Summary: Exploring the limits of government authority through study of God’s Word.

“Pilate said to [Jesus], ‘You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.’”

Government is divinely charged to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good [see 1 PETER 2:14]. There is certainly room to discuss the ramifications of such a broad mandate or to argue how such a mandate should be implemented. Nevertheless, it remains true that beyond this divine directive, if government wishes more power over the individual, it must arrogate to itself authority that has not been conferred by the Creator. For instance, governments have no right to define morality or to coerce the conscience. That governments do assume such authority ensures continual tension between state and church.

There would be no disagreement between students of biblical morality and political science if a fixed standard were applied to determine what is moral or ethical. However, with the advent of modern evolutionary judicial thought standards of morality and ethics have grown pliable; consequently, they are in a constant state of flux. Increasingly, parliaments and legislatures seek to regulate thought, doing so through redefining both moral and ethical behaviour. As a result, conscientious Christians experience considerable tension as they endeavour to discern the boundaries of governmental authority that God has set.

Modern western governments do seek to control thought and to redefine morality. However, in this effort, they intrude into realms over which they have no authority. Definitions of morality and ethics are the domain of religion and not that of the state. Ultimately, the morality of a particular society will be what is permitted by the citizenry, usually resulting either from silence of or through the consistent teaching of the churches.

Increasingly, churches in the present, liberal-minded, world are under assault. Christians are expected to be tolerant of every form of wickedness, silently acquiescing to practises that are utterly repugnant to godly convictions and antithetical to righteousness. Faith, according to the contemporary mindset, is a private affair that must not be allowed to colour any other aspect of life. Churches are virtually commanded to submit their faith and practise to the approval of government bureaucrats or to the judiciary.

Modern governments have become notorious in their attempt to regulate every facet of life, intruding even into the sacred right of the individual to hold private opinions. Society seems to have concluded during the past several decades that the state must protect the feelings of all people—save for conscientious Christians. We are taught that we must not make any statement that may hurt the feelings of any individual that considers himself or herself to be a racial minority, or who happens to represent a “minority” religion, or who seeks to normalise moral deviance. The state has therefore become the protector of feelings, a champion appointed to avenge hurt feelings.

From earliest days, Baptists have championed freedom of worship, espousing the ideal of a free church in a free state. Baptists tenaciously hold to the doctrine of liberty of conscience. We conscientiously seek to be good citizens—praying for those in authority, obeying all laws that do not violate Scriptural injunctions, and honouring those who are charged to direct affairs of government. However, Baptists have always insisted that we have a higher law that must prevail in every aspect of life. We received this command from the Founder of our Faith—Jesus, the Son of God.

From earliest days, those holding Baptist principles, have endured jail, have been tortured and suffered confiscation of their goods, rather than permit their conscience to be violated. Baptists daily exemplify through their lives the reality of the words of George W. Truett, long-time pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. On May 16, 1920, Dr. Truett stated in an address delivered on the steps of the National Capital in Washington, D.C., “A Baptist would rise at midnight to plead for absolute religious liberty for his Catholic neighbour, and for his Jewish neighbour, and for everybody else.” And a Baptist will just as quickly plead for religious liberty for his Muslim neighbour or for her atheist neighbour.

When He was betrayed, the Master was delivered to Pilate with the demand from religious leaders that He be crucified. Arraigned before the Roman legate, the Master maintained silence. The governor, on the other hand, blustered and sought to intimidate. Ultimately, his feeble threat was met with firm rebuke. Contained within Jesus’ admonishment is encouragement and instruction worthy of thoughtful consideration. Join me, therefore, in a study of the exchange between Jesus and Pilate.

TENSIONS BETWEEN CHURCH AND STATE — “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you.” These are the words Pilate used in an attempt to compel Jesus to respond to his queries. The Roman procurator willingly assumed authority, but failed to accept the responsibility that attends that same authority.

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