Jesus: King Over Civil Authorities
The year of our Lord 2020 has gifted us many things that we would like to return. But, through the rioting, looting, moral posturing, and over-reaching governors, God is allowing us to check up on a foundational doctrine. Given various responses from evangelical leaders, it is high time we check up on it. I speak not of a minor, take-it-or-leave-it doctrine taught on the fifth floor of the red brick seminary. Rather, it is one taught to the kids down in Sunday School—perhaps lost on those teaching Theoretical Theology 505 to the dapper men dressed cleaner than Anderson Cooper.
I speak of the Christian doctrine that Jesus is King of kings. Jesus is not merely a king. He is the King. He is not merely King of the church. He is not only King of heaven. He is King of body and soul, blood and dirt, Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom.
The apostle Paul teaches that Jesus is the King over civil authorities when he writes, “the authorities are ministers of God” (Romans 13:6). God is the one who put them in office (Romans 13:1). They are His servants (Romans 13:4). Paul is not speaking of a vague deist god when he writes his letter to the Romans. He is talking about the God of the Bible, the triune God. He is saying that your city council ultimately serves Jesus. We don’t get to take a vote on what the American people think when they refer to “one nation under God,” and then import that notion of God back into what Paul meant.
If civil authorities are ministers of Christ, it follows that they must do what Christ says. While they are responsible to obey Christ as individuals, they are particularly accountable to execute their public office how Christ would have them. It does not follow that they are to legislate church attendance. It does, however, follow that their legislation is regulated by Christ. They have no authority to disobey the One from whom they receive authority—”For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). Human rulers are not free to rebel against their King—”They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings” (Revelation 17:14).
If civil authorities are ministers of Christ, it follows that they must do what Christ says.
Civil authorities do not have a right to legislate that red flowers will now be yellow flowers. They are not permitted to decree that people can kill babies in women’s wombs. They have no right to require that children be educated without any mention of the Truth. They cannot remove a young girl from her parents’ home because they won’t let her try to become a boy. They must not rule according to the arbitrary dictates of their own minds. Indeed, the Bible does not speak to many of the specifics civil authorities must sort out. The point is not that magistrates should leave their brains at home when they head off to work. The point is that they should submit their minds to what God has revealed through creation, the prophets, the apostles, and His Son.
The civil magistrate possesses a limited authority, a regulated authority. And it is regulated by Jesus. Far too many Christians think that the civil magistrate’s authority is regulated equally by Jesus and reason as if Jesus and human reason were co-rulers over civil authority. What we’ve done is put the civil authorities up there on par with Jesus to do whatever they want to do as long as they don’t bump into Jesus’ realm. They are permitted to legislate that all of the women dye their hair blonde because, well, there is no clear cut biblical statute against it. They can decree that everyone 40 years old and up will wear green shirts on the 7th of August, and everyone 39 years old and down will wear blue shirts on September 12th. All kids eat broccoli on Tuesday. All men do fifteen jumping jacks each morning at 8:35 am. All executive orders are permissible so long as the civil leader stays out of Jesus’ domain.
The problem with such thinking is that all of creation is Jesus’ domain. He is in charge around here. Human reason is not the final standard that regulates the civil magistrate. Rather, Jesus regulates the civil magistrate. He does so through general and special revelation. The minister of God, then, is to pay attention to the one he serves and rule according to what the King of kings says.
Many are confused by such a notion because we have been steeped in secular thought for so long we have not considered the implications of civil leaders being Christ’s servants. We have so many godless civil leaders that things are now starting to come apart. Not to mention the “godly” knucklehead leaders, such as the Anglican grandees who pushed for the UK welfare state on grounds that the Early Church had all things in common.
What are Christians to do? We ought not be fearful, but we should be wise. Seeing the times, we should applaud John MacArthur and Grace Community Church. We should submit to governing authorities in all things lawful. We should show honor to rulers. Even when we must obey God rather than man, we can do so respectfully. But if there were any time for Christians to be clear about the limited authority of civil leaders, it is now. If that feels like an overstatement, don’t forget to factor in all of our governmentally approved murdered babies.
So now is not the time for covenants calling for unqualified obedience to civil authorities. Rather it is time to say honor and eternal dominion to “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Timothy 6:15).