Honour the Emperor
Social media is both a blessing and a curse, and oftentimes I’m tempted to think it may be more of the latter. One of those double-edged things about social media is that you get to see what people are really thinking. It’s sort of like getting everybody drunk without the alcohol. All their inhibitions are gone, they become impulsive, and start baring what’s really in their hearts. That can be a blessing — when you see thoughts and words that clearly are fruit of the Holy Spirit. It can also be a blessing for pastors and other church leaders as you get to understand the areas of growth that are still needed in the lives of those entrusted to our care. But it can also be a curse when you get frustrated with seeing blatantly unbiblical behaviour amongst God’s people online.
Right now I’m thinking about especially about the way that Christians will sometimes speak about those set over them in positions of authority. It’s one thing to disagree with the policies, principles or actions of our political leaders. I disagree with a lot of those too. But it is quite another thing to disrespect those leaders. It’s another thing to mock them. It’s another thing to call them names. Sometimes it seems as if professing Christians regard politicians as not even being human beings created in the image of God. It’s as if lawfully elected men and women suddenly lose their humanity and it’s open season on them. Christians are free to attack them.
This is problematic on two levels. The first level has to do with the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not kill.” Reformed believers understand that this commandment is not just about the physical act of killing someone. It also goes to our attitudes and the roots of murder. In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, “I am not to dishonour, hate, injure, or kill my neighbour by thoughts, words or gestures, and much less by deeds, whether personally or through another” (QA 105). Positively speaking, we are “to love our neighbour as ourselves, to show patience, peace, gentleness, mercy, and friendliness toward him…” (QA 107). Is the Prime Minister your neighbour? How about the Minister of National Defence? Even if you don’t appreciate their policies or their actions, at the bare minimum they are still human beings created in the image of God. They are still our neighbours and therefore the Sixth Commandment applies. Does mocking your neighbour honour him? Does calling your neighbour names show “patience, peace, gentleness, mercy and friendliness toward him”?
The second level on which this is problematic is more specific. The Fifth Commandment has to do with how we interact with authority. It’s not just about honouring our father and mother, but also about honouring government. We are to show “honour, love, and faithfulness” to all those in authority. We’re also to be patient “with their weaknesses and shortcomings, since it is God’s will to govern us by their hand.” (HC QA 104). God calls us in the Fifth Commandment to honour and love our government officials, even if they are difficult to love.
This receives further attention in the New Testament. The era in which the New Testament was written saw many people living under a tyrannical foreign ruler — the Roman Emperor. The Roman Emperors were corrupt and wicked in many ways. They were oppressive and they persecuted Christians. If one were to compare today’s Prime Minister (in Canada or Australia) with, say, Nero, the PM would come off looking relatively alright. Has your PM burned down the capital and then blamed it on the Christians? Has he used Christians as living torches for a garden party? No, I didn’t think so. That places the statements about the emperor in the New Testament in context. Statements like what we find in 1 Peter 2:17, “Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor.” Yes, that emperor. Lest we miss the point, the Holy Spirit speaks along the same lines in Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 2. Even if the Emperor is a wicked man with ungodly values, the Holy Spirit told believers to honour him and pray for him. The Holy Spirit even went so far as to say that such a man is a “minister of God” (Rom. 13:6)!
I have the impression that many people underestimate the workload of our elected leaders. Many of them work long hours in civic service. Many of them put in these long hours out of a sense of commitment to their communities. Even if they’re not Christians, they do want to make our communities better. They want to serve. Whatever their motives may be or how pure they are, we can be thankful that there are men and women willing to do this hard work. Yes, we need more Christians to step up to the plate as well. But, for all of us, the Scriptures are clear that those carrying the name of Christ are to respect those in this field. The world mocks and dehumanizes politicians. The world glories when they fall and say or do foolish things. The world dishonours our leaders and treats them with contempt. Do we see that Christians are called to be counter-cultural here? Let’s find ways of disagreeing with our leaders, while at the same time loving them, respecting them, honouring them and their service, and praying for them.