation, and Henry Dunster, a member of the congregation who was also the first President of Harvard College, had each refused to have their babies baptised. Dunster was forced by the General Court to resign his Harvard position because of his refusal to permit his infant child to be baptised. In the years that followed, many members of that congregation were punished by the government for holding to the Baptist “heresy.” They were arrested, jailed, publicly beaten, fined and often proscribed from speaking in their own defence.
It is astounding to witness such action by Massachusetts, particularly since the colony was established by Puritans seeking religious freedom. Because a group seeks freedom from persecution does not mean they will not persecute others. Freedom of the conscience is a rare commodity among religious people. Such was the religious climate in the early days of the migration to the New World.
One Sunday in 1680, worshippers found the doors of their church building nailed up by order of the General Court, with the following notice posted:
“All persons are to take notice that by order of the Court the doors of this house are shut up and that they are inhibited to hold any meeting therein or to open the doors thereof, without license from Authority, til the General Court take further order as they will answer the contrary at their peril, dated in Boston 8th March, 1680, by order of the Council.”
Undaunted, the congregation met outdoors in the cold and rain. The following Sunday, inexplicably, the doors were found open never again closed by the authorities.
Baptists understand that authority is limited by God from Whom all authority devolves. The social order, as we know it, is dependent upon authority which God has appointed. Peter teaches those who confess Christ as Master of life, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor” [1 PETER 2:13-17].
This is a lawless day—many of God’s professed people have grown self-centred and callused. Multiplied laws, many of which are irrelevant to peace and good order, are routinely ignored. Nevertheless, parliaments and legislatures continue to produce yet more laws designed to regulate our thinking, our morals, our attitudes. In such a reckless environment, what is a Christian supposed to do? To whom shall we look? What should be our attitude toward our various governments, as they grow increasingly irrelevant?
THE CHRISTIAN IN THE MODERN STATE — “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Central to any understanding of the message is the question of what role a Christian plays in our modern, increasingly pagan society. Must we obey unjust laws? Is the power of the state absolute? Is there a place for disobedience? These vital questions deserve an answer; and it is my intention to seek answers over the course of our studies in this particular chapter.
I confess that this chapter is controversial. J. C. O’Neill reportedly wrote that, “These seven verses have caused more unhappiness and misery in the Christian East and West than any other seven verses in the New Testament.” I question whether this is an accurate assessment, but the verse figures prominently in many criticisms of the Faith. Certainly, one argument advanced by Islamic scholars for the superiority of their religion is that they are not required to submit to non-Muslim authorities.