My church’s Bible study is going through Romans: The Letter That Changed the World, with Mart De Haan and Jimmy DeYoung. Last night, we talked about Romans 13. Romans 13:1-5 states (in the King James Version):
” (1.) Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. (2.) Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. (3.) For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: (4.) For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. (5.) Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.”
Someone in the group, whom I will call Bob (yes, he’s the same person I called Bob in my post here), expressed his problems with this passage. For one, he had a problem with the notion that particular leaders are ordained by God. Yes, he agreed that people should generally obey the law because that was necessary for social order to exist, but he saw that as quite different from saying that God ordained specific leaders, as if (say) Governor Andrew Cuomo has a divine mandate. For Bob, God does not back governments, which sometimes are right, and sometimes are wrong, but God supports people who try to walk in Christ’s way. In Bob’s opinion, specific leaders are appointed by human beings, not God. Second, Bob questioned whether Paul was indeed correct to say that, under the government, those who are bad are punished while those who are good are praised, for the early Christians were persecuted. And third, Bob was wrestling about whether our obedience to the state should be absolute. Suppose that the state imposes on us taxes that we cannot afford? Suppose that it drafts people to go to war, to kill people who (like us) simply want to get home to their wife and kids? Suppose that one is a Roman Catholic who opposes abortion, and thus sees the state as a supporter of murder? Bob said that he’d probably pay the taxes rather than go to jail, but that he doubts that he’d obey the state were it to tell him to kill someone. On abortion, he said that he was against it personally, but others are free to make their own decisions.
People in the group were responding to Bob. One, whom I will call Jeff, said that we need to look at the whole Bible to see what we should believe, and the Bible says that, when the state tells us to disobey a command by God, then we should obey God and not the state. He pointed out that we can see examples of civil disobedience in the Bible: the three young men in the Book of Daniel who refused to bow down to the image, the Christians in Revelation who do not take the Mark of the Beast, etc. Bob responded that he was not sure that the Romans who received Paul’s letter had all of the Bible. After all, the Book of Revelation was not written yet! How, then, could they put Romans 13 in a larger context?
A lady was suggested that perhaps we should assume that God has sanctioned specific leaders until they are removed from power, as occurred with Hitler when he lost World War II and shot himself. But people in the group were wondering how that would help us in the meantime—-before the leaders lose their power. Should we obey them in that interim?
The pastor was reading some interesting insights from his study Bible. For one, the pastor read that the damnation that Paul mentions in Romans 13:2 is not necessarily eternity in hell but rather punishment by the state. And yet, the pastor also read that Romans 13:5 says that we should be subject to the state for conscience’s sake because, in obeying the state, we are also obeying God, who commanded us to respect our earthly rulers. Second, the pastor read that Paul’s statements about the state punishing evil and praising good are not an absolute description of how reality is, but rather a statement about how the state should be, or about how the state is when it does what it is supposed to do.
I raised a couple of points in the course of the discussion. For one, I said that Christians in the ancient world had a PR problem: they were believed to support another ruler besides Caesar (namely, Christ), and they did not participate in the pagan sacrifices that many pagans thought were essential to the well-being of the empire. Consequently, Christians were deemed to be subversive, like the Communists in the 1950’s. In this environment, I said, Paul was encouraging the Romans Christians to obey the authorities rather than making unnecessary waves. Bob found what I said there to be helpful. Second, I said that just saying that we should obey God rather than the state when the two conflict does not entirely solve the problem, for people have different ideas about what God wants, and, if they can disobey the law whenever they feel that it goes against God’s will, there can be anarchy. I asked what would happen if Catholics decided not to pay their taxes because the government was funding abortions (which I know is forbidden under the Hyde Amendment, but it has been argued that the government still funds abortions, on some level).
I’ve talked about some of these issues in my posts here and here. In this post, I want to touch briefly on the issue of hermeneutics. When I read the Bible and attempt to get things out of it, I tend not to be over-literal in my reading, nor do I always assume that the Bible is “inerrant”, if you will, or that every rule that it gives is absolute. Rather, I just assume that it has something to teach me. When I read Romans 13, what I conclude that it teaches me is that we should generally obey the civil authorities because doing so is conducive to the social order. Should we obey the state at all times? I don’t think so, for the state sometimes tells people to do what’s wrong, but, when we disobey, we should probably be willing to suffer the legal consequences out of respect for the social order, a la Thoreau (though, at the same time, I somewhat respect those who went to Canada during the Vietnam War rather than staying in the U.S. to be drafted). I tend to agree, however, with the Jewish-Christian pastor on the DVD that we watched when he said that, most of the time, the laws of the state overlap with the laws of God (or, I might add, they don’t go against the law of God). Does the state always praise good and punish evil? No, but, if you commit a crime, there is a strong chance that you will be legally punished. I think that Paul is being wise when he says that, if we want things to go smoothly for us, then we should obey the law. It’s not an absolute principle of what happens in the world, in my opinion, but it’s a general rule of thumb.
But some may not like my rather loose interpretation of Romans 13, for they would feel that it violates seeing the Scripture as literally true words from God, as absolute (for all times and circumstances), and as perfect. What’s ironic, though, is that there are probably more people who would affirm these things about Scripture (i.e., its perfection, its literal and absolute truth, etc.), while sneaking in a looser interpretation of Romans 13! I think of the study Bible that my pastor was reading from, or the person in my study-group who was trying to relativize Romans 13 by appealing to other passages of Scripture where obedience to authority was not an absolute.