Big Idea: Christian action must be Guided by the Spirit, not the Flesh
Intro: Well morning friends and visitors. My name is Pastor Matt Johnson and today we are continuing to think about Christians obeying the state? This is an important question because vaccine passports are being introduced in NSW and we need to consider whether our church should accept these laws? Well lets pray…
Well last week I introduced you to the concept of UNJUST LAWS. Bishop Augustine in the early church, said an unjust law is no law at all. Now today I want to introduce you to Martin Luther Kings approach to “unjust laws”. You know the famous – “I have a dream – to see an America set free from black and white segregation.” That’s the man. Sadly, Martin Luther Kings image has been seriously tarnished by accusations of sexual immorality. But we need to remember this comes from the FBI who were told by J Edgar Hoover to discredit him and frame him as a Communist. So, some of the allegations needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
Either way, Martin Luther Kings famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is still widely recognised as one of the best apology for Christian civil disobedience ever written. So I’ll email you a copy (or you can find it on the internet) and under the circumstances I’d say it may be worth a read. Now Martin Luther King was a BAPTIST pastor, but he was also trying to overturn the unjust Jim Crow laws – that kept black people and white people separated. Separate shops, separate water fountains and separate buses. It was apartheid.
Now in 1963 Martin Luther King was called by African American Christians to come to the city of Birmingham to stage a protest. Birmingham city was notorious for some of the worst, segregation laws in America (and all the churches in the town – kept teaching that everyone had to just accept this because Christians have to submit to the laws of the state). So Martin Luther King came to the town – but at the 11th hour the city council refused to issue a permit for the protest.
Basically, dodgy business was happening. The US first Amendment is an inalienable right for people to gather in order to protest unjust laws. But Birmingham City Council denied them the permit to express these first amendment rights. (Just like Sydney denied the peoples right to protest the lockdown a few weeks ago). Only Birmingham Council had no good reason for doing so at all. So, Martin Luther King decided that – he would lead a peaceful protest anyway.
THE RESULT – he was arrested and thrown into jail. Then all the white churches in town started calling him an extremist who willfully disobeyed the laws of the state. The Letter from Birmingham Jail is addressed to the hypocrisy of all these churches, but in a gracious, apologetic way. Martin Luther King quotes 1) Augustine, 2) Aquinas, 3)Paul Tillich, 4) Martin Buber and 5) Reinhold Neibuhr to defend the rightness of his actions. (Now to do this from memory while in a jail cell makes him some sort of genius).
But he also makes it clear that sometimes white moderate evangelical churches hide behind submission to authority – because that’s the easier and more comfortable position (Slide1).
Point 1: Christian Freedom must obey God’s Law of Love
Show: Gal.5:13 (READ)
Explain: Now as we begin, I offer the same caveat, as last week. This is not an exegetical sermon series. This is a topical sermon series drawing biblical principles from the text. So look at Galatians 5:13; WHAT do we need to do in order to preserve our freedom? In order to be free there is A) something we have to do and B) something we have to not do. (PAUSE) Well I hope you can see that live out our Christian freedom – we need SERVE one another in love and AVOID “indulging the flesh”.
That’s why the Declaration of Independence – Life, Liberty and pursuit of happiness has a problem. Most people pursue happiness by indulging the flesh which forfeits true freedom and life. So the US may not be THE LAND OF FREE much longer.
Illustrate: Lets look again at the 2 kingdoms; the Kingdom of Men and the Kingdom of God (Slide 3). The reason the Kingdom of Men is in slavery is that their primary objective is to create laws that allow people to indulge the desires of the flesh. I want to have sex with whoever I want. Ok, let’s pass a law. I want to smoke bucket loads of pot – sure let’s legalize that. The point is the world tends to focus on laws that enable people to indulge the flesh, rather than laws that push them to love their neighbor.
But on the flip-side the more we we RESPECT 1) God ordinances written into creation and 2) His law revealed in Jesus – the more we reap FREEDOM and the more we demonstrate LOVE. We love one another best by following God’s plans. Now 9 times out of 10, if the state is simply implementing laws that align with the orders of creation everything is good. The church can then A) obey the state and B) obey God, enjoying our freedom and loving our neighbor. But whenever the State passes laws that are more focussed on indulging the flesh than loving our neighbor we start having justice issues. UNJUST LAWS effect not only our freedom, but also our ability to love God and love our neighbor.
Now obviously the JIM CROW segregation laws in America were unjust and that now seems obvious to everyone. But lets just think for a moment about the SEGREGATION LAWS now being passed with vaccine passports. The State is saying people cannot go to church or access certain services unless they are vaccinated.
