Letter to a Separated Married Couple

Reaching out to a married couple whose marriage is struggling can be a challenge. It is especially difficult when you’re not very close to the couple. Here’s an example of the kind of letter my wife and I have sent in the past to encourage husbands and wives to keep the covenant and remain loyal to one another.

We were grieved to learn that you are recently separated. It breaks our hearts to hear this, and as fellow disciples of Christ, we feel burdened to reach out to you and encourage you to remember the vows you took to remain loyal to one another until death separates you, for better or for worse. More pain is experienced in marriage and parenting than probably anywhere else in life. This is the cost of covenant-keeping love. It cost Christ his life to be in that kind of covenant relationship with the church. The path of hope is never the path of separation, and, while Christ’s grace is sufficient to heal us even after the most devastating decisions, let us not sin that grace may abound.

In Mark 10:9, Jesus explains that man does not have the right to separate what God has joined together in the covenant of marriage. The deepest reason for that prohibition of violating the covenant is that marriage was created by God, from the beginning, as a picture and expression of the covenant-keeping love of Christ and the church (Eph. 5:22–33). What that means is that we are always communicating something about the gospel by how we treat our spouse. The only question is whether we are accurately displaying the gospel or not.

We know that you already know all of this, but we want you to know that if you would ever be interested in meeting to talk about anything, please don’t hesitate to reach out. We would be more than happy to sit down with you to encourage and pray with you.

C.S. Lewis on the Modern State

“The modern state exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good—anyway, to do something to us or to make us something. Hence the new name ‘leaders’ for those who were once ‘rulers.’ We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, ‘Mind your own business.’ Our whole lives are their business… We are tamed animals.” —

“Now that [referencing Lewis’ quote] is what we are in a battle to resist as God’s people; and that’s what the churches right now who are meeting should remember, and continue to do.” — Joe Boot

Limited Authority [part 5]

“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to a king as supreme, or to governors as sent from him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” — 1 Peter 2:13-14

Lesser magistrates are delegated authority for the purpose of punishing the wicked and praising the good. That leads to one more important note to make about how we understand Peter’s instruction in this passage. John Gill says: “the Scriptures clearly teach that no human authority is intended to be unlimited.” Any human authority is, by its very nature, limited. Doug Wilson puts it this way:

“No creature has absolute authority. And this means that whenever we acknowledge the true authority of a creature, we are in that moment simultaneously acknowledging that there is a place where his authority ENDS. There is no way to grant authority to a creature, biblically speaking, without in the same breath acknowledging the necessity of this built-in limitation…

“John Knox used the example of a father who was taken by a fit, and who wanted to burn his house down. If his sons restrained him, preventing him for doing something like this, are they doing so as dutiful sons or as rebellious sons? The answer is obvious–dutiful sons. This kind of resistance can be offered to a genuine authority. Under certain circumstances, it must be offered. The fact that his sons restrained him did not amount to a denial that he was their father.”

But the fact of the matter is that because God is the only ultimate authority, every other authority, and every human office, has limits. We’re willing to grant this when it comes to geographical limits on authority. We understand that the mayor of Dallas doesn’t have the authority to set the speed limits on Main Street in Fairview, PA. We agree that if the governor of Ohio sent me a tax bill, I don’t need to worry about whether I’m violating 1 Peter 2 and Romans 13 if I don’t pay that bill. I can respectfully and cheerfully disregard it, because the governor of Ohio doesn’t have the jurisdiction to tax my property or income in Pennsylvania. And, as Wilson has emphasized, we can disregard him even if he tells us we may not disregard him. We understand the geographical boundaries—that makes it easy to see where the limits to the authority of an office lie.

But there are also constraints on the reach of an office’s authority into areas of your life. Church elders have a real authority, but we understand that’s within the limits of the actual authority of the office. If one of your church elders said to you: “You are only allowed to take a job we tell you you’re allowed to take,” you would instinctively understand that we don’t actually have the authority to control by fiat what job you work. And that doesn’t mean we therefore have no authority at all; it means we have stepped out beyond the authority of our office. The way Samuel Rutherford words it, with regard to a magistrate (but the same is true of a pastor), is that when a magistrate acts outside the scope of his office, he acts as a private individual, without the authority of office, and need not be obeyed in that specific instance. John Gill similarly says, “Out of his legitimate sphere, a magistrate ceases to be a magistrate.”

