Respect for Human Government

Romans 13:1-6

Perhaps you’re familiar with the concept in political science called “separation of church and state.” Through the past 2,000 years, this concept has emerged in societies in various ways. Three notable voices for this concept are (1) English Enlightenment philosopher, John Locke, (2) colonial Baptist pastor, Roger Williams, and (3) former President, Thomas Jefferson – who also shaped and signed the Declaration of Independence and greatly influenced the writing of the U.S. Constitution.

According to this concept, the authority, functions, and structure of any government and religion must remain distinct from one another. Neither one should control the other. There are two primary ways of applying and interpreting this principle. As simple as this sounds, there are actually two different and significant ways to interpret and apply this principle.

Secular proponents like Locke and Voltaire advocated for one application. This version insists on an aggressive, total separation between church and government so that a government never encroaches upon religious beliefs and practices on one hand, but also that no religion should control or influence a government on the other hand. In this model, government controls or governs every aspect of life except religion and religion must remain private having no meaningful public influence.

Our public education system, popular media outlets, many elected officials and politicians, and more promote this approach today by endeavoring to scrub all religious influence from public institutions and messaging, producing an entirely secular, godless state. This application of the “separation of church and state” principle is exaggerated and problematic because it fails to acknowledge that faith and religion, properly understood, is far more than a private ritual or routine but is a deep-seated, whole person set of beliefs and practices which influence a person’s entire lifestyle, mindset, and worldview.

Having identified this erroneous view, we should recognize a second, more accurate application of this “separation of church and state” principle. Religious proponents like early Baptist, colonial pastors Roger Williams, John Clark, and Obadiah Holmes, promoted a more reasonable approach. They insisted that while no government should encroach upon or control the beliefs and practices of the church, and while no church should or religion should control the government in any formal or official way, the church should certainly seek to influence government through normal, ordinary means.

This view acknowledges that personal faith – especially in Jesus Christ as taught in Scripture – is something more than a personal, private ritual and routine disconnected from everyday life. It is, instead, a core set of beliefs and a worldview which molds and motivates the way we view the world and behave not only in private but in public; not only how we behave within the church but outside the church as well.

“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (Eph 2:10)

“This is a faithful saying, and these things I want you to affirm constantly, that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men.” (Tit 3:8)

Now, it is fascinating to learn that Baptists like Roger Williams (who planted the first Baptist church in America) were key leaders and voices in history advocating for a proper, biblical view of separation of church and state, esp. in early America, while many other Christian denominations (such as Episcopalianism, Congregationalism, Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, Puritanism, and more) were less supportive.

As you may know, many religious leaders and groups from a variety of denominational traditions, traveled to America to escape state persecution, being persecuted primarily by either the Anglican/Episcopalian state church of England or the Catholic state church of other nations. As they settled in America, however, they behaved in an ironic way. Rather than insist upon religious liberty, they tended to establish state-run church systems of their own, enforcing their own religious beliefs on others through their own local and state governments. So, while they rejected the authority of the state-run church of England, France, or Spain, etc., they merely replaced such political power with their own denomination and state church instead.

Baptist leaders, like Roger Williams in Rhode Island, however, insisted otherwise. They insisted on upholding true religious freedom for all because they believed and taught the biblical concepts of “soul liberty” and “freedom of conscience” before God. We also call this religious liberty. It is the influence and input of men like these which prompted the first article in the U.S. Bill of Rights to say this:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

This statement ensures that the American government should never establish a state-run church but should, instead, grant churches the freedom to worship God according to their conscience before God.

In a famous letter, Thomas Jefferson (who may not have been a follower of Christ himself) wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association of churches to assure them that the government would not encroach upon their religious freedom by establishing a state church. In this letter, Jefferson famously declared that this first article in the Bill of Rights would build “a wall of separation between church and state.”

Can you see here how the influence of colonial Baptists’ faith in the teaching of Scripture influenced our United States government? This influence, in and of itself, demonstrates how personal faith in Christ and God’s Word should encourage God’s people to graciously speak up, get involved, and seek to influence our government and our world through godly principles and virtues lived out publicly in our lives.

So, while the First Amendment in the Constitutional Bill of Rights insists that the U.S. government should never (a) establish a formal state religion or (b) prohibit people from practicing their religious beliefs, it does not prevent people from living out their faith in Christ in meaningful ways that impact and influence government in a responsible, proactive way.

