Good Citizens, Loving Citizens, Hopeful Citizens

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

Romans 13

 

Are Christians good for society?

When I was studying engineering at UNSW, quite a few years ago now!, I remember reading an article in the student magazine written by my nice, smiley maths tutor. It was all about how Christians were bad for society. The New Testament was described as a dangerous book with bad ideas. The Christian student group I belonged to, called ‘CBS’, which really stood for ‘Campus Bible Study’, was given the new, apparently more accurate name of ‘Children Born of Satan’. I don’t think she was too worried about providing any real evidence for that claim…

Now, it was an opinion piece in a university student magazine. She could say what she wanted with as little journalistic integrity as she liked. But obviously her views were common enough for the article to be welcomed and printed. Some people think Christians are bad for society.

Twenty years later, and the feelings have just increased. Christians are particularly seen as bad for society when it comes to sexual ethics. We are seen to believe things that are harmful, discriminatory and divisive. Stephen McAlpine has just published a book called ‘being the bad guys’, which helps Christians explore how to live faithfully and relate well to others given the reality of this perception.

But it’s not just that the world doesn’t like what the Bible says about sexuality, or judgement or other religions. There’s often a broader sense that the whole idea of belief in heaven actually undermines our desire to be good citizens in this world. Christians are just ‘waiting for their mansion in the sky’ and so they’re not too fussed about making this world a better place.

And of course, some Christians, whole movements and communities of Christians, have made that concern seem quite valid. Some withdraw from society to form their own communes – cut off from the rest of society. Some try to take over society and force their ideology on everyone. Some seem to have no interest in justice or the common good, as long as people are being converted and the church is growing.

Now many of us here will know that these are distortions, and that Christians are not bad for society. We know that it’s the opposite – Christians can be, often are, and should be a blessing to their neighbours and to their society as a whole. And Romans 13, our passage today, highlights that it is actually our hope of heaven – our belief that we belong to ‘the day that is to come’ – which powerfully motives love for our neighbour and even peaceful submission to earthly rulers and authorities. Being good citizens of heaven is what drives us to be loving and good citizens of earth.

 

Overview: Good Citizens, Loving Citizens, Hopeful Citizens

At first, Romans chapter 13 seems to be all about being a good citizen. In verses 1 to 7, Paul urges everyone to submit to all governing authorities over them. Christians are not to be rebellious people who see themselves as above the law. On the contrary, we are to submit to people in authority over us, recognising that behind their authority is the authority of God himself. We are to do what’s expected of us as members of our society – whether that’s paying taxes or honouring people in positions of responsibility over us.

But then in verses 8 to 10, Paul explains that being a ‘good, submissive citizen’ is really part of a bigger picture. We are called to love our neighbour as ourselves. This is the never-ending debt we owe to all. It’s the fulfilment of God’s law for his people. It’s the life God has rescued us from sin to live. And so our submission to authorities is part of this larger picture of submitting to God’s call on us to act for the good of others, always.

And then in the final section, in verses 11 to 14, Paul explains this mindset is driven by our hope for the future and our understanding of who we are because of our hope. We belong to God’s great future – a new world of righteousness. We know this world, in its present form, is passing. And so we live in this world as people who belong to the world that is coming. This final section brings us back to the first few verses of Chapter 12, where God calls us to offer our whole selves as living sacrifices to God, conscious of all that God has done for us in Christ and the hope we have in him. Our Christian hope calls for transformation in the present, living out God’s will for us, rather than conforming to the ways of the world.

But this doesn’t mean withdrawing into ghettos, trashing the environment, ignoring our neighbours or disregarding worldly powers. No, living as faithful citizens of heaven gives us more reason than anyone to live as good and loving citizens of this world.

 

Submit to Governing Authorities, in Submission to God (Verses 1-7)

So let’s explore these sections in more detail, starting with verses 1-7. The big idea is that we are to submit to governing authorities, as an expression of our submission to God as our ultimate authority.

The first, and really the main point, that Paul makes here is that we should submit to rulers and governing authorities because we recognise that God has established them.

Verse 1 states: Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”

I think Paul is saying two related things here: firstly, that the whole concept of certain people being in positions of authority over others in society is from God; and secondly that God has placed particular persons in positions of authority within these structures and institutions. The position and the person in that position are both an outworking of God’s sovereign care for this world, and we should recognise that and submit to them.

 

Paul explains his reasoning and the implications in the following verses:

2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For 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 you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

God has instituted positions of authority and appointed people to serve in these roles for the common good. They are there for your good. They are God’s servants, restraining evil in the world. They are authorised by God to punish wrongdoing and injustice. Paul even describes them as agents of wrath of God’s behalf as they punish wrongdoers here and now.

