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Being Subject to the Authorities

The Forum - from Rome.info
The Forum – from Rome.info

While I haven’t written anything on it myself, I’ve published quite a number of books regarding how Christians should relate to authority. These include Christian Archy and The Jesus Paradigm (David Alan Black), Ultimate Allegiance and Faith in the Public Square (Bob Cornwall), Rendering unto Caesar (Chris Surber), and Preserving Democracy (Elgin L. Hushbeck, Jr.). The last one isn’t primarily about the Christian’s relationship to authority, but it does deal with what the author believes are the legitimate functions of government, and ways in which the authorities can definitely be illegitimate.

As I was reading from Luke 12 this morning, and realized that Jesus was speaking to people who were likely facing persecution, sometimes from those very authorities, I started to think a bit about why we tend always to start with the “rendering unto Caesar” passage, and much less from Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17, or Acts 5:29. The first of those passages is quite frequently abused by those who believe that one must obey the government no matter what.

I’m not going to write an extremely long post on this today. I just wanted to bring the subject up. The one line I appreciated most in the commentary I read on these passages came from The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, p. 2029, commenting on Romans 13:3-5.

Governing authorities derive legitimacy and serve God by punishing bad and approving good—that is, by implementing justice. The just purposes of government evoke submission by the ascent of conscience (v. 5) rather than by fear of punishment. An unjust tyrrany, by implication, would not qualify as an authority instituted by God.…

There are a couple of points in that passage that I believe are overstated, but I think the main point is correct. Paul here speaks of the government carrying out it’s legitimate functions, functions which the Roman government often did quite well. When, at other times, the authorities turned against the good, then one must obey God rather than human authority (Acts 5:29). A Christian would obey the legitimate authority even of an unjust government, where that is possible (often it is not), and would reject only the unjust actions. I think 1 Peter 2:13-17 implies this. Christians were to be model citizens wherever they could thus blunting accusations brought against them. When the state ordered them to do something they could not do in good conscience, then the authorities would be unable to say, “These people just ordinary lawbreakers.” Rather, they would only have the matter of conscience at hand.

Having government ordained by God cuts both ways. First, it gives authority and order a divine imprint, and becoming simply a rebel or an anarchist is precluded short of a complete loss of legitimacy. Second, however, it places human government under the divine authority. Note that I don’t mean by this anything at all like theocracy. I do not think theocracy is desirable, nor is it called for in this passage. Rather, what this means in practice is that one’s conscience controls. It should make me subordinate to all legitimate authority and limit when I can stand against that authority to cases when I would be required to perform an act that was evil or unethical.

The “government no matter what” spin that some have put on this passage tends to make Paul into somewhat of an idiot. Perhaps we need another rule of interpretation: If the way you interpret a passage makes the author look like an idiot, reconsider. Sometimes the God’s wisdom may look like foolishness to us, but so does actual foolishness.

I know I’ve left a huge number of holes in this discussion, but I’ll leave those for later discussion. It’s a blog post, and sometimes I have to write one that is less than 1000 words!

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  1. Well maybe but Paul specifically mentions the use of the sword in Romans 13 as a “legitimate” function of Caesar, something Rome did often and rarely in justice. To try to force a clause into Romans 13 that is not there is not helpful to the interpretation. Paul is not an idiot for saying government no matter what because he says in the very chapter beforehand that God Himself will avenge evildoers. We are to submit to the authorities, rendering unto Caesar what is his while reserving for God what is His, whether we live in America or ancient Rome or anywhere in-between.

    1. I guess my disagreement with you is two-fold: 1) The sword, I think, refers to the use of force in carrying out its authority, so the sword could be used either in support of justice or not, and 2) Paul clearly had limits on what the state could order.

      If the state ordered him to do something, or refrain from something, that infringed his duty to God, he didn’t do it. So I stick with my view that the broader application makes Paul self-contradictory. Legitimately, Caesar has no authority except that given him by God.

  2. Thus my rendering unto Caesar point. Paul never provides a caveat regarding the use of force/coercion, namely that it is OK when “just” and not when it isn’t.

    1. Well, now I’m uncertain what it is we’re in disagreement about. What I’m saying is that Paul is not advocating obedience to the government when it forces us to do something unethical or otherwise wrong. I think Paul lived that exception.

  3. When Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar,” this begs the question, “What is Caesar’s?” The answer is NOTHING. “All the world and everything in it is mine, says the Lord.” Any “authority” Caesar has is the same as any steward, doing the will of God. We obey government when 1) it complies with God’s will (as we know it), and 2) when it promotes social good among people (traffic regulations, zoning, etc.) All you have to do is substitute “Nazi Germany” or “North Korea”, etc., for “those authorities” that exist have been instituted by God [Rom. 13:1] and this becomes clear. These (among so many others) hardly qualify as “God’s servants for your good” [13:4]. If Paul actually believed that all governments are ordained by God, he was naive at best and an idiot at worst. I believe he was neither.

    We may never know what Paul was thinking when he wrote Rom. 13. My best guess is that he considered government irrelevant in the short run, because he believed the world as he knew it was about to end with the return of Jesus in his generation. Therefore, follow the rules, don’t antagonize, and we’ll get through this. Had he known we would have another 2000 years to go (at the least,) he may have written a very different chapter.

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