So lets apply THOMAS AQUINAS three principles for assessing a just law (Slide 4). The NSW Government is saying you can only go to church if you have a vaccine passport. Now we could quibble on a few details. But I’m pretty sure this LAW fails at point 2. Does the State have the authority to say who does and doesn’t come to church? (PAUSE) Now let me just say we’ve been playing nice with the state because there is a pandemic. God tells us to meet together and worship Him each week. The State says you can’t do that because there is a pandemic. Ok, we’ll accept it. The Bible says sing and make music to God. The State says, “no singing.” Again, we’ve said “ok, under the circumstances we’ll accept that rule.” The problem now is that Jesus says; “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden” and the State says “no. only vaccinated can come.” Now assuming we were not in a pandemic – does the State have the authority to say who does and doesn’t come to church. The obvious answer is No!
Apply: Now the church has shown respect to the state because it is a pandemic. The problem is that there is now no end date on “you must be vaccinated to go to church.” Now as the Archbishop said in an Eternity article, his law is “wholly inconsistent with the gospel preached inside” the church. Should the church do something that is “wholly inconsistent with the gospel?” (PAUSE) If this had a time-frame of say 6 weeks perhaps we should accept this law given the nature of the pandemic. But for how long? I think 15-20% of population will choose not to get vaccinated. Now whether you think that is right or wrong are we happy to preclude about 1/5 of the population from church.
Come Christmas we’ll be singing; “O Come all ye Vaccinated, passport verified and covid free.” The vaccine passports are not just for the pandemic they are now extending into the new normal.
Some of this may not be right. For instance; Section 6 of the NSW Health Act states; (SLIDE 3). That’s normal state of affairs. But article 49P of the NSW Anti-Discrimination act says (Slide 4). So while, the first law applies in normal times, the second law trumps it when there is a pandemic. But we are now moving back into what is supposed to be the new normal – so is it right to still penalize or coerce a group of people to have a medicine they really don’t want? There are some significant CONSCIENCE ISSUES that will need to be sorted out. Let me show you the definition of a conscience issue. (Slide 5)
When there are lots of moving parts it is understandable that we arrive at different conclusions. So bucket loads of grace is needed with each other. And, this is a serious question are we comfortable with preventing somewhere between 15-20% of the population from coming back to church? (Now before you all say “yes, I’m pretty comfortable with that” I want you to remember Jesus was the one who touched the lepers and hung out with the unclean).
Point 2: Christian Freedom MUST recognize the Rule of Law
Show: Gal.5:14-16 (READ)
Explain: Well this is a helpful reminder that Christians don’t really need law. Before becoming Christians, we needed laws to SET LIMITS to how far we go indulging the flesh. You can indulge the flesh this far, but you can’t commit adultery, steal or get drunk. But having become Christians the law of love kind of sets us free from the need to have a million and one laws. It’s just love God and love your neighbor.
But in “the Kingdom of Men” where everyone loves to indulge the flesh – there is a real necessity for law. If there were no laws it would be ANARCHY within a week. Just like verse 15 says people in Redfern Park would be biting and devouring each other. I kid you not people would be chomping on each other legs. Laws are needed to restrain sin. So as Christians who understand the seriousness of sin – we should also understand the absolute necessity of THE RULE OF LAW. The minute people start disobeying the laws whenever they feel like it – is the minute the whole system collapses. (The Bible also tells us that in the last days the spirit of lawlessness is going to become a real problem). So the Christian church needs to be VERY CAREFUL that in the midst of chaos we are not swept up in a spirit of lawlessness. The rule of law is absolutely fundamental to life.
The point is – the normal Church preaching of 1) submit to governing authorities, 2) submit to governing authorities, 3) submit to governing authorities ad nauseum is actually correct in 99.999% of cases. It is also true that our flesh does not like submitting to anyone because we are sinful. So if the church is ever going to challenge the state on particular laws we need to stop and ask ourselves is this really coming from A) the Holy Spirit or is it coming from B) sinful desires of the flesh?
Augustine, Aquinas and Martin Luther King all recognized that this was a real danger. So we have to ask ourselves is this 1) a real conscience issue coming from the Holy Spirit or 2) am I just being rebellious.
If we decide we really do have a conscience issue, we need to decide whether it a sufficient conscience issue to act upon and if the answer is yes, we then become “conscientious objectors” (Slide 8). So for example – some Christians may refuse to get a coronavirus vaccine because of concerns about how it was made. A Christian doctor may refuse to write a referral for an abortion because it is against their beliefs. A Christian parent may pull their child out of school on purple day because they don’t want their child taught LGBTIQ ideology. When we refuse to comply with a law because of our Christian convictions we are being “conscientious objectors”. Now there can be negative consequences from doing this. But I suspect Christians will need to become more and more comfortable doing this in order to stay 1) true to conscience and 2) true to loving our neighbor. I don’t think a Christian doctor can claim to be love the unborn child while arranging its abortion. I cannot claim to love my child – while exposing them to certain ideology and guaranteed bullying on purple day. There will be times when Christians MUST be conscientious objectors to the State and our employers if we are going to remain true to Christ.