 

‘Institution’ and ‘Authority’ are not super popular words these days. I know many of us here at CBC are from various parts of Asia, or at least your parents are, where there is a greater respect for authority and institutions. But in Western Culture countries like Australia, we are critical of institutions and suspicious of authority. We tend to ridicule our politicians, assume the police are out to get us unfairly, and see religious institutions as attempts to control people from thinking for themselves. Stickers on traffic light poles all over the city will encourage you to ‘fight the power’. We tend to have a naïve assumption that it would be good for our society to be shaken up with a bit of chaos every now and then.

But chaos is not so fun. When the appointed, governing authorities have no real control and those who have the desire and the strength to do what they want to others just go ahead and do it… it’s not fun and it’s not good. It’s terrifying and you fear for your life, let alone worrying about building a flourishing society with education, art and entertainment!

Everyone tends to complain about parking inspectors as if they’re just out to get us unfairly. But imagine if there were no parking restrictions in Chatswood?! Imagine if there were no consequences for just getting out of your car wherever you felt like it – maybe in the middle of the intersection here at Albert Ave and Orchard Rd if the roads seemed a bit too blocked up. We don’t like authority over us, but actually, we like it quite a lot when it comes to keeping other people in line. Society without governing authorities is like children without parents. Not pretty, not good. God has established authorities for our good, to create the possibility of freedom and flourishing together in an ordered society.

So the right response is gratitude for the good order that such authorities are charged to maintain, and submission to them so that we are part of that good order, rather than part of the problem. And we do it, not just to avoid being punished – being fined or thrown in jail – but as a matter of conscience. We submit because it’s right – because we understand the role they play under God’s providence.

And so, Paul explains from verse 6:

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

We do our part, giving what we owe and following the rules, understanding these people and institutions are part of God’s good ordering of our world. Paying taxes, obeying the law, and even following parking signs is part of how we worship God.

 

Submission to Authority, not Trusting in Political Power

Now it’s worth appreciating how different this stance is from the kind of engagement with political power we commonly see today, particularly in the western world. Many cultural commentators have noticed the way our society has become more and more polarised – in many areas of life, but particularly with politics. And one reason for this is the way political ideology has taken the place of any kind of meaningful theology for the average person. If God doesn’t define what’s good and right for our world, then we need to do that ourselves. And we have competing visions of what is good and right, based on the kind of world we want. And so to save the world from the evil and injustice of ‘the other side’, we need to make sure the political party that represents our vision for the world is in power. So people on each side of the political divide will champion their ’team’ as the solution to everything that’s wrong with the world, and be ready to discredit, protest and even riot against the government if it’s not representing their ideals. People are not submitting to the governing authorities, they are either cheering the authorities on, because it’s their team, or shaking their fists at them, because they’re not.

As Christians, however, we need to honour the authorities God has placed over us, even when we disagree with the ideology behind those in power. We submit because we recognise God has placed this person in this role to restrain evil and promote stable society, not because they share our ideology about the best way to do that. Of course, our convictions will motivate us to speak out against bad policy. We will vote and even campaign for persons and parties that we think will serve with greater justice and wisdom. We don’t separate faith from politics. Submission doesn’t mean silence or apathy. But our submission isn’t dependant on whether we like or agree with those in authority over us.

 

But what about evil rulers and corrupt governments?

But what about when it’s worse than just disagreement over the best policy?

What about genuinely evil rulers and corrupt governments? Is Paul really saying that God appointed people like Hitler? How can Paul say that rulers are God’s servants for our good when they so often seem to be ungodly men and women who’ve manipulated their way into power for their own good??

Well firstly, although Paul is saying that particular people are appointed to roles under God’s sovereignty, he’s not saying God only picks the best people who will carry out his will better than anyone else, and so that’s why we should submit to them. The emphasis in this passage is the purpose of such positions of authority according to God’s good intentions for his world. Rulers are God’s servants because they serve in roles that God intends for the good of humanity. But that doesn’t mean that every form of government and every particular party or person who ends up in authority will actually serve the common good according to God’s will. Paul calls us to recognise God’s intentions in appointing people over us, and so to respect and submit to the particular people and institutions that are over us in our time and place. But inevitably all rulers and authorities will fall short of God’s intentions, which will shape what submission can and should look like.

And that’s why our submission to earthly rulers and institutions is always shaped and qualified by our submission to Jesus as Lord over all. Paul makes it clear in this passage that submission to Jesus as Lord motivates submission to governing authorities. But the Bible equally makes clear that our submission to Jesus as Lord also qualifies our submission to earthly authorities. When there is a clear conflict, we are to obey God rather than man. In that Acts Chapter 4, when the Jewish authorities try to prevent Peter and John from preaching in the name of Jesus, what do they say? “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! 20 As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20).

