May 22

Piper on Government, Submission, and Resistance

2013 | by Ryan Kelly | Category: Sermon Follow-Up

Like Peter in 1 Peter 2:13-18, Paul in Romans 13 writes in rather absolute and seemingly unqualified ways about civil authorities and the Christian response to them: Be subject to the governing authorities. …whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed. …he is God’s servant for good.” But why write in these such absolute and seemingly unqualified ways? Why emphasize the right of government and the need for submission, and leave out any and all exceptions? Perhaps we can query a couple of sermons from John Piper for answers to these and similar questions.

In a sermon on Romans 13, Piper explains why Paul wrote Romans 13 as he did:

He is more concerned with our humility and self-denial and trust in Christ, than he is about our civil liberties. In other words, Paul risked being misunderstood on the side of submission because he saw pride as a greater danger to Christians than government injustice. I cannot imagine Paul writing this way if Paul thought that the ultimate thing was being treated fairly by the government. But I can imagine him writing this way if faith and humility and self-denial and readiness to suffer for Christ is the main thing.

Or, in other words:

[Paul] wants us to know that the danger to our soul from unjust governments is nowhere near as great as the danger to our soul from the pride that kicks against submission. No mistreatment or unjust law has ever sent anyone to hell. But pride and rebellion is what sends everyone to hell who doesn’t have a Savior.

But is there ever a proper place for civil disobedience? From the same sermon, Piper answers:

…some Christians have come to the point in history where they believed laws were so unjust and so evil, and political means of change had been frustrated so long, that peaceful, non-violent, civil disobedience seemed right.

What factors would be involved in consideration of civil disobedience? Piper suggests that “it would be a combination of at least these four things.”

  1. The grievousness of the action sanctioned by law. How atrocious is it? Is it a traffic pattern that you think is dumb? Or is the law sanctioning killing?
  2. The extent of the unjust law’s effect. Is it a person affected here or there? Or is it millions? Does the law have an incidental inconsistency? Or is it putting a whole group of people into bondage because of their ethnic origin?
  3. The potential of civil disobedience for clear and effective witness to the truth. This is the question of strategy, and there will certainly be room here for differing judgments about whether a particular act of civil disobedience will be a clear and effective statement of what is just.
  4. The movement of the spirit of courage and conviction in God in people’s lives that indicates the time is right. Historically, there appears to be a flash point of moral indignation. An evil exists for years, or perhaps generations, and then something strange happens. One person, and then tens of thousands of people, can no longer just get up and go to work and say, “I wish it weren’t this way.” A flash point is reached, and what had hung in the air for years as tolerable evil explodes with an overwhelming sense that this state of affairs simply can no longer be!

So, if and when that time comes, what should civil disobedience look like? What is its tenor and heartbeat? Piper looks to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-48), which contrasts retaliation and love in response to enemies. Then he concludes with these guidelines:

The words of Jesus rule out all vindictiveness and all action based on the mere expediency of personal safety. The Lord cuts away our love for possessions, and our love for convenience. That’s the point of Matthew 5:38-42. Don’t act merely out of concern for your own private benefit, your clothes, your convenience, your possessions, your safety.

Instead, by trusting Christ, become the kind of person who is utterly free from these things to live for others (both the oppressed and the oppressors; both the persecuted and the persecutors; both the dying children and the killing abortionists). The tone and demeanor of this Christian civil disobedience will be the opposite of strident, belligerent, rock-throwing, screaming, swearing, violent demonstrations.

We are people of the cross. Our Lord submitted to crucifixion willingly to save his enemies. We owe our eternal life to him. We are forgiven sinners. This takes the swagger out of our protest. It takes the arrogance out of our resistance. And if, after every other means has failed, we must disobey for the sake of love and justice, we will first remove the log from our own eye, which will cause enough pain and tears to soften our indignation into a humble, quiet, but unshakeable, NO. The greatest battle we face is not overcoming unjust laws, but becoming this kind of people.

Church, let’s pray to that end!