Posted by: Andrew Webb | July 22, 2009

Rendering Honor to Barack Obama

“It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates , to honor their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience’ sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrates’ just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to them”

(From the Westminster Confession of Faith, 23.4)

Before I begin to discuss the issue at hand, let me begin by making a confession; I was born with a rebellious heart. I’ve never personally enjoyed submitting to any authority just or unjust, and I spent the first 23 years of my life rebelling against the authority of parents, teachers, and most importantly, God. I refused to honor or obey any of them regardless of any punishment or reward. It wasn’t until I became a Christian that the most important issue of my rebellion against God was finally dealt with and only when my heart was finally subdued and made teachable by the Holy Spirit did I begin to seriously deal with my unwillingness to submit to the human authorities he has appointed. I will confess that I don’t like submitting to authorities I don’t respect or agree with, and as a result, submitting to the current U.S. administration has been hard. I must admit that I am still learning to do it, especially in the matter of my speech. I am practicing, for instance, saying and writing “President Obama” and “Speaker Pelosi” and “Senator Reid” instead of simply referring to them by them last names.

I suppose it is partly because of all the mortifying of my natural tendencies that has been going on, that I’m particularly alarmed at the growing tendency amongst conservative American Christians to state that they do not believe that they are required to honor or be subject to the current U.S. government even in matters lawful or indifferent. Often this claim is buttressed by the belief that the only authority they have to honor and be subject to is the Constitution, and that while they are subject to the highest law of the land, they are not subject to the actual magistrates who are called upon to interpret, apply, and enforce it. In practice, this often amounts to a refusal to accept or honor any authority one does not personally choose to recognize as legitimate. While this view may be gaining in popularity during the Obama administration, it was to be found during the administrations of Clinton and Bush as well.

Popular or not, the practice flies in the face of the biblical teaching that we are to be subject to all authorities, that we are to respect them, and that we are to obey their commands when they do not force us to disobey the law of God (Exodus 20:12, Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-18) . This is regardless of whether they are good authorities, and regardless of how they came to power. Let us recall that Paul was able to submit to the authority of a corrupt and incompetent Roman official like Festus and even honor him with the title kratistos – “most noble” because his authority and appointment ultimately came from God. Certainly in and of himself, there was nothing in Festus that was “most noble.”

It is my belief that our unwillingness to acknowledge or honor any authority we disapprove of is setting a terrible example for our children, and is contributing to the overall unwillingness in our society to acknowledge any authority in the family and the church as well. We are rapidly reaching the point as a culture where the only authorities we will honor are those we explicitly agree with, which in essence is saying that the only authority we acknowledge, is our own. We have gone from “Thy will be done” to “My will be done.”

Some Christians will argue that the current situation is different, that the current administration is worse than any other that Christians have ever had to endure. This  claim is nothing short of ridiculous. Historically Christians have had to submit to far worse governments than we do today and indeed our Christian brothers and sisters in many foreign countries are today submitting to and honoring leaders and governments far, far, worse than that of the United States. A dose of historical realism needs to enter into our deliberations at some point and there has to be an application to us to be found in the fact that Paul personally rendered honor to the corrupt appointees of dictators and Peter counseled slaves to be submissive even to harsh masters.

Charles Hodge, in his commentary on Romans 13, spells out the actual parameters of a Christian’s duty to submitting to and honor authority in detail and I’ve taken the liberty of copying those sections here. I’ve also highlighted the sections that go most against my own natural tendencies:

“Verse 1. Let every soul be subject to the higher powers. The expression every soul is often used as equivalent to every one; it is at times, however, emphatic, and such is probably the case in this passage. By higher powers are most commonly and naturally understood those in authority, without reference to their grade of office, or their character. We are to be subject not only to the supreme magistrates, but to all who have authority over us. The abstract word powers or authorities ( ἐξουσὶαι ) is used for those who are invested with power, Luke 12:11; Ephesians 1:21; 3:10, etc. etc. The word ( ὑπερὲχων ) rendered higher, is applied to any one who, in dignity and authority, excels us. In 1 Peter 2:13, it is applied to the king as supreme, i.e. superior to all other magistrates. But here one class of magistrates is not brought into comparison with another, but they are spoken of as being over other men who are not in office. It is a very unnatural interpretation which makes this word refer to the character of the magistrates, as though the sense were, ’Be subject to good magistrates.’ This is contrary to the usage of the term, and inconsistent with the context. Obedience is not enjoined on the ground of the personal merit of those in authority, but on the ground of their official station.

