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Vol. XII • 1990

Christians in Authority
Ellen Myers

In 313 A.D. Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which granted state toleration to the Christians hitherto persecuted in the Roman Empire. Historians have disagreed about whether Constantine was a true Christian. Although he professed and protected the faith, he was not actually baptized into it until shortly before his death, and he had his wife and one of his sons killed for alleged treason. Christian opinion is also divided about Constantine's exercise of imperial authority over the Church, especially his banishment of the great Athanasius, lone defender of biblical orthodoxy against Arianism and his dictatorial interference in the Council of Nicea. Certainly Constantine set the first precedent for caesaropapism (the head of the state being also the virtual head of the Church) in Eastern Orthodox states.

In Western Christendom the Bishop of Rome eventually assumed papal pre-eminence above the whole Church, and in the High Middle Ages over the heads of state as well. While the Protestant Reformation rejected papal rule aver the Church, Luther soon came to rely on the heads of state to buttress the Lutheran church in their domains. Similarly, the Church of England became the "established" state church under Henry VIII and his Anglican successors to the throne. Calvinists far their part set up Christian government authority aver both church and state in Geneva (John Calvin himself), Scotland (John Knox), and America (the Puritans in New England). None of these branches of Christendom was free from intolerance and even physical persecution of dissenters.

Mindful of this history, the founding fathers of the United States of America provided for the judiclal independence of the church(es) from the state. Of course their purpose was not to exclude and suppress Christianity as today's secular humanists claim, but rather to liberate Christians from suppression by the state and each other. Hence in the United States today Anglicans, Baptists, Caivinists, Catholics. Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Mennonites, Pentecostals, Quakers and nondenominational Christians all live peacefully side by side, and none enjoy government preferment over others. Official toleration is also extended to such groups as Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses whose claim of being Christians must be rejected on biblical grounds. Members of non-Christian faiths, such as Jews or Muslims, enjoy the full protection of the law in the United States as well. Such religious freedom and toleration is correct from the standpoint of biblical Christianity. Jesus Christ Himself rebuked His disciples James and John for wanting fire to come down from heaven to consume the Samaritans who did not receive Him (Luke 9:51-56). He exhorted His people not to exercise authority aver each other as do unbelievers but rather to serve each other, even as He Himself did not come to be served, but to serve' (Matthew 20:25-28; see also John 13:12-17, or I Peter 5:1-5). With those who reject biblical teaching, the servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach. patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil" (11 Timothy 2:24-26). On the other hand, the Church is commanded to remonstrate with and if necessary break fellowship with a member for unrepented offenses against fellow Christians, gross sin and heresy (Matthew 18:17-18, 1 Corinthians 5).

The Bible expressly commands believers to pray, intercede and give thanks for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (I Timothy 2.1-4). We are all to be subject to the governing authorities For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil... For he is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid: for he does not bear the sword in vain: for he is God's minister. an avenger to execute wrath an him who practices evil, Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience' sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they ore God's ministers attending continually to thls very thing. render therefore to ail their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs. fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor" (Romans 13:1-7). Government authority includes imposition of the death penalty, as reference to the sword in this passage makes clear; see also Genesis 9:6, Acts 25:11. and the important exhortation of I Peter 2:13-17.

The only exception to our submission to government is when to obey it is to disobey God (Acts 5:29). We must be allowed to preach the Gospel of Christ "to every creature' (Matthew 28:18-20: Mark 16:15): to bring up our children in the nurture and admonition of "he Lord (Ephesians 6:4); to have the children God gives us in fulfillmen'r of His creation command to man to be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28): to assemble together for worship and mutual edification (Hebrews 10:24-25); to give help to the poor and sick, and biblical counseling to the distressed (1Thessolonians 5:11-14). We who take our biblical Christian faith seriously ore on a collision course with many governments, including in the supposedly "Christian' West and `pluralistic America today, aver many or even all of these matters,

Because man was created in God's own image and likeness and vested with dominion, that is, vice-regency or stewardship under God (Genesis 1:26-28), we are all the potential or actual bearers of authority according to the "talents (abilities, material resources, position in history and society) bestowed upon us by God. Even a child has authority under God, his parents and teachers over his work and belongings. This is why "even a child is known by his deeds, whether what he does is pure and right" (Proverbs 20:11). Authority is accountability to God and neighbor and as such love in action. This is why the pre-eminent New Testament passage on government, Romans 13:1-7 (see above). is immediately followed by these words: "Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, `You shall not commit adultery,' `You shall not murder,' `You shall not steal,' `You shall not bear false witness,' `You shall not covet.' and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely. `You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 'Love does no harm to a neighbor: therefore love is the fulfillment of the law" (Pomansl3:8-10). The adulterer, murderer, thief, liar and coveter breaks God's law and hence does not love, no matter what twist of "situation ethics" he may use to rationalize his lawlessness.

Because God ordains our circumstances, we are to exercise our authority under Him over little or much as He grants us. It is our faithfulness that counts, not our position or "wealth." Consider the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), or of the pounds (Luke 19:11-27). The sin of the evil servant was his refusal to exercise his authority under the Lord over what little he had been given. At the accounting upon the return of the Lord and Master the servants who had exercised their authority in faithful service were given greater authority (rule) and bidden to enter into the joy of their Lord.' The unprofitable servant was stripped of what he had and cast `into outer darkness (Matthew 25:30).

With regard to exercising our authority as Christians in government. we in the West with its many centuries of Christian influence have been given incomparably more than Christians anywhere else and at any other time in history. With our political freedoms comes far greater accountability to God and our neighbors. We cannot arbitrarily restrict our activities to the confines of church. Bible study (especially Bible prophecy) and personal edification. We are exhorted to accept and use increased liberty in this world in God's service: "Were you called (converted to Christ) while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it" (1 Corinthians 7:21). The same Scripture passage admonishes us to "remain with God in that state in which he was called" (v.24). Our hindsight critique of the Emperor Constantine, for example, after sixteen centuries of further Christian experience in church/state relationships, or of other Christian rulers must always endeavor to give all due credit and make all possible allowances in the spirit of not bearing false witness against our neighbor.' We ourselves will have to give an account of our own stewardship/authority to our Lord.

The exercise of our authority over what we have received here on earth from our Lord is thus the test and schooling of our fitness to rule with Him and enter into His joy in eternity (see also Matthew 24:45-51, Luke 12:35-40, and especially Luke 12:42-48) Our Lord is now as it were "in a far country" but He will come again and demand an accounting from us. The emphasis in all these parables is not so much upon when He comes again (except to impress upon us that His Return will be sudden and unexpected), but rather upon our readiness for His appearing. As a faithful Bible teacher put it. Three things are absolutely necessary in our thinking about our Lard's Second Coming: (1) He will return; (2) we don't know when; (3) we must be ready.' These are the priorities given by our Lord Himself! No additional teachings about His Return must ever obscure these rock-bottom priorities.

Our own lawless generation despises godly authority. We ourselves shun its exercise. For example, Christian parents are often afraid to exercise authority over their own children, How ludicrous are our public exhortations "just to say no to drugs, alcohol or promiscuity when many parents no longer have the courage to say no' to their small toddlers in their own homes! Both fathers and mothers are all too often absentee parents preoccupied with their career, wealth and "self-esteem." Even Christian parents all too often believe thor they do their whole duty by their children in giving them all material comforts or a prestige worldly education. However. their chief biblical task is to "bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4). The parents themselves must live Christian lives.

Christian teachers. professors. judges and legislators toaay may exercise their authority in Christ at great personal risk in state institutions allegedly "pluralistic" and "neutral" but in reality vehicles of militant humanist-atheist hostility against all things Christian. Is it ever our duty to leave "the state in which we were called" by resigning our posts in government? Recently a police officer in Las Vegas, Nevada was ordered to arrest Christian people involved in a non-violent demonstration at an abortion clinic ("Operation Rescue"). He resigned from his job in public at the demonstration site and joined the demonstrators. For this he was arrested, fired, and is about to be tried for insubordination. Other police officers, equally professing Christians, carry out their orders to arrest Operation Rescue demonstrators. As with the biblical grounds for or against "Operation Rescue itself, sincere Christians disagree about who is right in this matter.

