I’ve been pondering the question posed in today’s title for a number of years now. How much obedience do we owe to human authorities, both inside and outside the church? Is a Christian allowed, per scripture, to speak against people in authority? Are they ever encouraged to stand up and fight against authority that is unjust and immoral? And why are churches, even those that preach the importance of obeying God’s word, so reluctant to talk about submission to authority passages like Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-19?
Until fairly recently, this was mostly an intellectual puzzle for the American church. Then came questions about baking cakes for same-sex weddings, then whether or not to assemble for services when governors shut down states, now debates over the mask issue, and rising fears that a Covid vaccine might be the Mark of the Beast. We live in confusing times, and they’re forcing us to face questions and wrestle with decisions some of us haven’t had to deal with before.
Those of us who prize our independence might be angry about infringements on our freedom, wrestling with whether to follow our personal choices or do as we’re told. Those of us who struggle with anxiety might be scared — paralyzed, even — both by everything that’s going on and by not knowing what is the right thing to do. Those who are people-pleasers might be running up against the fact that we’ll need to pick a side and can’t make everyone happy.
Today’s post isn’t going to offer answers for the specific issues we’re facing right now. Rather, I hope to highlight scriptures that provide principles which we can use whenever we struggle with how to respond to human authority in a way that honors God. This is a question we will face at some point, if we aren’t facing it already. We need to be prepared to answer these questions, to ourselves and when asked by others, in a Biblically solid way. Read more →
Last week, I wrote quite a lengthy post about why it’s so important to tend our spiritual lives as we would a carefully cultivated garden. God desires growth from us, and we need to put effort into that if we want to stay in a close relationship with Him. It’s important to know how highly God values growth, for Jesus warns if we don’t use the gifts He has given us there’s a very real chance they’ll be taken away. Knowing God wants and expects us to grow isn’t much use, though, unless we also talk about how to make growth happen.
Abide in Jesus
When Paul talks about people in ministry “planting” and “watering” spiritual gardens, he also makes very clear that it is God who “gives the increase” (1 Cor. 3:6-9). Growth and fruitfulness happen because of God’s work in our lives. We’re involved, but we don’t make it happen.
“Remain in me, and I in you. As the branch can’t bear fruit by itself unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you, unless you remain in me. I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5, all quotes from WEB translation)
This is the first principle of spiritual growth. There are things we can and should be doing to grow God’s gifts and bear fruit for His glory. But the best efforts on our part will accomplish nothing if we are not firmly attached to Christ. Without Him, we’re like plants that have no root system. We can’t grow unless we’re abiding in Him. “Being filled with the fruits of righteousness” only comes “through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:11). Read more →
Suppose you and your neighbor were to plant a vegetable garden. One of you put the plants and seeds in, watered them once, then stepped back to let it all grow naturally. The other watered and weeded diligently, trimmed where needed, staked up the vines, and poured time and attention into the garden. The first will have a small harvest, if any, from plants choked by weeds and eaten by bugs. The second will enjoy a bountiful harvest of tasty, healthy vegetables. That’s the analogy Gary Thomas uses in his book Sacred Pathways to talk about growth in the Christian life.
“Some of us live with the mistaken impression that our faith needs only to be planted, not tended. Becoming a mature Christian, some think, is like becoming six feet tall — it either happens or it doesn’t. This is not the view of those who have written the classics of our faith or the view of the writers of scriptures (see, for example, Philippians 2:12-13; 1 Timothy 4:15-16; James 1:4; 2 Peter 1:5-11).” — Gary Thomas, Sacred Pathways, p. 232
The Bible is full of talk about spiritual growth and fruitfulness. We can’t do anything to earn salvation or accomplish reconciliation with God on our own — that only happens through the work of Jesus Christ. But once He gives us the precious gift of salvation He expects us to do something with it. That “something” can be summarized as “grow.”
Growing Your Gift
Examples of God’s expectation for growth are found in the parables of the talents and of the ten pounds. A lord goes to a far country, entrusting great wealth to his servants. When he returns, every servant who increased their gift (no matter by how much) is praised as “good and faithful,” and welcomed into the lord’s kingdom. There’s one servant, though, who did nothing with their gift except hide it. It sat in the ground, useless. This servant is the only one who is not praised. The lord actually takes their gift away and then casts them out (Matt. 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27).
I honestly don’t see how people can read the Bible and still teach “once saved, always saved.” It is true that no one has the power to take you away from God (John 10:28-29), but you can reject God’s gift, or continue in sin without repenting, or neglect to use and grow what He’s given you (Heb. 10:26-31; Gal. 5:16-21; Matt. 18:21-35). Even the Apostle Paul didn’t think he could sit back and relax, assured that he’d get eternal life no matter what he did post-conversion (Phil. 3:11-14; 1 Cor. 9:27).
