Friday, February 10, 2017

Submit to All Authorities?

Debating politics with another believer? Chances are one of you, and some point in the argument, played the Romans 13 card. Like most trump cards (no pun intended) it is really useful when desperate, but can be ignored if not needed. But what does it really teach us about politics?

A year ago, my church started having adult Sunday school before our weekly worship services. I've been helping teach the classes and we've covered the Psalms, Revelation, Ephesians and most recently, Romans. Our class on Romans happened to coincide with the elections and many were hoping we'd get to chapter 13 before having to vote. Unfortunately, covering only a chapter at a time, we didn't get to the thirteenth chapter until well after the elections and into the new year. I lost count of the number of times someone would ask for my thoughts, knowing that we were weeks away from covering the material but feeling the urgency of our political climate.

Photo: Mark Wallheiser, Getty Images
Interestingly, had someone asked for my opinion a year ago my answer would have been much different. But studying Romans following in-depth studies of Revelation (and its condemnation of the false prophet-beast/church-state) and Ephesians (with its emphasis on unity) changed my perspective greatly.

Coincidentally, or perhaps it was the Holy Spirit- who am I to say?, we studied Romans 13 the week before President Trump took his oath of office.

Of course on the surface, Paul is usually quite straightforward- "submit to all governing authorities". The only qualifier he offers is that governments are established by God to enact justice on behalf of God.

Most of the time when discussing this passage, we add our own qualifiers- as long as the government's laws don't conflict with God's laws, or that the word of God always trumps (again, no pun intended) worldly edicts or executive orders. Unfortunately the oft-quoted, "we must obey God, not men!" is from the book of Acts, not Romans. Paul doesn't give us any way out. We are to submit. Period. End of discussion.

Except that it's not the end of discussion. The most common mistake when it comes to Bible-interpretation is to take verses from the Bible as stand-alone nuggets of specific wisdom without considering its context. And the context of Romans 13 is important.

No, I'm not talking about the fact that Paul wrote this to a church under the rule of Nero. Or even to consider the political subtext of its cultural context (see The Arrogance of Nations by Neil Elliott for that discussion). I'm talking about the context within Paul's letter itself.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize that Romans 13 comes after Romans 12 and before Romans 14. Romans 12 describes an ethic that Christians should strive for. It begins by instructing us to offer ourselves as "living sacrifices", not "conformed to the pattern of this world". This echoes Jesus, "whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it." (Luke 9:24) If we seek the things of this world- politics, power, wealth- then we will lose our very selves. But if we choose to make ourselves living sacrifices, giving up those very things that the world promises will make our lives better, we will gain so much more.

With that "renewed mind" opening the chapter, Paul continues with a few statements that are crucial to understanding Romans 13. In verse 3 we are told to "not think of yourselves more highly than you ought" and similarly in verse 18 that "as much as it depends on you, live at peace with one another". (See my post from Romans 12 for more) Paul describes a position of humility as our default state. Then he closes the chapter by urging us not to take revenge because that is up to God. (12:19).

Interestingly, right after Paul tells us that it is up to God to judge and avenge, he then tells us that the government wields the sword in Romans 13. So government is an instrument of God's. This wouldn't have come as a shock to Paul's audience, despite being subject to Nero, because Paul already established this (and Jews recognized this from many of their own scriptures) in Romans 9 discussing how God used Pharaoh to bring about the Exodus.

At this point, it is crucial to examine our own faith. If we truly believe God is sovereign, doesn't that mean he is sovereign over governments? Much ado was made of "God intervening" in this past election. But would those Christians make the same argument if Hillary Clinton had won? Either God is sovereign or he's not. He's not just sovereign only when you get your way.

So what if you disagree? What if government is corrupt? Well Peter gives Christians in Rome similar instructions even while they are undergoing persecution (1 Peter 2:13-15). And we know from history how God used foreign, and assumed to be evil, governments to enact his will- Pharaoh during the Exodus, Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:17), and Cyrus (Isaiah 45:1). So even if a government is evil and corrupt, that doesn't prevent God from using it for his purposes. (Important distinction there: his purposes, not ours). Again, Paul doesn't give us any disclaimer to 'submit only if...'

So we must check our hearts. Why do we disagree? What are our motives? I appreciate Warren Wiersbe for pointing this out- you can outline Romans 13 by our motivations to submit to government: fear of judgment (verses 3-4), our conscience (verse 5), love (verse 8), and Jesus himself (verse 14). Do you disagree because you did something wrong and deserve justice? Not a good enough reason. Do you disagree because of your conscience? Well you need more evidence than that. Do you disagree because of love? In other words, is a law you disagree with inherently unloving? Now we're getting somewhere. Finally we come to the traditional canard- what would Jesus do? Would Jesus obey this law?

So there's a progression we need to examine when we oppose our government. Ultimately, if we cannot practice civil disobedience from a posture of love in submission to Jesus then we are only seeking our own self-interest or self-righteousness.

Another point to consider when you oppose government is Paul's following argument in Romans 14, which can be summed up as the strong must bear with the weak. In other words, you need to put your self-interest aside and think of others first. So is your opposition for your own good or for the good of another? I'll have more on that point in another post.

So does Romans 13 actually mean what it says and we're to submit no matter what? Pretty much yes, but context offers some nuance: we are to be humble, God is sovereign, and our motives have to be loving rooted in Christ.

Don't play the Romans 13 trump card to try an win an argument against someone with a different political perspective than you. Rather apply it to yourself. Check out that log before you worry about someone else's splinter.

(for more discussion on Romans 13, check out the podcast 'Theology on Mission' with David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw and their episode: Protesting Romans 13)

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