On December 17, 2010, a young Tunisian named Mohammed Bouazizi walked up to a local government building and set himself on fire. Earlier that day, the police had confiscated his pushcart for selling vegetables, again. When he tried to pay the fine to get it back, the officer slapped him around, spat in his face, and insulted his dead father.
Having silently endured such humiliations and injustice for years, Bouazizi decided it was time to speak up. So he went to the local government office to file a complaint. Unfortunately, he received about the same treatment from the local authorities as he had from the police. Apparently, this was one injustice too many. An hour later he returned to the government building, doused his body with fuel, and set himself on ablaze. He died a few weeks later.
But when Bouazizi struck that match, it wasn't just himself he was setting on fire, it was the nation itself. People took to the streets in protest, and within weeks the dictatorial government of Tunisia had toppled. And it didn't end there. Sparks from that revolutionary fire drifted eastward, and soon there were flames in the streets of Cairo, and that government came down as well. Currently, like brushfire, protests are breaking out all across that region, as people take to the streets in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and Iran.
For weeks now we've been watching it unfold on the nightly news, wondering what to make of it all. Should we stand up and cheer or run for cover? On Sunday mornings we've been praying, but do we know what we're praying for?
I was at the health club the other day. Usually I like to get lost in my own thoughts when I exercise, but on this day I couldn't keep my eyes off one of the TV monitors on the wall which showed footage from Cairo and other hot spots across the region. I looked around and noticed that nobody was watching The Price is Right, or Judge Judy or whatever was on other screens. They were watching what was happening in Tahrir Square and wondering what it might mean for us and for the world. That's when I decided we needed to talk about these things in church.
Every so often here at Grace we take a Sunday to think biblically about some current event or controversial issue facing the church or the world. Over the years we've thought together about terrorism, about tsunamis, about sexuality, and about the economy. Our goal in these messages is to offer a set of biblical propositions that serve as a framework for thinking about and responding to these issues. We intentionally leave room for you to come to your own conclusions on some of the more controversial aspects of the question, but we want those conclusions to be grounded in biblical truth.
So let's think biblically about government. What exactly is the role of government? What responsibilities does it have to its people? What responsibilities do citizens have to their governments? How are we to respond to and pray for what's happening in the Middle East?
On Monday this week Pastor Jeanette and I were privileged to participate in a conference call that included two key leaders of the Christian community in Cairo, along with the editor of Christianity Today and a handful of Middle East experts. One of those Egyptian leaders was our partner, Ramez Attalah, President of the Bible Society of Egypt. It was a fascinating call, and I'll be sharing some of insights from it along the way.
Let me offer four propositions that will help us think biblically about government—our own government and governments that are coming under fire around the world.
Ordained by God
Our first proposition is that government has been ordained by God to preserve order, protect citizens, and promote righteousness. Let's begin in Romans 13: "Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established." The authorities that exist have been established by God. "Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right, and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good" (Romans 13:1-4).
God is pro-government. Given the fallen nature of this planet and the human race, God has decreed that some form of earthly oversight is necessary to bring order to society, to protect that society from evil forces within and without, and to promote God's concern for justice, goodness, beauty, compassion, and peace. While every human being and society has a God-given desire for these virtues, our sinful tendencies are constantly corrupting them and undermining God's interests. We need someone or something to restrain our foolish tendencies and to incite our better qualities.
All this to say, we may not always appreciate the state trooper and his radar gun, but would any of us feel safe on the highways with no speed limits and no law enforcement? We may resent the taxes withheld from our paychecks, but do we really believe the majority of people would contribute to the common good and relief of the poor if it was optional? We need government.
One of our Christmas gifts this year was the HBO series John Adams, so we've been watching it at home in the evenings. As I've watched the founding of our nation unfold on the screen, I've been struck by two things. First, I've been struck by how difficult it was to establish that first government. In that First Continental Congress, there were loud and eloquent and godly voices arguing against independence and urging loyalty to England. It took months of vigorous debate and political wrangling behind the scenes to gain the votes for independence.
Second, I was struck by how aware the framers were of their God-given stewardship over this fledgling nation. They were certainly not all Christians, but they were people of faith who believed they were accountable to their Creator for the welfare and prosperity of their fellow citizens. You hear that conviction in the opening lines of our Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men. … " Clearly, our founding fathers and mothers believed that government was ordained by God.
Two important qualifiers to this: First, this is not to say that God endorses every person who holds governmental office. God grants those in authority freedom to exercise that authority as they see fit, and they don't always exercise it rightly. From the Pharaohs of Egypt to the emperors of Rome to the monarchs of Europe to the dictators of the modern world—rulers have betrayed their God-given mandate. In a similar way, God grants citizens freedom to elect or appoint their leaders, but citizens don't always choose wisely. Hitler rose to power on a wave of popular support. The Third Reich was man's creation, not God's. God has ordained government, but God's will is not always done in the political realm, just as it is not always done in the personal realm.
