Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Our Duty toward Civil Government

"It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honor their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience' sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrates' just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to them: from which ecclesiastical persons are not exempted…" 
(Westminster Confession of Faith 23.4)

Earlier, we had looked at the duty of civil government (here). Now I want to consider the duty of the people toward civil government, as defined in God's word.

The authority of civil government to execute God’s judgement upon the unjust was instituted by God in Genesis 9:4-6. The form of government is not fixed in that passage. Principles like wisdom and justice must guide each nation to construct the best form for their situation.

By God’s common grace, this institution can be found in virtually all societies, much like marriage. Even in Israel, where God’s written law was supreme, the written law did not replace human authority, but rather defined and established it. Subjection to human rulers was a duty in Israel, for example, in word, obedience, and attitude.
"You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people." (Exodus 22:28) 
"You shall not turn aside from the verdict that they declare to you, either to the right hand or to the left." (Deuteronomy 17:11) 
"My son, fear the LORD and the king, and do not join with those who do otherwise, for disaster will arise suddenly from them, and who knows the ruin that will come from them both?" (Proverbs 24:21–22)
And so it is no surprise that the apostle Paul did not approach submission to civil government as a pragmatic compromise with a pagan power merely to avoid punishment. Rather, in Romans 13:1-7, he teaches that it is the institution of God and that our duties toward it are done for the sake of conscience.

We find in that passage that we ought to be subject to the various civil authorities and to not resist them, for God has appointed them (13:1-2). In the original Greek, the words “be subject,” “instituted,” “resist,” and “appointed” are all variations on the word τάσσω, "to set." The idea is to set yourself under authority, because God has set the authority there, so do not set yourself against what God has thoroughly set in place. Know your place and place yourself under the governing authorities in word and deed.

We are told to do good and to not fear punishment; in other words, to govern ourselves so that the civil authority does not need to intervene (v. 3). We are told to be in subjection to the magistrate, both to avoid God’s wrath at his hands and for conscience's sake (v. 5). We are told it is our duty to pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers (v. 6). Give taxes, revenue, honor, and respect to whom they are due (v. 7). This honor and respect includes your attitude, your words, and even visible signs of respect. In 1 Timothy 2:2, Paul adds that we should pray for them as well (1 Tim. 2:2). For more on praying for civil authorities, see this post.

In our current political culture, it is common for people of all political persuasions to disrespect those who serve in civil government. It is a temptation we all face. Your faithfulness to these commands from God's word are especially tested when the official in question is someone you strongly disagree with. In a day when insults, ridicule, exaggeration, falsehoods, and reviling is common, be firm in your convictions but respectful to all, especially to those with authority, remembering the apostle's words to Titus, "Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people" (Titus 3:1–2).

But what about when civil government is unjust and tyrannical? Is there anything else we can do? While being respectful and subject to authority, what can we do to oppose injustice and tyranny? I will follow up on this question in another post.

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