Saturday, November 5, 2016

On Authority -- What the Bible Says

I am one person.

I cannot eradicate poverty, war, family disintegration, cancer, unemployment, homelessness, sex trafficking, political unrest, agenda-ed news reporting, or cultural prejudice.

But I am one person ...

who lives in a family, within a community, within a city, within a state, within a country, within the world. And there are two things I can do: pray for the good of others and share truth from Someone whose words outrank mine. The following is my attempt to do the latter in the hopes that some benefit may ripple outward. :)

Authority, whether relating to law enforcement, government leadership, or family dynamics, has been called into question a lot lately. And since we are just around the corner from electing a new government executive, I thought reexamining the topic of authority in general could be helpful.
Today I want to focus on what the Bible says about authority as it pertains to the government.

So, here goes.

God established governing authorities to be a terror to evil and a praise to good. 

Many people view government authority as restrictive, incompetent, and/or oppressive. If authority is bad, the logical conclusion is to think that freedom is the absence of authority, and individualism the highest virtue"As long as no one else gets hurt (whatever that means), people should be able to do what they want."

If people always made good decisions, we'd have no need for law courts or prisons. However, I think James Madison expressed a more realistic understanding of human nature when he wrote:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself. ~ 1788 Federalist No. 51

Men are not angels, and neither are women. Yet even in its tainted state, government authority is a safeguard against unrestrained evil, making society possible. When there is a lack of authority, there is instability. Despite the idea that humans are "essentially good at heart," history proves that people tend to break things and hurt each other when there is no enforcement of law.

Eradicating government authority figures altogether does not increase societal well being -- it increases chaos. Consider recent history.  According to Scott Malone of the Huffington Post, following the Freddie Gray incident, the number of Baltimore police decreased by nearly 7% while the murder rate rose 63% in 2015. Sixty-three percent!

Conversely, when people follow the law, there's no need for harsh enforcement of it. Ironically, rebelling against authority requires more heavy-handed responses from the authority. And when there's a multitude of authorities, the likelihood for abuse increases and the people can suffer.  The Bible says that:

By the transgression of a land many are its princes, but by a man of understanding and knowledge, so it endures. ~ Proverbs 28.

God doesn't want people running around stealing and killing each other without any check. His design for law and order in government is ultimately for our good, and that's why He instructs His people to honor earthly authorities -- whether we voted for them or not.

Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right ... Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king. ~ 1 Peter 2

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. 

For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. 

Therefore, it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience' sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. ~ Romans 13

Whew! That's a lot. And to be completely honest, I haven't exhaustively researched all the implications of how to determine who has authority in transitional times between kingdoms or government structures. That will have to be another discussion for another day. But I do know that Nero ruled the Roman Empire when the Apostles penned these passages, and he was not a model ruler ...

But as for me in my context, it's pretty clear I need to still pay my taxes and follow the law regardless of whom gets elected -- unless the law specifically orders me to do something that would undermine God's authority (in which case, I follow what God says and calmly take whatever punishment dealt me).

When they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. The high priest questioned them, saying, "We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man's blood upon us." But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than men." 

... and after calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and then released them. So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. ~ Acts 5 

So far, I still have the right in this country to worship freely and share my opinions without the fear of death or imprisonment. I'm thankful to live in this country, and I think the original founders had some solid principles to guide the shape and mode of U.S. government.

For example, James Madison proposed a government system with three branches (Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary) based on this Old Testament verse:

For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; He will save us ~ Isaiah 33:22

In the original design, no one branch of government was supposed to supersede the other branches. They all submitted to each other in a system of checks and balances and were ultimately under the authority of the people. Earlier in the Romans passage, Paul wrote that rulers were servants not only of the people, but also of God. The best government leaders have always served those under their headship, hence the name, "civil servants." Jesus expressed this idea of servant-leadership well in Luke 22:

And [Jesus] said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called 'Benefactors.' But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. ~ Luke 22

So what happens when the leaders don't serve their people well or it looks like the very governments designed to check evil start committing it against their own people?

