Have you heard the latest joke about Bill and Hillary? You probably have. Americans spend more time lampooning their elected officials than they do listening to them.
Disrespect for politicians runs deep in contemporary American culture. “President of the United States of America” is no longer at the top of the list of occupations parents would choose for their children. Even pastoral ministry ranks higher!
We see disrespect in the political caricatures and the angry letters on the op/ed page of the newspaper. We hear it in the angry, ill-informed opinions on talk radio. We also hear it in the running jokes and nasty one-liners on late night television. Comedian Jay Leno was asked last week if he worried about the damage his jokes do to the reputations of public figures. “My job is to make the joke funny,” Mr. Leno said. “If a few people get killed during the monologue, that’s their problem.”
It must be admitted that some politicians have earned the scorn of their voters. Few of them treat one another with respect. Political candidates distort the records of their opponents. They present unflattering or ridiculous images of them in their campaign ads. They label them with cheap insults.
Like everyone else, Christians watch campaign ads, hear political jokes, listen to talk radio and read the newspaper. And like everyone else, Christians have contempt for many of their leaders. But does the Bible allow us to despise our politicians? What does God have to say about the way we treat the President? What responsibilities do Christians have to their elected officials?
Romans 13 tells us to treat the President and other government officials with profound respect. It also tells us why we should treat them that way:
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 (v. 1).
This verse can be qualified in various ways. It must be compared, for example, to Peter’s testimony before the Sanhedrin: “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29). But we cannot escape what the verse demands: universal obedience to lawful government. Who must submit to the governing authorities? Everyone. In everything that is not contrary to the will of God, all of us are to submit ourselves to the government of the United States of America.
The reason for our submission is that every earthly authority has been established by God. No government exists apart from the sovereign will of God. As Martin Luther observed, “The hand that wields the sword is not the hand of man, but the hand of God.”
Americans sometimes forget that the command to submit to governing authorities applies to them. We live in a democracy in which we elect our own officials. It is easy for us to believe, therefore, that our government is chosen by us rather than by God. It is easy to believe that the American government rests on the will of the American people rather than on the will of God. Yet the Scripture says that whatever authorities exist have been established by God.
That is why it is wrong for Christians to ridicule Bill Clinton or any other elected official, past, present or future. For the past four years, William Jefferson Clinton has served as President of the United States of America by the will of God.
Romans 13 goes on to explain what it means to submit to the governing authorities. Submission means obedience to the law. It means doing what is right. It means paying taxes. It also means giving respect to public officials, according to their office:
Give everyone what you owe him… if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor (v. 7).
At the very least, this verse teaches us not to ridicule the President. As a man appointed by God to fulfill an important calling, he deserves respect and honor. We are not say things about him that are untrue, or that we do not know for certain to be true. To ridicule the President is to show disrespect for divine authority.
One way to show respect and honor to the President is to pray for him. When Paul gave Timothy instructions for worship, he started with prayer for governing authorities:
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 Tim. 2:1-2).
Much of our prayer for our governing authorities will be intercessory prayer. We will ask God to give the President wisdom, mercy, integrity, justice and so forth. At the same time, the Scripture instructs us to offer thanksgiving for him and for all those in authority.
The reason we are commanded to pray for our leaders is so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives. If we do not pray for our officials, then our lives will become divisive and noisy. The evangelical church does make a lot of noise in the political arena these days. One wonders if the lack of peace and quiet is at least partly due to prayerlessness.
It would have been appropriate for me to speak about God and the President some time after November 5, when our new President has been elected. By speaking about the subject now, I am making a point. Our Christian responsibilities to the President do not depend upon which man fills that office. Still less do our obligations depend upon the party to which he belongs. Give everyone what you owe him… if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org