Lord of the Law: Part IV

Higher Law

(Continued from Part III)

Perhaps the biggest bit of irony in the whole “Divine Right of Kings” vs. “Natural Law” struggle is the use of Scripture to support the idea that kings have absolute authority. During the middle ages, when the idea of the Divine Right of Kings was most widely accepted, kings appealed to Scripture as a support for their position. But, what is even more ironic, is that while the Divine Right of Kings was rejected in the foundation of many western societies during the 18th century (most notably the United States), it is being re-embraced by the very societies that have most benefitted from it’s rejection.

gavel2Take the United States: The founders so abhorred the idea of any one man having too much power that they did everything they could to ensure the power of government was divided into as many separate pieces as possible. Far from being advocates of the Divine Right of Kings, these men clearly stated in the Declaration of Independence that, “…Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” Rather than seeing leaders as receiving absolute authority from God, the founders recognized that government leaders received their authority to govern from the consent of those they governed. And, government was intended for a specifically stated purpose — to secure the rights endowed to all men, by their Creator.

Sadly, many Americans have forgotten these principles — if they ever knew them at all. And, to add fuel to the fire, many Christians make an appeal to Scripture similar to that of the kings during of the middle ages. They claim the Bible teaches that we must submit to whatever government is over us because God has put it in place. There are two Scriptures commonly used (then and now) to support this argument. Let’s take a look at them:

The first is Matthew 22:15-21…

“Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” — Matthew 22:15-21

And the second is Romans 13:1-7…

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore 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. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” — Romans 13:1-7

Well, at first glace the advocates of a Divine Right of Kings theory of government seem to have a point. But, if it is true that we must submit to any government, doesn’t it beg the question — what if a government instructs us to do something God has clearly forbidden? The answer will usually be something like this: “In the event a government orders you to do something expressly forbidden in Scripture then you are to obey God and resist the government.” And the text used to support that answer is…

Acts 5:27-29…

“And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.” — Acts 5:27-29

Proper biblical interpretation requires many things. Two of the primary things are proper context and careful reading. In the passage in Acts the apostles have already been told by the Sanhedrin that they can’t preach in the name of Jesus. They are even put in prison for it. During the night an angel of the Lord freed them and they went back to preaching. That’s when they are brought again before the chief priests in verse 27. They inform the priests that they will obey God rather than men. The priests didn’t like that. They had the apostles beaten and told them again not to preach in Jesus name.

And what did the apostles do?

Continued preaching in Jesus name, of course. You see the chief priests did not have the authority to order the apostles to cease. But they had the power to exact a painful price from them if they didn’t. This difference between power and authority is key. We’ll look at it a bit more later.

Now, those who use this verse to say we have the obligation to disobey a government when that government is in direct conflict with the commands of God are absolutely right in their interpretation. But, there is more here.

When the apostles refuse to obey the chief priests they are demonstrating that when the laws of men and the laws of God come into conflict one is clearly superior to the other. God’s law is superior. It is higher. Man’s law holds no authority when it conflicts with God’s higher law.

Besides, man’s law often contains unlawful exemptions. Kings, presidents, and legislatures often enact laws that apply to everyone but themselves. But God’s law applies to everyone — equally. Kings and presidents are just as subject to God’s higher law as the lowest peasant they revile as inferior.

But what about the other passages? The ones that command us to submit to the authorities?

booksgavelGood questions. Let’s look first at the passage in Matthew. It is true that Jesus said to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. But, just as in the Acts passage, there is more here than immediately meets the eye. In the first century Caesar was considered by many to be nearly divine. He insisted on absolute loyalty from everyone. Of course, in the Jewish world, there was great resentment toward Caesar, and this was the purpose of their tax question to Jesus. If Jesus says, “pay your taxes to Caesar,” he will alienate many of his Jewish followers who resent Rome. If he says, “Don’t pay your taxes,” he will likely be arrested by the Roman officials as an insurgent. They think they’ve trapped Jesus. But, when Jesus answers “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars,” he shows no disrespect for Caesar yet clearly implies there are things that do not belong to Caesar.