When it comes to all the logistics, I'd probably have to study some more and talk to God before moving to a different country. But there are two things that help calm my heart even if my mind can't fully grasp the inter-workings of how God's perfect sovereignty interfaces with bad human decisions.

1) Jesus honored the governing authorities even though they sentenced him to death in a criminal miscarriage of justice. Pilate, the Roman official in charge at the time, repeatedly admitted that Jesus was innocent of a crime and did not deserve the death penalty. But fear of the mob outweighed Pilate's sense of justice.

In this conversation between Jesus and Pilate, Jesus acknowledges God's supremacy over all earthly authority:

So Pilate said to Him, "You do not speak to me? Do you know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?" Jesus answered, "You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above ..."

Although Jesus could have snapped his fingers and had the solar system annihilated, the Bible says he entrusted Himself to God's judgment and willingly endured beatings, scourging, and crucifixion for crimes he never committed. (My crimes.)

For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. 

For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, WHO COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS ANY DECEIT FOUND IN HIS MOUTH; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. 1 Peter 2

Well. That puts things into perspective.

But does this mean that bad authorities can just do what they want without any consequences for their actions? That might makes right? That doesn't sound so great.

This leads to the second point that helps bind my soul when the world feels too broken.

2) Earthly authorities are ultimately accountable to God's judgment.

It doesn't matter who's in power -- God is more than capable of ending one ruler's reign in favor of another's (see the story of Saul and David in 1st & 2nd Samuel and of Herod in Acts 12 for examples). Ultimately, earthly authorities will have to give an account of how they used (or abused) the power God gave them.

"Oh, good. Don't want bad people getting away with stuff."

Likewise, we non-authorities will also have to account for how we behaved under imperfect human leadership (as well as under God's perfect leadership).

"Wait. What? God's going to judge us? Isn't that kind of intolerant? I thought the Bible said God was love."

I know we like to think of God as a nice grandfather who loves everyone regardless of what they do. But this is not the God of the Bible. 

The God of the Bible is so much more valiant and self-sacrificing than the Santa Claus version often portrayed on greeting cards and Christmas specials. And the theme of God judging the wicked is echoed throughout Scripture, in both the old and new Testaments. God knows everything. He sees everything. And one day we will all have to answer for our actions. Here are a couple passages from the Psalms and Revelation that spell this out more clearly:

Do not fret because of evildoers, be not envious toward wrongdoers. For they will wither quickly like the grass and fade like the green herb ... for evildoers will be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD, they will inherit the land. Yet a little while  and the wicked man will be no more ... The Lord laughs at him for He sees his day is coming. 

The wicked have drawn the sword and bent their bow to cast down the afflicted and the needy, to slay those who are upright in conduct. Their sword will enter their own heart and their bows will be broken ... But transgressors will be altogether destroyed; the posterity of the wicked will be cut off. But the salvation of the righteous is from the LORD, He is their strength in time of trouble.  ~ Psalm 37

Then [after a whole lot of bad stuff has happened on earth], I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. 

And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. ~ Revelation 20

"Sheesh. How can loving God still send people into hell? This God sounds way too judgmental."

God is love, yes. AND God is holy and just and powerful and pure. If you try to dissect God and then remove all His offensive attributes, you're left with spiritual bits and pieces pasted together in whatever image you choose. (And who is really acting like God in that situation?)

You can't appreciate the depth of God's love until you appreciate the depth of His justice. And for that, we need the overarching Biblical story. Funnily enough, the story starts with a question of authority.

The Bible says in Genesis 3 that the first man and woman who walked the planet rebelled against God. God gave them a beautiful garden full of perfection, without any hint of brokenness. They had a perfect relationship with one another, with God Himself, and with their environment. There was no death, no disease, and no dysfunction.

God had given Adam and Eve everything, except the use of one fruit tree because He knew if they ate from it, they would bring death and destruction into the world. The rule was not an arbitrary "Because I said so," but rather a protective boundary for the good of mankind and the rest of creation.