For this reason, Baptist believers have historically been very proactive in U.S. government, lobbying for godly, moral causes, running for office, serving in law enforcement and the military, etc. so that we may promote the continuation of religious freedom, free speech, etc. For this reason, many other denominations and even non-Christian faiths and religions enjoy religious freedom in the U.S. because of the early influence of Baptist teaching.

With this background in mind, today we pause to thank God for those people in our church and community who have devoted themselves to public service. We recognize that properly understood, the public service of government officials such as police officers and military personnel protect and provide us with ongoing freedom and liberty to live out our faith in Christ freely and publicly as God Word teaches us to do.

As followers of Christ, how should we respond to our government officials? Paul provides helpful instruction in Rom 13:1-6 which answers this question. Let’s take a look!

We should submit ourselves to governing authorities.
To be subject means “to submit” or “to place yourself under the authority of another.” This means that we should willingly choose to follow the laws and ordinances which our government enacts.

This truth applies to everyone within a jurisdiction (“every soul”), not just to those who like the laws or the officials in place.

This truth also applies to officials (“authorities”) at every level of government, whether federal, state, and local as well as elected or appointed.

Notice the distinction between “the authorities that exist” and those which “are appointed.” With these words, Paul acknowledges governing authorities who receive their positions by various means – whether through military conquest, election, a royal birth, or otherwise. So, while various authorities come to be through various means, whatever that means may be they are “appointed by God.”

Recall, for instance, how Assyrian and Babylonian governments ruled over Israel for periods of time. As uncomfortable as that was, those foreign, occupying governments were appointed by God for that period of time for a divine purpose. Appointed also expresses the idea of “determining or fixing limitations,” so God not only assigns government officials, but he determines when and how long they will govern. This same truth applies to our American government system. Though we elect various officials, their term limits and degree of influence are ultimately set by God.

We should not resist government officials and their laws.
At first, Paul sets out his instructions for a believer’s response to human government in a positive sense, from a positive angle (v.1). Then he follows this with a negative angle (v.2). Because we should obey government (+), therefore we should not disobey (-).

To resist means “to oppose,” “to be hostile towards.” This prohibition doesn’t prevent disagreeing with government officials and laws or from supporting alternative candidates and policies through proper channels and means, such as charitable communication, lobbying efforts, public messaging, running for office, or voting. These are opportunities and even responsibilities which our government and society provide and expects of us.

This instruction does, however, prohibit forceful opposition and violent protests in instances where we disagree. As followers of Christ, we should be committed to peaceful resistance, when necessary, not violent protest. If we resist wrongly, we are – in fact – resisting God and should not be surprised when government officials levy judgment and punishment upon us.

Paul further clarifies that even if you find a way to resist government that will avoid being detected or punished, you should still comply “for conscience’ sake,” meaning that you should endeavor to please God even if government may not be able to trace your noncompliance or rebellion. After all, the government in place was appointed by God for a divine purpose.

Paul’s reference to “not bearing the sword in vain” refers to a range of government practices, such as capital punishment, military arms, and necessary force employed by police to prevent crime and dangerous threats to public freedom and safety.  We should not expect an unarmed government for an unarmed government is a helpless government and will be unable to provide the freedom and safety that we need.

Even the most inconvenient laws require our compliance.
Our final two observations today will help us understand the scope of our compliance. So far, we have acknowledged our obligation to obey every government official who has jurisdiction over us. But is this truly an open-ended command? Are there any exceptions which we may properly and peacefully resist?

First, let us acknowledge what sort of laws we should not disobey. While we all gladly acknowledge (I hope!) that we should certainly obey those laws which we agree to be noble and proper, there remains two sorts of laws which we must still know how to respond to: (1) those which are inconvenient and frustrating and (2) those which disobey God.

To (1) – those laws which are inconvenient and frustrating – let me emphasize that we should obey such laws, no matter how inconvenient and frustrating they may be. The example Paul gives here remains painfully relevant for us today – paying taxes.

“Render therefore to all” teaches us to pay taxes to all jurisdictions and officials, then Paul describes multiple kinds of taxes – taxes, customs, etc. For us today, this means we should pay income taxes, sales taxes, even tolls and more. This is our responsibility whether we like paying taxes or not and whether we view our tax payments as exorbitant or fair.

