Volume 9, Issue 5: Magistralis
Do you ever wonder if politicians get fed up with us? Do they get back from a long day of meeting with constituents about everything from national defense to potholes on Main Street and wonder why they ever took the job? Do they get tired of opening the newspaper and seeing cartoons, editorials, and letters to the editor giving them yet another hard time? After all, we citizens can be a real pain in the neck.
We know that we are all under various authorities. And being Americans, we are ever vigilant to see that those authorities don't get too big for their britches and to whack them repeatedly about the head and shoulders if they do. But we never stop to consider how our attitude affects their leadership.
Referring to elders, the author of Hebrews tells us to "obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you" (Heb.13:17). We need to cultivate the same attitude about civil rulers. God has called some men to oversee the state. We must behave toward them in such a way that it is a pleasure for them to go to work each morning.
When Thomas Vincent deals with the fifth commandment in his The Shorter Catechism Explained From Scripture,1 he explains some of the common sins citizens commit against the civil government.2 Some are obvious: "Rebellion against them, and any treasonable seeking their overthrow and ruin," and "unsubjection and disobedience unto their good and righteous laws." Civil sin can take forms other than mere disobedience to laws, however, and it is these we most often commit when we see the contemptible behavior of civil rulers.
First, Vincent admonishes against "neglecting of prayer for them, and, instead thereof, speaking evil of them." Paul exhorts us that "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" (1 Tim. 2:1-2). Politicians are too often a source of provocation, and it is easy to respond in a rude and unkind manner. But one of the primary lessons in Scripture is to love those who persecute us, and to return good for evil. If the civil rulers are oppressive and thereby become our enemies, we must remember that we are to love all our enemies, and we are to love these particular enemies in this particular way: we must give thanks for the civil government (if it's good, amen; if it's bad, count it all joy), and we must pray that our rulers will be wise, repentant, humble, and righteous, and that God will grant His church peace.
Another popular sin against the magistrate is making "reviling speeches unto them, and irreverent behaviour before them." We suffer from the American malady of egalitarianism. It has been said that the average American thinks he isn't. We all think we're better than we are, and that others are, if not worse, certainly no better than we. Yet such pride is strongly condemned in the Scriptures. God has placed authorities over us, and we must reverence them in word and deed. The fact that they are wicked does not release us from this obligation. "Yet Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses, durst not bring against him a railing accusation, but said, `The Lord rebuke thee'" (Jude 9). Recall the first words Daniel spoke to Darius, after that king threw him to the lions: "O king, " (Dan. 6:21).
The last sin against the magistrate that Vincent names is "denial of their just dues, and anywise defrauding of them." Pay those taxes, all of them, with a smile. No, it's not their money. Yes, they take too much of it. Yes, it is legalized theft. But the fact that I am being robbed does not justify me, in my individual capacity as a citizen, in keeping back some of the money. If the dues demanded are not just, I have other authorities I can appeal to, appointed for my protection, including the next election. If they fail, I wait patiently for God's deliverance. I am never the court of last resort.3
Never forget that politicians are elected by us and act as our covenantal representatives; we sent them to do what they are doing. When they pass bad laws, it is because we, as a covenantal body, demanded that they do so. If we are oppressed, it's our own dumb fault. We signed their license to steal.
Remember, too, that our civil government is ordained by God. If He has appointed us a corrupt government, we must have done something to deserve it. Before we take the speck from the government's eye, we need to get the log from our own.
None of this is to say that we must sit idly by while corrupt civil rulers abuse their authority. John the Baptist did not hesitate to rebuke Herod for his adultery, nor did Nathan when David took Bathsheba. The Scriptures are full of scenes of rulers being called to account by their subjects. God commands politicians to rule righteously, and those who don't should dread going to the office each day. But the call to accountability can only come authoritatively from one who is himself accountable, and who is himself in submission to authority, including the authority he is rebuking.