Not only is human government a divine institution, but the form in which that government exists, and the persons by whom its functions are exercised, are determined by his providence. All magistrates of whatever grade are to be regarded as acting by divine appointment; not that God designates the individuals, but it being his will that there should be magistrates, every person, who is in point of fact clothed with authority, is to be regarded as having a claim to obedience, founded on the will of God. … There is no limitation to the injunction in this verse, so far as the objects of obedience are concerned, although there is as to the extent of the obedience itself. That is, we are to obey all that is in actual authority over us, whether their authority be legitimate or usurped, whether they are just or unjust. The actual reigning emperor was to be obeyed by the Roman Christians, whatever they might think as to his title to the sceptre. But if he transcended his authority, and required them to worship idols, they were to obey God rather than man. This is the limitation to all human authority. Whenever obedience to man is inconsistent with obedience to God, then disobedience becomes a duty.

It is clear that this passage (vers. 1, 2) is applicable to men living under every form of government, monarchical, aristocratical, or democratical, in all their various modifications. Those who are in authority are to be obeyed within their sphere, no matter how or by whom appointed. It is the ουσαι ἐξουσὶαι , the powers that be, the de facto government, that is to be regarded as, for the time being, ordained of God. It was to Paul a matter of little importance whether the Roman emperor was appointed by the senate, the army, or the people; whether the assumption of the imperial authority by Caesar was just or unjust, or whether his successors had a legitimate claim to the throne or not. It was his object to lay down the simple principle, that magistrates are to be obeyed. The extent of this obedience is to be determined from the nature of the case. They are to be obeyed as magistrates, in the exercise of their lawful authority.”

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Responses

  1. Thanks for this timely reminder.

  2. Pastor Webb,

    This is very good. Thank you. The Lord be with you and yours.

  3. Of course, it’s possible to show respect for the man and for the office while, at the same time, heavily criticizing his policies…

  4. Richard,

    Sure, but I don’t think the Pastor was saying we may not criticize his policy.

  5. Andy – have you gotten your citizenship yet?

  6. Hi Richard, of course we can take issue with the policies of the civil magistrate. The Apostles certainly took issue with the policy of the Sanhedrin. I myself have frequently criticized the decisions of the civil magistrate on issues like abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia. However, as we do that, we need to do it respectfully and without dishonoring those whom God has put in authority over us. A child ordered by a father not to go to church, should resist that command, but do so respectfully and indicating that they cannot obey because doing so would involve disobeying God.

    Daniel – no I haven’t yet gotten my citizenship. I’m sorry, I know my inertia creates heaps of trouble for anyone with Top Secret clearance.

  7. [...] this end,  Andy Webb at Building Old School Churches has a nice post that seems to flesh this out a little [...]

  8. It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry reading this post, so imbued as it is in postmodernism.

    Perhaps it just should have been entitled, ‘I’ve finally got a President I love — OBEY’.

    I can’t think of any instance among the American people — and I’m an extensive reader of both sides of the political spectrum — where anyone advocated ‘disobeying’ this administration. Even if there were, there is little to no leeway for any type of disobedience towards the Progressives — civil or otherwise. Everyone is cowed into submission, for better or worse.

    The scales may fall from your eyes yet. I wonder what you wrote about President Bush. Did you ask people to obey him, too? He and the present incumbent seem pretty similar. Obama’s laws will simply pile up on Bush’s. But, they’ll be so much ‘nicer’ because they’ll be Progressive laws.

  9. Dear Churchmouse,

    Thank you for commenting. You’ll notice in the first paragraph I state: “I will confess that I don’t like submitting to authorities I don’t respect or agree with, and as a result, submitting to the current U.S. administration has been hard.” I’m fairly certain that anyone who knows me would laugh their heads off at even the suggestion of your alternate title.

    Also, I’m wondering if you could substantiate your claim that this is “post-modernism” given that in the post I’m simply restating what the Bible, the Westminster Confession, and Charles Hodge say about submitting to, honoring, and acknowledging the civil magistrate. I even point out places where the apostles do exactly that. Was Paul “imbued” with “postmodernism” when he called Festus, “most noble?”

    From your response I’m not sure you read the entire article, at no point do I laud Obama’s laws, or those of the former president. I simply state that we have a duty to honor the magistrate.

    If you would, please present a biblical argument that Christians a) don’t have to honor the magistrate, b) don’t have to acknowledge his authority, c) don’t have to obey his lawful or indifferent commands.

    • Hi, It just seemed a bit, ‘Leave the Left alone!!’ and viewed through a relativist prism.