But when the serpent deceived Eve and said one bite of forbidden fruit would make her and her husband like God, the mother and father of the human race traded paradise for a lie -- the lie that they could become their own gods, defining life as they saw fit and doing whatever they wanted to do without any sense of accountability.

Ironically, this independent act of "free will" led to the enslavement of the world to pain and suffering. You don't have to be a Christian to see that something is wrong with the universe. And though we are told death is a natural part of life, we still grieve when people die because it feels like something's been stolen from us. Deep down, we know it's wrong.

Unfortunately, we all inherit our first parents' legacy -- we exit the womb wanting to do what we want without submitting to anyone's authority. If you doubt this is the case, go babysit a two-year old for a week, then read the rest of this post. We, even as beautiful, beloved children, are still not angels.

In order to illustrate how our lives compare to God's perfect ways, God gave Moses the Law. Technically, He gave about 613 laws to the Jewish people, but most recognize the first ten. We call these the Ten Commandments. These are God's holy rules, and the Bible says that if you don't measure up 100% of the time in thought, word, and deed, then you are not good enough to go to heaven.

So how qualified are you? Curious?

Let's look at the list from Exodus 20 in reverse order to see how you measure up to God's standards:

10. Don't covet your neighbor's stuff. (This includes their home, relationships, business, car, etc. And yes, fighting over that toy in kindergarten disqualifies you from heaven.)

9. Don't lie about someone else. (Ever. White lies are still lies.)

8. Don't steal. (Doesn't matter if you took your sister's lolly pop or cheated on that test in high school. Any stealing EVER disqualifies you.)

7. Don't sleep with someone who isn't your wedded spouse. (Jesus also said that any man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. So looking at porn also disqualifies.)

6. Don't murder. ("Finally! One I've kept!" Except that Jesus said anyone who is angry with his brother is subject to judgment. How many times have you wanted to kill someone but just didn't do it for real?)

5. Honor your mom and dad. (No talking back. No berating. No complaining. EVER.)

4. Do all your work on six days, and set aside one for rest. (It doesn't matter if you are a workaholic American. We weren't designed to work perpetually. Ever miss a rest day? Disqualified.)

3. Never use God's name in a disrespectful way. (I'd rather not give examples here. You know what I mean.)

2. Don't make mini-gods to worship. This goes for anything God has made or given (fire, earth, wind, water, animals, personal gifts, talents, success, dreams, food, substances, alcohol, money, power, excellence, possessions, work, fame, technology, family, relationships, lifestyle choices, intelligence, health, or your own self.)

1. Only worship the one true living God and never put anything or anyone else before Him. (Again, 100% of the time in thought, word, and deed.)

So ... how did you do? I flunked at number 10. Possibly before.

The point is, NO ONE measures up to God's law. That's a problem. And it brings up a dilemma. If God is perfect, He cannot ignore evil or merely relabel it. Otherwise, He would not be just. An unjust God is not a perfect God. Nor a good one.

It's like if someone crashes into your car. You can't ignore it -- you need a way to get places. Saying stuff like, "Well, you didn't really mean it and you're having a bad day, so it's all good," won't cut it when you next need to use your vehicle. Someone has to pay for the damage. And it's either going to be the person who did the damage/their insurance company, or it's going to be you/your insurance company. Relabeling the situation does not solve the problem.

So, on one side of the morality chasm, we have all mankind woefully disqualified for heaven. We all deserve judgment. Some may disregard this uncomfortable reality in an effort to feel safe. A God who doesn't exist is much easier to ignore. Most cultures, however, come up with their own religious systems to feel qualified for whatever version of heaven they choose. The basic message is, "Work really hard to be really spiritual and you will be rewarded. Maybe."

Frankly, this heresy has even gotten into many "Christian" churches. Kids grow up thinking that if they can just try really hard to be good, read their Bibles, show up to church, and give to charities, God will appreciate their efforts and let them roll into heaven.

But this is not what the Bible teaches. Instead, it teaches that we all fall short of God's standards. None of us can pay the debt we owe. We are all spiritually and morally bankrupt, and we all deserve punishment. And God would be totally just to send each and every one of us to hell without a second thought.

But ...

