by Rev. William M. Cwirla
Civil society is ordered. Order is what makes civilization civil. The opposite is anarchy. Without government and the “sword,” there would be lawlessness, chaos, and anarchy. Imagine what it would be like if all the police officers in a city were to announce on Sunday evening that they were not coming to work on Monday morning. Or, simply notice what happens when the traffic lights fail at an intersection. Chaos ensues.
Order is God’s gift and blessing. The Word is a creatively ordering Word that sets things in place, including our civil life together. Civil life begins with our parents, who are also our first rulers, but it doesn’t end there. When we step out of our homes onto the streets of our communities, there are still rulers over us and rules to curb us and keep us in line. God knows we are sinners even as Christians and, left to our own devices, we would destroy ourselves and each other. So God places us into a civil order.
Scripture calls the governing authority “God’s minister” or “servant” (Romans 13:1-4). All governing authority is God’s authority, regardless of the form that government takes. It matters not whether the governing authority is a king or an elected president. Jesus reminded the Roman governor Pontius Pilate that he would have no authority had it not been given him from above (John 19:11). Pilate’s authority to sentence Jesus to death was an authority that came from God!
Civil authority is the authority of the “sword” to use the rule of law to reward the good and punish the wicked. This, of course, presumes that those who govern know the difference between goodness and wickedness, right and wrong. That’s why Luther says that those who know the Ten Commandments well are in a good position to govern. If you’re going to wield a sword, you need to know how to swing it accurately and correctly.
Does this mean that the ruler should be a Christian? Not necessarily. The gift of civil authority belongs to God’s gifts of creation and applies to everyone in the same way. The laws of society are not based on the Bible but on work of the law hardwired into our hearts and the conscience that monitors our thoughts, words, and actions (Romans 2:13-14). Our civil laws are based on reason, conscience, and our innate sense of what is right and wrong. We don’t need the Bible to tell us to stop at a red light and to drive in the correct lane. Common sense alone will tell us that.
What do rulers owe their people? Temporal justice. Punish those who do wrong; reward those who do good. Maintain temporal peace and order. Defend life, liberty, and property. Protect those who are defenseless and most vulnerable, including the poor, the frail, children, and the unborn. Keep us from infringing on one another’s liberties and from hurting each other, much like a referee in a football or basketball game. The old Adam, our sinful nature, is a natural-born anarchist who wants his own way at the expense of others. God’s gift of government is to curb and leash him so he doesn’t get out of control.
And what do we owe our rulers? Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21). The apostle Paul listed taxes, revenue, respect, and honor. These are the things that are due “Caesar.” While we may not think of taxes and revenue as “holy work,” governing costs money and those who govern deserve to be paid for their labors in the same way as pastors earn their living from the Gospel. Even Jesus paid the temple tax with a coin taken from a fish’s mouth. But the kingdom of heaven belongs to Christ who seeks faith and not coins.
We owe our rulers respect and honor. They are “God’s ministers.” To dishonor the ruler is to dishonor God Himself. “Respect is earned,” some say, but that’s not correct. We owe respect and honor to our rulers, not because they’ve earned it but because of their office. Even if they act disreputably or we don’t like them or didn’t vote for them, that doesn’t mean we are free to dishonor or disrespect them. They are still “God’s ministers.”
We owe the government our obedience. “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13-14). Does this mean we blindly obey the government? No! When the government tells us to do something that is clearly against God’s Word or our conscience, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). When we disobey the governing authority, we must also be prepared to accept the temporal consequences for our disobedience. The apostles were beaten and jailed because they disobeyed orders not to preach the name of Jesus.
Just be sure it’s God you are obeying, rather than man and not your sinful old Adam, if you choose to disobey the government. And since nothing we do is ever without sin, even our conscientious objections are always made with repentance.
Finally, we owe our rulers and leaders our prayers. “I exhort, therefore, that, first of all supplications, prayers, intercession, and thanksgivings be made for all men; for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
When I served on jury duty, the judge asked me if I, as a Christian minister, could serve in good conscience on a jury. I told him that we considered the court system of our country a gift and instrument of God, and that our congregation prayed weekly for judges and other officials. He replied, “Thank you. We need it.” And they do need our prayers, much more than they need our snarkiness and criticism. It’s our priestly duty and privilege to pray for all in authority. If we don’t pray for our leaders, who will?
Gracious Father in heaven, we thank you for the gift of civil order. Bless all who make, administer, enforce, and judge our laws that we may lead quiet and peaceful lives in all godliness until we rise to attain our citizenship in your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Rev. William M. Cwirla is the pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hacienda Heights, California, and serves as on the board of directors for Higher Things. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.