I want to say something about the role of the state because although Paul does not develop it here in 1 Corinthians 6, considering another context will give us a more complete picture of this issue. What is the role of the state? Does the state have legitimate authority over the lives of Christians? One of the great illustrations of the proper role of the state is found in the trial of Jesus Christ. It was significant, not simply because it was Jesus on trial, but because Jesus stood in that position as the head of the church before Pilate, who was the representative of Caesar, the greatest power in the Roman world at the time.
The issue was of authority. Jesus was accused of being the king. Pilate began to interrogate him on that point, asking, “Are you a king?” In reply Jesus explained the nature of his kingdom. He said, “If my kingdom were a political kingdom, my servants would fight. But it’s not; it is a kingdom of truth.” Pilate recognized that what Jesus talked about occupied a sphere that did not concern him. A kingdom of truth did not threaten him, so he went out and said to the Jews, “I find no fault in him.”
The Jews then shifted the complaint. They said, “If you will not crucify him for that charge, let’s try this one. He made himself out to be the Son of God. That is blasphemy. He deserves death by our law.” That charge got to Pilate. He probably did not really believe that Jesus was the Son of God, certainly not in the Christian sense, but people of that time did believe that there were half-divine, half-god beings inhabiting the Roman world. We read that he was afraid when he heard this. “Perhaps Jesus is somebody special,” he may have thought. “People like that can get at you if you do something wrong.” He went back in and began to talk to Christ again.
There were aspects of the trial to which Jesus did not reply; when Pilate got into areas that did not concern him, Jesus remained silent. To that Pilate said, “Are you standing there saying nothing? Don’t you know I have the power to crucify you or to set you free?” At that point, Jesus said what I believe is the most significant statement in the entire Bible concerning the legitimacy of human government and its limitations. Jesus said, “You would have no authority over me except it were given you from above. Therefore, he who committed me unto you has the greater sin.” That is interesting, isn’t it? If Jesus had merely meant, “You’d have no ‘power’ except it were given you from above,” that would simply mean in the order of this world, some beings are more powerful than other beings. In that context, you can’t talk about sin. When a cat kills a mouse the cat isn’t sinning. He’s just more powerful than the mouse. But the word Jesus used was the word authority.
Authority is something that is given or delegated by the greater to the lesser. He was saying that God is the authority. God had given Pilate an amount of authority as the head of the Roman government in this area and, therefore, while that legitimizes his authority, it also limits it. If he pronounced it wrongly, that would be sin.
This is very important for us to remember in our day. Christians sometimes make the mistake of withdrawing from the state as if the state has no legitimate authority at all. When we do that, and in so doing undermine the state, we do it at our peril. We need the state. God has established the state with the responsibility to preserve justice and provide defense. Those are biblical guidelines.
On the other hand, if we do what the secular world does, that is, make the state absolute, forgetting that the authority of the state and its courts comes from God, then there is no check upon the government. Law becomes not a human attempt to administrate the eternal law of God, but it becomes arbitrary. The majority rules, or perhaps in some systems the decrees of a small body of men like the Supreme Court rule, and their decisions become the morality of the land.