The relationship of christians with the authorities


The words of the Gospel that we hear at holy liturgy on the fifth Sunday of lent are very thought-provoking. The theme of the Gospel (Mark 10:32-45) is as interesting as it is difficult for us Christians. It has to do with the relationship of Christians with authority, with all the human authorities of this world.

Of course, the Church looks towards Heaven and it directs our minds there as well. As Christians, we are called to look towards heaven. This much is clear, for Christ Himself says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36)

But during our journey to Heaven we walk the earth, we falter, stumble and fall, we rise. All in all, it is on the earth that we bide our earthly time. That being said, we are forced to spend a lot of our energy on solving our earthly problems. In living our earthly life we meet and interact with other fellow men from near and far. We cannot and must not ignore them or alienate ourselves from our neighbors. Life teaches us that we must establish some kind of relationship with each and every one of our fellow men. We must never forget that only through our relationship with our fellow men can we have a relationship with God.

It is a known fact that few things in life are as attractive as power. There is nothing that man holds on to more desperately than power. And there is probably nothing more dangerous for man and his humanity than power, because nothing has been abused as much as power.

Even the apostles were not immune to the enticement of power. We heard how the brothers James and John, sons of Zebedee, asked Christ to have them sit at His side after His resurrection. Their thoughts are very human and reflect the thoughts all of us have or have had at times: here we are struggling and suffering, nobodies, persecuted by the entire world. But when our Christ takes power, we will have our moment of glory and then we will be somebody! “But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be the first shall be a slave to all.” (Mark 10:42-44)

That is, in a nutshell, our position on authority. It is clear that if we lived by Christ’s words, there would be no need for us to even raise the question of our relationship to authority. There would be no rulers and no subjects, no oppressors and no oppressed. We would all be equal in mutual service and sacrifice.

But we know that in practice this is not the case. A lot of people have the desire to subjugate others before they have learned to subjugate themselves. They demand that everyone bow to their wishes unconditionally. This is the reason that a passage from St. Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians is quoted so often. The Apostle’s words are taken out of context and used with the aim of proving that the Church had always been in the service of authority, that it bowed down to authority and demanded that all Christians do the same. But is this really the case? Let us see.

It is true that St. Paul says in his epistle, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authority, resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.” (Romans 13:1-2). However, as we read on, we see exactly what authorities he has in mind when he affirms this. He goes on to say, “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain, for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake.” (Romans 13:3-5)

This tells us that for Christians the problem of their relationship towards authority is non-existent. As far as the righteous are concerned, those who carry out God’s will, there may as well be no authority. For Christians, God’s will and God’s law are above all things. As he is carrying out his work, honestly and to the best of his ability, a Christian does not even notice the existence of authority. He does not come into conflict with it. It is therefore understandable why authority is much more of an issue for sinners.

St. Paul presupposes that authority is also in the service of God and that it is obedient to God. This is the basis of his thoughts on authority. To him, authority is an extended hand of God Himself, always in sync with His will, never opposed to it. Hence his advice to obey the authorities, “not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake.” (Romans 13:5)

The apostle further expands on his thoughts and says, “Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honour to whom honour.” (Romans 13:7) But this too, on the premise that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ is the Father of Glory, is “far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.” (Ephesians 1:21) St. Jude the Apostle also reminds of this when he says, :To God our Savior, Who alone is wise, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever, Amen.” (Jude 25)

God gave man a mind to reason and the dignity of freedom – the freedom to choose and to be judged according to this freedom of choice. This is the meaning of our Christian hope for salvation. For if we were made as perfect automata, programmed to do only good, if we had no freedom of choice, then we would neither be judged or rewarded for our good deeds. Reason has been given us in order for us to regulate the relationships between us, as well as our relationship to authority. As rational beings we must place everything under rational scrutiny. We must not give ourselves over blindly or irrationally to anyone or anything. This is a lesson we glean from history and also from everyday life. It is said in the book of Job: “Great men are not always wise: neither do the aged understand judgment.” (Job 32:9)

And when our famous poet says, “Freedom is given to mankind” he seems to paraphrase King David who as we know had felt all the attraction and challenge of power and who said, quite pointedly: “Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding, which must be harnessed with bit and bridle, else they will not come near you.” (Psalm 32:9)

Let us say no more, but let us always remember the words of St. Peter: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)