For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:3-4, ESV)
Can we all please take a moment to acknowledge the elephant in the room?
In an example of a contrast that could not be starker, as the Saints and former San Diego Charger Drew Brees were reinforcing their closing lead over the Colts this evening, on the other channel, the district attorney was on the local news to express his sorrow over the tragedies that have come upon these children: first, that it happened, and second, that they cannot all be kept together in order to support each other through these horrific times. He also tipped his hand regarding the county’s case against the parents: they believe that the “cumulative effect” of repeated, habitual corporal discipline in the same location can, over time, cause toxic amounts of potassium to be released into small bodies, resulting in cardiac arrest. But they are still waiting on the coroner’s report to be sure.
On its own, this is one thing. But add to it the fact that another of their lovely children is simultaneously hospitalized in critical condition, from child abuse injuries. Action News’ Debby Cobb reported late last night that she had taken a turn for the worse, and late tonight said her “condition is deteriorating”, so please keep her in your prayers.
We know this family. Our hearts are broken. We have been to their home and benefited from their hospitality. The meek mother and daughters were welcome guests at Ava’s baby shower. Their love for their children was apparent. Out of respect for the family, we don’t want to speculate. We weren’t there the other night when it all went down, and under the law, they are innocent until proven guilty and condemned by a jury of their peers. God has not made me a judge, and I am only reporting what was released to the media outlets by the police and district attorney. But I need to talk about how Reformed theology speaks to this situation, and what we can learn from it, and how we all ought to change our hearts going forward, according to Scripture and the Confessions.
There is an unfortunate tendency for Christians to think that they can do no wrong, and that everything bad that happens to them is not of God, but is a conspiracy or attack from the devil or the so-called Secular World (a.k.a. liberals and New-Agers). It is this issue that I want to address, as it relates to evangelical Christians in general, especially in a backwoods corner such as the north valley. I want to stress that I am not speaking about the particular situation I have mentioned, other than the fact that it brings these sentiments to light in all those acquainted with it.
First, and most importantly, God is sovereign, and he is not surprised by untimely deaths. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 10:29-31, ESV). We must take comfort in the fact that everything is working according to his perfect plan, and that this crazy world in which we are living is in the end going to prove to be the best of all possible worlds, in that God will get more glory in the end because things happened this way than we would if they happened differently.
Second, I want to talk about the Reformed doctrine of the two kingdoms, which topic will take up the remainder of this post. This doctrine comes from the Scriptural teaching that God has not only sovereignly ordained the government of the Church, but he has also sovereignly ordained the governments of nations, states, counties, and cities.
It is the duty of the people to pray for magistrates, to honour their persons, to pay them tribute and 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 magistrate’s just and legal authority, nor free the people from their obedience to him: from which ecclesiastical persons are not exempted; much less hath the Pope any power or jurisdiction over them in their dominions, or over any of their people; and least of all to deprive them of their dominions or lives, if he shall judge them to be heretics, or upon any other pretense whatsoever. (WCF 23.4)
Civil magistrates being set up by God for the ends aforesaid; subjection, in all lawful things commanded by them, ought to be yielded by us in the Lord, not only for wrath, but for conscience’ sake; and we ought to make supplications and prayers for kings and all that are in authority, that under them we may live a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty. (1689 LBC 24.3)
The Westminster Confession goes on in chapters 30 and 31 to describe the distinct spheres of the church officers civil magistrate. Luther wrote about these two “kingdoms” in his book On Secular Authority, but I make the following quotes from his sermon on 1 Peter 2:1: “It is this way: Our sins being blotted out through the blood of Christ, we need not to make remuneration or render satisfaction for them; we are children of grace and enjoy forgiveness. Nevertheless, inherent sin is not entirely purged out, or mortified…” (Martin Luther, Sermon for the Third Sunday after Easter; 1 Peter 2:1). In the Lutheran view, even if the entire world were to be converted to Christianity, with remission already being made for their sins, their sins would still be in need of mortification. The world would still be a world full of sinners, and for this reason, a civil government is still necessary to keep us in line.
“Peter goes on to say: ‘Be subject to every ordinance of man…whether to the king…or unto governors’; again, ‘Servants, be in subjection to your masters…also to the froward.’ How is it consistent with royal citizenship in a celestial country to be a pilgrim on earth? How can we live here with wives and children, houses and lands, and being citizens under a temporal government, and yet not be at home? There is a distinction here which, as before said, was at first difficult for the beloved apostles themselves to understand. But to Christians, especially those of today, it should be clear. Christ and the apostles do not, in this teaching, design the rejection of external government and human authority—what Peter here terms ordinances of men. No, they permit these to remain as they are; moreover, they enjoin us to submit to and make use of them…” (ibid.)