If we choose to do things that separate us from God and don’t then come back to Him and ask for forgiveness, we could miss out on the kingdom. God tells us how to get there and He even died to make it possible. He very much wants us to accept, use, and grow the gift He’s given us. But He won’t force us to.
Tending To Your Salvation
Talking about how God can take back gifts which He gives (a Biblical idea that’s found right there in the Jesus’s parables) is not designed to make us live in a state of uncertainty and terror, wondering if we’re “really saved.” Paul clearly didn’t think he should live in despair and doubt because he hadn’t yet attained the end goal of a Christian life. On the contrary, it motivated him to keep growing and striving to follow God.
God doesn’t really ask much of us when you boil it all down. Just the things needed for a good relationship. Love Him. Respect Him. Abide by the boundaries He sets. Apologize if you do something to wrong Him. Use the gifts He’s given you instead of setting them aside like they don’t matter.
So then, my beloved, even as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12-13, all quotes from WEB translation)
Salvation is something Jesus accomplished once for all humanity, and He is the only path to eternal life (Heb. 9:12; 10:11-12; Acts 4:12). Salvation is also a life-long process that we’re involved with as God works in and through us.
Be diligent in these things. Give yourself wholly to them, that your progress may be revealed to all. Pay attention to yourself and to your teaching. Continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you. (1 Tim. 4:15-16)
Paul isn’t telling Timothy that he can save himself or his congregants in the same sense that Christ saved us. But he is pointing out that we are involved in the ongoing aspects of salvation. To return to the garden analogy, people can plant and water spiritual gardens but only God can make them grow (1 Cor. 3:6-9). We’re expected to work on growing, but God’s the one who makes all that growth possible.
Producing Fruit to Glorify God
Paul describes us in 1 Corinthians as “God’s farming.” In Romans, he uses another agricultural analogy by describing the people of God as trees with grafted branches. Israel is God’s olive tree, and when He opened salvation up to a wider group of people it was like He “grafted in” branches from wild olive trees. As the farmer, God is allowed to graft in or prune out as He pleases. He can even graft people back in after they’ve been cut out so long as they repent and turn back to Him in sincerer belief (Rom. 11:16-24). And we get to play a role in whether or not we stay grafted in.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the farmer. Every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, he takes away. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. … I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man doesn’t remain in me, he is thrown out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned. … In this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; and so you will be my disciples. (John 15:1-2, 5-6, 8)
In another place, Jesus tells us that we will know false prophets by their fruits. We can discern whether or not someone is trustworthy by how they live and the fruits they produce. God applies the same logic to us; He knows us by our fruits (Matt. 7:17-23). And we are warned, like the people John the Baptist preached to, “every tree therefore that doesn’t produce good fruit” (e.g. “fruits worthy of repentance”) “is cut down, and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:7-9).
God Is Eager To Help Us Grow
Now, don’t go thinking all this talk of pruning and burning is happening because God doesn’t like us or wants to terrify us. He’s not up there waiting for any excuse to wack us out of the Vine. On the contrary, these things serve as a warning so that we’ll understand exactly how important it is that we stay close to Jesus Christ (the source of our life, as the roots that feed a plant) and commit to living in a Godly way (having a character that produces spiritual fruit). So long as we make even the tiniest effort, God is ready and eager to facilitate our growth.
Consider the lilies, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. … Don’t seek what you will eat or what you will drink; neither be anxious. … But seek God’s Kingdom, and all these things will be added to you. Don’t be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. (Luke 12:27, 29, 31-32)
One of the key characteristics of God’s kingdom is that it grows (Luke 13:18-21). And we’re invited to be a part of that. Seek Him. Grow with Him. Keep adding to your faith moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, perseverance godliness, brotherly affection, and love (2 Pet. 1:5-8). Produce fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).
One of the most encouraging studies I’ve ever done (for me at least) was on how God talks about human perfection. So long as we’re growing toward the goal of being perfect, as He is perfect, He treats us as if we’re already there. We don’t have to get everything right all the time or worry we’re not good enough. The only way to fail is to not even try. So long as we put effort into tending our spiritual gardens and do not neglect the gifts He has given us, God will make certain that we live abundant, fruitful lives that lead to the best eternal outcome.
Work, work your thoughts and therein see a king at war who holds those guilty that defy him. Behold him facing a besieged town, shouting out all the terrors that await those who persist in defiance, yet offering mercy if only they will yield to his authority. Note his relief when one chooses mercy, his gentleness with those who trust him and his swift vengeance on those who persist in rebellion.
