While COVID-19 has seemed to have gotten to Congress to work together for the first time in years, I will not hold my breath for a lasting relationship. So for the next couple of months of Sunday’s I am going to continue to run a series of sermons from James M. Wilson
Thus far the duty of subjection has been stated in general terms, and pressed upon general considerations. The apostle now proceeds more in detail.
“For, for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.” Verse 6.
1. The requisite contributions are to be made for the maintenance of government.
2. The word here rendered “tribute” (φόρος) signifies, literally—as does our word by which it is rendered—the contributions levied upon a conquered state or province. It also means any direct tax laid indiscriminately upon all citizens—such as land tax, capitation tax, or a tax upon personal estate; and, even more generally, any kind of levy by which national revenues are gathered, with the exception of customs. This is its meaning here, and the payment of such taxes is enforced by a three-fold argument—and,
(1.) From the nature, and ends, and benefits of civil rule. “For this cause pay ye tribute.” Some expositors regard this clause as referring to the preceding verse, and, consequently, as urging a conscientious response to the pecuniary demands of government. To this interpretation there can be no doctrinal objection. This is, in fact, the very gist of the precept contained in the entire verse. It is better, however, to consider this clause as looking back to the whole of the foregoing teachings of the apostle on the subject of civil power and its exercise, with special reference to the great argument which lies at the foundation of the general duty of subjection—the fact that civil government is no mere human arrangement, but a divine institution.
(2.) The apostle argues from the fact that magistrates are God’s “ministers.” That they are so, has been previously stated, and the import of the term we have attempted to explain, viz., that it designates civil rulers as the servants of God, not in the general way in which all things, even inanimate, serve Him, inasmuch as they are controlled by His power, and guided by His hand, so that they are instruments of accomplishing his unalterable purposes; but in a limited and specific sense, as they are employed in administering his law, in administering authority which He has ordained, in executing functions which he has prescribed. In other words, magistrates are God’s “ministers,” in a sense analogous to that in which ecclesiastical functionaries are “ministers” of Christ. This view is clearly expressed by the term here rendered “ministers.” It is not the same with that used in the fourth verse. There it is “διάκονός,” here it is “λειτουργοὶ”—a title given by the Athenians to those employed by the state in particular offices by national appointment, and often used by the inspired writers in the sense of holding a public office or ministry. In Heb. 10:11, it denotes the exercise of the priestly office. The occupant of civil power—by whatever form of lawful procedure invested with power—is still the “minister” of God. To withhold such contributions as the exigencies of the government require, is, consequently, a dishonour done to God, by whom the magistrate has been appointed and his duties assigned.
(3.) The payment of taxes is a duty inasmuch as they are justly due—due upon the principle of work done, and benefit conferred. “Attending continually upon this very thing.” Not the collection of taxes merely. It is impossible that this can be the apostle’s meaning. Civil rulers are not mere tax gatherers. And those who are specially employed in this department are principally of that class to whom, least of all, the passage refers. The magistracy—a good magistracy, and the apostle speaks of no other—”attend” to higher duties, to the advancement of the public weal, the promotion of peace, of social and moral order, of religion, of the glory of God. On this ground, then, it becomes a duty to contribute conscientiously to the national funds. There is a service rendered—a work done—benefit received; and on the common principles of equity which regulate all matters of a pecuniary kind in common intercourse and business.
It may be regarded as strange that this—as we would probably regard it—inferior civil duty should thus be made to occupy the first place in the detailed exhibition of what is comprehended in “subjection” to the “higher powers.” Further reflection shows the wisdom of this arrangement; for while the moral and industrious—good citizens—and such are here mainly addressed, though the duty of all is taught—will not be easily drawn into any course of conduct adverse to social order, it is by no means so easy, even for such, to bear in mind the fact that taxes are to be conscientiously paid—that to defraud the public revenues, directly or indirectly, is to sin against God—not only on the ground and for the reason that it is sin to withhold from any what is their due, but also for the specific reason that the magistrate is God’s “minister,” and that thence it is a kind of sacrilege to refuse to contribute to the public treasury.
Having, for some such reason as we have assigned, presented this duty, separately and distinctly, Paul proceeds,
3. To present, in one view, the whole range of duties owing to civil rulers.
“Render, therefore, to all their dues; tribute to whom tribute; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.” Verse 7.
The subject is still that of civil rule, and, hence, the first clause, which in its terms admits of a wider extension, is limited to the general subject of the passage: “Render to all” in authority “their dues;” for among the “higher powers” some are employed particularly in one department, and some in another. Let each receive that sort of subjection which his peculiar place renders especially imperative. And,
(1.) As before, “Tribute to whom tribute.”
