Those of us who have lived in the comfort of America all our lives, have no grasp of what it means to be born and grow up in a life where your own country feels free to oppress, endanger, and kill if it suits them. Most of those who will read this blog will never know and have never known what it is like to live in fear of our own country and want nothing more than to escape. None of us will know the burden of being a parent who wants to make opportunities for their children and their children's children that will give them a decent quality of life, even if it means dying on the way. That is what I love about America. We are the place that is desired because we are safe and have reached a point of understanding (molded by our Christian heritage) and compassion that has led us to treat people with dignity and respect. America values life, happiness, and freedom. There was a day that those values (and I believe deep down, it is still there) were open to the entire world. America didn't corner the market on its amenities. We were a people who welcomed, not a fortress to protect. [Side note: We have recently (maybe since 9/11) promoted a propaganda that says we are vulnerable to the world and could be attacked at any time and must protect our many borders from the danger of this big bad world. History tells a bit different story. Our most dangerous times besides 9/11 and Pearl Harbor have been from ourselves. And as we travel the world-wide we can visit countless sights of war and battles. As we all know, in the US most of our battle sites to see are from the Civil War, not enemies outside our borders, or from when we fought for our independence to begin our history as an independent nation.] Our fear of attack is a reality, but less a probability. Readiness is necessary. Fear is irrational compared to other parts of the world. Again, this shows our distance from the realities of war and conflict that actually exists in other places of the world.
My spiritual angst lies in the rhetoric used to defend the actions of our lawmakers in the country. Romans 13 was used as a scriptural basis for falling in line with whatever is decided at the Capitol and if you don’t follow this text, not only are you close to treason, but you deny the commands of God as well. Ok, that was a bit dramatic, but not terribly exaggerated either. It is spiritual malpractice to take God’s holy word and use it to bolster your already held beliefs and especially to defend actions that could readily be deemed atrocities against God. So be careful when using scripture that you understand its context and meaning in its own time, before you begin to use it to have meaning in your current time period. And on a less spiritual note, we have no issue disagreeing with the policies and laws of our country when it is decided by the party we do not support or leaders we do not respect. If you agree with our current President and Congress on the laws that they have created, or the ones upheld over time, then there is a chance that you would disagree with previous Presidents and Congress or even future Presidents and Congress when those laws are challenged. In that time, it is very likely that you will use your American right and privilege to speak out against what you disagree with in a democratic process that is also protected by our constitution. So, to say that we should just go with the current law because it is the law and Romans 13 says we should obey the laws of our land, doesn’t lay itself out so simply when Romans 13 read in that way should also protect the ability of free speech and to challenge current laws and vote in different directions.
So, what about Romans 13?
Before we can read Romans 13, we probably should mention other places in the Bible that mirror somewhat the idea of governing powers and whether or not they are what God intended for those following. Not to go into detail, but to give us some evidential scriptural stories consider these:
The midwives save Moses’ life in disobedience to Pharaoh’s edict -Exodus 1
The entire book of Judges
Saul offers the burnt offering himself instead of Samuel -1 Samuel 13
David and Bathsheba -2 Samuel 11
David killing Uriah -2 Samuel 11
David’s sons vying for Kingship -2 Samuel
Solomon and his downfall for women and idols -1 Kings 11
The entire books of 1 and 2 Kings
King Nebuchadnezzar and Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego -Daniel 3
King Darius and Daniel -Daniel 6
Pilate and Jesus -Matthew 27
Apostles Preaching even when banned -Acts 4:18ff
In these stories would we really with legitimate voices say that God intended and desired for the people to worship other idols of Asherah and Baal? Even though he placed these judges and kings into leadership, did he expect the entire nation of Israel just to follow them into idol worship? In the book of Judges, we see that those judges mentioned always helped bring the Israelite people out of their idol worship. Those leaders had the heart of God. In the Kings we find there are many more kings who lead with idol worship present than those who don’t. God intends for his people to worship only Him. So, if we take Romans 13 to its conclusion of following all government authorities with whatever they decide, then we are saying God wanted Israel to serve other idols. God did not want this and would not stand for it. When we get to Saul and David we see two great kings that both lead their people and yet Saul gives the example of doing things his way instead of God’s way and David who resorts to adultery, murder, and sin. If Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had not protested the King’s decree they would have been bowing down to a statue. And when they don’t, they are spared from certain death. Daniel defies the king more than once. Daniel eats only vegetables and he survives the Lion’s den. Pilate as a leader kills the Messiah. Is that Godly leadership that should be trusted by the people? The Apostles disobey the preaching ban put on them from the Sanhedrin. What if they had quit preaching to observe obedience to the law of men? Would God expect for His people to shrug off adultery, murder, sin, and disobedience simply because He placed those people in leadership and they should be followed? God places humans in leadership roles and they do just what he expects; they act human. God doesn’t always agree with those in leadership and would not expect His people to blindly follow, especially if they know the rules and laws He has commanded.
