Editor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns.
by Tom Beutel
“choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve”
When I was younger, I was not much of a reader. It was not until early adulthood that I took a real interest in reading, even joining, as many did then, the Book-of-the-Month Club. As a teen, I tried to be interested in reading, but, other than schoolwork, without much success. One book in particular that intrigued me was Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities. I started it many times, but never got very far.
I thought of Dickens’ masterpiece because of the familiar opening and because it provides a nice play on words for the title of this article. And, in some ways, it is appropriate today in that it paints a vivid picture of two very different worlds. There is much to ponder in the opening sentence of the book, only the beginning of which most of us are probably familiar with.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Perhaps we could stop right here. The comparisons used in this dramatic opening and the final thought, “the period was so far like the present period,” leap off the page. This could have been written today. Indeed, the comparison of that time of revolution and upheaval to our present day with the “Arab Spring,” Brexit, and the general distrust and rejection of traditional authority and institutions in the United States, is uncanny. There is a “spirit of the age” at work today which has been present in human affairs in the past. As the writer of Ecclesiastes observes, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Eccl. 1:9)
The question for us as Christians, and therefore ideally as peacemakers, is how to respond to this. In these tumultuous times where or to whom do we look for wisdom, strength, and direction. Beyond ourselves, there are two obvious choices: the government or the church, the kingdom of this world or the Kingdom of God. Our time, probably like all times in fact, is a tale of two kingdoms!
As we seek to live and promote lives of peace – peace with God, ourselves, others and the creation – do we turn to, rely on, put our faith in, give our allegiance to our governmental leaders or to God?
It is true that the Bible tells us, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” (Romans 13:1) Generally speaking, we should live according to the laws and practices that have been put in place by our governmental leaders. Their authority comes from God, generally for our benefit.
However, our submission and allegiance to the government has its limits. As we look to the Bible for understanding with respect to our relationship to government we must cast our net a bit wider than Romans 13. When ordered to cease teaching about Jesus by the (religious) authorities, “Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29)
While the authorities and institutions of this world may be established by God for our good, nevertheless, we are cautioned by the apostle Paul, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2) So, while we are to be subject to the authorities as long as they are not in opposition to the will and ways of God, we are not to be “patterned” according to the world’s ways.
Jesus taught His disciples and the religious leaders of the day about a proper relationship with government and the “world.” In response to a loaded question about taxes from the Pharisees, He responded, “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Matt. 22:21) We can apply the principle underlying Jesus’ response to today in the context of both Romans 13 and Acts 5. God has established earthly authorities and we, as Christians, should generally submit to them. But, our ultimate allegiance should be to God. It is to God, and His body on earth, the church, rather than government, that we should ultimately look for guidance, help, and strength, and in which we should place our hope.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught His hearers, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matt. 6:24) While this teaching is ostensibly about money, it is really about what one puts their faith in. The principle applies not only to money, but to anything in which we place our trust – our own abilities, the size of our bank account, or our government. We cannot, Jesus says, serve two masters, God and something else. If we look to our leaders to solve the ills of our world, then we are not looking to God. Again, our ultimate allegiance and the source of our hope should be God, not government.
In John 17, Jesus prays for His disciples and, in fact for all believers including ourselves, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.” (John 17: 15-16) The idea here is often summed up that we are to be “in the world, but not of the world.” We live in two kingdoms: one ruled by earthly rulers, and one in which God is the king.
While we live in both, we can only really give our allegiance to one or the other. We can only really look to one or the other for “deliverance” from the ills of the world. Ultimately, we have to choose to put our faith and hope either in government or in God. We have to make a choice. As Joshua spoke to the Israelites, so God says to us today “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.”