I recently heard what is reported to be a true story from a Sunday school teacher in Dublin, Ireland. She writes, “I was testing the children in my Sunday school class to see if they understood the concept of getting into Heaven. I asked them, ‘If I sold my house and my car and had a big garage sale and gave all my money to the church, would that get me into Heaven?’ ‘No’, the children answered.
‘If I cleaned the church every day, mowed the lawn and kept everything tidy, would that get me into Heaven?’ Again the answer was ‘NO!’
‘If I gave candy to all the children and loved my husband, would that get me into Heaven?’ Again they all answered, ‘NO!’
I was just bursting with pride for them. I continued, ‘Then how can I get into Heaven?’ A little boy shouted out, ‘You’ve got to be DEAD!’ **
It’s funny to hear things from a youthful perspective, isn’t it? Yet when we tell the Gospel story, we can make it seem like what God really wants is for us to be dead. You might think, “What? How can you say that, Joel?” What I mean is that we often start telling the good news of Jesus with, “When you die,” or “After you die.” Have you ever heard the method of sharing the story of Jesus that starts like this: “Do you know where you’ll go when you die?”
Is God only concerned with what happens when we die? As we continue studying the letter Paul wrote to Titus, Paul will speak about this. Turn to Titus 3:1-8, which we’ll be studying in this series of posts.
In verse 1 Paul says to Titus, “Remind the people.” Why do they need to be reminded? Remember that Paul and Titus had been on Crete previous to Titus’ current trip. They had seen people become believers in and followers of Jesus, and thus Paul and Titus had grouped these new Christians into house churches in various towns on the island. During that initial trip, Paul and Titus had already taught the people what it means to know and follow Jesus. Now Paul senses that the people need to be reminded. So Paul is saying Titus, you need to remind the people in Crete of some stuff, and by extension you and I in 2019 need to be reminded of it as well. As we’ll see throughout this series of posts, God is definitely interested in what happens to humans after we die, but he is also very concerned with how we live in the here and now.
What do we need to be reminded of? Paul has a list of six things in verses 1-2, and they all relate to how Christians live now. In this post we’ll look at the first one in which he reminds them to be subject to rulers and authorities. Paul was talking to a very different cultural and political context than our own. Crete was a part of the Roman Empire in the first century. Roman emperors would claim that they, the emperors, had become gods. Thus the people should worship the emperor as their savior. So in the Roman Empire there was a religion of emperor worship.
Into that culture, Paul has been clear in teaching that Jesus is God, the true savior of the world. Just glance back at chapter 2, verse 13, where Paul says, “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” From there you can keep going back and see it in 2:10, and even at the very beginning of the letter in 1:4. Jesus is God and he is the savior. Not an emperor in Rome.
One potential result of this teaching is that the new Christians on Crete could get the idea that they are free from having to obey Caesar or any ruler. Caesar is no longer their lord. Jesus is their Lord. But that freedom in Christ could have disastrous consequences if not handled well. Christians could believe they were above the law of the land, which could bring them into conflict with rulers, and that could be disastrous. So Paul says the people need to be subject to rulers and authorities.
I think it is best to see Paul as teaching that in the vast majority of situations it is right and good to follow the law. Pay your taxes. Obey traffic laws. In a society that is attempting to base its legal system on justice, we can and should be subject to and obey rulers and authorities.
But what about societies that are unjust? Or what if one particular law is unjust? That happens, right? It has happened many times in the history of the USA, and still happens today on the federal, state and local levels. Thankfully we have a justice system to address this. But justice doesn’t happen automatically. It usually starts with individuals speaking up, and often practicing what is called civil disobedience to unjust laws.
The civil rights movement for example broke a ton of laws, but those laws were unjust. Think of Rosa Parks, refusing to give up her seat on a bus. What a wonderful Christian example of practicing civil disobedience to unjust laws. In her case, the law of segregation, was unjust, based on racism and prejudice, and she was right to break it.
We must remember that we are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven first, and if human government creates unjust laws, we practice civil disobedience seeking to move our government and laws in the direction of justice. In some places around the world, Christians have an exceptionally difficult time with this because in their countries it is illegal to practice Christianity! We need to pray for the persecuted church. Here in America, while our nation is far from perfect, there is still, enshrined in our Constitution, the pursuit of justice for all. So, Christians, let us be subject to authorities when they pursue justice, and let us practice civil disobedience when the authorities promote injustice.
**Thanks to Jim Ohlson for sharing this story with me.
4 thoughts on “When to subject ourselves to the authorities, and when not to – Titus 3:1-8, Part 1”