The sanctuary of the last church I served seated approximately 700. There was a balcony that would seat another 100 or so, but was normally kept locked. There was enough seating in the main body of the church to accommodate the Sunday morning gathering.
Even so, as I began the sermon one Sunday morning, I looked up to see a young man enter the balcony and noisily make his way toward its front row carrying a big book. He sat down clumsily and began to turn its pages with exaggerated motions.
I looked a second and third time and realized that whatever his message was I was to be the recipient. I knew that if I allowed my eyes to be drawn there again I would lose focus on what I was saying.
The following week a young man whom I did not initially recognize made an appointment to see me. I invited him into my study and immediately felt the crackle of conflict, like electricity in the air.
He was there to argue and critique what I did as a pastor. At one point he said that he believed he could preach a much better sermon than I (although he had never preached a sermon).
Eventually he asked, “Didn’t you see me in the balcony on Sunday?” His question finally lifted the veil of mystery from the visit. He was in some sort of flaming rebellion and had made me the target.
I learned that he was in serious conflict with his father and in his mind I must have become something of a surrogate – an authority figure he felt the need to conquer. Still, our visit ended peaceably and he left.
In the context of the church one doesn’t often see close up such overt opposition to authority. His acting-out dealing with conflicted impulses was visible and public.
Still, we can all relate even if in some small way to this young man. Because sin has twisted us, the struggle to live within the confines of authority is universal. I saw the battle in my own children as they were growing up, and then in my grandchildren. I can already see it in its early stages in my great grandchildren.
In fact, none of us has come to full adulthood until we have learned three things: to accept legitimate authority, to question it with appropriate respect, and to stand against it when it is applied lawlessly or abusively.
When it comes to this struggle, the Bible does not leave us without guidance. Perhaps its most sweeping instructions for Christians on this matter is given in Romans 13. I read it for my devotions this very morning.
In Romans 13 the Apostle gives the reader pointed advice on how we Christians are to relate to civil authority that impinges on our lives. Here’s a portion of the chapter as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message:
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. (Romans 13:1—3a).
Duly constituted authorities. That could extend this principle to the whole of life — family, church and state.
The irony in reading this chapter and the noteworthiness of its advice is that the emperor was the infamous Nero! He had caused the cruel torture and slaying of many Christians.
Yet Paul’s concern was that believers — insofar as possible — treat even Nero’s authority with respect because all authority is ultimately from God. His foremost concern was for the clear, unsullied witness of the church to Christ in society.
Our situation is vastly different. We read Paul’s words today as citizens of a society with remarkable freedoms, historically speaking. Yet, this freedom does not release us from various kinds of authority under which we live — those laws and principles that regulate family life, campus behavior for students, civic life, and not least, laws by which the church is governed.
If we yield to the temptation to ignore or sidestep these various authority systems, our rebellion may not be as visible as that of the young man in the balcony. But our witness to freedom in Christ registers as lawlessness. The God who inspired Romans 13 sees everything, and the passage that is there for the young man is equally there for each of us as believers, whatever our age or status!
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