We “make use of them” in various means, in that they make daily life function and offer us protection from wicked men, but also in that the laws and the enforcement of those laws help keep our own sinful natures in check and help us to mortify our sin.
“Every Christian, be he lord or servant, prince or subject, should conduct himself as befits his station, using in trust whatever God has given him—dominion and subjects, house and home, wife and children, money and property, meat and drink. He is to regard himself solely as a guest of earth, as one eating his morsel of bread or taking his lunch in an inn; he must conduct himself in this earthly harbor as a pious guest.” (ibid.)
Christian, do you live as a polite guest in this nation? …in this state? …in this county? …in this city? Or are you constantly at odds with it?
Now let us go straight to the source, with this decidedly un-American section from Paul’s letter to the Romans:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” Romans 13:1-7, ESV
Paul clearly teaches that if one is imprisoned, it is more likely that the one is deserving of chastisement than that he is unlawfully imprisoned. I am not denying that false imprisonment occurs, merely that it is the exception, not the rule. If Paul, who himself was imprisoned innumerable times for the gospel, said this about the tyrannical government of the pagan Roman Empire in the first century, how much more in this modern, post-Christian government, fashioned after the Reformed polity with distribution of powers, in which freedom of worship has been established and the slaves have been emancipated.
As it concerns the situation at hand: a lot of people in the local home school clubs are in flat-out denial. Pastors are declaring from the pulpit that this couple is being falsely accused merely for being “salt and light.” On the other side, local newspaper website comment threads are filling up with people blaming CPS and the System.
But if you want to know who to blame, all you have to do is look in the mirror.
When bad things happened to so-called good people in the New Testament, Jesus said, “Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you all will likewise perish” (Luke 13:4b-5, ESV). In saying this, Jesus declared that all Adam’s offspring are likewise guilty and deserving of all the bad things that happen to everybody else. (This is also why those false teachers who claim that Haiti got what she deserved should be trembling in their boots.)
Christians are still corrupt. Left to our own devices, we are prone to all kinds of aberrations. In order to mortify sin, believers must submit themselves to a covenant community, where elders can practice church discipline and call them to account for their errors. The same fundamentalist independent spirit that causes Christians to refuse to submit themselves to the covenant community is manifest in the broad anti-denominationalism which causes pastors to seek to be accountable to no one. It can also be manifest in some families which home school not out of necessity (e.g. missionaries, farmers, special needs, or those who, like my sister’s family, have lived out in the middle of nowhere where there are no schools), but because they believe they know better than professional educators and the government. Look—professional educators with a five-year college education are necessary for this simple reason: kids are a handful. Moreover, this constant opposition to the government needs to be tempered with this fact: our government was structured to resemble Presbyterian polity, under the premise that we are all corrupt, but, when we get together, we can hold each other accountable through checks and balances. Raising kids is hard, especially in isolation. In a school, teachers are trained to spot the signs, so that you and your children can get the help you need before things get out of hand. In a church, seminary-educated pastors and elders—even Sunday school teachers—are likewise trained to spot the signs and doctrinal errors and bring the necessary intervention.
This fundamentalist, narcissistic spirit seems to be the spirit of the age. R. Scott Clark writes in Recovering the Reformed Confessions, “The purpose of the fable of Narcissus is to warn of the danger of self-absorbtion and to warn against mistaking subjective experience for objective reality” (p. 17). Many Christians use the false logic that says, “I am a Christian; I think ____; therefore, ____ is Christian, and anti-____ is anti-Christian.” Along these lines there is the potential for people to harp on their own interpretation of one portion of Scripture and run with it, rather than taking the written revelation as a whole. For example:
“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6, ESV).
- This is not an absolute promise. We all know someone or have been someone who in fact grew up in the covenant community but walked away from the faith in their adulthood, so God-given natural revelation shows us that there are limits to the possible meanings of this text.
- This is not actually what the Bible says. The text does not include “should go” in the Hebrew, and the verse is more likely a warning rather than a promise; it should probably be rendered: “If you train up a child to go after his own way, when he is old he will be stuck in it.” In other words, if you teach a child to follow his own path, as it were, he will stay on that path. With this reading, this verse speaks more about the narcissism I have mentioned than to the particular home school ethic which has embraced it.
“Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die” (Prov. 23:13, ESV).
- Consider that in Exodus 21:20 the Holy Spirit acknowledges that this same rod can be lethal in the wrong hands.
- We interpret the Old Testament with the New. Whatever Jesus or his brothers or the apostles say about a subject takes precedence over what was said in the Old Testament:
And Jesus did say, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea” (Mark 9:42, NASB), and, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:40, ESV). I think of the scene in Mel Gibson’s Passion, where the Roman soldiers were flogging our Lord and Maker. Could I be one of those soldiers, methodically counting each lash out loud as his back splits open and his sacred blood spills out on the ground…
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a, ESV).