What “Submitting to Authority” Really Means

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I do a lot of writing these days, sometimes to church leaders, sometimes to married people, and sometimes to … well whoever is reading articles about the persecuted church.

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.

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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.

BUT …

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.”

 

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The 1 Wrong Belief That’s Destroying Everything

I don’t know why the moment affected me so much.

A Facebook friend shared an article about a controversial topic. In the comments someone posted a Snopes link proving the article false. The original poster replied “oh, thanks for sharing but you know I still believe that article’s overall point because …” etc.

Pretty unremarkable. Identical to a million other Facebook conversations, right?

It shook me. I have thought about for days. To my Facebook friend it didn’t matter that the article was false – she believed what she believed and that’s all there was to it.

The same thing happened recently when I made the mistake of getting in a long, heated debate with someone about our current president. When I would quote facts, statistics, or articles that disproved certain points the person responded with two words. You can probably guess them: “fake news.”

“But … but … if all news is fake news where do you get your news from?” I asked.

“Oh, Breitbart and Drudge Report. Sometimes Fox News but I don’t trust them as much anymore” she replied. “They’ve been more critical of Trump lately.”

A quick disclaimer. This isn’t a post about politics.

It’s not about fake news or whether your political views are correct/incorrect or how people disagree with me are close-minded.

What I’ve been thinking about lately is why we – all of us, humanity – believe what we believe, and how resistant we are to anything suggesting we’re wrong. Continue reading

Deandre

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This summer I had the opportunity to spend a week with foster kids at a camp called Royal Family Kids Camp. 30+ kids who normally don’t get childhoods were given a week of unconditional love, fun, & hearing about God. This is just one story, of one these kids. The name has been changed to protect his anonymity.  

 

“You’re burning it! Josh you’re BURNING IT! JOSH YOU’RE BURNING IT!!!” Deandre screamed.

The truth is I wasn’t burning the marshmallows, I more had burnt them. Past tense. I’d drifted the marshmallow too close to the fire, then quickly blew the ensuing blaze out, hoping the s’more was still salvageable. Deandre had said he wanted his marshamallow “toasted, not burned.” I was hoping this would be okay.

“JOSH YOU’RE BURNING IT, YOU’RE BURNING IT!!!”

I was in this situation because Daniel, Deandre’s counselor for the week, was taking care of Deandre’s recently-skinned knee. Each kid’s counselor at the camp was making a s’more so I offered to step in. As I brought the s’more back toward the crew of campers sitting in the amphitheater, I assumed Deandre would get over the singed marshmallow and all would be well.

“Why did you do that?!? You BURNED it!!” Deandre yelled. His eyes were brimming with tears, his face angry. This was going south quickly.

I hadn’t expected this at all. I had expected him to be appreciative of me getting him a s’more in the first place. I expected him to remember that I was one of the guys who had played with him in the pool and who had let him look at the soundboard and showed him how it worked. And when he didn’t, I let a little “wait, seriously?” smile creep across my face.

“IT’S NOT FUNNY!!!!!!” Deandre screamed, and then he started sobbing. At this point the other 35 foster kids sitting in the amphitheater were staring as their 20+ counselors pretended not to.

I’d just inadvertently caused the Marsh-pocalypse. Continue reading

Riley

A fair warning up front: this isn’t going to be a happy story, because Riley’s* life isn’t a happy life. When Riley was 8 years old his parents checked him and his younger brother into a hotel room in Florida, walked out the door, and never came back. He now lives with his grandma and uncle in California. He hasn’t seen his mom since.

*not his real name

Riley was in cabin 2, the cabin I was a counselor for and the unofficial war zone of this year’s Royal Family Kids Camp. At a scrawny 5’-nothing Riley was far from a fighter, but he knew how to run his mouth. He would sit in his top bunk, looking down on the action, antagonizing the people below him. He was like those two cranky old guys from The Muppet Show, who in real life would be no fun at all.

Riley was a loner. One of the optional activities was crawdad fishing, and one afternoon Riley spent 2 hours sitting by the creek with a stick, string and raw bacon dangling in a mossy lagoon. He caught easily the biggest crawdad of the day. We called for a bucket but as I brought it over I accidentally hit the crawdad and knocked it in the water. This is not my favorite memory from camp.  Continue reading

Gerardo

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me …

Gerardo* was a legend at Royal Family Kids’ Camp, but being a legend at a camp for foster kids isn’t always a good thing. It takes real dedication to excellence to dysfunctionally stand above 100 abused, abandoned or displaced kids, but Gerardo had been up to the challenge last year. He then spent the time between camps training, polishing his skills, and gearing up for year two. In other words, Gerardo brought his A-game in 2013.

*not his real name

All told Gerardo punched 8 DIFFERENT people in 5 days, and that’s not counting repeat incidents with the same person. The situation was almost always the same – Gerardo would verbally antagonize kids around him, the kids would say something back, and since Gerardo is actually, secretly a very sensitive soul he would be deeply hurt.

For Gerardo, being hurt, attacked, embarrassed or even lightly teased all feels more or less the same: an overwhelming negative emotion he is incapable of processing. All humans have these moments – tidal waves of emotion that surge over the walls we’ve built to hold them back. Gerardo feels this every 10 minutes or so.

And so he punches. Hard. He punched a fellow cabin-mate who also had severe anger issues. He punched a cabin counselor too authoritarian for his liking. He punched his personal counselor Adam, even though he knew Adam was almost his only friend at camp. He punched a lifeguard too, although if you knew Gerardo the guy almost, but not quite, had it coming. Continue reading

Nativity scenes in Newtown

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It’s not that there was anything wrong with the manger scene, lit up against the night sky, with its larger-than-life shepherds and angels and animals sitting on the hill. The whole crew of usuals was there, even the wisemen, who technically shouldn’t be on the scene for another year or two. The artwork had a slight “animated feature” vibe to it, but overall it was nice.

Too nice.

I couldn’t help wonder how that cartoon manger with its cartoon baby Jesus had anything relevant to say to Newtown, CT.

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Yesterday, The Onion­ – a satirical, faux-news website – posted an article about the shootings in Newtown with the headline “F— Everything, Nation Reports”. It was a sad, profound, bleak look at how most of us felt when we saw the news. Through fake quotes from fake news sources, the article might have captured the moment, and our hollow attempt to understand it, better than anything else I read. As one of the fake quotes put it: “good God, if this is what the world is becoming, then how about we just pack it in and f-ing give up, because this is no way to live.” