Romans 13:1-7 – Good Citizenship

1960 Elementary Classroom

Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order. So live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible. Duly constituted authorities are only a threat if you’re trying to get by with something. Decent citizens should have nothing to fear.

Do you want to be on good terms with the government? Be a responsible citizen and you’ll get on just fine, the government working to your advantage. But if you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it. That’s why you must live responsibly—not just to avoid punishment but also because it’s the right way to live.

That’s also why you pay taxes—so that an orderly way of life can be maintained. Fulfill your obligations as a citizen. Pay your taxes, pay your bills, respect your leaders. (MSG)

Back in the day (way back!) when I was in elementary school every student received a grade on their report card for “citizenship.”  Even further back, my Dad’s report cards had grades for “deportment.” Both citizenship and deportment were words used by the public-school system to gauge how well individual students conducted themselves with the teacher’s authority, behaved with fellow students, and handled the responsibilities of their studies. It was a grade given for the overall obedience and submission of students with their duties and obligations, or the lack thereof.

Today’s New Testament lesson is one of those Scripture texts which has been used and abused throughout history. Since we no longer give grades on citizenship and deportment, a careful consideration of both what this biblical passage is, and is not, must be observed.

What Citizenship is Not: Irresponsible and Disobedient Injustice

Advocating a favored political philosophy or party to the point of avoiding a rival party or power and resisting their government through lack of submission, being uncivil and disrespectful, and stubbornly disobedient is poor deportment and will earn an “F” from God on the report card of life.

Picking-and-choosing which laws I will obey and which ones I will not is extremely far from the biblical teaching given. Rebellion against laws I do not like will only result in getting punished from the principal for being shortsighted and stupid.

On the other hand, blind and unthinking adherence to a government is irresponsible and can be unethical. Unjust leaders and immoral laws which merely champion certain people and not the common good of all need to be dislodged and dismantled. When one simply says, “I’m just doing my job,” or “I don’t want to get in trouble,” in the face of unjust laws and leadership, then we are complicit in the perpetuating of the evil person or system. Blind obedience keeps abusive people in the classroom.

Vigilante-ism is a form of “recess justice.” It is a refusal to accept what is taking place and takes matters into one’s own hands. Just before explaining citizenship, the Apostle Paul said, “Do not take revenge but leave room for God’s wrath,” and, “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:19, 21). There is no place for vigilante justice in the kingdom of God. At its basest form, vigilantes are resisting God’s justice and being extremely impatient with the divine plan.

Good Citizenship

What Citizenship is: Responsible and Submissive Justice

Submission is a choice. The word “submit” in the New Testament means “to place oneself under authority.” In other words, to submit to another person, group, system, or government is a human volitional choice. Obedience through coercion, as in totalitarian regimes, is not submission – it is oppression.

Good citizenship begins with humble submission to governing authorities who are trying to do their best and have everyone’s best interests at mind with responsible laws which benefit the common good of all. Most parents and school boards would do well to remember that.

Justice is primarily about provision, and not about being punitive. I realize that many, if not most, people use the term justice in the penal sense – wanting convictions and incarcerations when someone has committed a crime against the state and/or humanity. And, although this is a very important work of government, the biblical sense of justice is about provision – giving people their rights to life and liberty and ensuring that we all exist in an equitable form of union together as one people.

When people fall through the cracks of bureaucracy and do not have what they need to survive, let alone thrive, then this is an injustice which needs remedy sooner than later – without putting it off to another election cycle. So, put the spanking paddles of shame away (yes, kids at school got the paddle in my day) and instead find ways to uplift and support one another.

Responsible citizenship involves a proper deportment of volitional submission, careful obedience, proper payment of taxes for the benefit of all, and providing due respect to public servants. Keep in mind that the Apostle Paul originally wrote about how to conduct ourselves with government smack in the middle of a Roman Empire which was often fickle and careless about the rights of Christians, Jews, and others.

We submit not because we must, but because it is the right thing to do. To do otherwise is to not only violate the law but our consciences, as well.

Our consciences also need to be clear and clean about the need for justice in this old fallen world of ours. Christians have a continuing and outstanding debt to love one another. Having justice for some and injustice for others is not going to cut it with a Just God. Our Creator and Sustainer desires that every single individual on planet earth – regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, or any other human contrived social construct – have their needs met without prejudice, favoritism, or cronyism.

God’s original plan for the world includes an egalitarian society, so we must be careful to remember and work toward the ideal, while at the same time dealing graciously and resolutely with the realities of injustice all around us. I wonder what grade Jesus would give us so far this year for our deportment.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, just as you welcome us into your kingdom, help us to love each other deeply,
offer hospitality to one another without grumbling, encourage each to use the gifts we have received to serve others, and submit to the governing authorities with the good citizenship you have provided us so that every one of us will be a faithful steward of God’s grace in its various forms. Amen.

Revelation 2:1-7 – The Duty and Delight of Divine Love

love for Jesus

“Write this letter to the angel of the church in Ephesus. This is the message from the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand, the one who walks among the seven gold lampstands:

“I know all the things you do. I have seen your hard work and your patient endurance. I know you don’t tolerate evil people. You have examined the claims of those who say they are apostles but are not. You have discovered they are liars. You have patiently suffered for me without quitting.

“But I have this complaint against you. You don’t love me or each other as you did at first! Look how far you have fallen! Turn back to me and do the works you did at first. If you don’t repent, I will come and remove your lampstand from its place among the churches. But this is in your favor: You hate the evil deeds of the Nicolaitans, just as I do.

“Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. To everyone who is victorious I will give fruit from the tree of life in the paradise of God. (NLT)

One of the great tragedies of this world is a love which has grown cold. No one simply wakes in the morning and deliberately decides to withhold love. Instead, love is one of those qualities which needs continual attention. Love must be cultivated and tended. Small decisions of procrastination in overlooking the growing weeds in love’s garden or wandering away and forgetting to wander back are the more common ways of a love which is withering.

It is probably inevitable that love will ebb and flow because love is one of those wondrous animations which never remains still. Love is always moving, either growing with life each day or becoming small. In either case, the critical element to love is the lover’s attention to its object of love because it takes time for love to both develop into something beautiful and, conversely, to devolve into a shell of its former self.

So, I have just presented an agrarian metaphor. After all, I spent my entire childhood on an Iowa farm. There are yet other metaphors and images of love we can use. The Apostle John’s received revelation mentions the churches as “lampstands,” imaging Christians as light. Like the use of an electrical dimmer switch, we can control how bright the light can shine to observe all that it in the room. Or, we can lower the illumination to suit the purpose. Whichever image we employ with love, it rarely stands still or remains the same. Love does wax and wane over time.

Hosea Ballou quote

For love to endure it needs both duty and delight. Delight in love’s object without duty is mere sentiment. And duty without delight is maintaining the forms of love yet eviscerating it of all feeling and meaning. Couples and people grow apart when they cannot or will not hold both duty and delight together over a long period of time.

What is amazing to me about Revelation chapter two is that the risen and ascended Christ personally addresses the churches, his bride. I detect in the words of Jesus to the church at Ephesus a wound of the heart, a hurt in which duty has continued and delight has ebbed away. Jesus was looking for love, and he was finding his bride dutifully soldiering on with perseverance under suffering and yet drained of those little things that lovers do in the early days of their relationship – things which thoroughly express delight.

Oh, I really do get it. Being under continued hard circumstances can wear on us. In the effort to simply make it, we can retreat into the singular focus of getting necessary things done. And Jesus most certainly noticed and affirmed the Ephesian’s herculean effort of maintaining the hard work of faith in the middle of adversity. Since duty and delight need one another, Jesus knew it would not be long until the duty part of the equation would give way, unable to bear the weight of being out of balance.

C.S. Lewis quote

What was at risk for the Ephesian church was both their love for Jesus and love for one another. In another pair of loves meant to be held together, Jesus and his people are inseparable. To love the one is to love the other, and vice versa. The answer to the inability of holding love’s duty and delight, and love’s objects of God and each other is to turn around and begin again to do the things you did at first when the relationship was fresh. Paying attention to the little things adds up to a wondrous pile of love.

One of the lessons here is that all of us who value a strong work ethic must be thoroughly and continually motivated by a compassionate and generous spirit, or our love grows cold and becomes worthless. We must pay attention or find that we lose ourselves. The Apostle Paul addressed the same sort of malformed love to the church at Corinth:

“I may speak in different languages, whether human or even of angels. But if I don’t have love, I am only a noisy bell or a ringing cymbal. I may have the gift of prophecy, I may understand all secrets and know everything there is to know, and I may have faith so great that I can move mountains. But even with all this, if I don’t have love, I am nothing. I may give away everything I have to help others, and I may even give my body as an offering to be burned. But I gain nothing by doing all this if I don’t have love…. So, these three things continue: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, 13, ERV)

Receive today this blessing, my friends:

When you find your love has drifted and has fallen out of delight, may you pause, feel the strain, and open to Love’s possibilities once again.

When your words and your actions are mundanely parroted day in and day out, may you again hear the song of Love’s first music within you.

When you discover affection is unraveling, replaced with a staid duty, may your soul be kissed once again with Love’s tender touch.

Now is the time to take the chalice of Love and drink deeply of the divine, reawakening to the longing of Love which has lain dormant within.

For God is Love, and Love is God. With God, it is always Spring.