Romans 13:1–7 (NIV)
13 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. 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.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.
We blessed to live in New Zealand where we can have a say in the affairs of our nation and community. We are blessed to be able to receive God’s good news each Sunday of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins and the benefits of that news for the world.
We’re blessed that God has given us systems and structures for the welfare of all who live and come to New Zealand. We’re blessed to have a welfare system that meets the needs of most of those who need a hand up.
We’re blessed to have a police force which helps supress evil in our society and a military force which will protect us should the need ever arise.
We’re blessed to be able to participate in serving God and our community in the Kingdom on the left (the world) and the Kingdom on the right (the Heavenly Kingdom).
A hallowed tradition of the Evangelical Church was to serve God by participating actively and openly in the affairs of the world. Article XVI of the Augsburg Confession says,
“Our churches teach that lawful civil regulations are good works of God. 2 They teach that it is right for Christians to hold political office, to serve as judges, to judge matters by imperial laws and other existing laws, to impose just punishments, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts, to hold property, to take oaths when required by the magistrates, for a man to marry a wife, or a woman to be given in marriage [Romans 13; 1 Corinthians 7:2].
3 Our churches condemn the Anabaptists who forbid these political offices to Christians. 4 They also condemn those who do not locate evangelical perfection in the fear of God and in faith, but place it in forsaking political offices. 5 For the Gospel teaches an eternal righteousness of the heart (Romans 10:10). At the same time, it does not require the destruction of the civil state or the family. The Gospel very much requires that they be preserved as God’s ordinances and that love be practiced in such ordinances. 6 Therefore, it is necessary for Christians to be obedient to their rulers and laws. 7 The only exception is when they are commanded to sin. Then they ought to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).” McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (pp. 39–40). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.
The discussion on this article concerning Civil Government is addressing two issues. Firstly it addresses those who choose to become recluse from the society in which they live, to live some kind of aesthetic life – withdrawing into the wilderness to create a community which is isolated so that it’s members can avoid sin.
Such communities include the likes of Gloriavale in the South Island and the Amish in the U.S.A..
This article also addresses those who abandon their participation in the secular world to become monks or nuns hoping to please God with their vows of obedience, chastity and poverty.
Commenting on Article XVI, George Forell says,
“Responsible Christian life means participation in all the difficult and controversial areas of human existence. It means to be present where the power is, where the decisions are made. The Confession mentions specifically close contact with political, military, and economic power. Christians are called to intelligent and responsible citizenship. They are warned not to abandon the power structure but rather to infiltrate it.”
Standing on the side lines, eloquently criticising politicians and others in authority, is not enough.
To withdraw and not participate in community life is a false kind of enthusiasm. Non-participation in the life of the community says to everyone who is disenchanted with the world, appalled by the complexities of life, that the ambiguity of power and the reality of evil leave us no choice but to “drop out.”
This is not how Christ demonstrated life to be lived. We are in the world but not of the world.
The advice of the Church’s reformers in the Augsburg Confession is to “get involved.” Jesus had said, “Render unto Ceaser, what is Ceasers.” How then do we do this in terms of our community beyond paying appropriate taxes?
We can study the world we live in and see what we can offer, the love of Christ, and what we can do to make a positive difference, or as Article XVI puts it:
“The Gospel very much requires that they (that is the civil state and the family) be preserved as God’s ordinances and that love be practiced in such ordinances.”
Our legal system has as it’s source the 10 commandments from Exodus 20. Luther’s Small Catechism has explanations of these commandments which help us understand our responsibilities to our community.
For example: from the seventh commandment, “We are to fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbour’s money or property, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his property and means of making a living.”
The question God asks of you and which you need to take seriously is, “Where can you do the most good with the gifts and abilities God has blessed you with? How does your life experience and education (both formal and informal) equip you to serve and make a positive God pleasing contribution to the well-being of the community God has placed you into?
It’s not about grandstanding, embarking on ego trips, but working with others who are likewise called to serve. Often the service we can render is not in the limelight, there may not be any headlines in the newspaper about our service. We may not even be recognized for our contribution by the world or our fellow servants.
There is not much hope of changing the world a great deal by ignoring the political and social structures which determine change.
Our piety and desire is not enough. There is such a thing as sins of omission – that is where we neglect to act in loving service for the good of those around us.
