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“It is hoped that but few will think the subject of [this sermon] an improper one to be discoursed on in the pulpit, under a notion that this is preaching politics, instead of Christ. However, to remove all prejudices of this sort, I beg it may be remembered that ‘all Scripture is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.’ Why, then, should not those parts of Scripture which relate to civil government be examined and explained from the desk, as well as others?”
— Jonathan Mayhew (1720–1766)
God has established a bottom-up system of multiple hierarchies: church, family, and State. This means that we must always be obedient where obedience is required by God’s law. The appeals court system of Exodus 18 is a good guide: We are free men only when we obey God, and we must subject our actions to scrutiny by lawful, God-ordained, covenantal authorities in family, church, and civil governments. The Bible directs us to submit to every human institution, “Whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13). While Peter has civil authority in mind here, this text is inclusive enough to include family and church authorities. As Bible-believing Christians, we must always remember that when we speak of authority, we mean more than civil authority.
The family has real authority that it exercises over its members: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Eph. 6:1). The symbol of authority is the rod of correction: “He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently” (Prov. 13:24). It is in the family that children ought to learn the basics of Biblical authority and its relationship to church authority, the authority that an employer has over an employee, and the authority the police have over the citizenry within the confines of the law. The church has real authority to discipline members:
And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED. And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer. Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven (Matt. 18:15–18).
The apostle Paul goes so far as to put ecclesiastical authority on an equal par with civil courts: “Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts?” (1 Cor. 6:1–11). The symbol of the church’s authority is the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt.16:19).
As citizens of political jurisdictions, Christians must submit themselves to those who rule because God has established them in their positions of authority by His own sovereign will (Rom. 13:1). Civil rulers, as well as family and ecclesiastical rulers, are called “ministers of God.” The word “minister” in Romans 13:4 is the same word used for deacon— “servant” (1 Tim. 3:8). With God out of the picture, rulers cease to be servants but become tyrants.