... there was one way to solve this problem. One way where God could both save sinful men and women without compromising His perfectly just character. God made a plan, even before Eve bit the fruit. And this plan was to show His love to mankind. How? By dying in their place. By taking the check Himself, canceling the debt, and suffering all the pain and punishment we each deserve. He even hinted at this plan before Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, warning the snake that betrayed them, saying:

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel. ~ Genesis 3

In other words, Satan (yes, the Bible says he's real, too) would one day wound the Messiah, but the Messiah -- a physical descendant of Eve, would mortally wound Satan beyond recovery.

For the next few thousand years, God revealed more and more glimpses of who this Messiah would be. You'll probably hear songs this Christmas season about someone born in a little town of Bethlehem by round yon virgin. These songs reference Old Testament prophesies regarding the Messiah's birth. And there are also very specific prophesies regarding His death. Here is just one passage from the Old Testament book of Isaiah:

He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom  men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him and by His scourging we are healed. 

All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth ... By oppression and judgment He was taken away; and as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due? His grave was assigned with wicked men, Yet He was with a rich man in His death, because He had done no violence, nor was there any deceit found in his mouth. 

But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guild offering He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand. As a result of the anguish  of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities. Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great and He will divide the booty with the strong; Because He poured out Himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors. 

Jesus claimed to be the Son of (and thus, "equal to" in ancient thinking) God. He was almost stoned for saying this. He also said in John 14: 6:

I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.

You can do one of three things with this claim. This is not an original argument, but basically, you can conclude that Jesus was either :1) Lying, 2) Crazy, or 3) Telling the truth.

There's a whole host of Old Testament prophesies regarding the Holy One promised to take away the sin of the world. Jesus happens to fulfill these in his birth, life, death, and resurrection. There are also many books written on these subjects, and this blog post is already too long.

But I hope you can at least see from the Bible that God's love is directly tied to His justice as the greatest authority in existence. And His love is fierce.

For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. ~ Romans 5:7-9

So all this leaves us with one last question (well, at least one big one): how do we appropriate this love for ourselves? How does what Jesus did 2,000 years ago count for me? If I can't possibly meet God's standards, how do I get right with Him?

The answer is simple. Almost insultingly so. But the Bible says that we must believe what God said and depend on what He did for us rather than on our own efforts to do for ourselves. Romans puts it this way:

That if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, "Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed." ~ Romans 10

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ ~ Romans 5

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. ~ Romans 8

I once heard a story about a tight-rope walker who asked an audience if they believed he could cross a large waterfall pushing a wheelbarrow. The crowd cheered enthusiastically. Then the tight-rope walker asked, "So who wants to get inside the wheelbarrow?"

Faith in Jesus is not a mere cultural tradition or a spiritual app we add among thousands of other icons. It is personal. And the Bible says that we are not even able to muster this kind of faith up in our own strength. Any faith we have is a gift from God Himself, and if any of this at all rings true for you or even just stirs up interest -- this is also evidence of God's work in your life. And I would strongly recommend picking up a Bible (or you can visit for free) and reading the book of John and Romans to get a more in-depth look into questions regarding who Jesus is and what Christians ought to be doing.

Back to the reason I started writing this post.

Government authority is not an arbitrary social construct. It extends from the universal authority -- God Himself. Those who know God should not fear earthly authorities, but submit to them knowing that God is ultimately in control and will bring each and every government leader to book for his or her actions in light of God's perfect law.

But the Bible says that God will bring each of us to book for our own actions as well. (Gulp.) The fact is, none of us will ever perfectly keep God's law, which means we have a big problem. We cannot rescue ourselves. We need a Savior. But thankfully, the God of the Bible would rather die for His broken people to make them whole rather than send all of humankind to the hell we deserve. All we need do is get into the wheelbarrow, and believe that God has paid our debt.

 And to reiterate the hope in the passage that inspired the very form of government we in the U.S. live under, I'll write it again:

For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; He will save us ~ Isaiah 33:22

God, save us.

* Link to Huffington Post Article:

Scripture taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Emphasis added. 

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