Now the next step up is called civil disobedience, although its not as NAUGHTY as is sounds (Slide 9). Martin Luther King engaged in civil disobedience when he ran the protest. The major unjust law – was the Jim Crow Segregation Laws – that kept black and white people separate. This was obviously wrong – just like abortion of full-term babies is wrong. But rather than BLOWING UP the abortion clinic – Martin Luther King arranged a peaceful protest. Protests are the normal, kind of approved way, IN WESTERN SOCIETY to complain about what you perceive to be unjust laws. But then the Council passed a minor unjust law saying “Nope, you can’t protest. So the “you can’t protest” is now the MINOR UNJUST LAW, designed to protect “the Jim Crow segregation laws” which are the major UNJUST LAWS. Unfortunately, when a country starts passing unjust laws, they often end up having to pass more unjust laws, to protect the earlier unjust laws. It’s like lying. Once you start lying, you’ve got to tell more lies to protect the earlier lies.
Anyway, in such circumstances the GENERAL CONSENSUS is that if you are a Christian with a high regard for the “rule of law” – you only ever break A) “the minor law” in order to highlight the injustice in B) “the major law”. The objective in civil disobedience is not to cause anarchy or get revenge, its about drawing attention in the least destructive way possible to a real injustice.
Point 3: Christian Freedom means we MUST Challenge some Laws
Show: Gal.5:16-18 (READ)
Explain: Well this passage is speaking about the INTERNAL BATTLE within all Christians. Part of us wants to please the Holy Spirit and the other part wants to indulge the flesh. (GOSPEL) As Christians we believe Jesus died for us. Jesus took the penalty for our sins when he died on the cross. And God says that if we believe Jesus died for us and repent of our sins we will be forgiven and when we die we will be taken to heaven. Now because Christians believe this to be true we love Jesus for saving us and we try to do what pleases Jesus. But it is still a battle because part of us loves Jesus, but part of us still loves indulging the flesh.
Now take this internal battle and extrapolate it to the two kingdoms (Slide 11). The Kingdom of Men (our old way of life) is all about slavery to self, the desires of the flesh and lies. But then Jesus saves us and we are brought into the Kingdom of God where we try to love God, love Jesus and love our neighbor. This means that the desires of the Kingdom of Men are contrary in many ways to the desires in the Kingdom of God. They are conflicting desires. And just as we sometimes have to say no to the desires of the flesh, sometimes we may need to say no to the laws of the state. Sometimes in order to keep in step with the Holy Spirit (standing for true justice, love and biblical truth), we will need to respectfully say no to the state. So, I want to give you a series of principles from Martin Luther King that should be observed when we engage in either 1) conscientious objection or 2) civil disobedience…
Now as we look at this – let me say that a non-Christian lawyer from UNSW (named Bede Haines) studied Martin Luther Kings principles for civil disobedience and says they are good, working principles for acts of civil disobedience. So, an Australian lawyer is saying sometimes acts of civil disobedience are necessary to draw attention to unjust laws and MLK gives us a good framework; (SLIDE 12).
Now the key is NON-VIOLENT. Non-violent because we are meant to LOVE our neighbor. Non-violence is also meant to show that we are GOOD CITIZENS who respect the RULE OF LAW, not rebellious citizens. Now Martin Luther King was so big on this that he ran special workshops with all the angry young men – drilling into them that even if they get hit by police with batons, they can’t fight back. Even if you are unjustly arrested – you must be compliant in the arrest. If the purpose of the protest is to highlight an injustice you must 1) be above reproach, especially if you want to win 2) the ear of society.
You’ll notice it says “a protest” or “another minor transgression”. Another minor transgression – may include praying outside abortion clinics. As you may know the MAJOR unjust law of abortion, is now protected by further MINOR unjust laws preventing people from praying within 100 meters of an abortion clinic. So praying outside an abortion clinic would also fulfill this requirement of breaking the lesser injustice, to highlight the greater injustice. Now you may still get arrested. But do you love the unborn enough to get arrested to highlight an injustice
(Slide 13) Due process. This is pretty straightforward. Before you challenge the law on the streets you should explore all reasonable options built into the rule of law.
(Slide 14) Again, I’ve spoken to this issue. We need to check our heart condition. Is our protest coming from the Holy Spirit OR is it coming from the spirit of lawlessness?
(Slide 15) This is also straightforward in principle, but more difficult in practice when the mob begins to form. In the midst of civil disobedience we need to still be ambassadors for Christ, who win people with words and love, not by brute force or threats of vengeance.
Apply: Friends, I don’t have all the answers. But when the Archbishop calls vaccine passports “wholly inconsistent with the gospel we preach”, I suspect we might have a problem soon. And as Martin Luther King points out good Christian people sometimes HIDE behind the principle of “submission to the government” in order to avoid doing what is truly right. (Slide 16/17). Now over the next few weeks pastors and wardens will be meeting with the Diocese to discuss some of these difficulties. But sometimes submission to unjust laws is actually wrong: its APATHY, its INDIFFERENCE, its SELFISH – and its more about preserving our comfort and maintaining the status quo, than truly loving our neighbor. So I ask you to pray with me…