Citizenship

This morning we start a new series of sermons under the heading Christ Over All. We are going to think about issues in the modern world and what the bible has to say about them. And first of all our subject is CITIZENSHIP. How should a Christian relate to the State and public life in general? At this church we see that to be very important. Our mission statement is Godly Living, Church Growth and Changing Britain. So how should we think about changing the public life of Britain? Over the centuries some Christians have been confused about involvement in public life. There have been those who have said "withdraw" - don't get involved. The Christian is to avoid the world, they say. So they must form Christian ghettos. At the Reformation some of the Anabaptists did this like the Mennonites. Their successors the Amish are today notorious for their separation. But Jesus made it quite clear that we should not pull out of society. Rather we should be in the world while avoiding all that is wrong. So his prayer to his Father just before he died, was this - in John 17.15:

My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.

On the other hand there have been some Christians who almost totally identify the kingdom of God with the State. At the end of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th century Pope Boniface VIII developed this view. This is also probably a problem in Northern Ireland, where today the alternative to sectarianism is not a false ecumenism, and accepting doctrines you believe to be in error. It is understanding the New Testament teaching about the State. Unlike the Old Testament, with Christ the church is not to be identified with the State. This world is provisional: "here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come" (Heb 13.14). And Paul says in Philippians 3.20.

our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,

So we have a dual citizenship - a citizenship here, but a more important citizenship in heaven. How then should we think about the State and public life here on earth, if withdrawal is wrong, and identifying the kingdom of God with the State is also wrong? To help us answer that question, I want us this morning to look together at Romans 13. And my first heading is THE STATE; my second heading is THE CITIZEN, and my third heading is CHRIST OVER ALL. First, then, THE STATE. Look at those opening verses of Romans 13:

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. {2} Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. {3} For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. {4} For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

There are two fundamental principles here. The first is that the "governing authorities" are established by God; or the "ruler" is, says Paul, "God's servant to do you good." Now who was Paul talking about? He was talking about Roman emperors like Nero, who were not only pagan, but immoral and cruel. Yet, he says, they were established by God! The providence and sovereignty of God is a mystery. But they are wonderful truths that too many people forget. They remind us that God is in total control of the world and all that goes on. Nothing happens without his permission. And he is working his good purposes out in our personal lives and in the life of the State - whether we recognise it or whether we don't. Have you had a bad week? Has something gone seriously wrong? Well, remember God is in control. And what seems bad to you, is under his providential and sovereign control. He can and does turn what is evil into what is good. Joseph in the Old Testament had a rough ride from his cruel brothers and the State in the person of Potiphar; but looking back he saw God's controlling hand. So he said to his brothers (Genesis 50.20):

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.

Paul had a rough ride from State officials on a number of occasions. But he can still say (here in Romans 13), not only are they under God's control but they are his servants. He knew that God can work his sovereign will through them and in spite of them. He knew that God is sovereign over the nations:

Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales (Is 40.15).

So the first principle is that the state (or government) is part of the providential ordering of God for men and women. The second principal relates to what governments are for. What are they for? Fundamentally, says Paul, governments are to be a "terror ... for those who do wrong." The ruler is to be an "agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer." Then "he will commend what is right" (verse 3). Now, of course, people who trust in God should "do good" not just because of the fear of punishment, but because it is his will and it is right to do good - "because of conscience" (verse 5). But unbelievers, says Paul, will be kept in line, "because of possible punishment" (verse 5). That is Paul's doctrine of the State. And it is very important. The State is, first, to deter and restrain evil. This is a fundamental good. To be in anarchy is terrifying. Then, it should commend the good. So Paul sees the State as having a "limited" public function. At its heart is this social restraint. And the State is the one institution that, properly, is entitled to use force. So he says in verse 4:

if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

The State is, therefore, God's provision to restrain the worst excesses of sinful men and women. Like the cross, the State tells us that the fundamental problem with men and women is that they neglect God, they go their own way, they get in a mess and they are sinners. The State, however, unlike the Cross is not a radical solution for eternity. It is a practical solution for the present. With its laws it cannot change the hearts of sinful men and women. Only the Holy Spirit can do that as he gives men and women new birth in Christ. But the State, for all its limitations, can restrain the heartless. Positively it can commend the good. Now because the State should be limited, it follows that society - our common life as citizens - is more than the State; and much of this common life should be independent of the State. That is why where the gospel has gone, sooner or later there has also gone a concern for "freedom" and for the absence of totalitarianism, or the over interference of the State. Totalitarianism is where the State determines the public community more and more - indeed it invades the whole of life. And Jesus is concerned for proper freedom. Jesus makes it clear that there is a whole area of life that does not come under Caesar (or the State or the law). So he says in Mark 12.17:

"Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."

That is an important qualifier to what Paul is saying here in Romans. The normal rule is to comply with Caesar or the State. But if the State commands what God forbids, or forbids what God commands, then you must obey God and not Caesar That is what the early Christians discovered to their cost. They were sometimes imprisoned or even martyred. So Peter defied the authorities when they gave the apostles orders not to teach in Jesus' name. They carried on preaching. Acts 5.29:

Peter and the other apostles replied: "We must obey God rather than men!

