Master or Servant?
Quick trivia question this morning for you: What conversation subject is guaranteed to turn a pleasant family barbecue into a rhetorical (hopefully only that) knockdown, drag-out, knuckle-baring, no-holds-barred battle royale? The answer: How the Republicans are working hard to turn this country into an intolerant, warmongering fascist state where only the 1% have any hope of success while the 99% are left to fend for themselves on the scraps that remain. Oh wait! I mean, how the godless liberals are going to wash the nation down the moral toilet, stifle our freedoms, and make sure that we are taxed to death so we can all live together in a socialist poorhouse paradise. Okay, I’m sorry, what I really mean is politics.
Why is that? Why is politics such a contentious subject? Why does it seem to get our blood boiling more than just about anything other than religion? Because when we’re talking about politics, most of us at least tacitly recognize that we are dealing with something that has a direct influence on the quality and direction of our lives. Good politics leads to good lives for citizens. Bad politics hurts everybody but a few. We tend to care about that kind of stuff. Additionally, politics is a function of worldview. It is the public expression of the things we hold most true about people, about God, about life. When the things people hold most true come into conflict those conflicts are not usually small. Also there’s this: there is a very great temptation to worship political leaders and we tend to be passionate about the things we worship.
Speaking of that, this morning we are in the third part of our series, The Four S’s of Idolatry. So far we have talked about the idols of self and of sex. About the idol of self we said that it lies at the heart of all idolatry. Worship of self was the particular line of attack the serpent used against Adam and Eve. But the problem with worship of self (you know, beyond the obvious) is that while we may start there, we rarely stay there for long. Not many folks are prideful enough to really believe they are the greatest thing since sliced bread and so after we’ve imagined ourselves plunking down on God’s perch we survey our illusory kingdoms, see a whole bunch of things that seem grander than we are, and then set about refashioning ourselves in their image. Once we do this we are worshiping whatever this other thing is. So now we are not only not worshiping ourselves any longer which is what we set out to do, but by refashioning ourselves after the image of this other thing and worshiping it, we are subjecting ourselves to something over which God created us to have dominion! In this way, worshiping ourselves makes us smaller.
From here, we shifted gears last week to talk about one of the first things we worship after ourselves: sex. Sex was created by God to be glorious and so it seems entirely natural through our sin-broken logic pathways to remake ourselves in its image. The consequences of misusing such a powerful gift from God, though, are significant and not in a good way. Worshiping sex causes a lot of trouble for folks who aren’t following Jesus, but it is particularly problematic for Christians because when we begin following Jesus we don’t belong to ourselves anymore. We belong to Him. Our bodies are not our own. Your body doesn’t belong to you, so whatever you want you just can’t do.
Now, in the course of our talking about some of the consequences of worshiping sex last week, there’s one set we skipped. Misusing sex breaks relationships. It breaks up relationships and hurts all the people involved in them. Absent the covenant of marriage a misuse of sex creates the pretense of permanence and stability and commitment in the hearts and minds of two people and then rips them out because most relationships like that don’t last. We weren’t made to endure that kind of trauma. And, since children are almost always a possibility when it comes to sex, such behavior increases the likelihood of children being born into a situation setup beforehand for them to fail. In the context of a marriage, things aren’t any better. A misuse of sex there takes an established covenant and does violent damage to it. This creates adults who are broken, but more than this, it often forces children in a formerly stable environment (by comparison anyway) to go through a traumatic experience which also radically increases the likelihood of their failing in life. Now, that doesn’t mean every child from such an environment fails. Many, many kids overcome such trauma and succeed wildly in life. But many don’t. And when you start multiplying situations like this, the number who don’t goes up. Well, failing children very often become failing adults. And, while a failing child is a problem for a family, he’s not as often a burden on the rest of society. Failing adults, however, are. Perhaps one is not, but when sex becomes our idol the number of broken families and broken children and broken adults is going to multiply exponentially leading directly to a broken society. And when society is broken, where do you think people most naturally look to get things fixed? It’s not the God they can’t see…it’s the political leaders they can. Well, when we start looking to the state to solve our problems it is a short ride from there to worshiping it. Thus, the third major idol of our culture and the one we are going to talk about this morning is the state.
