I got a speeding ticket today.
It’s been about eight years since I’ve had the pleasure, and it caught me rather off-guard, as if those flashing lights simply couldn’t be for me. It also brought to the front of my mind the same basic thoughts it always has, including:
- “Why don’t you go catch some real criminals, hot-shot?”
- “The speed limit on Oakland is thirty-five?! WHAT? It’s three lanes, one way, all commercial! That’s ridiculous. Nobody goes thirty-five on this street.”
- “Seriously, you should go catch some real criminals.”
- “I wasn’t even the fastest one in the pack. I was barely going 50. That guy in the red Mustang was going 60. Plus, he was texting. Why me?”
- “I guarantee someone in the capital city is getting stabbed right now. Stabbed by a real criminal. And you’re here giving me a ticket for going with the flow of traffic. This is so stupid.”
Of course, I don’t actually say any of this out loud to the police officer. I’m polite to a fault, admit my guilt (bearing false witness in a court of law kind of goes against my conscience, so I won’t be fighting the ticket), and even tell the policeman “thank you” before driving off. (What I’m thanking him for, I have no idea—helping take that pesky $180 off my hands?)
All the same, behind my not-so-righteous indignation, I know the policeman is just doing his job. Part of protecting and serving a community is making sure people drive safely. And one way to do that is hand out tickets to people who break the rules. They give tickets to a few and scare everybody into driving reasonably—and to a degree, it seems to work. Now that I have a son, this makes a lot more sense to me; when people go zipping past my house while my boy is outside, I’d like to see them cuffed and stuffed into the backseat of a police cruiser—forget the ticket.
And ultimately, I’m not mad at the officer; I’m mad at myself. I should have spotted that speed trap, I think. I should have known he was hiding there, because cops are often hiding there. I’m annoyed with myself for getting caught. I should have slowed down because, if I didn’t, there was a good chance I’d wind up paying the price.
If that sounds a little selfish, I suppose it is. But it’s also biblical. In Romans 13, St. Paul tells us that one reason we should obey the law is because of possible punishment from the civil authorities. He tells us that God has instituted the authorities that we answer to, and that by disobeying them we bring judgment upon ourselves. “Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority?” asks Paul. “Then do what is right and he will commend you.”
Now, I’ve never been pulled over by a police officer so that he or she could commend me for my good driving, but the principle holds. According to God’s purpose, these people are there to do us good. Does that police officer (or magistrate or meter maid or IRS agent) seem like they’re just out to ruin your day? Well, there may be a reason, and it may just have something to do with God. According to Romans 13, the one in authority “is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
So there you have it; if there is a possibility of punishment, we should submit to the civil authorities and the law of the land, so that we won’t bring judgment upon ourselves. But if you know there’s no cops around, blow through that red light. If you’re sure the IRS won’t catch on to you, take that fake deduction. If the DNR is understaffed, then what the heck is a “limit,” right?
Not quite. You see, there’s another reason for Christians to obey the law. Romans 13 goes on to say, “Therefore it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” (Romans 13:5-7, ESV)
In light of that, it makes perfect sense for me to tell the police officer “thank you” before he drives away. After all, he is God’s servant giving his full time to help uphold the law. He’s there for my good, even when he has to punish me for breaking that law. I owe him respect and so I give him respect.
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St. Peter adds yet another reason for Christians to obey the law: so that we will be a better witness to the unbelievers who are watching the way we live. Peter writes, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” (1 Peter 2:13-15)
As our country is ramping up for another election (more than a year away)—a time when we typically get so tired of our elected officials that honor and respect go by the wayside, let us remember that God has ordained the power of the civil authorities every bit as much as he has ordained the authority of His church. It is often wielded inappropriately (just as it is within the church), but that doesn’t negate the authority. Luther called the civil kingdom the “Left Hand of God” and the Church the “Right Hand of God.”
We hate to see missionaries and ministers go unappreciated, dumped on, and disrespected. We should have a similar burden for respecting the secular authorities who “bear the sword”—police and law enforcement, judges, governors, lawmakers, mayors, city council, all the way up to the president. This does not mean that we condone or justify abuses of power on any level, put it does mean that our default position is respect and obedience, not skepticism, defiance, or a jaded “How do you save a politician from drowning?” attitude.
And let’s not forget to keep these men and women in our prayers. Paul wrote this to Timothy: “I urge . . . that requests, prayers, intercession and thanks-giving be made for everyone—for rulers and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior.” (1 Timothy 2:1-3).