By mentioning “fear” and “honor,” Paul adds to this that we should treat with respect all government officials whether we like them or not and whether they like us or not. We should speak respectfully of our government officials, we should address officers as “sir” and “ma’am” and “officer,” and so on. We should instill these principles in our children just as we teach them to respect their parents.

We should only disobey when a law disagrees with God.
Having said these things, we must make one more clarification. While we must obey government officials and their laws, even when some laws are frustrating and some officials are disappointing, we must not obey government officials and laws when said officials or laws disobey God. It is this truth which underlies the “separation of church and state” principle and we can see it reflected in Paul’s passage here, albeit discreetly.

  • Paul says that government officials and their laws are to be a terror “to evil” works not good ones (v.3).
  • He says they are to be “God’s minister to you for good” (v.4).
  • He says they are to “avenge wrath on him who does evil” (v.4).

So, this means that Paul is clarifying something. He is expecting government to uphold what is good and godly, from a moral, universal standpoint – from God’s point of view. So, whether a government is upholding clear moral values (like the lives of the unborn, parental jurisdiction over their children, etc.) or is enforcing inconvenient but more neutral type behavior (such as taxation, traffic laws, zoning laws, etc.), we should comply.

But when a government actually enforces evil or requires evil behavior which violates God’s moral expectations, then in such instances, we should politely disobey. To clarify, this does not mean that if a government, government official, or law manifests any immoral quality or insists upon any ungodly behavior that we should disobey and resist them out of hand. It means, instead, that if any government official or law requires an ungodly action or behavior, then we should disobey and resist in that specific instance and on that specific point.

Case in point – when Paul wrote this letter to the Romans, he wrote not as an American citizen today living within the freedom which our U.S. Constitution affords, but as a citizen of Rome. The Roman Empire was an entirely secular state which celebrated the Roman pantheon of mythological gods, and which venerated Caesar, its highest governing figure, as a god himself. Some of these emperors behaved and governed so badly that they not only resented Christians but sentenced some of them to imprisonment, torture, and even execution – in some cases, execution to the gladiatorial sports in the Coliseum or other more local arenas.

Paul did not call believers to resist such a government. He called them to obey such a government, such governing officials and their laws, even paying their taxes knowing that such taxes would inadvertently or directly support ungodly causes and initiatives.

Yet, when any Roman official – or even Jewish government official for that matter – requires us to do something or say something that clearly violates the teaching of God’s Word, we must graciously, peacefully, and politely – but courageously – disobey.

A good example of this very situation is recorded for us very early in church history (Acts 5:29):
Peter and the other apostles answered and said: “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
In this instance, Jewish government authorities (also representing the state religion of Judaism in Israel) commanded the apostles to cease teaching about Christ – his deity and salvation. The apostles did not argue with them, and they did not fight back with any violent protests or force. Instead, they simply, politely, yet courageously affirmed that they would not obey because the truth of God’s Word required otherwise.

These same men paid their taxes, obeyed other laws, and treated such officials with respect. But in this case, they refused to obey. As a result, the government officials ordered them to be beaten and then released. The apostles accepted this punishment but did not allow it to change their course of action. After being punished and released, they continued to spread the message of Christ.

So, today, let me encourage us to thank God for the freedom which the United States of America provides us, and let us thank God for the men and women who have devoted their lives to making this freedom possible. Let us thank God for the men and women who serve in the armed forces. Let us thank God for the men and women who serve in our local police forces. And let us thank God for men, like the Baptists leaders in American history, such as Roger Williams and Obadiah Holmes, who have been voices of influence for the cause of religious freedom.

And more than being thankful for all these, let us go one step further. Let us both obey and respect our government in every way possible and let us learn, also, how to politely disobey when our government infringes upon the proper expression of our faith both in private and public. Let us be faithful to spread the news about Christ to the community around us. Let us also be faithful to influence our government officials and laws by promoting, representing, speaking up for, and voting for the causes, people, and policies which encourage a more free, godly, and moral society.

While we must not place our hope in our government, military, or politics or involve ourselves to such an extent that we undermine our mission as the church, we should do what we can to encourage a free and peaceful society within which we may live out our faith in Christ and spread the message of Christ’s salvation as freely as possible.

Obadiah Holmes was born in northern England at about 1607, believing on Christ at an early, childhood age. He eventually became a glassmaker and weaver but struggled in his faith for a period of about five years, finding renewal after his mother’s death. “It struck me that my disobedient acts caused her death, which forced me to confess the same to her – my evil ways.”