Worship of state is sometimes hard to pinpoint. Certainly it has happened in the past. In ancient Egypt, for instance, Pharaoh was regarded as a god and thus the object of the people’s worship. The same was true in ancient Rome where all religions were given space to practice their beliefs…as long as they gave ultimate fidelity to the emperor who was believed to be divine. Loyal Roman citizens understood themselves as living and dying by the grace of the emperor. Everything was considered his and he was generous to allow them to use it. Thanks be to Caesar that he is such a generous provider!
Today we don’t see such obvious displays of worship, but the underlying ideas are still there in many places. In many communist nations it is a crime to acknowledge any authority other than the state. In North Korea, for example, even looking up at the sky for too long can get you thrown in a prison camp because you might be praying and thus acknowledging an authority other than Kim. But even in non-communist political contexts totalitarianism of a softer kind can flourish. Anywhere the state is looked to as the provider of every need—whether it demands such acclaim or we give it willingly—it has taken the place of God and we have a problem. After all, who needs God when the state can provide for your every need? On the other side, regardless of how totalitarian a particular society is, we the people can fix a certain idea of the state in our minds as especially desirable and put the achievement of this goal ahead of all others. In this way what begins as a patriotic commitment to one’s home (something all good Christians should have) becomes a kind of worship. The point is that whether from the right or the left it is far easier than we’d like to think to fall to worshiping the state and for the state itself to expect such adulation. But, while this is how things have nearly always been, is it how things should be? Well the obvious answer is no, but how do we get this balance right?
Carefully. And by keeping God in the driver’s seat. After all, He is way more concerned that we are governed well than we are. He understands very well the sinful tendencies of a small group of people in whom is concentrated a great deal of power over others. He knows it’s easy for such a group to think of themselves far more highly than they ought. It’s also easy for everybody else to think of them more highly than they ought. Indeed, when the people of Israel grew so tired of the unethical and generally poor leadership of the sons of Samuel that they went to him to demand a king so that they could be like all the other nations, God granted them their request. They wanted to be governed well and He wanted that for them too. But in giving them what they wanted (after chastising them for their stated reasoning) He also gave them a warning.
He said this way back in 1 Samuel 8: “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks and you shall be his slaves.” So essentially what Samuel was saying for God was this: “Look, if you want a king to rule over you, you can have it. But know this well: it’s going to come back and bite you in the tail. When you put your hope in a person instead of Me, you are setting yourselves up for a mess.”
That being said, though, government is a necessary thing. Large groups of people living in relatively close proximity to one another need to be led well or else chaos will ensue. There needs to be a group committed to instituting some rules for common decency and behavior (laws) to keep the society running smoothly. There needs to be an organized method of defending the territory of the whole against foreign aggressions. There needs to be an impartial-as-possible manner for resolving disputes justly when an injustice has occurred. There needs to be a diligent, but fair system for maintaining the peace. Some community-improvement projects go beyond what one or two people or even a small group of families can accomplish on their own. All of these different kinds of things require resources and it seems right that everyone who benefits from them should be expected to contribute even if they don’t benefit directly. If the government can accomplish these and a limited number of other things efficiently (stop laughing) its net effect will be more positive than negative. And yet there still remains the tendency for our sinful nature to lay hold of power concentrated in the hands of a few, multiply on that power at the expense of others, and make a giant mess of things. So the question remains: how should we as followers of Jesus think about the state in such a way that recognizes its inherent benefits while avoiding the trap of worshiping it?
Well, of all the places we could turn in the Scriptures to start answering this question, one of the clearest comes, no surprise, on the pen of Paul. Grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and find your way to Romans 13. Here in pretty direct fashion Paul offers some instructions about how Christians are to think and behave when it comes to the state. Take a look at this with me right at the beginning of Romans 13: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”
Now, before you filter that through your particular political filter and begin crafting a response, let’s get some context here. Paul wrote this letter to the Roman church in about 57 A.D. while he was visiting the church in Corinth. Do you know who the Emperor of Rome was in 57 A.D.? Nero. Nero wasn’t exactly known as a tolerant man when it came to Christians in the Empire. He is infamous for creating the first Roman candles—not the fireworks, but Christians dipped in hot wax, put on a stick, and lit to provide light for the streets at night. When Rome burned (while he played his fiddle) in 64 A.D. Nero blamed it on the Christians of the city as a pretext for unleashing a pretty vicious campaign of persecution against them. Paul and Peter were both likely two of his victims in this effort. It’s one thing to declare that Christians should be good and obedient citizens of the state when it is supportive of them and they generally agree with its policies (or even when they disagree with its policies but it’s not actively out to get them). It’s an entirely different thing to advocate for such a posture toward the state when it has all but declared Christians a public menace and openly uses its resources to hunt them down and kill them. All that is to say that before we write Paul off for wading into waters whose modern implications he just wouldn’t understand let us be clear: he understands the hard implications of what he was saying a whole lot better than we do. And yet he still said them.