Now, in the elder example, it’s probably wise to pay heed to the opinion of your pastors as advice that may be followed as a recommendation. That’s actually a helpful parallel to the issue of civil government as well. You’re free to comply with an order that the magistrate has no authority to give. But it is not loving, and it is not honoring, to concede that an elder, or a magistrate, has that authority, when in fact he does not. And so we do have to be aware of the limits of the authority of an office. We’ll put a pin in that for now.

Limited Authority [part 4]

“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to a king as supreme, or to governors as sent from him…” — 1 Peter 2:13

Peter says to be subject to every human institution: whether to a king as supreme, or to the lesser magistrates—“governors, as those sent from him.” This refers to inferior, lower, authorities. In the Roman system, this was proconsuls and procurators, such as Pontius Pilate, Felix, and Festus, who had under the emperor the government of particular nations, provinces, and cities. In other words, we don’t really get to say, Well, I’m only going to do something if the king directly commands me to do something; I can ignore the proconsul. No, the proconsul has authority delegated from the king to carry out his rule in the jurisdiction assigned him by the king. Now, if he rules in a manner that contradicts the king, or reaches beyond the authority of his office as given by the king, then I can appeal to the king. But these lesser magistrates do have a real authority as well.

Peter says these governors are sent “to punish the evil and praise the good.” John Gill specifically noted that government is not to “praise the good” by heaping up a bunch of social programs or positing positive rights law and things like that; but, rather, they praise and promote the good by defending it from evil aggression. Gill says the magistrate praises the good “by protecting their persons, defending their properties, and preserving them in the peaceable enjoyment of their estates and possessions.” The other side is punishing the evil. God has delegated to the civil magistrate the power of the sword in order to be a servant of God for good, to establish justice and tranquility by punishing crime.

Again, there’s so much more to say about this than I have the time or space to say. Governments have, historically, punished as crime far more things than should actually be classified as crime. There is a difference between something that is a sin against God (and truly wicked as sin), but yet is not a crime requiring punishment by the civil magistrate, and actual crime. But this function of organized punishing of crime is prescribed by God in the Noahic covenant in Genesis 9—whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.

Because the civil magistracy receives its authority from the ordinance of God, rulers must never presume to act above or outside the Noahic commission, recognizing rather that they too are subject to the justice mechanism of the Noahic covenant. God has delegated the authority of the sword to civil government for certain ends only, and its rule is legitimate to the extent it pursues just ends by just means. They are given authority to punish the evil and praise the good. But that leads to another important qualification.

To be continued in part 5…

Limited Authority [part 3]

The Ground of the Duty

The ground of this duty of submission, Peter gives in the middle of the phrase: “Be subject, for the Lord’s sake…” This is a distinctly Christian motivation for submission. The temporal and human motive is simply to avoid punishment; and that’s not an inappropriate motive at all. The punishments inflicted by the civil magistrate are, in part, meant to serve as a deterrent, because others will see the punishment meted out and desire to avoid that for themselves (Rom. 13:3-4; Eccl. 8:11). But this is another layer; this is a deeper motivation for living as good subjects of the political community in which we find ourselves. We submit ourselves to the governing authorities for the Lord’s sake. We are to be subject to the civil magistrate out of our submission to Christ’s ultimate lordship.

The Extent of the Duty

Next, we look at the extent of this duty. Peter says to “be in subjection for the Lord’s sake to every human institution: whether to a king as supreme…” Now, the word here is “king.” It’s not “emperor,” and it’s not “Caesar,” though in Peter’s context this clearly would be the emperor, as the supreme monarch. The fact that he says “king,” instead of Caesar, and, even more so, the fact that he says “a king,” rather than “the king,” indicates that he’s giving principles; this is the case across the board, across empires, across centuries, across the variety of particular forms of government a community might take, this instruction holds. Be in submission to—be upstanding, humble, and responsive subjects under—whatever the supreme authority is in your context. Again, in Peter’s context the supreme authority is the emperor. A lot of translations actually render this as “the emperor;” but, technically, that’s too much interpretation. What Peter says is, “whether to a king,” because he’s talking in principles about being in subjection to the supreme authority of your land.