I borrow this scene from my favorite Shakespeare play, Henry V (Act 3, prologue, Scene 2). But it’s also a Biblical image. We sometimes lose sight in the modern world that the KJV phrase “Lord of hosts” literally means “Yahweh of Armies.” One of the most often used titles of God is about Him personally going forth with a host of armies organized for war.
This is a comforting image when God is fighting against our enemies. But sometimes, “Yahweh’s anger burns against his people,” particularly when “they have rejected the law of Yahweh of Armies and despised the Holy One of Israel” (Is. 5:24-25). Even when that happens, though, God deeply desires to show mercy. His justice demands punishment for sin (Heb. 10:30-31), but His mercy offers a path to forgiveness and salvation (1 Pet. 2:24-25).
It’s common in modern churches to say that God was vengeful and frightening in the Old Testament but is gentle and loving in the New. Such a disconnect is not supported by scripture. Both the Father and the Word (who we now know as Jesus) have been active throughout history. They’re unchanging. In order to have a fuller, more accurate vision of who God is and what He is doing, we need to acknowledge that He is both wrathful justice and gentle mercies.
God’s Desire to Forgive
After the death of righteous Josiah, king of Judah, his son Jehohaz reigned for just 3 months before an Egyptian king dethroned him and set up his brother Jehoiakim in his place. This new king “did that which was evil in Yahweh his God’s sight” (2 Chr. 35:25-36:8). At this time, God was actively working through the prophet Jeremiah, and He sent him with a message.
In the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from Yahweh, saying, “Take a scroll of a book, and write in it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel, and against Judah, and against all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah, even to this day. It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the evil which I intend to do to them; that they may each return from his evil way; that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.” (Jer. 36:1-3, all verses quoted from WEB translation unless otherwise noted)
Jeremiah’s prophecies contain warnings, corrections, lessons, and promises. From God’s words here in the passage I just quoted, it seems one of His main goals in sharing all those warnings was to save people from the consequences of their own disobedience.
We can all answer this question a variety of different ways. Our identities are multifaceted things — human, female, Christian, daughter, American, writer, friend, white, Midwestern (to give you some of mine). Some are chosen by us, some are given by God, nature, or other people. The things we identify with, wherever those identities come from, shape who are are.
Sometimes our identities might be in conflict with each other, or with those of other people. We need to be able to handle and resolve those conflicts. On the small scale, it might be something like “student” vs. “friend” (such as finding a balance between needing time to study and finding time to maintain friendships). On a larger scale, it might be something like “national” vs. “religious” (such as wanting to uphold your country’s ideals, but finding some of them at odds with your faith, and needing to choose between them). Or it could be an interpersonal situation where you find yourself interacting with people who have different political affiliations, ethnicities, faiths, and priorities than you do.
How we resolve these inner and outer conflicts says something about who we are and what we value. As Christians, we have an identity that is meant to be first in our priorities and underlie every other part of our lives. But we don’t always live as if this is truly the case. Sometimes we choose to put other beliefs and identities first, and if we do that too often it can damage our relationship with our primary identity as children of God.
The Problem of Conflicting Identities
I recently listened to a podcast episode titled “A First Step Toward Racial Reconciliation,” which was an interview with Mark Vroegop. His book Weep with Me: How Lament Opens A Door For Racial Reconciliation is coming out next month. In this interview, he talks about how the church should be the best place to resolve racial differences because “the gospel creates an identity that gets underneath all other identities.” Read more →
One of the things we discussed in last week’s post about a Christian’s role in seeing justice done was that there are very few situations where God says it’s okay for us to judge other people. There’s an important reason for that which we only just touched on last week. It’s that justice and the application of judgement belong to God. We are to become like Him, yes, but there are certain roles that He does not share with us, at least not yet.
Paul says that one day the saints will judge the world and even angels. We’re not there yet, though there are certain situations where we can practice such as settling disputes in the church or discerning when there’s a sin being committed (1 Cor. 5:1-5, 11-13; 6:1-3). We’re not entrusted with final judgement, though, nor with the execution of justice or vengeance. In fact, we’re instructed to step aside and let God handle it whenever we’re tempted to take any vengeful action.
Judged by the Word of God
Back in Deuteronomy, Moses told Israel not to show partiality in judgement or be afraid of judging fairly (no matter what other people think) “for the judgement is God’s” (Deut. 1:17 all scriptures from the WEB translation). Judgement belongs to God, and He cares a great deal about seeing justice done properly. That’s one of the main reasons “You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality. You shall not take a bribe” (Deut. 16:19). Of course, these instructions were given to handle legal disputes in a nation where God’s law was the standard of government. We now live in nations with secular law systems and most of us aren’t involved in that. But the principles still apply. God cares about justice done rightly, and His definition of “rightly” might not always match with our human impulses. Read more →