So right out of the gate here Paul acknowledges that the government has authority over individuals and that individuals are to obey the government. That’s important because if people don’t submit to the government except perhaps when it’s convenient to them one of two things will happen. Either a kind of anarchy will eventually ensue, or more laws with stronger measures of enforcement will be passed in order to…encourage compliance. Totalitarianism lies at the end of that road. I don’t know about you, but neither anarchy nor totalitarianism seem like good ideas to me. Well, the view of the state Paul is commending here and which avoids the trap of worship recognizes that the virtue necessary for societies to function well lies somewhere other than the state. The state doesn’t have the power to make people good enough to keep things running smoothly and happily for long. Similarly, the state is not an authority unto itself. Were this the case at the first sign of trouble or change its authority would vanish. When the state’s authority lies somewhere else it can more easily and peacefully weather both storms and transfers of leadership. This avoids both the chaos of anarchy and the need for lots of laws designed to restrain our naturally sinful impulses. This is why societies rooted on some kind of Christian foundation tend to be both more well-ordered and free than those which are not.
In harmony with this idea and as a reminder that the authority possessed by the state is not rooted in the state—or the people—Paul next makes an absolutely crucial observation. Look at the next sentence: “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Paul’s first point about the need for Christians to humbly submit to authority is important, but this is critical. The absolute essential nature of this part of the verse cannot be over-emphasized. In fact, everything that follows has to be seen in light of this sentence or it won’t make good sense. No one has authority unless God has granted it to them because He is the sole possessor of all the authority there is. Even if we cannot see a good reason why He has granted authority to someone we do well to remember a couple of things. First, He is God and we are not and in His sovereignty He is not answerable to us. His ways and thoughts are higher than ours. Second, the record of Scripture makes explicitly clear that He can use even the most godless of rulers to accomplish His purposes. This is because, again, all authority ultimately belongs to Him. Well, from all this we can draw a very clear idea that has the power to keep the idol of state at bay in our lives: The state was designed to be God’s servant.
With that established, we can keep reading in v. 2: “Therefore [that is, in light of the fact that all authority belongs to God] whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 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.”
You see, because all authority ultimately comes from God, and because the state was designed to be God’s servant, we are to submit to the various sources of authority in our lives as a function of our submission to Him. There is nothing admirable or praiseworthy found in breaking laws for the purpose of breaking laws. Even breaking just laws for the purpose of protesting unjust laws is not justified behavior for Christians. With the exception of an instance in which the state commands behavior that directly violates God’s commands such that civil disobedience of a very narrow scope becomes appropriate, we are to submit to the laws of the land whether we like them or not. This includes, as Paul points out in vv. 6-7, paying our taxes.
That said, let’s take a quick aside here because if we are not careful we who are members of a privileged class in this country can take Paul’s words here and use them in light of current events in Cleveland, Baltimore, Ferguson and elsewhere to justify thinking that is both unhelpful and, frankly, offensive to many of our neighbors and friends who because of their skin color do not share in some of the benefits we don’t even realize we have. Because of some serious injustices and abuses of state authority in the past and the cultural legacy this has created, many in the African American community do not naturally trust authorities, particularly local ones. Like it or not, while the vast majority of police officers are wonderful, care deeply about their communities, and are committed to upholding true justice, some are not. And the abuse of authority that has come from this minority—particularly in the past—has contributed to the headache our nation is now enduring. We need to realize two things from this: 1. An abuse of God’s given authority always has profound and lasting implications. This is true regardless of the level of that authority from families all the way up to national governments. 2. While Paul is right in what He is saying, throwing these words into a situation resulting at least in part from past (and some present) abuses of authority will not be like water to a campfire, but a grease fire. There is a great deal of repentance and reconciliatory work on both sides that has to happen before things will get much better. The state was designed to be God’s servant, but when it doesn’t serve well, the harm caused is hard to fix.
