Religion and Politics
Jubilate Sunday| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| May 11, 2014| 1 Peter 2:13-17
Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men— as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king. 1 Peter 2:13-17
My father was a pastor. So was his grandfather, great-grandfather, brother, four sons, a nephew, and (as of this summer) seven of his grandsons, with more on the way. There are many pastors in our family. But my father’s father was not a pastor. All his brothers were, but he was not. He attended the seminary for a while and decided that he was not suited for the ministry. Instead, he studied law. He became the state auditor for Minnesota. He served two terms as Minnesota’s governor, from 1921-1925.
Grandpa Preus went into politics, but he had a great deal of respect for pastors and for the ministry of the Word. He instilled this respect in my father. He taught my father, who taught me, that both the ministry and politics were noble vocations for a man to pursue. Grandpa wasn’t cynical about politics and politicians. He knew that both good men and bad men went into politics and that both good things and bad things could be accomplished in the political arena. But one thing he impressed upon my dad – something my father related it to me several times over the years – was that you had to choose between theology and politics. The two did not mix. The politician does not have an infallible guide to follow. The theologian does. Politics is the art of compromise. Nobody has all the right answers. Theology permits no compromise. It deals with the most sublime and holy mysteries that are revealed by God himself. A minister who is willing to compromise God’s truth for political gain is worse than useless. He ought to quit the ministry and sell insurance. On the other hand, a politician who thinks that his policies will solve the perennial problems of humanity should learn what the Bible teaches about original sin.
The true Christian religion cannot suffer compromise of any kind because the eternal wellbeing of souls is at stake. St. Peter states it clearly and succinctly when he writes in our text: “As free.” We are free. Christ makes us free. Jesus says,
If you continue in my word, you are my disciples indeed, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:31)
St. Paul writes,
Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. (Galatians 5:1)
Spiritual freedom comes from the divinely revealed truth. Error enslaves. Truth makes you free. Error has many forms and goes by many names. There is only one divine truth. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. He sent the Spirit of truth to lead his apostles into all truth. For us Christians, the truth that sets us free is the most precious treasure we have.
But something strange has happened in our country. It was happening already when my grandfather entered politics nearly a century ago. Whereas folks had believed that absolute truth was entrusted to the Church and only tentative truth to the State, things got switched around. People have lost their confidence in what the Church has to say even as they have lost their confidence in the Church’s book, the Holy Scriptures. They no longer believe that God’s truth is even knowable. At the same time, political creeds have become more and more rigid and ideological. Political ideology is seen as the solution to every human problem. As the soul song of the sixties put it: “Vote for me, and I’ll set you free!” The Christian religion is tossed aside in favor of secular religion that entrusts us all to the tender mercies of politicians.
We live at a time when politics has replaced God’s Word as the source of hope. People embrace political creeds that empower the state to solve whatever ails the human race. One used to speak of a person’s political opinions. Now the word “ideology” is used. The underlying conceit is that an ideal world will result from this or that ideology being adopted by the powers that be. If only the correct political creed is adopted, the state can secure peace for the world, feed the hungry, right every social wrong, stamp out hatred and bigotry, and end injustice once and for all.
What does the Bible say?
Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.
The reason we submit to the laws of our nation is not because our lawmakers are competent, virtuous, or the source of perfect justice and peace. We don’t obey the government for the government’s sake. We obey the government for the Lord’s sake. It is for the Lord’s sake that we submit to the authority of the state. The state is not going to produce true justice. The state is not going to establish lasting peace. The state is not going to right all the wrongs, redirect the hearts of mankind toward a more noble future, or do any of the things political demagogues promise but cannot deliver. The state’s function is far more conservative and limited. It is to punish those who do wrong and reward those who do right. That’s what St. Peter says.
It’s what St. Paul says also. In Romans 13:1-4 we read:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.
The Bible doesn’t provide detailed instructions to the State on how it should govern. The government should punish those who do wrong and protect those who do right. Christians should submit to the government out of principle. What principle is that? The principle is that we are free. It is precisely because we are free that we can make ourselves the servants of others.
Christians make good citizens. We don’t believe that the solution to humanity’s woes lies with the state. We don’t believe that this or that political ideology will solve the besetting problems people have in a sinful and dying world. We don’t submit to the government, obey its rules, pay our taxes, and live honest lives in this world because we believe that the government owns us. We do so for the Lord’s sake. He is the One to whom we belong. Jesus Christ has purchased us with his blood and set us free. By the truth of his gospel we can see clearly. We see that for Christ’s sake we stand righteous before our God. We have no debt to pay. We are free. Jesus bore our sins, our guilt, our punishment, and our death when he suffered and died for us. He rose from the dead and set us free. We can humble ourselves in service to others. We know that God will exalt us in due time. We don’t need to go out and get what we already have.
The freedom that Christ gives us is spiritual. It doesn’t depend on our obeying the laws of men. It depends on Christ’s obedience to the law of God. It doesn’t come from our suffering. Christ obtained it by his suffering. His obedience and his suffering were the purchase price for our freedom. We hold onto it for it makes us children of God. Christ’s authority is spiritual. We embrace it through faith in his gospel.
All civil authority is legal. It depends on our obedience to human law. The state must have the power to punish those who disobey the state. The threat of punishment is how the state keeps the bad guys in line. To empower the state to establish the perfect society is to rely on the law to do what only the gospel can do. The state cannot take away sin. Thus, it cannot do the justice it promises. Perfect justice – perfect righteousness – comes only from the LORD, our righteousness, Jesus Christ. The state can only do its best to punish crime and protect us from criminals.
That’s not to denigrate the state’s authority. Not at all! To live where there is a respect for the rule of law, where we are safe in our homes, where our property is not going to be stolen from under our noses, where we can engage in our day to day lives without fear that we and our loved ones will be assaulted, robbed, or killed – this is a great blessing. The government that provides such protection is, as St. Peter tells us, “sent by [God] for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.”
We submit to the government to honor God. St. Peter tells us that this will “put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.” People are ignorant of what we Christians believe and what we are. People say foolish things out of their ignorance. Christians will be attacked. We provide no good cause for anyone to do so. We live free lives as Christians, under the gracious and forgiving authority of our God. We are free. But we don’t use our liberty to cover up sin. We use it to serve God.
There are times when we Christians must stand up and say that the government is wrong. By granting a so called right to kill the unborn, the government undermines its own God-given authority to punish evildoers. When states attempt to redefine marriage by changing the laws to accommodate same sex “marriage” they act in direct defiance of the God who made us male and female in his image. They thus attack the very source of their own authority. We honor our government and those who serve in it by calling on them to repent of their corporate crimes. The attack on the unborn and the attack on marriage is an attack on God himself. God punishes nations. America has no special covenant with God.
But the Church does. Nations rise and fall, while the kingdom of Christ remains. The freedom promised by men proves so illusionary. Everybody talks about the good old days. Ah, but there were no good old days. There has always been only a striving after, a seeking, an attempt, but true and lasting justice, freedom, and peace? No, that’s for dreamers and songwriters.
And Christians! But it is not obtained by civil authority. It isn’t secured by a Constitution. It isn’t protected by armies. It is a peace and a freedom obtained, secured, and protected by the Son of God who shed his blood on the cross to take away our sins, present us righteous before the Father, and set us free from our guilt and the power of the devil. We are free in Christ. No earthly power can dominate us. We are free. We can submit in humility to human rules, as our God protects us by the civil authorities. Whatever obedience we offer the governments under which we must live is offered out of the fear and love we owe to the God who has forgiven us all our sins for Christ’s sake and set us free.