When I was thirteen years old, my Dad thought it would be a good idea to sign me up for a police ride along. So at one o’clock in the morning, on the county roads around Owensboro, Kentucky, I rode shotgun next to a local policeman who talked to me about my family, my school, and my relatively mundane teenage life. And while I can’t remember his name, I’ll never forget the officer’s kindness, his sense of humor, and his willingness to hang out with a pubescent stranger for three hours.
To my dismay, I didn’t witness any bank robberies or high-speed chases or even traffic stops. Contrary to the romanticized view of police work I’d developed in my teenage mind, most of the evening was spent patrolling the country backroads of west Daviess County. It was an uneventful night…except for the last 30 minutes. Over the dispatch, I heard the officer receive a call of a disturbance at a local farm. Minutes later, upon our arrival, two men darted out behind a propane tank, and the officer quickly put the car in park. Before giving chase, as he opened his door, the officer looked over at me, his wide-eyed 13-year-old co-pilot, and told me to keep the door locked. I nodded as my mouth hung open. After several minutes, when he returned and got into the car, the officer explained to me the secret world of methamphetamines.
At thirteen, my first encounter with a police officer was also my first exposure to the world of narcotics. To the world of addiction and theft. Twenty years later, I can still remember the rush of adrenaline watching one of the meth cooks whiz by our car. And I can also remember the feeling I had back at the station when Dad came to pick me up, realizing that the relatively thankless job of law enforcement goes on even when we’re asleep in our warm beds.
In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul delivers a tough word to a people being oppressed by a bloodthirsty, God-hating Emperor: submit. Paul writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority?” (Rom. 13:1-3) For good measure, Paul calls the civil authority the “servant for your good,” “servant of God,” “avenger,” and “minister of God.” (vv. 4, 6) But to a free people who live in a nation birthed in rebellion, this can often be a difficult teaching to receive. When we don’t like the direction of our country or the person leading our country, Romans 13 begins to grate on our sense of liberty. Unfortunately, in our modern political climate, it can seem like American Christians spend more time wiggling out of Romans 13 than celebrating it. But such an attitude misses Paul’s meaning.
Today when I read Paul’s teaching about submission to authorities in Romans 13, I think back to my police ride along. To the officer chasing down thieves at 4am in the cold farmland of western Kentucky. When I hear Paul speak of “authorities,” I think less about the political candidate I don’t like and more about the underappreciated policeman silently “bearing the sword” so that I can live in relative safety. The silent servant. The anonymous avenger. God’s minister of civil security. God’s grace.
Romans 13 isn’t about politics. It’s about protection and preservation. Romans 13 isn’t a call to repay evil with evil; it’s a reminder to “do what is good” and to remember a God whose grace sustains us from perfect chaos and depravity. And that’s why, in some sense, every officer of the law should remind us of the law of God and our need for forgiveness for having transgressed it. Every officer deserves a heartfelt thanks, both for their public ministry and the greater, heavenly ministry of which they all reveal our great need. My local policeman reminds me of God’s grace, the grace to live freely in a lawful America and the grace God extends to every lawbreaker who calls upon the name of the Lord. (Acts 2:21) And for that, I’m doubly thankful.
This week our community, our church, and our family is in prayer for Officer Matt Cooper who was recently shot as he carried out God’s public ministry of bearing the sword for our protection and our good. We lift our servant before the Greatest Servant, our avenger before the Lamb upon whom our sin was avenged. And as we pray for his recovery, his family, and the families of all involved in this tragedy, we remember that the grace God has extended to our community in Officer Cooper is but a shadow of the grace he offers to all who would believe in the precious blood of Jesus.
To my local policeman, thank you.