(2.) “Custom to whom custom.” The rendering here is literal and exact. The word used by the apostle (τέλος) has precisely the signification here given it. It denotes that sort of revenues which is gathered by impost laid upon property imported from other nations—as tribute (φόρος) comprehends all kinds of revenues raised within the national boundaries.
(3.) “Fear to whom fear;” meaning not a slavish fear, but that awe which a righteous administration of power is designed and calculated to awaken in the mind of the subject of civil rule; such an awe as leads to a quiet and orderly obedience to the law and its appointed judges and executors. (4.) “Honour to whom honour;” for the magistrate, worthy of the name, deserves, “for his work’s sake,” as occupying a high place as God’s “minister,” a peculiar esteem, regard, and homage. His person should be treated with respect, and his faithful administration of law should secure to him the unfeigned respect of the citizen and the Christian. And this, not only for his office’ sake, or his work’s sake, but as essential to the due influence of his authority in the restraint of the disobedient and the lawless. For, if “honour” be not paid him—if his attempts to vindicate just law, and to advance the public interests, be not sustained by the good opinion of the order-loving portion of the community—if they indulge in contempt of his person, it is evident his authority will be little feared by that class of the population which especially requires the control of sound legislative and judicial action. It was a precept of heavenly wisdom, “Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people.”
We have said the magistrate “worthy of the name;” for neither reason nor scripture demands or even justifies the rendering of honour to the tyrannical, the immoral, the profane, the godless. Reason does not; for this would tend to confound all moral distinction. To honour the undeserving is contrary to every right feeling—to every intelligent conviction; for what claim to “honour,” as “the minister of God,” has one like the present Emperor of France—a licentious, godless adventurer, elected by craft and violence to his seat of power; or a Pius IX. the occupant of a blasphemous throne—the deceiver and oppressor of his ruined States—the prime leader in Satan’s grand array against Christ and his gospel? Such may wear the crown—they may shine in purple or in scarlet—they may receive the homage of the pliant and interested tools of their base conspiracies against God and man,—but right reason forbids us to regard them with that “honour” which the power “ordained of God” may justly demand.
The Scriptures most clearly sanction what in this matter reason teaches. Saul was King of Israel; but, at the same time, he was a rebel against God; and Samuel, the Lord’s prophet, thus addressed him, “I will not return to thee; for thou has rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord hath rejected thee from being king over Israel.” (1 Sam. 15:26.) And Elisha, born within the limits of the ten tribes, not only withheld all tokens of “honour” from their idolatrous king, Ahab, but publicly denounced him as unworthy of the notice of the Lord’s prophet: “As the Lord of hosts liveth, before whom I stand, surely, were it not that I regard the presence of Jehoshaphat the King of Judah, I would not look towards thee, nor see thee.” (2 Kings 3:14.) And our Lord himself, speaking of Herod, says, “Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.” (Luke 13:32)
“Honour” is to precious to be lavished upon the base, the godless, the cruel.
1. Common, every-day duties are to be performed religiously.—This is clearly implied in the whole strain of the verses before us. They embrace the discharge of all civil duties, the whole subject of obedience to the law; and the motives by which these are enforced are, throughout, religious. That is not true religion whose practical influence extends no farther than acts of devotion, or to relations merely domestic and ecclesiastical. Genuine piety and godliness are all-pervading. The heart of the truly devout is, in every principle, in every emotion, in every purpose, quickened and renovated by a new and energetic life; a life possessed of such properties as necessarily constitute it a universal principle of action. “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature—old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new,” (2 Cor. 5:17.) Hence, even the making of pecuniary contributions for the maintenance of government, is an act to be performed with an eye to the law and authority of God, as the prime consideration. That sort of religion which confines its guiding and restraining influence to any limited sphere should not merely be suspected but denounced. The sincere Christian will be a Christian in the mart of business, in the hall of legislation, in the seat of science, in the executive chair, and in the walks of social intercourse. He stands ever in direct contrast with the godless—for “God is in all his thoughts,” and he is bound by, and ought to feel the obligations of the divine law and the responsibilities of the Christian character, in every place, relation, and act,—and can, of course, no more sanction or do any thing to sustain error, heresy, or wrong, blasphemy, idolatry, or oppression, Socinianism, popery, or slaveholding, when employed in civil or political functions, than in the family, the sanctuary, or the court of ecclesiastical judicature. Hence,
2. It is equally clear that all civil duties are to be done with reference to Christ as the administrator of the law of Heaven.—It is admitted that the passage before us makes no direct allusion to Christ as the medium of all true and acceptable obedience to God. But this is not the less implied. If magistrates are to be “feared” and “honoured” devoutly and religiously, it must be in Christ. Moreover, we may and ought to compare Scripture with Scripture. One passage—as this—enjoins duties, and states the general principles on which they are to be performed: other passages exhibit the precise form in which the service is to be rendered. Turning to these we find their light and teaching clear and explicit. The Master himself says: “No man cometh to the Father but by me.” And again: “The Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment to the Son, that all men should honour the Son, even as they honour the Father. He that honoureth not the Son honoureth not the Father which hath sent him.” And finally, speaking by Paul: “And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily as to the Lord, and not unto men, knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance, for ye serve the Lord Christ,” (John 14:6; v. 22,23; Col. 3:24,25.)