You see it’s significant that Paul urges us to ‘submit to’ rather than to ‘obey’ our rulers. A right posture of submission recognises the authority they have over us because of the position God has placed them in. And we assume generally that obedience is the right course of action. But it is not blind obedience, and all earthy authorities must be placed under our ultimate commitment to submit to God. And so, there will be times when we cannot and should not do what earthly rulers are commanding – whether it’s worshipping the emperor for 1st Century Roman Christians, participating in the genocide of the Jewish people for German Christians in the early 20th Century, or embracing a sexual ethic that rejects God’s clear word in the 21st Century. There will be times when we speak vocally against what our governing authorities are doing and saying, because of our conscience, just as Paul tells us to submit because of our conscience.

We are called to submit to all governing authorities because of our submission to Jesus as Lord, not incontradiction to it.

 

Fulfil your debt to love one another (v8-10)

So, that’s the message of the first section: Paul calls us to be ‘good citizens’ – people who respect those in authority over them, because we recognise that God has placed them in authority over us. And then in verses 8-10, he broadens the focus. He reminds us that this obligation is part of a bigger obligation we have to love one another as God’s people.

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

He shifts from the idea of paying our taxes – whatever debts we may have – to the never ending debt we have to love one another. Being a good citizen for the Christian isn’t just about ‘doing the right thing’ – it’s about loving our neighbour as ourselves.

This is the life that God has called us to and saved us for. As Paul points out, all the commandments of the Old Testament Law are actually summed up in this idea. The commands, ‘don’t do this’ and ‘don’t do that’ – they mark out the boundaries of a circle that we should stay within. If we do those things we cross over, out of the circle, into harmful, destructive behaviour. We’re meant to stay inside the circle, where we do no harm to each other. And at the centre of the circle is love. In the middle of the circle, well away from those boundaries, is loving our neighbour as ourselves; acknowledging that they are created in the image of God just like me, and they are worthy of my love and respect just as much as I am of theirs. God intends us to follow in his footsteps, willingly sacrificing our own preferences so that we might meet the needs of others – just like God has done for us.

That’s the shape of the Christian life. It’s meant to be a beautiful thing. When we embrace it, it’s hard for anyone to say that Christians are bad for society. They might not like our ideology. They might wish we’d keep our beliefs to ourselves. But they can’t deny we are a blessing to our communities; not when we embrace the life God calls us to. Not only do we submit to authority as good citizens, far beyond that basic expectation, we actually love our neighbour as ourselves – even when they don’t return the favour, even when they don’t seem to deserve it.

 

Do this, as Citizens of Heaven (v11-14)

And as I said at the start, this way of life that blesses others and drives us to be good and loving citizens is actually energised and motivated by the fact that we are citizens of heaven. We seek to love others and live righteous and upright lives because of our hope for the future and our knowledge of who we are in Christ. Rather than undermining any motive for blessing others and living holy lives, the hope of salvation from everything that’s wrong with this world drives a passion to be part of the solution here and now while we wait for God to finish the job.

Paul follows on from the commands to give what we owe to others, especially the never-ending debt of love, with the added perspective:

11   And do this, (that is, submit to authorities and love each other) understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.

Paul wants us to live conscious that this present age is passing away, like a long, dark night that is finally giving way to the light of dawn. And he wants us to live conscious that we belong to the day that is dawning, not the night that is passing. We belong to the day – God’s great future – a world of righteousness and peace. We don’t belong to the night – a world of darkness, groaning under sin and destructive behaviour.

Just like he does in so many of his letters, Paul is urging us be who we are in Christ. He’s urging us to clothe ourselves with the character Christ, because that’s who we are because of our faith in him – that’s the life we belong to and that we’re destined for.

‘So wake up!’ he urges us. Stop fooling around with behaviour and attitudes that belong to the darkness, to the night that’s passing.

The metaphor of day and night creates a powerful image to highlight the kind of behaviour we should avoid. Verse 13 describes behaviour that might have been typical of a Roman orgy – a party long into the night with excessive food and drink and casual sexual encounters, where people are given over to consumption without restraint. And Paul’s saying, imagine behaving like that in the middle of the day out in public?! Even the average person who actually attended these parties would have been ashamed.

That’s what it’s like when we, people who belong to the day that is to come, carry on gratifying the desires of our flesh. So Wake up! He says, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ and get out there, walking in the light. Or in the language Paul uses at the beginning of this big section, back at the start of chapter 12 – Don’t conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you are able to discern God’s good will as you live here and now in this world.

 

Understand the present time. Know who you are and where you belong. Embrace that life now – that life of righteousness and purity and peace. Let that drive and energise a way of life that is impossible to describe as anything but good for your society. Pay your taxes, honour and submit to your governing authorities, not begrudgingly, but grateful to God placing people in such positions for your good. But don’t stop there, don’t just be a ‘good citizen’, let your hope in Christ and your submission to him as Lord energise love for one another. Love your neighbour, whoever that might be, today and tomorrow, and every day after that. Live as those who belong to the day, even as we wait for the night to pass.