This weekend we will celebrate Independence Day, which commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the establishment of the United States as a sovereign nation. July 4th falls on a Sunday, which sets this Federal holiday against the holy day of our Lord’s Resurrection. Christians distinguish between God’s sovereignty over all creation (including nations) and Jesus Christ’s rule over His Church. As Jesus said to the secular ruler Pontius Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). We distinguish between these days, rejoicing in our Lord’s gifts in Divine Service and celebrating our country with family and friends.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that God remains sovereign over the State, especially when the State thinks, speaks, and acts contrary to God’s Word. Is it difficult to mark July 4th when your preferred candidates weren’t selected in the last election? How can you celebrate your nation’s founding when it has a history of race-based slavery, bloody foreign wars, and ever-expanding intrusions? What will you do if it reaches into your family or congregation and tyrannizes your authority as a parent or Christian? Will you or can you celebrate this 4th of July?
St. Paul says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). And St. Peter says, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13). Neither are easy words to hear, especially when you are under an oppressive regime’s totalitarian or authoritarian thumb. Later in Romans 13, St. Paul speaks of obeying just laws, paying fair taxes, revenue to those who have earned it, respect, and honor to those to whom it is owed. And St. Peter speaks of the governing rulers’ role as to “punish those who do evil and praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:15).
God gives our nation and its rulers civil authority. Christians live as citizens of this world and may judge and make laws, impose just punishments, engage in just wars, serve as soldiers, make legal contracts, hold property, take oaths, and engage in marriage. These tasks are extensions of the governance of the family, with a father and mother serving as the household “heads of state.”
Thus, the Church doesn’t need to interfere with the civil government because the civil government deals with other things than the Gospel does. Civil rulers do not defend minds and hearts but bodies and bodily things against injuries. They restrain people with force and physical punishment to preserve civil justice and peace (see Romans 13:1-7). That’s not the Church’s job, but her job is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Christ Jesus’ kingdom is the Church that has the authority to preach the good news, forgive and retain sins, and administer Sacraments. As Jesus sent out His apostles with the command, “Go … proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). The Church’s job is to exercise the ministry of the Word of Jesus, baptizing all nations, forgiving sins, and delivering Jesus’s salvation to the lost.
But are you to blindly follow and obey? If the civil government does not undermine or contradict God’s Word, Christians are obedient to rulers and their laws. And, St. Peter confessed, when an oppressive government tried him and the other apostles, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). When the State acts outside its civil authority, it is rebelling against God. Sometimes the State demands fear, love, trust, and honor above God. This idolatry of State must be refused and rejected.
He may allow us to suffer an oppressive government to bring us to repentance for our apathy and neglect of our nation. If He does lead us to suffer, pray it will only be for a brief time. He may even use you like He used the defiant Hebrew midwives, Deborah, Jael, Elijah, Elisha, Jehu, Jehoida, Joash, Joab, Obed, Jeremiah, the Three Young Men, Daniel, the Magi, Peter, John, Paul, Silas, and the whole host of witnesses, to defy the civil estate when it went against God’s Word. Then, God will use you to bring correction and remedy to the State for the sake of justice and peace.
Good government is a gift from God and is worth celebrating. In the act of remembering, we consider our vocation of citizens and be more active in preserving the justice and peace that we have articulated in the Declaration and Constitution. We remember the fourteen generations and their hard work and sacrifices to give us this nation. We work as citizens to remedy our nation’s flaws and seek “a more perfect union.” And as Christians, we follow our conscience and do nothing contrary to God’s Word. When the State commands worship belonging only to God, we are compelled to civil disobedience. And most of all, we pray that God gives us “good government” to live a quiet and peaceable life in godliness and honesty. Finally, on the last day, what is already confirmed in Christ’s ascension will be done for us entirely: God the Father “will put all things under [Jesus’s] feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23).