Declaration of Dependence

While there are many passages in the Bible that challenge us, perhaps the one that we are most unabashedly in conflict with is Romans 13.  We may not always like what the Bible says, but we generally (as Christians) will concede that it is true and we need to work at conforming our attitudes and words and actions to be more consistent with it.  But Romans 13 is perhaps the one section of Scripture that the most fundamentalist, conservative, and traditional Christians will openly balk at.

No, it doesn’t have to do with sex or marriage or loving our neighbors.  Instead it deals with our obligation as Christians in how we conduct ourselves as  subjects of a civil authority.  What does it mean for a Christian to be a citizen?  It means that we are to be subject to the civil authority.  This may not sound like a very difficult proposition, but I think it is one of the most difficult Scriptural admonitions for American Christians.  When we come to this passage, our immediate reaction is not yes, Paul is speaking truth inspired by the Holy Spirit of God and I need to give thanks for and seek to be subject to my civil authority in every possible way.  The reaction I run into over and over again – including in myself is what is the loophole?  What’s the boundary where I can in good faith reject my civil authority?

I think this is an issue of premises.  As 20th/21st century Americans, we are raised on the understanding that government should be of the people, by the people, and for the people, a phrase made popular by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address just over 150 years ago.  In other words, I am in control of the government.  The government is answerable to me.

But St. Paul in Romans 13 asserts something radically different – God is in control of the government, at least in a broad sense and sometimes in very particular ways.  Government is ultimately a tool in God’s hand for maintaining civil order and safety.  Government is therefore not answerable to me as a citizen, but to God.  A government might function well or poorly in this role as divine agent, but this is its appropriate role.

These are very contradictory positions.  My education as an American strongly conflicts with St. Paul’s assertions, leading me to seek a way out from St. Paul’s words.  Surely there are limits.  Surely there are points at which the civil authority must be so manifestly wrong and contrary to the will of God that I am justified in rebellion.  And that may be the case, but Paul doesn’t deal with that issue in Romans 13.  He simply asserts that our goal is to live peaceably and obediently to civil authority, and that when we do not, we rightly should expect – and even rightly deserve – civil punishment.

Theologians struggle with this passage just as much.  Was it sinful then, for the colonies to revolt against Great Britain?  Some theologians say yes.  Others say no.  Was it sinful to initiate resistance to the Nazi government?  Some theologians say yes, others say no.

Each of us may be confronted in the course of our Christian life with a crisis of conscience.  I think St. Paul would have definitely agreed with St. Peter’s statements in Acts 5:29, that when we are forced to choose between obedience to God and obedience to man, we must choose obedience to God.  But this is a far different matter than disagreeing on public policy.  My government may legitimize things that I know to be contrary to the will of God, such as abortion or the arbitrary redefinition of marriage.  However insofar as I am not required personally to get an abortion or to marry multiple people or people of the same gender as myself, I must remain obedient to the government.  Civil resistance is not something I should be focused on until I am personally forced to choose between the dictates of man and the dictates of God.  And even then, I should not necessarily expect that my resistance is justified and should be respected by the authorities!  What it means is that if necessary, I should be willing to endure imprisonment or even execution rather than renounce my faith.  This is wrong, and those who are part of the civil authority responsible for these actions will be held accountable and responsible for them – but not necessarily by me.  They will have to answer to God.

St. Paul was writing to the Christian community in Rome in the mid-50’s AD.  This is a community whose Jewish converts were well aware that it was in recent memory that Jews had been banned from Rome.  This is a community who shortly would face arrest and execution in the Coliseum under the rule of Nero.  Yet I’m not aware of any Christian teaching – Biblical or otherwise – that exhorted Christians to active resistance to these things.  Hope was not to be found in public vindication, but in the promise of eternal life beyond the reach of secular abuses.

How different from our concepts of representative democracy!  Which makes Romans 13 very confusing.  I believe we can and should exercise those rights accorded to us by our government.  We are free to protest and lobby and vote and organize and campaign.  All within the legal framework accorded such activities.  We are free to organize and lobby on behalf of those we feel are unjustly imprisoned, or against laws that limit our freedom of religious expression.  But in all things our attitude should be one of obedience to the civil authority as a gift from God intended to facilitate peace and good order.

How does that sit with you?

2 Responses to “Declaration of Dependence”

  1. SB mom Says:

    An excellent post – thank you. Our small group discussed this issue a few months back and it was definitely a challenging discussion. I am encouraged to work on aligning my own words and behavior with what Scripture teaches, and you so ably pointed out.

    • mrpaulnelson Says:

      It really is eye-opening to recognize how deeply my sinfulness as well as my cultural formation goes. Thank God for forgiveness and the blessing of his Word to challenge me each day!

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