Rev. Slopsema is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.
The Scriptures teach that every citizen has various obligations to the civil government under which he finds himself. Our Reformed fathers understood these duties and set them forth very beautifully in the confessions of the church. The duties of the citizens to the state are summarized, for example, in the Belgic Confession, Article 36.
Moreover it is the bounden duty of every one, of what state, quality, or condition soever he may be, to subject himself to the magistrates; to pay tribute, to show due honor and respect to them, and to obey them in all things which are not repugnant to the Word of God; to supplicate for them in their prayers, that God may rule and guide them in all their ways, and that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.
We find something similar in the Westminster Confession,
It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honor their persons, to pay them tribute and other dues, to obey their lawful command, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrate’s just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to him . . . .
It is the duty of every citizen, first of all, to honor the civil magistrate.
By the civil magistrate is meant all government officials. This includes all those who make the laws, judge the laws, and enforce the laws in all levels of government, whether the national, state (provincial), or local level. This includes everyone from the President (Prime Minister) down to the local policeman.
Our duty as citizens is to honor these officials. Speaking of rulers, the Scriptures in Romans 13:7 teach us, “Render therefore to all their dues . . . fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.” In I Peter 2:17 we are instructed, “Honor all men . . . honor the king.” This means we are to hold the civil magistrate in high esteem. We are to show this honor to the magistrate when we deal with him as well as when we speak of him to others.
We certainly need to be reminded of this duty in our day. Government officials are generally held in very low esteem. They are made the butt of endless jokes; they are harshly criticized; often they are held in open contempt. It is true that much of this is occasioned by the ineptness and greed of the magistrate himself. Nevertheless, the Scriptures instruct us to honor the magistrate even then. The kings and rulers which the apostolic church was commanded to honor were just as inept and greedy as the magistrate of our day.
We are commanded to honor the magistrate for especially two reasons. First, we must bear in mind that the powers that be are ordained of God (cf. Romans 13:1). This means that God has ordained civil government and ‘has given to every magistrate his place of rule and authority. God has done so because it is His good pleasure to rule and regulate our lives through the magistrate. This was true even of the corrupt magistrates in the days of the apostles. The magistrate occupies a high office. And for that reason he must be honored.
Secondly, we must remember that the magistrate is the minister or servant of God to the church for good (cf. Romans 13:4). This was true even of the wicked magistrates in the days of the apostles. The magistrate is the servant of God in that God uses the rule of the magistrate to preserve good order in society so that the church may be gathered and survive on the earth. Also for that reason we are to honor the magistrate.
In harmony with all this it is also the duty of every citizen to submit himself to the rule of the state. In Romans 13:1 we are taught, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.” The higher powers here refer to the powers of the civil government. In I Peter 2:13, 14 we read, “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers.” Finally, there is the instruction of Paul to Titus (Titus 3:1), “Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates . . . .”
Submission or subjection to the civil magistrate means that we place ourselves under their rule and authority. This submission implies, first, that we obey the magistrate. After instructing Titus in Titus 3:1 to remind the saints to be subject to principalities and powers, he adds, “to obey magistrates.” This means that we must do our best to comply with the rules and regulations the magistrate establishes for the regulation of our lives as citizens in the state. This includes the traffic laws, the safety regulations, and other laws we tend to ignore so easily. We must obey the magistrate even when he misuses his office for personal gain or when we fail to see the wisdom of the laws he establishes. The only time we may refuse obedience to the magistrate is when he requires that we disobey God. Then we are taught to obey God rather than men (cf. Acts 4:19). But even then, we may not be rebellious, seeking the overthrow of government. Even when for conscience sake we can not obey the magistrate, we must still be submissive.
The duty of submission to the magistrate also implies that we pay our taxes. In Romans 13:6, 7 we are instructed, “For this cause pay ye tribute also . . . Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom . . . .” For the maintenance sf civil government the magistrate has the right to tax the citizenry. Jesus went even so far as to say that the tribute levied by the magistrate belongs to the magistrate. Referring to the paying of taxes, Jesus taught, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars” (cf. Luke 20:25). Payment of taxes is really implied under obedience to the magistrate. But the Scriptures emphasize this duty especially because it is one of the hardest duties to perform. The taxes the government exacts of us take hard-earned money directly out of our pocket. In some cases these taxes have taken food off the table and clothes from the back. In addition to that, consider how foolishly these tax revenues are spent. Often the taxes the citizens find so difficult to pay are squandered by a few in high places through extravagant living. That was the case no less in the days of the apostles than it is now. Nonetheless, the instruction of God through the apostles was, pay ye tribute also” (Romans 13:6).
As we consider these duties towards the state we ought to be reminded of what we are taught in Romans 13:5: “Wherefore, ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.” This means that we must not subject ourselves to the magistrate for fear of his wrath and punishment upon disobedience. We must submit to the magistrate rather because this is the will of God and pleasing to Him.
In light of all that we have said, it ought to be very clear that it is also our duty to promote the welfare of the magistrate and the civil government. This follows from the fact that civil government has been ordained by God and that every magistrate has been given his place of rule by God for the sake of the church. Through the rule of the magistrate God provides for the decency and good order in society necessary for the church to be gathered and survive. Hence, by promoting the welfare of the magistrate and civil government we are promoting the welfare of the church.
We promote the welfare of civil government by praying for the magistrate. The Apostle Paul exhorts Timothy (I Timothy 2:1, 2) “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” This instruction is given to the church for her public worship but also applies to the prayers we utter as families and individuals in our homes. We must pray for those in authority. We must pray that God will lead the magistrate to rule in harmony with His Word, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. As the following verses make clear, this also implies that we pray for the salvation of those in authority.
We promote the welfare of civil government also by assisting the magistrate as much as possible in ruling according to the will and Word of God. According toRomans 13:3, 4, the calling of the magistrate is to praise that which is good and to execute wrath upon him that does evil. In this way civil government serves the cause of the church. But this requires that the magistrate rule according to the law of God. What God forbids, he must forbid. What God requires, he must require. To be very specific, it is the duty of the magistrate to forbid and punish profanity, murder by abortion, the destruction of marriage and the home through adultery and unbiblical divorce, and many other abuses to which natural man tends. It is the duty of every citizen to encourage the magistrate so to rule and to admonish him (always showing respect) should he fail. This can be done face to face, through letters, and (in a democracy) through voting. What a golden opportunity we have to promote the welfare of civil government when we are given a voice in government through voting. This is something we should not neglect.
Finally, God calls some to serve as magistrates in civil government. Some are of the opinion that due to the corruption found in government the child of God may not serve as a magistrate nor be involved in the political process. This opinion conflicts, however, with the truths that government has been ordained of God and that the magistrate is the minister of God. Certainly we must not abandon this high office to the unbeliever. In addition, we have the examples of Joseph and Daniel, who served in high places in two of the most godless governments of history. In harmony with this the Westminster Confession teaches (Chapter XXIII, Section II),
It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of magistrate, when called thereunto; in the management whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth . . . .
Should God call us to execute the office of the magistrate by opening the way for us to do so, then our duty is to accept this responsibility and serve as the minister of God.