Consider Naaman who was cured of his leprosy. He vowed that from henceforth he would worship only the Lord Nevertheless he returned to serve the pagan, idolatrous King of Syria, asking pardon of the prophet Elisha for bowing down in the temple of Rimmon when having to accompany and assist his master there. Elisha told him to depart in peace (2 Kings 5:18-19). Daniel held high authority under Darius, a heathen king, but continued to pray to God when forbidden to do so at the risk of his life (Daniel 6). After his conversion Zaccheus did not cease to be a tax collector but became a repentant and honest one (Luke 19:1-9). When John the Baptist came to prepare the way of Christ, he did not ask the tax collectors and the soldiers to resign their offices but rather to exercise their authority lawfully and honestly (Luke 3:12-14). Before his conversion the Philippian jailer almost resigned by suicide when his charges were freed of their chains by God's earthquake. Then Paul called him to Christ and he and his house were saved. Thereupon he did not resign his office but became concerned with his prisoners' welfare (Acts 16:24-34). From all these Scriptural examples it follows that if God has called us to exercise government authority we must obey in this calling, unless the governments we serve clearly oppose God's law. When Daniel disobeyed King Darius' command to pray only to him for thirty days, he did so because it violated God's very First Commandment: "I am the LORD your God ,., You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:2-3). Whether we are mere "rank and file" citizens or holders of government office, our disobedience to government authority must never be mere insubordination based upon private opinion but clearly substantiated by Scripture, If so, resigning from offices we may already hold and not applying for positions of authority or wealth though they might "enable us to do more good for church or society" is our only choice.

Because Christians generally did not have access to government offices until the fourth century A D., the history of the early church should not be our final court of appeal for the exercise of government authority by Christians, Likewise later church history can only give tentative guidance as we have seen. We are learning that our own vaunted "separation of church and state is not free from pitfalls either, Our own besetting sin is our negligence or even indifference towards the exercise of the authority and political freedoms we enjoy, and which we are now losing by default, How many Christians turn out for elections in the United States'? How many take the trouble to write their elected representatives or the President about issues of Christian concern? If the state is rapidly becoming the god of this age, truly a "god of forces," it is because all too many Christians have not exercised their God-given authority over it This is not even so much due to the seduction of "modern psychology" or "modern education but to our choosing the way of least resistance and lazy acquiescence for comfort's and leisure's sake, We have been like the wicked, unprofitable servant in the parables of the talents and the pounds except that we have been given so much more than others with regard to government authority.

It is sometimes said that our first concern must be the winning of souls to Christ. However, there is no conflict between soul-winning and the exercise of all authority given us by Him. To repeat, we are commanded to pray for all in authority "that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior. who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (I Timothy 2: 1-4). It is as yet far easier to preach the Gospel of salvation in Christ in the politically free states of the West than under Communism (even with the changes presently being made in Gorbachev's Russia). Here in the free West "we the people" are the ultimate bearer of government authority. Should we not do all we can to uphold our freedom to preach the Gospel? In addition, once souls are won to our Lord, they must be discipled to serve Him wholly with heart, mind, soul and strength in all areas of their lives. It is right for Christian pastors and teachers to instruct them in how this applies to the exercise of their newly acquired authority in Christ Jesus.

The regenerate believer is a new creation" for whom "old things have passed away" and "all things have become new (II Corinthians 5:17), This means all things, not only worship in church, or rather, worship includes all activities of the believer. We are called to suffer and reign with our Risen Lord; this is nought else but to exercise authority in Him wherever He calls us to serve. To exercise authority is simply to rephrase the Bible's exhortation: "Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (I Corinthians 10:31).

"Christians in Authority"
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