Summary: Authority comes from God and applies to the way we regard our government and others who are in positions of authority.
Where do citizenship and Christianity meet? Millions have struggled with this question. A vocal minority in our nation seems bent on convincing us that they never should meet – that a person’s religious convictions shouldn’t interfere with his civil life. Should the President talk about his relationship with Jesus? Should judges allow their Bible-shaped morals to affect their decisions? Should you expect city councils to apply Christian standards to a city? Should schools permit students to openly express any view or lifestyle?
Justice Scalia, in a Supreme Court decision involving the so-called “separation of church and state” wrote: “Church and state would not be such a difficult subject if religion were, as the Court apparently thinks it to be, some purely personal avocation that can be indulged entirely in secret, like pornography, in the privacy of one’s room.
For most believers it is not that, and has never been. Religious men and women of almost all denominations have felt it necessary to acknowledge and beseech the blessing of God as a people, and not just as individuals, because they believe in the "protection of divine Providence," as the Declaration of Independence put it, not just for individuals but for societies.”
Oh, yeah, the Declaration of Independence – that document – the one that says, “We hold these truths to be self evident: That all men are created equal; That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…” That document, sealing the foundation of a fledgling nation that was signed by several men who had degrees in theology. It’s hard to separate the church and state when the state was founded by people whose religious convictions shaped their thinking. It’s hard to separate the church from the state when so many vital landmarks of that state are adorned with Bible characters and history. The US Supreme Court building, above the east entrance, has a figure of Moses, in the center, along with other lawgivers. Around the building, tablets are used to represent Law. All over Washington D.C. federal buildings and monuments are etched with Bible verses.
We’ve turned it around in the Church and also unseparated the Church and state ourselves. Why is it that churches typically display the American flag? Why do we have hymnals with songs that are patriotic? I think it’s because we realize that being Christ followers has a lot to do with the kinds of citizens we are.
I’m going to say that you and I should be good citizens. In fact, we should be the best citizens, and that’s the goal Paul has in mind as he dictates this part of his letter to the Christians in 1st Century Rome. So, here’s where your Christianity and your community meet. What does being a good citizen mean?
A good citizen…
I. Grasps the Meaning and Place of Authority
Ancient Rome adopted a symbol of authority that actually appears all over our country today. It’s the fasces – a bundle of rods tied together with red ribbons, around an axe. These rods and axe once were actually used to punish wrongdoers. A man might be beaten with the rods, or his head could be removed with the axe. They were symbols of authority, carried out by a man called a lictor. It reminded people that the ruler had authority over a person’s life. That symbol was on the old dime, is in the House of Representatives, and even is worked into the Lincoln Memorial.
Why? Because it reminds us of the government’s authority. That means the government has the moral right to tell me what to do. That’s what authority is – the moral right to prescribe action, to tell someone what to do.
I look around and I see how people struggle with the nature of authority. Imagine the people to whom Paul was writing. Many of them were slaves. All of them were citizens of an empire that was being led by a corrupt emperor. And Paul tells them…
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. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
1. It’s from God
You might not want to hear this news. You might wish that Paul would say something else like, “Since we all know that Nero is a bad guy, let’s not worry about what he has to say. Why should we, anyway?” You might want to hear him say, “Hey, slavery is wrong. Don’t bother being a good slave, because that whole slavery thing is just messed up!” Instead, Paul says you have to submit yourself to the governing authorities. If you don’t, it’s not just opposing people, it’s opposing God.