He married a woman named Catherine, and together they migrated to New England, settled in Salem, Massachusetts, and joined a Congregational church, with Congregationalism being the established state religion of MA. Not long after, they moved 40 mi. south of Boston to join another Congregational church, but after continued study of God’s Word, he became convinced of some doctrinal discrepancies within the Congregational Church and formed a Baptist church with eight others, he himself declaring his faith publicly through believer’s baptism (he had formerly only been baptized as a child before believing on Christ.

On Oct 2, 1650, he was formally charged by local officials for holding unapproved, unsanctioned church meetings on Sunday contrary to court order, the court being affiliated with the state-sanctioned Congregational Church. As a result of this persecution, Holmes decided to leave MA for good, moving with other believers to Newport, Rhode Island.

On July 16, 1651, Holmes, along with John Clarke and John Crandall traveled back into MA to visit an aging, blind friend. While there, they preached, baptized, and observed the Lord’s Table in their friend’s home. When local officials found out, they arrested all three men, sent them to Boston for trial, and placed them in jail. The charges against them included conducting a private worship service during the town’s sanctioned public worship, disturbing the public worship service, and drawing others into “their erroneous judgment and practices.”

The trial proceeded rapidly, the men were denied any personal defense, and they were quickly declared guilty. During the trial, Holmes was beaten and cursed by Rev. John Wilson, a supposed man of God. The penalty was banishment, which had been inflicted upon many other Baptists MA, as well. Since none of them lived in MA, they were fined excessively. If the fines were not paid in full, the men would be whipped severely, instead.

Remaining in jail until their fines were paid, Crandall and Clarke were eventually released as friends raised funds to pay their fines, their fines being less excessive than Holmes. Since Holmes’ fines were more excessive, he received a beating instead. In Sept 1651, he was stripped bare to the waist and tied to a post. He tried to speak to the onlookers but was refused. He received thirty strokes with a three-corded whip at full force.

At the end, Holmes said, “You have struck me as with roses,” having endured his beating courageously and peacefully. He was unable to sleep for many nights later, however, except for on his hands and knees. Two sympathetic onlookers, John Hazel and John Spur, shook hands with him after the beating, and for this gesture they were sentenced to pay forty shillings or be whipped.

Holmes returned to Newport, RI and became the pastor of the Baptist Church there until his death in 1682, more than 30 yrs. later.

Do you have the confidence in Christ to practice your religious freedom before God with such humility and courage?

No Comments





Abraham Ambition Anxiety Baptist History Bible Study Bibliology Bitterness Blameshifting Canonicity Charity Christian Growth Christian Living Chronicles Church Comfort Complaining Contentment Courage Covenant Creation Cross Crucifixion David Death Deuteronomy Devotion Discipleship Disciples Easter Ecclesiastes Egypt Elders Elijah Elisha Emotions Empathy Encouragement Endurance Esther Evangelism Excuses Exodus Ezekiel Ezra Faithfulness Faith Family Fear Fellowship Forgiveness Freedom Friendship Generations Generosity Genesis Gideon Glorification Good News Gospel of John Gospel Government Grace Gratitude History Holiness Holy Spirit Hope Humility Idolatry Ignorance Inspiration Isaac Israel Job Joshua Joy Judges July 4th Justice Justification Kindgom of God King David Kings Law Leadership Legalism Leviticus Love Loyalty Marriage Mary Mentorship Messiah Ministry Miracles Morality Moses Mothers Motives Nehemiah New Testament Nicodemus Numbers Obedience Offerings Old Testament Omniscience Outreach Pain Passion Week Passover Pastoral Care Pastors Peace Pentateuch Perseverance Philippians Politics Pontius Pilate Power Prayer Preservation Pride Priests Promises Prophecy Proverbs Providence Psalms Redemption Relationship Remembering Responsibility Restoration Resurrection Righteousness Romance Ruth Sacrifice Salvation Samson Samuel Sanctification Satan Saul Scripture Service Sinai Solomon Song of Solomon Sorrow Sovereignty Spiritual Gifts Stewardship Submission Suffering Teamwork Temple Temptation Thankfulness The Joyful Life Toledoth Trials Unity Vanity Victory Wealth Wisdom Women Worship