Second, God has not ordained any particular form of government. Neither monarchy nor democracy nor anything in between is prescribed in the Scripture. Again, God ordains that there should be some form of government, and that government has certain responsibilities to fulfill, but time and circumstance allow for a variety of forms of government to be established. As Americans, we are certainly partial to democracy, and with good reason. We believe it is a just and effective form of government. Many would argue that it is firmly grounded in biblical principles. But it is not the only form of government that can serve God's purpose.
In our conversation with Ramez this week, he reminded us that the establishment of democracy in Egypt won't necessarily make things better for Christians and the work of the gospel. For instance, even though Egypt is an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, Christmas is a national holiday, simply because President Mubarak declared it to be so. When the majority population is calling the shots, that may no longer be the case. Every form of government comes with advantages and liabilities.
So God has not ordained any particular form of government, nor has he ordained every person who holds governmental office, but he has ordained government to preserve order, to protect citizens, and to promote righteousness.
So what is our responsibility to government? How are we to respond to the governments that exist, especially when they fail to fulfill their God-given mandate?
Our responsibilities to government
My second proposition this morning is that Christians are to cooperate with their government whenever possible, challenge their government whenever necessary, and pray for their government at all times.
Let's go to 1 Peter 2:
Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and commend those who do right. For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. … Show proper respect to everyone, love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king (1 Peter 2:13-17).
Christ-followers should be good citizens. If government is God's servant, then it only makes sense for us to cooperate with government whenever possible, which typically means obeying the laws of the land, paying taxes, voting in elections, serving in the armed forces when called upon, and generally contributing to the well-being of society. But there's more to it than just keeping the rules. Peter is also calling for a positive and respectful attitude toward government, even when we don't agree with that government.
Remember that Peter gave these instructions when Nero was ruling Rome. History tells us that Nero was a murderous, unstable, and foolish ruler. When the city of Rome nearly burned to the ground, he blamed it on the Christians and unleashed a wave of persecution against them. Chances are it was under Nero's rule that Peter was martyred for his faith, along with hundreds of other believers. And yet, even in that setting, Peter instructed believers to honor those in authority so conspicuously that other people would admire them for it.
I think it's fair to ask if that is the case today: Are the political attitudes of Christians toward government so positive and respectful that other people admire us for it? I'm afraid that's not always the case. That's why here at Grace we are committed to fostering a respectful, informed, non-partisan engagement with political affairs and government leaders. Wouldn't it be great for Christians to lead the way in cleaning up the toxic political atmosphere in our culture!
So we cooperate with our leaders whenever possible. But what do we do when that's not possible—when we don't agree with our leader's policies, or when the government fails to fulfill its God-given mandate? Sometimes we need to challenge our government and hold them accountable for their responsibilities. There are a variety of ways to do that.
First, we can disagree publicly and respectfully. Thankfully, our political system provides us with all kinds of ways to express and pursue our political opinions—we can vote people out of office; we can petition our leaders; we can write letters to the editor; we can post something on Facebook; you can even send emails to the pastor!
Secondly, we can protest. When the normal channels of influence have been exhausted, citizens may sometimes have to resort to more disruptive measures—boycotts, rallies, sit-ins, marches. Racial segregation in our country didn't come to an end until African Americans refused to accept it and took to the streets in protest. Many who led the way were inspired by biblical principles of equality and justice.
Third, we can disobey. When government forbids something that God commands, or commands something that God forbids, Christians must obey God. Throughout Scripture we find examples of people who righteously refused to cooperate with the authorities: the Hebrew midwives who defied Pharaoh's order to kill all the male newborns; Daniel refused to stop praying; Peter, who wrote these very words, refused to stop speaking in the name of Jesus even when he was so ordered by the governor. But even in these situations, the believers maintained a posture of respect for those in office and willingly accepted the consequences of their disobedience. Christians in our own country have gone to jail for acts of civil disobedience, some for blocking abortion clinics, some for blocking nuclear weapons facilities.
What we see happening in the Middle East is citizens holding their governments accountable for fulfilling their responsibilities. People have taken to the streets, walked off their jobs, and taken over public spaces. They're demanding better jobs, an end to corruption, and free elections. Some of those who took to the streets in Cairo were Christians and members of our sister church there. But the Christian leaders we spoke to there said they instructed their people to protest peacefully and respectfully—to call for reform without slandering the regime or wreaking havoc in the city.
