Monday, July 5, 2010

God & Country? (Romans 13:1-7)

The Scouts have a program called, “God and Country.” It’s a pretty good program, and even for some Scouts, their first introduction to faith. But what happens when God and country become too blurred? We begin to confuse the state with the Kingdom of God and often the values of the two are in direct conflict with one another. We use the God’s name to justify acts of oppression, aggression, and even terror. We tell people who aren’t patriotic that they aren’t good Christians. We exalt one culture over another, even degrading other cultures and peoples. We even exalt one party over another, saying one is more godly than the other and dividing the church over issues of politics that have nothing to do with the Kingdom of God.
On the other hand, we have a call for separation of church and state. Interestingly enough, this phrase is not part of the Constitution. It comes from a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote referring to the First Amendment. What the First Amendment to the Constitution actually says is, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” What happens when God and country become too separated? We become apathetic and even antagonistic regarding government. We stop engaging in society and instead place ourselves above others or simply withdraw from them. We forget that although this world is not the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of God has broken through in this world and it is our job to show it.
Our Romans 13 passage tells us how we are to interact with civil authorities. Paul begins by saying let every person submit him/herself to the higher powers. No one is exempt. And when Paul was writing this, we must remember that Israel was under an oppressive and hostile Roman empire. Yet Paul goes on to say that the reason we are to submit is because it is God who holds all power and who gives power. Regardless of what we think of our governing officials, they are where they are by the grace and power of God. They may abuse the power given to them, but they will be held accountable for that. Paul goes on to say that whoever resists power resists God and that God will judge those who resist authority. This stands in contrast to what we will see in Acts in a couple of weeks. Peter and John will not resist civil authorities, but religious authority. How do we reconcile resistance and obedience? When it comes to laws not in conflict with the Scriptures, we are to obey, but if a government practices or acts in ways that are unlawful according to God’s law, then we must obey God over human authorities. One of the positive things about our form of national government is that we can interact. We can work with and within the system instead of against it. Paul would never be for anarchy. We can write letters and make phone calls to help encourage officials to make laws in accordance with God’s Law and to the best of our ability and with the help of the Holy Spirit, vote against those who oppose God’s Law and vote for those who align themselves with God’s Law. This isn’t always easy because people deceive with flattering words. I find myself these days voting mostly against rather than for. Do we ask God what we can do to make our nation better? Rarely a week goes by when I’m not writing an email to one or more of our government officials or signing a petition—things from the democratic party, republican party or nonpartisan groups. Because it’s not about parties—everything must be weighed against Scripture.
In the same way that God judges those who resist authority, God will judge those who abuse their powers and positions of authority. Paul says that the purpose of civil authorities is not to be a terror to good works, but to curtail evil. Sometimes governments forget what they are for and try to meddle in other areas that they weren’t created and installed to do. They may be well-intentioned but misguided or only have short term eyesight and don’t consider long term consequences. And then I need to support actions that benefit the well-being of my neighbor and demonstrate good stewardship of all the resources we have been given by God. We also need to own up that part of the meddling in other affairs is our fault. If we believers did what God called us to do, the government wouldn’t have to. In our laziness and disobedience to God, we’ve neglected widows and orphans, immigrants, the poor, and the oppressed and allowed these things to become government issues. We’ve forgotten that the first hospitals, schools, and benevolence institutions were created by Christians, not by the government. If you are working in these fields today, good for you! These are important areas where Christians should be involved.
We are called to submit to civil authorities not out of fear of them and what they can do but out of obedience to God. Don’t let yourself be manipulated by fear. It’s what the world tries to do all the time. Governments are guilty. The news media is guilty, political groups are guilty, and even religious groups are guilty, forgetting that we are only called to fear God and nothing or no one else. We were talking in our Sacred Marriage class this week about words of encouragement, which led into a discussion of love languages. One of mine is definitely words. This is why it’s not too hard for me to be an encourager. At the same time, it’s made me very sensitive to hurtful words. Even if I agree with the basic premise of what someone is saying or the underlying principle, I refuse to support or endorse an issue or statement or participate in a discussion in which fear is being used as a tool of manipulation or personal attacks and straw man arguments are being made to enforce a point. I’ll either get angry or defensive or walk away or a combination of the above. My reactions aren’t always without sin either, but seeing people being manipulated by fear or intimidation does not sit well with me.
Both Jesus and Paul tell us we are to pay taxes. We need to support public affairs. However, again we are free to lobby against oppressive taxes, but when April 15 comes around, it’s time to pay up.
As believers in Christ, we are first citizens of the New Jerusalem. Our loyalty and allegiance is to God, and we are His ambassadors to the world. We are called to be in the world, but not of it. Being in the world means engaging our world. William Wilberforce considered leaving Parliament to become a priest. John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace” encouraged Wilberforce to stay where he was, and that God could use him to do God’s work in that arena. We know that God used Wilberforce to help abolish the overseas slave trade and eliminate slavery in the British empire. Being an ambassor for God means carrying out His will in the world, working for justice and peace and righteousness. Do we pray for the presidents and government officials we don’t like as much as we do the ones we do like? I’m guilty. We have to remember that God is the one who ultimately places people in positions of authority, and God does so for a reason. .James Edwards in his commentary of Romans sums it up like this:
"Paul approached the relation of church and state not as a Sadducee, who lived from the advantages of the state, nor as a Zealot, who lived to overthrow the state, nor as a Pharisee, who divorced religion from the state, nor as a Roman citizen, who saw the state as an end in itself, but as a free man in Christ who appeals to the church to be equally free in obedience to the state, but not conformed to it."

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