3. The Scriptures are a complete and perfect rule of obedience.—The main design, indeed, of divine revelation is to teach men their condition and state before God, and to lead them back, by the discoveries they make of the glory, majesty, supremacy, holiness, and mercy of God, to Him as the fountain of life, the only source of permanent blessedness. They also reveal the fact that in a future state the common relations and occupations of the present state shall have no place, and yet it is apparent in every part of the sacred volume that it is designed to shed its light upon every one of these so long as they are to engage the attention of men, and to enforce, even here, exclusive devotion of mind, heart and effort, to the service of God. It is a plausible but very superficial view of the Book of God, and its design, to imagine that it slights the affairs of time, as utterly unworthy of its regard in comparison with things eternal. The truth is, the law—the revealed will and law of God—covers the entire existence of man, and is intended to furnish all the instruction requisite for the right exercise of every faculty, the right use of every gift, in whatever condition and circumstances, man, the creature of God, is placed by the hand of his maker, and also to enforce its instruction by the paramount authority of Him who is the “only Potentate.”
So far then is it from being true that the Christian is to disregard the movements of society, or even what relates to matters of civil regimen, and human rights and liberty, that the very opposite is a truth, and a most important one. The Christian should, of all men, regard things like these with a constant and active interest. So his Bible teaches him—for its pages abound in directions bearing immediately upon them. So soon as he opens its pages, his eye lights upon some truth, law, maxim, warning or example, which he may and should apply to the ordinary interests of time. Hence,
4. The Bible is the great security of all social order.—The Bible, of course, read, studied, believed, and made “the man of our counsel.” It must be so; for it guards on the one hand, when fairly interpreted, the rights of the individual; it allows of no tyrannical exercise of power, forbidding all oppression, and elevating every human being to his true position of dignity and worth as intelligent and immortal; bringing all down to the same level as guilty before God, and utterly alienated from Him; raising again all the penitent and the believing alike to the highest place of privilege and of hope. Consequently it abases pride, restrains gross and vulgar ambition, teaches mutual esteem, and enjoins mutual interest and good offices.
But on the other hand, the Bible enforces with its sanctions a due arrangement, connection and subordination in human society. Ever maintaining the prerogatives of an enlightened conscience, it offers no toleration to the vicious, the malevolent, the disorderly, the seditious. It not only restrains them by clear discoveries of the wrath of God, which inevitably attends and visits lawlessness and crime, but, in addition, arms lawful authority with the right to inflict punishment proportioned to the nature and circumstances of offences against social order and moral law. It establishes all just authority; parental, ecclesiastical and civil.
These properties of the Word of God, properly considered, enable us to see why it is that tyrants fear it; that despotic governments oppose its free circulation. It sets up a standard of judgment as the guide of human action infinitely above the enactments of mere human power. It divests man of a superstitious and debasing reverence for arbitrary rule. It exalts, as to the greatest and most desirable issues, the poorest and humblest to a level with the highest. It brings all alike before the same just and impartial tribunal. And, hence, a community imbued with scriptural knowledge can never become the prey of arbitrary power. Such a people will scorn and cast off the yoke of ignoble bondage. But for the same reason, the Bible ever imparts an unshaken stability to free and equitable social and political arrangements, for it teaches men their several duties, discloses to them the beneficent ends of governmental institutions, and endues them with the dispositions and sobriety requisite to, and that go to make, a stable order of society. The free seek and promote, as the best safeguard of liberty, the knowledge of that very Bible which the aristocratic and selfish would put under restraint.
All history confirms these views, and hence the instructive lesson: study, spread, reverence the inspired volume, for in it we have this life, as well as life eternal. [next SECTION]