Among the books in my study are eight or ten commentaries on the Epistle to the Romans. All of them confirm the obvious meaning and force of these words of the Apostle Paul: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.… The powers that be are ordained of God” (13:1). Christians are to submit themselves to the civil authorities.
Someone will say, “What if these authorities are ungodly and require things of us that are contrary to the will of God?” The answer is: A ruler could not be much more ungodly than Nero, the supreme head of state at die time Paul wrote these words.
One could indeed point to Peter and John, who were arrested in Jerusalem and commanded no longer to preach in the name of Jesus Christ, whereas Christ had commanded them to preach in his name. This was a direct conflict, and the disciples answered, “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things … we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19, 20).
But note carefully: in this case of direct conflict, they could do nothing else but obey God rather than men; yet they did not resist arrest, nor did they rally the disciples to try to overpower the authorities. It is occasionally necessary for a Christian to suffer for doing what is right. In such cases, he should go on and do the thing that God requires and accept punishment if it comes. In this way he is being subject to the civil powers, even though he has put his allegiance to God first.
The occasional, very rare conflicts between the demands of the state and the commands of God must not be allowed to obscure the fact that the powers that be are ordained of God. Paul goes on to say, “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.”
One famous commentator writes: “There are indeed always some tumultuous spirits who believe that the kingdom of Christ cannot be sufficiently elevated, unless all earthly powers be abolished, and that they cannot enjoy the liberty given by him except they shake off every yoke of liftman subjection. This error.…” Let me identify the commentator lest it be assumed that this is a newsman speaking of recent lawless activities. His name is John Calvin. Sometimes it is good to go back several hundred years, away from current controversies, to get a view of Scripture that cannot be colored by these present concerns.
The Law Of The Land
In essence, the thirteenth chapter of Romans is telling us that Christians are to obey the law of the land because it actually does, in general, approve what is orderly and disapprove what is wrong. Even the poorest governments do this. Moreover, even a Nero-type government is God’s instrument to enforce lawful conduct. This is a hard pill for some (though not all) to swallow today, but not nearly so hard as it was for the Jews of Paul’s day who were chafing under a Gentile tyranny.
Today we must face the often repeated question, “What is the law of the land?” It is a difficult question, a frighteningly up-to-date one, and one that must be solved. Jesus said, “If a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” In America we have a kingdom divided against itself, and you and I are squarely in the middle of the clash. One voice says: The Constitution of the United States, with its associated documents, is the law of the land, and the Supreme Court of the United States is its interpreter. Another voice says: The Supreme Court has misinterpreted the Constitution, and the state will abide by what it deems to be a better interpretation of the Constitution.
We citizens are caught in the squeeze. Suppose we, as Christians, want to be subject unto the higher powers. Who are they? To which of the conflicting voices shall we listen? The Bible gives us some help: Paul directs Christians to submit to the supreme Roman officials—those who had the power of the sword and who collected taxes—rather than to the Jewish leaders. Almost everyone agrees that these are times of increasing tension, and that something needs to be done. At the same time, ironically, many people immediately criticize a person who tries to do something or even to say something directly on the subject.
One, Two, Or Fifty?
By saying that America is a kingdom divided against itself and that you and I are caught in the middle, I mean that there is a clash between the concepts of states’ rights and of federal government. Basically, we need to decide whether we are to be “one nation, under God,” or two (if not fifty). We cannot be both. It almost infuriates some of us to hear someone say that, because we want desperately to have the advantages of both; the thought that we cannot is terribly frustrating. Moreover, we hate to look the matter squarely in the face lest the answers that emerge be other than those we want.
I do not say these things to make anyone uncomfortable, or to take advantage of friendship or of freedom of the pulpit. I say these things because I care—because I care about you, about the people of our state and nation, and about the testimony of the Christian Church. I say these things because something needs to be said, solutions need to be sought and found. If what is said does not commend itself to your best knowledge of God’s will and Word, then it can be discarded and other approaches made. Let us at least think.
We need to decide whether we are first of all Americans, or first of all citizens of our individual state; whether in cases of conflict we follow United States law or state law; whether in matters of interpretation we follow Supreme Court rulings, or local rulings, or our own personal opinions; whether those chosen by the people at large to represent Americans represent us, or whether we are going to be an alien part of America, viewing others with suspicion and being looked upon by others as not a part of the whole.
The executive secretary of the General Council of the Presbyterian Church in the U. S., in speaking to a stewardship conference several years ago, pointed out an intriguing and perplexing problem. He said that a man who is trusted in his own town and his own presbytery immediately becomes suspect when he is called to serve on one of the denominational boards or agencies. How true this is. Men who would be beloved pastors of local churches are distrusted when they begin to represent the General Assembly.