      Therefore, sincere apologies if I misunderstood, but I did pick up on these bits (emphasis mine): ‘Some Christians will argue that the current situation is different, that the current administration is worse than any other that Christians have ever had to endure. **This claim is nothing short of ridiculous**.’ Also: ‘It is my belief that our unwillingness to acknowledge or honor any authority we disapprove of is setting a **terrible example** for our children.’

      And: ‘I’m particularly **alarmed** at the growing tendency amongst **conservative** American Christians to state that they do not believe that they are required to honor or be subject to the current U.S. government even in matters lawful or indifferent.’

      So, the red flags went off.

      I would have given it a more impartial title, one omitting the President’s name. I read something on the same passage last week. It seemed to be in reference to a European leader but couched in more general terms.

      As to the request for a Biblical argument, here’s one from the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (excerpts follow):

      http://www.epc.org/about-the-epc/pastoral-letters/civil-disobedience/

      The Christian’s supreme loyalty and devotion is to God. (Matthew 22:37; Acts 4:29; Philippians 2:10, 11) He must never compromise loyal obedience to the revealed authority of God’s Word.

      What then is a Christian’s responsibility when civil laws are bad? Martin Luther King, Jr. had one solution: good laws are to be obeyed, but bad laws are to be disobeyed…Such action, if it is necessary, must be as a last resort. It must be preceded by searching the Scripture, much prayer and consulting with the Church. Christians must never operate on the principle that the end justifies the means. We must remember the warning Scripture gives to those who say, “Let us do evil that good may result.” Paul writes, “Their condemnation is deserved.” (Romans 3:8b)
      ——————————–

      If one were to never disobey unjust rulers, there never would have been a United States of America, a more egalitarian France or an English Civil War (bringing about a post-Restoration England which redressed the balance the monarchy previously held, although not immediately).

      I agree that there is nothing to give rise to disobedience of the law currently — let’s pray it stays that way. And, let us pray that God guides the President and his administration.

  10. Andy–thank you for your work. I have greatly enjoyed reading the blog and consider this site a service to Christ’s Church. You have thought long on practical issues facing Old School Presbyterians, and deal with these in a fair and Biblical manner.

    As far as the current discussion on lawful resistance, could it be helpful in this discussion to say that:

    1)Christians must not engage in reckless speech or violence, but are free to disagree with the civil magistrate when they fail to uphold their vows to defend and preserve the constitution, which is the sacred compact upon which our republic was founded
    2) When the national government fails to uphold its end of the bargain, the people have a right to peacefully assemble and petition the government with their grievances
    3) Having exhausted all avenues of petition, the people as a body of citizens loyal to the law as originally given peacefully and respectfully dissolve the bonds of union, as was done in 1776 and 1861.

    So, the emphasis would be on adherence to the constitution and respectful criticism based on vows taken by our leaders. Just wondered if this could help.
    Again, thank you for your work.

  11. Good job! Very good work in your writing and a point that I have examined myself with often- as I sometime disagree with the powers that be. So your writing was not in vain and a repentant heart resulted.

  12. Andy,

    I appreciate your concerns. I had a new member of my congregation tell me a story the other day that illustrates this attitude. He was working on a construction site, and rather than using the portable toilet that was provided, he decided to urinate in the woods nearby. One of his supervisors corrected him, saying that local laws required him to use the proper facilities, and he responded by telling the guy that Jesus was his king and therefore he could go wherever he pleased!

    There is, however, a difficult question that emerges in this discussion that I have a hard time sweeping away, even with the clear teaching of Romans 13. It is an old question that, to my knowledge, dates back to the struggles of the Covenanters and Samuel Rutherford’s work, entitled “Lex Rex”. The question is this: Which is the higher authority in the civil government–the law or the king? If the answer is the king, then so long as he doesn’t transgress the law of God, the civil magistrate may do whatever he wishes regardless of what the civil law says, and we as his subjects are bound to obey. But if the answer is the law (as it is in a constitutional republic), then the king who seeks to exercise his power in opposition to the civil law must be seen as a criminal, and then are we not bound to bring him to justice rather than submit to his unauthorized abuse of power?

    This question becomes every trickier when we consider that the meaning of our constitution has changed over time through the inappropriate process of judicial review, so that those who uphold the “new” meaning of the constitution that has developed through Supreme Court rulings do so illegitimately. In other words, when President Obama acts contrary to the original intent of the Constitution, he often does so with the approval and upon the authority of many former Supreme Court justices who likewise abused their power before him.

    I definitely tend to lean toward the view that you articulated in your post, but I find this question about the relationship between the king and the law hard to get my brain around, and obviously the implications are enormous. Any thoughts?


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