With some greater clarity given to that issue, let me get back to Paul’s point here. Because all authority ultimately comes from God, our first submission must be to Him and Him alone. It is in this light that we submit to those who have authority over us. Our submission to the state (or any other authorities) must come as a function of our larger submission to God. This ordering proclaims two important things. First, it proclaims the nature and identity of God as the chief and sovereign authority over His world. Second, though, it proclaims that the state is not the chief authority over our lives. There is a God and the state, the government, isn’t Him. And, whether you find yourself on the political left or the political right, there are some important implications of this truth for you.
For those on the right, our form of government was not divinely sanctioned. Now, did God gift us with some really wise and godly leaders in the earliest days of our nation resulting in a form of government and a constitution giving it structure that have created a nation unparalleled in world history on almost every front? You bet He did. But that doesn’t make us a Christian nation. It makes us a nation that has been incredibly blessed by God for several purposes, some of them clear and fulfilled, some of them less clear and unfulfilled. Still, it’s okay to believe that we are the greatest nation that’s ever existed in the history of the world…as long as we also keep a couple of things in mind. First, the United States of America and the kingdom of God are not the same thing and as Christians our first allegiance is to the latter, never the former. Second, we haven’t always gotten everything right as a people and while not shying away from our triumphs or climbing on the “America stinks” bandwagon, we need to be honest about that. An embrace of a kind of religion we could call American Triumphalism has led many away from the core teachings of the Gospel and left them in a place with a faith so watered-down that to call it Christianity anymore doesn’t seem right. The state was designed to be God’s servant. If we exalt it beyond that place and rather blindly celebrate it, we run the risk of falling to a kind of worship of state. That’s idolatry.
For those on left, you tend to do better at being honest about times when our nation hasn’t gotten things right. But, you can easily err from the opposite direction. Also, you need to remember that the state was never designed to meet all of our needs. The state was designed to be God’s servant, never our master. God is our source of all things. We were created to work God’s creation and by that to enjoy the fullness of His provision. Any policies, then, which either discourage work or which encourage dependency on something other than God (namely, the state), are ultimately unjust and unwise in spite of the sense of compassion that led to their creation and will injure the character of not only individuals, but of whole nations. Now, it’s true that the law of compassion—The Golden Rule—dictates that we help those who cannot help themselves. Paul himself gave instructions for how to run a welfare-like program in the church in Ephesus in his first letter to Timothy. But, it was to be only for widows who were over 60 (really old in that day). Everyone else was expected to work. Helping those who cannot meet all their own needs to see them met is good and wise for societies to do. But, the most long-term effective and empowering help will always be local, not national. It will always come from wise church leaders, not the state. Impersonal help coming down from on high will encourage trust in the state for the meeting of needs which will in turn encourage the making of the state into an idol. Yet because the state is comprised of sinful people, it will only ever be a god without compassion, without justice, without fairness, without tolerance, and without freedom. Again, the state was designed to be God’s servant, not our master.
The most important truth we can hold in our hearts and minds in this life is that God is the Lord and there is no other. As Lord there is no one else who can provide for all our needs like He can. No one else knows our needs like He does. No one else will be there for us like He will. No one else is capable of giving us the life we truly desire (when our desires are properly ordered) like He is. His governance alone is just and all others are merely incomplete reflections of it. The freest freedom is found under His rule alone and everything is merely an approximation. His kingdom is rooted in righteousness and love is His law. Yet, in His great compassion, because of our sinful rebellion which keeps us out of His kingdom, He has given us the gift of government, the gift of the state, to provide a measure of His authority to which we are more willing to submit in order that we don’t destroy ourselves.
At its best, the state represents His authority well and exercises His justice with compassion. At our best we submit to this reflection of His authority willing and the whole system works like it was designed, with the state as God’s servant. But, we aren’t often at our best. In fact we’re usually much closer to our worst. And so things get distorted. The state grabs more than it’s due and we give it gladly, putting it in God’s place. The servant becomes a master and a terrible one at that. It’s a terrible master because the state was designed to be God’s servant, not our master. When the state becomes our idol—whether from the left or from the right—everything falls apart. But when we worship the one who is worthy of worship, we get to enjoy the fullness of what is His. Look, you may not think politics is much fun. You may not bring it up at the family cookout. It may get ugly sometimes. But when you have people, you have politics. When you have a lot of people, you have a lot of politics, and politics affects our lives. So we’ve got to care about politics. If nothing else, we’ve got to care so that it doesn’t become a kind of worship and turns what was designed for our good into an instrument for our misery and destruction. The state was designed to be God’s servant, not our master. Let us work to keep things in our society in the right order to the glory of God and the benefit of we the people.