Ignorance of the way change happens and the functioning of our church, community, nation and world only contributes to their decline. Our roles in the communities we are a part of, and have the potential to influence for good may not always be clear cut or easy – but then neither was the way to the cross for our Lord Jesus.
Jesus was called the suffering servant because He was prepared to make a sacrifice for our good – the ultimate sacrifice – His life on the cross.
So how can we make real this same love for our neighbour, our church, our community and nation as Jesus did for us? We’re not all called to martyrdom on a cross.
But, we are all called to contribute to the welfare of our church, community, city and nation with prayer, using the avenues of influence available to us – letters and phone calls, encouragement for those we see “making a positive and God pleasing difference”.
We can share our ideas, ask questions and offer to help – for example when you see someone struggling to fulfil the task assigned to them, ask, “What can I do to help?” and then be prepared to help.
When you’re in a position of responsibility, listen to the ideas of others, invite their opinions and ideas, give them credit for sharing and contributing thus encouraging greater participation.
It’s not about knowing the order of the books of the Old and New Testaments or your record of church attendance – as helpful as these things are.
We have a “sitz im leben” (that is setting in life) in one of the richest countries in the world and this places a responsibility on each of us to use for the good of others what God has blessed us with.
God’s calling to and claim on your life through Your Baptism frees you from the burden of having to earn your salvation thus freeing you for voluntarily service where ever God has placed you or led you.
It may be for some of us, a calling to serve the Kingdom of God in a specific way in or through our life in the church. It may be that you are called to serve at the bus stop as you wait for a bus – helping someone get on the right bus, or in the office as you write to a politician to encourage them to note the plight of the homeless, the burdens of old age or mental illness.
Everyone who is disadvantaged or who is an invalid needs an advocate – who can you advocate for?
Many of you recently voted for a new government for New Zealand, whether or not you voted for the current coalition government they are called to minister on behalf of all New Zealanders, immigrants and residents.
The fact that you voted and participated in the process of the election, having given due diligence to your selection of who to vote for means that you are honouring your responsibility to your community.
When you participate in the election processes of our nation, city or other community organisation, when you spend and invest your money, when you participate in social action and when you offer advice in your chosen career you are honouring God’s call for you to … do what is right and you will be commended.
St Paul tells us that it is a matter of conscience for us to participate in society saying, 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.
There is of course the caveat. Peter and the other Apostles remind us in Acts 5:29 (NIV) “We must obey God rather than human beings!
Today this may be a little more complex than the early reformers envisaged as Forell reminds us,
“Because we are citizens of a democracy and live in a rapidly changing world, all our social responsibilities have developed implications which Melanchthon and the signers of the Augsburg Confession could not even have imagined – but for us these implications are clear. There is a direct line from taking oaths to voting, and from buying and selling to the stock market. And since government exists for the sake of good order, concern with national and international conflicts and with efforts to reduce disorder are Christian duties.”
Article XVI speaks of holding “political office, to serve as judges, to judge matters by imperial laws and other existing laws, to impose just punishments, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts, to hold property, to take oaths when required by the magistrates, for a man to marry a wife, or a woman to be given in marriage [Romans 13; 1 Corinthians 7:2].”
One notion of Article XVI which is both interesting and controversial in the modern age is that: “Our churches teach that …Christians … engage in just wars,…”.
The implication is that there is such a thing as an “unjust war”. As … says, “…the insistence that Christians may participate without sin in just wars clearly implies that they may not do so in unjust wars. This is a most important distinction for our time.” The question then arises as to what the criteria are for a “just war”.
Who determines what ‘is’ and ‘is not’ a just war when we have so much “fake news”, propaganda and so many diverse opinions propagated in the popular media and on the internet.
Once again, we have to return to the caveat of Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than human beings! This involves prayer for discernment, study of the Scriptures for wisdom and an awareness of media which is truthful.
Despite the arguments in particular situations those who take the Augsburg Confession seriously, and more importantly, those who take God’s Word as revealed to us in the Bible seriously, we must defend the rite of people to diverse or selective conscientious objection to war or political decisions made by those in authority.
Ultimately, as children of God we should submit all our participation and decision making in both the church and the world to the scrutiny of God’s Word for His will on every matter.
Most decisions can be made in good conscience when God’s Word is alive in our hearts and we step forward in faith that, if we have made an erroneous decision, we live in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.