Now, just to make sure I’m not losing you, and to make sure you don’t have to read between the lines, let me spell it out. Who is the supreme authority in America? Let me be more pointed: what holds that slot that Peter refers to with “whether to a king as supreme?” What is in that place, that position, of supreme monarch, in America? It is not the president; it’s not Congress. At the federal level, it is, in fact, the Constitution. The supreme authority in Pennsylvania is not the governor; it’s not the General Assembly; it’s not the courts; it’s the PA Constitution. And I’m not stretching to pull that out of a hat. The founding of America was deliberately leaning on Samuel Rutherford and his work “Lex Rex,” which means “the Law is King.” America doesn’t have a human king, but we explicitly have a constitution that is positioned as the supreme authority—the law is king. And governing authorities—the president, congress, the courts, governors, county councils, executives, mayors, township supervisors, policemen—are all in the position of what Peter refers to as “governors as those delegated by” (“sent from”) the supreme authority.

The supreme authority is the one you appeal to when the lesser magistrates (lower authorities) fail to rule in keeping with the will of the supreme authority. When the local authorities were treating Paul unjustly according to his Roman citizenship, Paul appealed to Caesar. We appeal, ultimately, to the constitutions as supreme. Christians are not to be scofflaws, and they are not to be revolutionaries. We are not anti-authority. Christians ought to be upstanding citizens, respecting and being in cheerful subjection to the governing authorities—the institutions—in the society in which we find ourselves.

To be continued in part 4…

Limited Authority [part 2]

The Nature of the Duty

“Be Subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” – 1 Peter 2:13

The nature of the duty he commands is submission, or subjection, to human institutions—or human “ordinances.” That word, “institution,” or “ordinance,” is a very difficult word to translate. It basically refers to the civil authority structure. A fair translation would actually be “jurisdiction:” be subject to the civil magistrate in his jurisdiction. Now, let’s back up to that persnickety word, submission/subjection.

To “be subject to,” and to “obey,” are often thought of as synonyms. But I would argue (in line with historic Christianity) that there is a difference between subjection to, and obedience to, a ruler.

By the way, just so you have a frame of reference, or if you’re interested in further study, my view of this passage is basically shaped by Samuel Rutherford, the 17th century Scottish Presbyterian pastor, John Gill, 18th century English Baptist pastor, and Charles Hodge, 19th century American Presbyterian pastor.

If Peter had meant to say that any person who is in a position (has an office) of civil authority bears the divine right to govern every aspect of your life they please, as they please, and you are to do what they tell you to do no matter what—that you are to obey even the most outrageous commands in meticulous fashion—he could have done so in a number of different ways. But he didn’t say that… and he didn’t say “obey.” He said “be in subjection.” Now, granted, those two concepts are (rightly) related closely to one another. And this can easily be used to get out of having to actually respect, honor, and be in subjection to the civil magistrate. But that’s a result of our sinful and rebellious hearts, not careful exegesis. However, the fact remains that being in subjection to, and obeying, are not the same, and the difference is important. To obey you means that you give me a command, and I do it. That is often included under the heading of subjecting myself to you. But to be in submission, or to subject myself to you, means I’m willing to subordinate myself—to rank myself beneath you—it means that I acknowledge and truly live in light of the fact that you have some lawful authority to rule over me… to give me a command. But that does not legitimize every single command you may give me. But we’ll come back to that.

Recent events have renewed the need for a robust protestant political theology. And I say that readily and happily acknowledging that I’m not trying to provide that in this post. My point is just that we do actually need to think through these things; and I think it’s been made sufficiently clear that it just won’t work to continue gliding along, giving little thought to what the Scripture actually says about civil governance, and how it applies to our actual particular context.

