These thoughts follow on from Jonny’s sermon on the authority figures at the death of Jesus, coming soon on the Churchcentral Audio page.
In Luke 23, the political powers of 1st century Jerusalem are not presented in the most favourable light. Let’s face it, the Sanhedrin (circa 33AD), Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate are not exactly the best advert for authority, leadership or government.
Our leaders often get it wrong and they often get it wrong very badly. However, we’ve got to recognise that the Bible presents to us hundreds of examples of deeply flawed leaders, yet at the same time it consistently makes clear that our response to these people is not to be hatred, mockery or derision.
I think that this strand of biblical teaching is especially important in the light of the fact that now even our methods of communication encourage us to rail against our leaders. Social media encourages us to publicise our sudden, unthought through emotions and the more extreme our responses the more public favour we are likely to receive. Therefore, as Christians, we must learn how to think rightly about our leaders and also to communicate those feelings in a godly way.
The most striking passage on this topic is found in Romans 13, where Paul writes:
‘Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God…This is why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him- if you owe taxes, pay taxes, if revenue, then revenue, if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.’ (Romans 13:1, 6-7)
This passage has been hugely abused in history, often by wicked rulers seeking to ensure compliance to their evil schemes and it is certainly one that poses many questions. However its main point is clear- we owe the people who govern us honour and respect.
Now the minute you read this you may want to make some exceptions. Maybe there are individual politicians who you think should be exempt from this generosity of spirit. After all, you may argue, the writers of the New Testament didn’t have to put up with the likes of Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Teresa May, Osborne, Cameron, etc.
This of course is correct, but it is interesting to note who Paul was talking about when he wrote Romans 13. Who was the face behind these instructions to the Roman church that Paul wanted them to honour and respect? It was Emperor Nero. If you know your ancient history, I probably need say no more. If you don’t, this guy killed Christians for fun, probably burnt down his own city and is generally acknowledged to have been as mad as the genetically spliced offspring of the hatter, a box of frogs and the march hare!
If Paul could encourage the Roman Christians under Nero to respond to him in this way, how much more so the government that rules over us in 21st century Britain, however much we may disagree with their policies or the way they carry themselves?
Just to be clear: this does not mean that we can never protest against decisions that our leaders make that we feel to be unjust. It also does not mean that because ‘the authorities are God’s servants’ that He is somehow complicit in any wickedness that they commit. I think that what Paul means is that government specifically (and authority structures in general) are a gift to us.
Government brings order rather than chaos and if any of us has experienced life in a state where the rule of law has completely broken down, we will know that anarchy does not encourage human flourishing and freedom of expression, but misery and fear. Government is a good thing and as such its agents are given to us as a gracious divine gift.
The general thought seems to be that even though an individual leader may not live out this calling very well (eg Nero), they are still to be respected as those who stop us descending in against a state of lawless anarchy, which would be far worse. And, let’s be clear, if they choose to use their God given authority sinfully, they will have a far higher power to answer to than me or you!
It is worth noting that this picture is painted even in Luke 23. While Herod and Pilate may not be model examples of government, consider their role in this chapter. If they’d not been there, Jesus would have been savagely murdered on the spot. Pilate and Herod, corrupt as they were, actually act as a buffer against the evil desires of the people and, humanly speaking, come quite close to saving Jesus from the hatred of the crowd and Sanhedrin.
So, God wants us to respect and honour those in government over us, but how do we do that in the age of Facebook and Twitter. Here are a few tips that I have found helpful:
1. Never post anything on social media on the spur of the moment.
One of the main dangers of these platforms is that they encourage us to share our thoughts with the world before we’ve had time to think them through. When something happens in the news, everyone instantly makes their feelings known. After all, if you wait, everyone will be talking about something else. However, I’d encourage you to fight this temptation. Our instant responses are likely to be fair reflections of how we felt at that moment but less likely to have taken in all of the facts. Thousands of years before little Mark was even a twinkle in Mr Zuckerberg’s eye, a very wise person wrote something that we would do well to take into account in our day and age:
Do you see someone who speaks in haste?
There is more hope for a fool than for them. (Proverbs 29:20)
2. Thank God for your leaders before you post
Every time you go to post about one of your political leaders (or like or comment or whatever) remember Paul’s words in Romans 13:4 that they are ‘God’s servant to do you good’. Reflect on this and thank God for them. Then post.
You may still write with a degree or criticism or protest, but this will certainly help you to be more righteous in your tone!
3. Pray for your leaders
Paul didn’t just reserve this sort of teaching for the Roman church. He wrote the following to his protege, Timothy:
‘I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people- for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.’ (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
If we are regularly praying for God’s blessing on our leaders, it will nurture a spirit of grace towards them and help us to respond righteously when we come to open our mouths or start tapping keys on our laptops.
Other recommended resources:
- 1 Peter 2:13-17 (it’s not just Paul who says this sort of stuff!)
- I found John Piper’s 4 part series on Romans 13 exceptionally helpful on this topic. On the DesiringGod website, they provide the transcripts, the audio and even the video of these four very helpful messages.