Because our current society is what it is many of these articles touch (hit, pound) on how the evangelical church in America engages with politics. Shockingly (he said, tongue-in-cheekily), I sometimes imply in these articles that our current president and his policies aren’t compatible with the path of Jesus. The response to these articles are all over the place, but the most common “Biblical” response I’ve gotten lately has been “we’re supposed to submit to the governing authorities like Paul says in Romans 13.”
My first thought when I get this response is to wonder how often this commenter made this claims under 8 years of Obama. My second is to presume they (like me) probably don’t feel that abortion, though the law of the land, is something we as Christians should be super stoked about.
But this is about my third response, which is how out-of-context these commenters are taking that Scripture in the first place. SO, this is my brief attempt to explain what I think Paul is saying in Rom. 13 and how it applies now.
I believe the theme of Romans is “unity.” We are united in sin (chps. 1-3), united in the solution (4-5), united in the new life available in Christ (6-8), and united in how undeserving we are of all this (9-11). If I’m getting this right Paul is writing to a church that could be easily divided by ethnicity, religious background, socioeconomic status or gender and saying “guys, we’re all on this together.”
After 11 chapters of laying his theological bedrock, Paul moves to his “so now what?” section. Chapter 12 is about the unity of the body of believers and the need for everyone to play their role in that body. He then moves toward those who persecute believers, telling the church to love them, not fight back against them, and to pray for them.
Then we have chapter 13 and the “submit to authority” stuff. Paul is talking to a church trapped and persecuted by an unjust government. They are surrounded by discontents whispering about revolts. The church itself is likely divided between the Roman citizen “haves” who like the current state of things and the “have nots” (non-Romans, Jews, slaves, women, etc.) who feel oppressed by it.
To this Paul says “submit to the authority,” and this is certainly a challenging and relevant word for us today. No matter how dissatisfied we are with our leaders its good to remember that God’s kingdom is unstoppable, that our hope is in something beyond this world, and that the early church exploded in spite of not having political power.
When Paul tells Christians with the church to submit to each other he’s not saying “let everyone do whatever they want to you.” As a matter of fact Paul spends quite a bit of time in other letters talking about appropriate behavior, and how sometimes you might even have to remove someone from the community if they aren’t being obedient to Christ. In other words submission isn’t synonymous with abdication.
So, since we have the gift of living in a free country with democratically elected leaders, and since the OT is FILLED with example, after example, after example of God’s prophets speaking uncomfortable truth to power (read Amos, for more on that), I don’t think submitting to the authorities in our case means “never criticize your elected leader.” Instead it means “live recognizing that God is sovereign over politics and our hope lies elsewhere.” And it also means “within whatever role of God-given role of influence you’ve been given in the political reality stand firmly for the values of God’s kingdom as found in Scripture.”