Can you lead if you haven't learned to follow?

If you ever want to ask a "risky" question to someone, ask them to share their opinion of the government. To be honest, that's usually a question I try not to ask. Few things are debated in a more heated way that the subject of politics and government.

But at the same time, the government we live under certainly has a profound impact on the nature and quality of our daily life. When we look through the annals of history, and when we read modern-day news, we can find multiple examples of healthy and unhealthy governments. We see several examples in the pages of Scripture as well.

In life, I think many of us like to "call the shots." Many of us like to be the one making the decisions, and that preference shows up at a very early age. I'll never forget a debate I had some time ago with one of my teenage children who was bristling against a decision I made. My response was, "When the day comes and you're a middle-aged adult, I'll feel really bad for you if you let a 15-year-old run your house." I also said, "I realize you'd like to be the one calling the shots, but before that day comes, you need to learn an important lesson. You can't be an effective leader until you've first learned to follow."

I believe that's a concept Paul is trying to communicate in Romans 13:1-7. Christians can have a powerful influence in their culture. That influence can likewise have a major impact on society if believers learn to submit themselves to the Lord while also showing respect and honor to the authorities He has instituted to govern over them. Take a look with me at how we are being taught to respond to those who govern and lead us...

I. Don't resist what God has put in place

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 
— Romans 13:1-2, ESV

Earlier this week, my son and I were up later than the rest of the house, so we started searching for a particular news-related video that we had seen a while back. In the midst of searching for it, we came across some additional videos and several of them included stories of people that had conflict with the police that they exacerbated by resisting arrest. It didn't end very well for them.

Imagine living at the time Paul was writing this letter to the church at Rome. Do you suppose you might want to cooperate with the governmental authorities there or do you think you'd be tempted to resist them? The city of Rome where these believers were gathered was the capital of the Roman Empire, the same government that was complicit in crucifying Jesus Christ. It wouldn't have surprised me to learn that hard feelings persisted about that among many believers. And in addition to that, Christians were experiencing forms of persecution throughout the Roman Empire that the government didn't seem troubled by.

But Paul knew that the Lord wanted believers to have the opportunity to impact their culture, and testify to the gospel of Jesus Christ. If they needlessly resisted their government, they would have little opportunity to do that. And Paul was careful to remind the church that it was God Himself who instituted and appointed human government. He did so as a means to protect us, organize us, and restrain the chaos that would result if our sinfulness wasn't kept in check.

“The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.”
— Proverbs 21:1, ESV
“I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them.  Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity.”
— 1 Timothy 2:1-2, NLT

Our challenge from the Lord is to pray for our leaders, instead of resisting them. We're also told that we can expect judgment or governmental punishment if we choose to resist them since these are authorities that serve as an extension of God's authority until the time of Christ's return to this earth to reign.

II. You have nothing to fear if your conscience is clear

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.  Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 
— Romans 13:3-5, ESV

When I was growing up, I enjoyed causing mischief, and I would often do it just to entertain myself. I also remember enjoying the attention I received from my friends when I would cross a line that would get their attention.

I still remember a time when I was a college freshman and I was hanging out with some friends near the train tracks that ran near our campus. On the other side of those tracks was a bar where a decent sized group of inebriated men were standing. Foolishly, I took a rock and threw it across the tracks toward that group. I wasn't trying to hit them, I just wanted them to chase us. They did. In fact, they loaded up a truck and came flying onto campus with bats and other implements. Campus security stopped them from carrying out their plan, and then questioned me about the incident. I lied to them about what happened, but for some time I was quite worried about the repercussions if I got questioned further and was reprimanded.

When you look at Paul's teaching in this passage, he points out to us that when it comes to authority, we have nothing to fear if our conscience is clear. If our conduct is good, we don't need to worry about punishment. But if our conduct is immoral or unlawful, we have great reason to be afraid because the authorities who govern us have been given great and broad authority by God to address sin in decisive ways.

We're even told here that the government "does not bear the sword in vain." What does that mean? It literally means they have been authorized by God to execute citizens in response to certain crimes. I just saw in the news this week that our State Supreme Court has upheld a death sentence that was decreed against a man who killed a police officer several years ago. At some point in the future, that man will be executed, and according to this passage, the government has been authorized by God to carry out that sentence.

But instead of worrying about executions or not getting caught if we do something unlawful, followers of Christ are called to live with a clear conscience in this world. Christ has cleansed us of sin, and His calling on our lives is that we not return to the shackles of sin He's already freed us from. In addition to the spiritual blessings of living with a clear conscience, I'm convinced that a clear conscience is also good for our emotional health. In my years of offering pastoral counsel, and in my times of self-reflection, I have come to realize that some people who are struggling with anxiety and depression can trace that struggle back to a time when they violated their conscience, and ignored the voice of God.

III. Don't rob those who are called to serve you

For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.  Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
— Romans 13:6-7, ESV

Several weeks ago, I filed with annual tax return with the federal and state government. Admittedly, that's not my favorite task. It's also extra "fun" now that my teenage children are employed. That means after I finish working on my taxes, I also have the privilege of working on their tax returns. Maybe I should encourage them to be bums and quit working so I won't have to do so much paperwork at the end of the year.

All kidding aside, Paul also makes a point to stress that part of being good citizens involves paying taxes. Our taxes fund our government, and pay the wages of those who dedicate their time to serve us as ministers of God. Isn't it interesting to consider that those who work in governmental offices are referred to this way in Scripture? I wonder how many of them consider themselves God's ministers or even realize that Scripture refers to them in this way.

I don't imagine this was easy teaching for the church at Rome to receive. Many were uncomfortable with the ways the Roman government used their tax revenue, and high rates they were charging. Does this sound familiar to you? But consider the counsel Jesus gave us in Matthew 22...

Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”  But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?  Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”  They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.
— Matthew 22:17-22, ESV

IV. What if an authority asks me to disobey God?

But what if your government asks you to do something that is completely out of line with the will of God and the clear teaching of His word? Are we will called to be obedient in a context like that?

God's word gives us multiple examples of that very dilemma playing out. One of the most notable is found in Daniel 3 where King Nebuchadnezzar built a golden statue that was 90 feet tall, and every official in his government was ordered to bow down and worship it. But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, refused to do so and they suffered the penalty for their civil disobedience. They were bound with ropes and thrown into a furnace. Yet, by the grace of God, they were protected from death, and Jesus Himself even showed up to fellowship with them in the flames.

“Look!” Nebuchadnezzar shouted. “I see four men, unbound, walking around in the fire unharmed! And the fourth looks like a god!”
— Daniel 3:25, NLT

So if the day comes and you're ever pressured to disobey God in order to comply with the whims of men, I'd encourage you to listen to the Lord, follow the counsel of His word, and accept the civil consequences, whatever those consequences might be. Maybe you'll live. Maybe you won't. But there isn't anything in this world that can be taken from you that you weren't going to have to give up someday anyway.

Still, as far as it depends on you, seek to live at peace with the government the Lord has allowed you to live under. Don't needlessly resist them. Function before them and before the Lord with a clear conscience. Fund their ability to serve you through your taxes. But never disobey the counsel of God that He's revealed in His word, even if it costs you every earthly thing you have.

© John Stange, 2019