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The Civil Magistrate.


The Christian and the Civil Authorities

Text: Acts 25:10-11

In Acts 25:10-11  Paul is saying – if I have broken the civil law, I deserve to be punished.  So, as a Christian, if I break the law, should I accept my punishment, willingly, even if that punishment is thought to be harsh?  To get a better insight into what Paul is thinking here we should couple Paul’s words here with what he wrote in Romans 13:1-7.   

1. Paul’s Principles Stated.  Romans 13:1-7

In his mercy, and his complete understanding of our human weakness and needs, God has ordained that we should be governed by earthly rulers. V1. Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.   The Belgic Confession, article 36, one of the ‘Three Forms of Unity,’ sums this up, ‘We believe that because of the depravity of the human race, our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. God wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings.’ Paul recognises that ruling authorities exist and that we must acknowledge them. And, of course they do some good.  Who would run the hospitals, empty the bins etc if they did not exist?  Who would order society?  Anarchy and chaos would reign!  

This is not some unusual doctrine for a specific local situation that Paul is talking about either.  There are plenty of other references to the role of the civil magistrate in the NT:  1 Timothy 2:1-2 Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 2:13-17  Jesus himself had been asked about this very issue in Mark 12:17, …Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

So in making these comments Paul is stating quite clearly that the Christians attitude to authority is to submit, to acknowledge that authority and to respect that office. Practically speaking, how will that respect be given?  In Romans 13:- 

  • Christians will obey the law of the land. V3 do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
  • Christians will keep a clear conscience in respect of the law. V5  
  • Christians will pay their tax bill!  Acknowledging that to do so is in fact an act of obedience to God, to contribute to the overall good of society, to pay for our hospitals and our security.   
  • Christians will give honour to the sovereign!  And sing the national anthem! fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

So, the Christian believer is a model citizen.  But the STATE has responsibilities also.  This is NOT a one-sided coin! The government also has a responsibility, and we can see it quite clearly in Romans 13 too.  The government must:-

  • Acknowledge the God who ordained their power.   V2   
  • Rule benevolently. V4.  
  • Punish evil doers. V4 and to praise what is good. V3  
  • Be consistent in administrative affairs. V6 Government officials are ‘Ministers!’

There is a delicate balance. The Christian must respect the government and the government must honour the Lord God who placed it in power.  

2. Paul’s Principles Applied.

Let’s go back to Paul’s dilemma in Acts 25. Paul appeals to Caesar, and he states that he has no fear of the state’s sanctions.  If he has broken the law, he will accept the punishment due to him under the law, even if that punishment is death. See that:-

  • Paul recognised that even Caesar has a divine right to govern.  He wrote his letter to Rome – to a church that was groaning under the burden of Nero’s wicked dictatorship.  He put his stated principles into practice in his own life.  He was already standing before a Roman judge, under Roman jurisdiction, and he was subject to the rulings of that court. Acts 25:10-11 Then said Paul, I stand at Caesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged:
  • Paul employs rational thinking!  He is faced with a choice.  Jerusalem or Rome – there is no third option. If he opts for Jerusalem it is certain to lead to his death, despite Festus’ promise to adjudicate himself.  He works it out in his mind.  Rome is probably his best option in the limited circumstances before him.  When we are faced with difficult life choices, we should think things through.  Weigh up all the options, and take common-sense decisions, and then pray, laying these decisions out before the Lord, asking that if we have made wrong choices, that God would thwart our plans, and frustrate them!
  • Paul was an innocent victim of state politics.  Paul had done nothing worthy of imprisonment, and nothing worthy of a trial, whether before the Jews, the local court or the supreme court at Rome.  How would he react to this turn of events?  I think, – with HUMILITY.  It was while he was travelling to Rome for his appeal to be heard that he wrote the Pastoral epistles, and while imprisoned at Rome, that he wrote to the Philippians. In that book he speaks a lot about humility.  In chapter two of Philippians he explains that to be HUMBLE is to be CHRISTLIKE.  And with humility comes CONTENTMENT.  Paul said in Philippians 4:11  Contentment wasn’t something that Paul had by nature.  He would never have been happy just resting upon his laurels – he was always looking for new places to go, new people to teach about Christ.  But in his last years he LEARNED contentment.  He was wrongly imprisoned, lost his freedom, enduring the discomfort of a cell, prolonged periods without access to the books and scrolls of his religious life, loss of dignity, – yet the effect of all this was to teach him contentment.

A final thought.  Is there ever a time when we should disobey the government? Yes there is! It is when the government passes laws that REQUIRE what God FORBIDS, or that FORBID what God REQUIRES. There is of course a biblical precedent for this. It is found in Acts 5, where the Jewish authorities ordered the Apostles to cease and desist from preaching about Jesus.  Acts 5:24-29 The key here seems to be that the governing authorities were hindering and prohibiting the preaching of the Gospel. Peter and the apostles said NO!  We have a very fine line, and when we do have to cross that line, and disobey the government, we must equally be prepared to accept the punishment that we will incur under the law, as Paul was prepared to do.

© Bob McEvoy November 2021

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