To summarize. First, the State is God's providential provision to restrain the worst excesses of human sinfulness. It alone in human society is allowed to use force to get obedience to its commands. And it can commend the good. But, secondly, the State must not be totalitarian. It, therefore, has a duty to secure proper freedoms. Let's move on. Secondly, THE CITIZEN What, then, should you do as a citizen in a State and in society? There are three things you should do as a Christian. The first thing Paul says here is that you should "submit". You should play ball, in so far as Caesar is not playing God. And that includes all that Paul talks about in verses 6 and 7:

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. {7} Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.

The second thing you should do is to pray. You needn't turn to it, but in 1 Timothy 2.1-4, Paul writes this:

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone - {2} for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. {3} This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, {4} who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

Note that Paul tells us here that the goal of the good State is to enable and encourage peace, quiet, godliness and holiness. The State should help the church if it can. And you are to pray for those things. The third thing you are to do, is to work for those things - peace, quiet, godliness and holiness. Paul was not living in a democracy. So all he could do was "pray". But we are living in a democracy that has been formed by the Christian tradition over centuries. We can be more proactive than Paul and those early Christians in ensuring, peace, quiet, godliness and holiness. Indeed, we ourselves are the governing authorities! Some of us ought to exercise influence - Christian influence - as magistrates and local counsellors. Some here this morning already do that. Perhaps more should. And how we should pray for those in the congregation on the bench or in the city council. But if you do get involved in public life, you need to stand up to be counted. If the Christian is neither to be in a ghetto, nor completely identified with a sinful world, it must mean getting involved but then standing up for what is right or opposing what is wrong. That will mean conflict. But Jesus promised nothing else. The way to avoid conflict is simple - either keep your head down and do nothing, or go with the flow. Both are wrong. It was John Wesley who wrote, two centuries ago: Making an open stand against all ungodliness and unrighteousness, which overspreads our land as a flood, is one of the nobles ways of confessing Christ in the face of his enemies. And we can all stand up for Christ and help by writing letters to MP's, the press, broadcasting authorities, schools, businesses, and, when necessary, bishops. And we should all vote. Nail those canvassers on the doorstep - over moral issues, or other issues that Christians should be concerned with, such as helping the genuine poor and Third World Aid. You may only vote every so often. But politicians are always concerned how the voters are going to respond. And remember that human society is bigger than the State. Being a good citizen, therefore, means playing a role in that wider society. And that wider society is made up at one end by the State and the other end by the individual. But in between there are what have been called "the little platoons" or "mediating communities". For the health of society these all have to be working well - universities, hospitals, schools, clubs, businesses - yes, churches, - and the supreme mediating community - the family. As a christian you can be in there, seeking to shape all these in the direction of "godliness and holiness" and witnessing for Christ. Finally, CHRIST OVER ALL It is interesting that in the same breath, so to speak, that Paul speaks about the State, he also speaks about heaven and eternity. Look at how chapter 13 ends, verses 11-14:

{11} And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. {12} The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. {13} Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. {14} Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

Some of our greatest politicians have had that "heavenly perspective". Lord Shaftesbury, the great humanitarian reformer of the last century said that he thought of heaven everyday. He was concerned to please God. Marx has been the cause of one of the greatest and most pernicious lies ever, that thoughts of heaven stop social and political reform. On the contrary, a lack of a hope of heaven leads people to despair, fatalism, selfishness and so lack of creative reforming action. Paul says Christ's return is nearer than it once was. Do you believe that? Am I talking to someone this morning, who thinks this is all very fine. But you say to me, "all I want to do is have a happy family and have sufficient money so that life is reasonable. Isn't that good enough for citizenship?" That is enough for being a responsible citizen in this world and in this life. But it isn't enough for being a citizen of heaven. When Christ returns there is going to be a great judgment day:

we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5.10).

And the first requirement then will be faith in Christ. That is the beginning of wisdom - to believe in him. For he is the king of kings and Lord of Lords. The great sin that the Holy Spirit convicts men and women of is a failure to believe in Christ. That means that the most responsible work of citizenship now is to help your fellow citizens come to know Christ and believe in him. Archbishop William Temple a great social thinker and one of the men behind the Welfare State, once said:

If we have to choose between making men Christian and making the social order more Christian, we must choose the former.

And that is now so necessary for the good of the State and society. Let me explain as I conclude The State is to be concerned with the law and with freedom. But free democratic societies can only work when there is a level of moral behaviour. One famous jurist earlier this century, John Fletcher Moulton, called this the need for "obedience to the unenforceable". When that moral restraint goes and people follow their own cravings and natural instincts (or as Paul says, they "gratify the desires of the sinful nature"), free society and healthy civilization disintegrate. That happened in the 4th and early 5th century before the sack of Rome. It happened in the period before the Reformation. It is happening today in the West. Certainly our own national life is disintegrating. In Newsweek this week the cover story was entitled "Uncool Britannia - a memo to Blair: it's where most of your people still live." A key article on violence was entitled "Nothing Cool about being Coarse". The author, who was visiting the UK, referred to a random evening of TV as a symptom, where, I quote,

"Bob Geldof casually used a four-letter word, and a popular comedy show starring Harry Enfield featured sketches of extraordinary crudity. Thinking that others must have been just as offended as I was, I scanned the papers the next morning: not a word."

The only answer is a revival of faith in Jesus Christ. Who needs to turn to Christ this morning - perhaps for the first time, or to turn back to Christ, and to see that sin is sin, that the decadence of modern society is offensive to a holy God, but that repentance and forgiveness are possible at the cross of Christ, and new life is available through the Holy Spirit? Then morality can be regained. Then there will be more "obedience to the unenforceable". Then society will hold together, and people will be more ready for heaven.

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