Last Fall, our confirmation class was studying the Fourth of the ten commandments. To refresh your memory, it’s the one about honoring your father and mother. Lutherans understand this to include not just parents but all God-given authorities in our lives because Martin Luther explained the fourth commandment in the Small Catechism like this: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.” One of my Cuban relatives, Rev. Dr. Alberto Garcia, told me that when he went to Cuba with cases of Bibles in Spanish, the authorities welcomed them because they had Luther’s Small Catechism printed in the back of each one and in this commandment (and in the Table of Duties) it calls for honoring the government.
Political Rebels or Holy Nation?
The fact is, as Christians we are not called to be political rebels, revolutionaries, or anarchists. The Bible plainly says that “God is not a God of confusion but of peace” and “that all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:33–40). By inspiration of the Holy Spirit, St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome at a time in which they were being ruled by an evil pagan emperor and said, “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. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:1–2).
Likewise, St. Peter wrote to God’s “holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9) that was at the same time living under the same pagan Roman rule: “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. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:13–17). So Christians don’t really have a leg to stand on when we see the government as inherently the bad guy. Now granted, there may certainly be times when government oversteps its God-given authority and contradicts God’s law, and at those times we do in fact join with the early church in saying “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Jesus Came Teaching
When we look back at the history of our country and see it founded by godly people who based much of their morality on the Bible, we Christians don’t have any qualms about pledging allegiance to our flag and being patriotic lovers of our country and its government. But when we don’t like who is currently in power, and when we take serious issue with their policies, and get disgusted with their morality, then many of us find ourselves feeling rather rebellious and might strongly resent and resist the government telling us what to do or not to do. The more extreme will fly a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and might even begin to stockpile weapons. But Jesus never advocated rebellion against the government, for He knew that “rebellion is as sinful as witchcraft” (1 Samuel 15:23). Instead, Jesus instructed us to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21). While He did indeed call a political rebel to follow Him as one of His original twelve disciples (“Simon the Zealot” – see Matthew 10:4), Jesus came teaching, not leading a rebellion (see Matthew 26:55), and He never advocated an insurrection against the Roman government. Instead, when His enemies came to arrest Him in Gethsemane, He told His disciples to put away their swords (see Matthew 26:52). In love, and in obedience to the authority of His Heavenly Father, Jesus was willing to endure a terrible injustice at the hands of corrupt leaders so that through His innocent suffering He might thereby earn our forgiveness and eternal salvation.
So just because the government mandates something that we see as an imposition on our day-to-day living, and that seems like an infringement on our personal rights or freedom, doesn’t mean that it is “the mark of the beast” (Revelation 19:20). For the government to overstep its God-given Fourth Commandment bounds, and thereby require our Christian rebellion, it would have to mandate something that requires us to engage in idolatrous worship, or some such thing that clearly violates the rest of God’s ten commandments or clear scriptural truth. As Americans, we have the special privilege of being citizens of a country that has a government (as Abraham Lincoln famously said) which is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” That means that we have a unique responsibility to be actively involved in our government by voting, protesting, running for office, and engaging in any and every area of public service. But Bible-believing, God-fearing Christians should in fact lead the way in honoring our government and praying for them fervently. The Fourth Commandment, after all, is the “first commandment with a promise—that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth” (Ephesians 6:2–3). Honoring and obeying our government is indeed good for us.
Photo by Elisa Schulz/Michigan District, LCMS