The same thing is true in civil affairs. Men who would be highly honored for their work in a local community are viewed with suspicion and often bitterly criticized when they bend the same efforts in the service of the nation. The reason may be that in order to serve a whole nation they cannot be partial to any one section of it and thus do not entirely please anybody.
There is also more than a tendency among some people of our area to view our national leaders as—of all things—our enemies! This, I submit, must be a case of mistaken identity—unless we do not consider ourselves Americans, or unless we presume to declare the rest of the country un-American. For the sake of illustration, what about the nurse’s aid who said of the death of President Kennedy, “He got what was coming to him”? Or the students and—did I hear it wrong?—teachers who cheered when they got the news? Or the college students who grabbed each other and danced with glee? Was there a state legislator who clapped in a public meeting? A repairman said in my home, “I am not surprised that it happened, because there are so many people who hate him.” What kind of twist caused a university student to publish, on the very day of his death, “Every thoughtful American should hate Kennedy”?
People in national offices were chosen by a majority of Americans to be our leaders. If we do not acknowledge them as our leaders, we cut ourselves off from a majority of the American people. We do not need to approve everything they do, any more than the Old Testament prophets approved all their leaders did; but we do need to acknowledge that they are, in fact, our legitimate leaders. We should bend every effort to sway them in the right direction through letters and prayers. But when we cut ourselves off from them, we have a kingdom divided against itself, and we are then forced to decide between state and nation.
We are never helped, however, to see the distinction clearly. No one lines up before us all the advantages of being an entity unto ourselves as over against all the advantages of being a part of the nation. We are led to assume that we can have both. We want the military protection, the federal subsidies, the postal system, the TVA, the social security program, and all the rest; and yet we want to govern ourselves. We are like a dependent son trying to shake off all parental control before he is able or willing to support himself. It is a common problem, very trying in a family but tragic in a nation. Furthermore, the history that is being written day by day is demonstrating to us that such dualism will not work.
Preacher In The Red
It was my first big church wedding. At the rehearsal the evening before, I had noted that the couple appeared to be more than usually nervous, so I had tried to ease their tenseness. “You do not have to worry about a thing. I will keep everything under control. All you need to do tomorrow is follow exactly everything that I do.”
Now the ceremony was nearly over, and nothing had gone amiss. The couple had received communion and were kneeling in front of me for the benediction. As I bowed my head and began to pray, I sensed that something was going wrong. I opened my eyes a bit—and I was stunned. True to my instructions the couple were following my lead. Like swords crossed as a honor walkway, they and I had our arms raised and almost touching, as I stood there pronouncing the benediction in the traditional arm-raised style.—The Rev. HENRY T. MONEY, minister, Hooker Memorial Christian Church, Greenville, North Carolina.
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I realize that a state has the right to govern itself as long as it does not conflict with the Constitution; but who is to decide whether or not state procedures conflict with the Constitution—the states themselves, or the Supreme Court? It is becoming apparent that what we vaguely refer to as “our Southern way of life” is in some ways incompatible with the “American way of life,” and we are being forced to decide whether to be Americans first or Southerners first.
The disagreement is not on a wide range of things. We are forging ahead industrially, economically, educationally, and in almost every other way along with the rest of the nation. We can keep most aspects of our Southern way of life—the graciousness, the refinement, the genteelness, the friendliness, the personal interest in one another.
About the only thing that is likely to have to go is our separateness. Even here, all that makes us different from other parts of the country is the laws on our books. Separation is largely practiced all over America, but it is not written on the books and it is not supposed to be practiced in public places. The federal government is not actually creating the problem. The problem is just naturally with us as population of the races increases, as intelligence and education increase, and as people, through modern communications media such as television, have their desires whetted. The government stirs the problem and aggravates it, forces us to deal with it, and at the same time makes it hard for us to deal with it; but it does not create the problem.
The thorn that is driving itself into my conscience is a growing conviction that those who want to abolish forced segregation are basically right, just as those who wanted to abolish slavery were basically right, and for just about the same reasons.
To summarize: God requires us to be in subjection to the higher powers, the “powers that be.” It is clear in the thirteenth chapter of Romans that Paul meant the Roman government rather than the subordinate Jewish state or the little Christian community.
As long as we have a conflict between state and nation, we have what Christ called a kingdom divided against itself, which cannot stand. The only feasible solution, if we are to have “one nation, under God,” and not two, or fifty, is to recognize, in cases of conflict, the authority of federal law as federally interpreted. The main area in which we are being pressed to change is that of forced segregation.
May God enable us to move toward peace and cooperation, not toward conflict and violence.
George W. Long is pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Tupelo, Mississippi. A graduate of Wheaton College (A.B.) and Columbia Theological Seminary (B.D.), he has the Ph.D. degree from the University of Edinburgh and the D.D. from Bellhaven College. He preached this sermon to his people in December, 1963.
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