So, be in subjection to every human “institution,” or perhaps a good paraphrase: “authority structure.” The fact that it’s human authority is also significant. The word translated “institution,” or “authority” (ktisis), is actually most closely translated as “creation.” It refers to the particular form of authority and law structures created, or put into place, by men. Now, we know from other passages that all authority is derivative authority. Only God has absolute and independent authority by virtue of who he is… all other authority is derived from Him. And because God prescribed the carrying out of justice by the civil magistrate, the civil magistrate, in carrying out justice, bears God-given authority. That’s Paul’s point in Romans 13. But here Peter isn’t making a point about the governing authorities having their authority from God. He’s mentioning the authority structures as those particular structures you live under in your context—the jurisdictions and institutions put in place by men. I think to best explain this, I need to just quote from John Gill.

“The order of magistracy is of God [in other words: the function of a civil magistrate, as the one to bear the sword in upholding justice, is of God]; it is of his ordination and appointment, and of his ordering, disposing, and fixing in its proper bounds and limits. The several [various] forms of government are of human will and pleasure; but government itself is an order of God. There may be men in power who assume it of themselves, and are of themselves, and not of God; and others that abuse the power that is lodged in them; who, though they are by divine permission, yet not of God’s approbation and good will. And it is observable, that the apostle speaks of powers, and not persons, at least, not of persons, but under the name of powers, to show that he means not this or the other particular prince or magistrate, but the thing itself, the office and dignity of magistracy itself; for there may be some persons, who may of themselves usurp this office, or exercise it in a very illegal way, who are not of God, nor to be subject to by men.”

In other words, as Wilson points out, a ruler might be a spurious leader—they might not have the right to claim the authority they’re claiming in the first place—and may be rejected or deposed on that basis, like when the chief priest, Jehoida, organized a coup to remove Athaliah, in 2 Kings 11, and replaced her with the legitimate heir to the throne… and did so amidst the cries from Athaliah of “Treason! Treason!”

And Jehoida wasn’t overly concerned about Athaliah’s accusation of treason, because, as Wilson puts it, “One of the things that does not belong to Caesar, is deciding what things belong to Caesar.” One of the things the civil authority does not have the authority to do, is define what the civil authority has the authority to do.

So, a ruler may be in place illegitimately. Or the ruler might be the Lord’s anointed, like Saul, and still give unlawful commands, that can rightly be ignored, or at times even be resisted in certain unlawful requirements. Think of Saul’s subjects restraining him from carrying out his decree in killing Jonathan, in 1 Samuel 14, or David violating Saul’s wishes for him to turn himself in. Similarly, Paul, when the governor of Damascus had guards posted at all the gates to arrest him, was lowered out of the city over the wall in order to evade arrest.

Now, I’m pushing the exceptions, and emphasizing the limits of authority, because of the reigning tendency of modern Christians to write a blank check for the government to do whatever they feel like, in any area of our lives, because they tell us they have the authority to do so, and are doing so for our own good. I’m emphasizing the limits to authority, because of how 1 Peter 2 and Romans 13 are so abundantly misused today. But we have to be willing to push the other way as well, and remember that Paul and Peter are primarily pushing in the other direction, admonishing Christians not to be anti-authority, scofflaws. We are to be good citizens, and be subject to the authority structures in place in our context. Elsewhere, we are told by Paul to offer supplications and prayers for all who are in positions of authority, that under them we might lead peaceable and quiet lives in all godliness, piety, and dignity—which ought to be the aspiration of all men.

I’m only reminding us that whatever 1 Peter 2:13-14 means, and whatever Romans 13:1-7 means, these passages do not preclude things like Paul evading arrest, or Peter being killed later—and not because he was teaching Christianity in private (like he could have), but because he was violating noise ordinances and tolerance laws with his disrupting and troublesome public preaching. Paul, on three different occasions, flexes his Roman citizenship; and in all three cases, as far as we know, it has no particular gospel-furthering purpose, he simply says, “hold on, you can’t do that, I’m a Roman citizen”… “no, you can’t do that, I’m a Roman citizen; I appeal to Caesar,” and the first time, in Acts 16, it’s “no we’re not going to leave the city quietly, you flogged us as Roman citizens,” and so the magistrates come and formally apologize to Paul and Silas. So, keeping that in mind, we must take to heart what Peter is saying here, that we are to be subject to civil institutions… we are to readily acknowledge that the civil magistrate has a real authority.

To be continued in part 3…