There have even been times when citizens have felt compelled by conscience and even religious conviction to take up arms in order to bring down a corrupt or evil government. The American Revolution was inspired in part by preaching from church pulpits right here in Lexington and Concord. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the most respected Christian thinkers of the 20th century, concluded it was his duty as a Christian to assassinate Hitler. These are difficult matters on which not all Christians will agree.
But certainly there will be occasions when government leads in a direction that is contrary to God's purposes and our Christian convictions. When that happens, it is our responsibility to challenge that authority but to do so in a way that does not compromise the gospel of Christ.
So we cooperate with the government whenever possible, we challenge the government whenever necessary, but we pray for the government at all times. Paul says in his letter to Timothy, "I urge then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness" (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
The first thing Paul instructs this young pastor to do is to pray, and the first thing he tells him to pray for is those in authority. Regardless of our political point of view, it is our responsibility to pray for those who lead us, that they might have wisdom for the decisions they face, that they might be people of character and integrity, and that they might faithfully fulfill the demands of their office.
I was encouraged by President Obama's remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast this year. He articulated his faith in Christ as Savior and Lord, described his morning devotions, and confessed his dependence upon God in prayer. He mentioned three things in particular he prays for: 1) that he would be faithful to care for the poor and needy in our country, 2) that he would have humility to listen and learn from those who disagree with him, and 3) that he would walk more closely with God. Regardless of political alignments, I believe we can pray those same things for him and for all our leaders.
The nation of Egypt needs our prayers as they form a new government. It's not a simple task. Someone suggested that Egypt is like the dog who caught the car: what do they do with freedom now that they've got it? Winning freedom is one thing; ordering and maintaining it is another. One of the experts on the phone call reminded us that it took the American colonies seven years to win their independence, and seven or eight years to order it! Our Egyptian friends asked us to pray for two things in particular regarding their new government: that the Military Council leading the nation will include representatives from the Christian community in their deliberations, and that more radical elements will not co-opt the process. This would be the second miracle in Egypt.
King of all the earth
A third biblical proposition I have for you today is that God is King over all the earth and no respecter of nations. We read earlier from Psalm 47: "For God is the King of all the earth; sing to him a psalm of praise. God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne … for the kings of the earth belong to God" (Psalm 47:7-9). God loves all people everywhere, and he loves them equally. For some reason, this is not always an easy truth for God's people to embrace. The prophet Jonah couldn't understand God's compassion for the wicked city of Nineveh. The early Christians had a hard time believing that there was room in God's kingdom for Gentiles. Peter had to be told in a vision from heaven: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right" (Acts 10:34-35).
God loves those who aren't believers; they are his creation. He is as concerned about the nation of Bahrain as he is about the United States. There's a lot of debate these days about American "exceptionalism," and unfortunately it's become a very polarizing discussion. Is America an exceptional nation? It depends on what you mean by "exceptional." If it means unique, unusual, out-of-the-ordinary, then yes, America is certainly exceptional. Our prosperity, our freedoms, our diversity are quite remarkable. We are the most religiously diverse and religiously free nation in the world. But if by "exceptional" you mean privileged or favored, then the answer is no, at least from God's perspective. His love extends equally to all people, and his purposes embrace all nations.
There is no doubt that God has blessed America. We are grateful for that blessing, and eager for more of it. But he is just as eager to bless other nations as well, and we rejoice in that.
Our final proposition is that our ultimate allegiance is to Christ, and our highest calling is to bring the good news of the gospel to bear on the whole world. We are proud and grateful to be Americans, and rightly so. But as followers of Christ, we are first and foremost citizens of a heavenly kingdom and subjects of the Most High God. Jesus said, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" (Mark 12:17). We owe our nation loyalty, submission, and service. But we owe our lives and our love to God.
As we watch what happens in Egypt and beyond, we pray for justice and freedom, and we rejoice in the spread of democracy. But no matter what form of government emerges from these fires of revolution, our primary prayer and concern will be the same as it has always been: to share the love and truth of Christ with every people and every nation on earth.
There is a window of opportunity that may not be open for long. People's hearts and minds are open like never before. Relations between Christians and Muslims on a personal level are better than ever. We've heard stories of Muslims and Christians protecting each other's homes, providing human shields for one another as they gathered for prayer in the streets. The Bible Society in Egypt is already producing materials and mobilizing people to get the Good News into the hands of as many people as possible in the days to come. Normally they would not be permitted to hand out materials for free, but now, in this current transition, they are able to do so. They would welcome financial support and active partnership from Western churches.
So we celebrate justice and freedom wherever it breaks out in this world. And we watch eagerly and hopefully as the winds of change blow across the Middle East. But our deepest passion and highest calling is reserved for the advance of God's kingdom in Egypt and around the world.
For Your Reflection
How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition:
Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________
How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.