Probably because of the flurry of recent candidacy announcements along with the terrifying thought of two years of presidential campaigning, but I’ve been involved in two or three challenging conversations/discussions in the last few days specifically on the role of Christians in the political process.
Last Sunday night, for instance, our small group met for a study of Romans 13, where Paul makes the following extremely challenging statements:
- “Those who are in positions of power (authority) have been placed there (established) by God.” (v.1)
- “So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished.” (v.2)
- “The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good.” (v.4)
- “Give respect and honor to those who are in authority.” (v.7)
As if that were not clear enough, he wrote similar things to Titus in Chapter 3:
Remind the believers to submit to the government and its officers. They should be obedient, always ready to do what is good. They must not slander anyone and must avoid quarreling. Instead, they should be gentle and show true humility to everyone.
Among whole rooms full of mature Christians, we did not have very much agreement on how to apply this Scripture. Our questions began with the Bonhoeffer dilemma of whether as a Christian he had either godly permission to conspire to assassinate the maniacal head of Nazi Germany—or perhaps even the obligation—then we proceeded to the “right” to break the law and sit in the front of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama!
Some argued for differences if Christians live in a democratic society where resistance to authority is allowed within measure. But that exception only underlines questions about Christians in Communistic countries, monarchies, hegemonies, or even failed states with tribal warlords who exercise authority?
And do these Scriptures only apply on a national level? What about the state level, city level, employer level, family level?
Isn’t the real question, what is St. Paul really talking about? I don’t have all the answers to these very difficult questions, but I do have some observations about a few things that seem pretty clear to me.
First, authority (government) is not a bad word! You may not like some particular form of government, but God has always organized His people, and they have always been required to submit to that authority—for their own good. The earliest authorities were Moses and Aaron and those who rebelled against them were swallowed up by the earth itself (Numbers 16). After Joshua, God raised up judges (Judges 2:16) as the local officer of God among Israel.
Perhaps the worst moment in Jewish history is described at the end of the book of Judges, when the Holy Spirit records, In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25). (If this sounds good to you, you need to re-read the Old Testament.)
Secondly, God’s intent is that authority is used for the good of His people. Neither Jesus nor Paul nor any of the early Christians lived under governments that were benevolent to Christians. Quite the contrary, both Jesus and Paul lost their lives to “authorities” as did many Christians. And the Old Testament is full of examples of God punishing nations (kings, generals, nations) for their unrighteousness—for abusing people rather than doing them good.
Thirdly, the larger context of both the passages in Romans and Titus is that Christians should act with love towards all and for the good of others. Look at all of the admonitions leading into the command to submit to governing authorities:
- Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse! (12:14)
- Live in harmony with one another. (12:16)
- Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. (12:17)
- If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (12:18)
- Do not take revenge. (12:19)
- If your enemy is hungry, feed him. (12:20)
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities. Does it help you to read these sentences together instead of pausing because they are divided by a big chapter heading?
Paul runs the whole idea together in the Titus passage as well: Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.
I don’t have all the answers to the biggest questions these passages raise, but I do think that I know what Jesus would say to American Christians heading into another season of presidential campaigning:
“Don’t slander anyone! Be peaceable and considerate. Be gentle toward everyone. Bless, and do not curse.”