While Romans 13 pursues the idea that God’s people have a responsibility to obey civil leadership, it is not an occasion to sit idly by and let sin abound or acts of aggression, violence, and rebellion against God go unchecked. As God’s people our first allegiance is to Him and His ways, not our individual countries or human laws. As God’s people it is our responsibility to stand up for God’s laws and ways. We weren’t put on this Earth to find God and comfortably wait to go to heaven. We were meant to be people who live a life for God with unyielding conviction. Consider what theologian John R.W. Stott says regarding Romans 13:
“Yet the requirement of submission and the warning of rebellion are couched in universal terms. For this reason they have constantly been misapplied by oppressive right-wing regimes, as if Scripture gave rulers carte blanche to develop a tyranny and to demand unconditional obedience.” (The Message of Romans, John R. W. Stott, p.341)
“Granted that the authority of rulers is derived from God, what happens if they abuse it, if they reverse their God-given duty, commending those who do evil and punishing those who do good? Does the requirement of submit still stand in such a morally perverse situation? No. The principle is clear. We are to submit right up to the point where obedience to the state would entail disobedience to God. But if the state commands what God forbids, or forbids what God commands then our plain Christian duty is to resist, not to submit, to disobey the state in order to obey God.” (The Message of Romans, John R. W. Stott, p.342) *Italics is mine for emphasis*
He goes on to mention Acts 5:29, “27 The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28 “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.” 29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! -Acts 5:27-29
Oscar Cullmann in his book, Christ and Time. The Primitive Christian Conceptions of Time and History, 1957. P.55-57. says “Few sayings in the New Testament have suffered as much misuse as this one. As soon as Christians, out of loyalty to the gospel of Jesus, offer resistance to a State’s totalitarian claim, the representatives of that State, or their collaborationist, theological advisers, are accustomed to appeal to this saying of Paul, as if Christians are here commanded to endorse and thus abet all the crimes of a totalitarian State….But as the context shows, ‘there can be no question here of an unconditional and uncritical subjection to any and every demand of the State’.”
So what does it mean. It means we trust in God more than humans. It means we should not resist the laws that do not counteract God’s law. We pay our taxes, we follow the laws that govern our nation. We respect the people that are in a leadership role. And when the leaders or policies of our nation lean or all-out oppose God’s heart and desire for His people we stand up and we speak up to help guide those leaders and those policies back towards God’s heart and design.
We must constantly be careful that we are aligned with God over and above our country. Many times this is not an issue. However, I feel of late we have confused American values for Christian values. I’m not worried or in fear. However, I feel that polarization of our nation and how Christians are seeming to pick sides based on political parties we need to give much more attention to the word of God. We need to look past certain proof texts and read to see God’s entire character. We must be careful to not be blinded by individual thoughts or steered by simple group-think that we lose sight of God’s ultimate picture. A friendly reminder that those who Jesus struggled with the most were not sinful, hateful, despicable characters. Jesus struggled and differed most with the highly religious. Why? Because they had become blinded by the law and lost sight of grace, mercy, and love. Jesus comes with a message of hope AS the message of love. If we truly to desire to be His disciple, then we must embody His love in our daily lives. I don’t need America or any other country to tell me that. I don’t need the republican or democrat party to tell me that. I don’t need a President, congress, coalition, or council to tell me that. I have the word of God, the example of Jesus, and Incarnation of the Spirit guiding me in that principle and always bringing me back to the heart of God. And you do too! Seek and find! Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and render to God…ALL!