Jesus makes a clear distinction between God and the state. By telling them to give Caesar the things due Caesar and God the things due God he is clearly pointing out that the two are not the same thing. Furthermore, it cannot be stated strongly enough: Not everything Caesar claims belongs to him actually belongs to him.

Don’t forget, the time is coming, soon after Jesus ascends to heaven, when the Caesars will demand everyone within the Roman Empire worship them as gods. God knew this would happen. Jesus would not tell anyone to worship Caesar as god simply because Caesar said to. There is a higher law.

By drawing this contrast Jesus is telling them to give Caesar anything that is legitimately his — but he is also clearly teaching that those things are strictly limited.

So, how do we know what is and is not legitimately Caesar’s? Everyone lives under the authority of a government somewhere. How do we determine what our government legitimately has a right to ask of us? The answer is found in the passage in Romans 13 — and, once again, careful attention is necessary to grasp the full meaning (You may want to scroll back up and re-read Romans 13: 1-7, just to refresh).

Paul does plainly state every person should be subject to the governing authorities. But it is on the word “authorities” where our attention should focus. From this passage we can see God has authorized governments. We also can see specifically why God authorized governments.

See where Paul says, “…rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.”?

That means God instituted governments for the expressed purpose of dealing with evil. Governments are God’s temporary instrument of justice.

Paul continues, “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.”

So, governments have a specific purpose — to prevent and punish evildoers. But guess what…

Governments do not determine what is good and evil. From where does that determination come?

God.

God, and God alone, is the author of what is good and evil. Any government that tries to enforce laws contrary to the laws God has written on the hearts of men (which are consistent with Scripture) or exercise power outside of the specifically God-authorized purpose of government is illegitimate.

Consider for a moment the authority a husband has over his wife — a father over his children. Does this grant the husband and father the right to beat his family? Of course not. Any man who does that has stepped outside of the God-ordained role of father and husband. He has no authority to do such a thing.

Governments are no different. They are authorized for specific purposes and have no authority to act outside of those purposes. Now, governments do have the power to do things not authorized by God. This is the difference between power and authority I mentioned earlier. Both power and authority may be used to obtain compliance from others. But only one of them is legitimate.

A thief who points a gun at me and demands my money has the power to get me to comply with his demand. But he has no authority to take my money and no legitimate claim on it.

Just because a government has the power to take things does not mean it has the legitimate authority to do so.

scalesYes, Scripture says, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” but not everything Caesar claims are his, are his. He only has the authority to do that which God has ordained. If he taxes in order to make himself rich, he has no right to that money. It is not an ordained purpose. Does Caesar determine for himself the legitimate purposes for taxation? No. God has already done that. Any government is illegitimate that steps outside the authority granted it by God. Man-made law comes with a built-in limitation. It is all subject to the authority of God. It has a specific purpose and when it goes beyond that purpose it is in violation of God’s higher law and therefore null and void.

Christians, of all people, should understand this principle. But even non-Christians have understood this throughout the years because it is a principle God has written on the hearts of men.

Socrates, in a debate with a friend, once asked, “What is law?”

The friend replied, “Law is what is legislated.”

Socrates said, “Just as sight isn’t what we see, but rather that by which we see, so likewise law is not what is legislated but that by which we legislate.”

The friend objected and said, “Law is the judgment of the state.”

To which Socrates replied, “Law is the correct judgment of the state.”

You see, something doesn’t become law because it is legislated; something should be legislated because it is law. And that which determines the legitimacy of law is much, much higher than the opinion of man.

This opens up a whole can of worms, I realize. Questions abound about specific laws and whether or not they are legitimate.

Is speeding a sin or not?

Should I only pay taxes to support government programs I agree with?

Good questions. We will deal with a series of actual examples and “What ifs” in Part V.

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About Chip
Chip is a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, AR and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, TN. He served more than five years on the staff of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana as Director of Communications and Public Relations, editor of the Indiana Baptist newsjournal, and regular contributor to the Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention. He currently earns his living as a writer. He serves his local church as a teacher and deacon and his local Baptist Association as a Seminary Extension instructor and supply preacher.

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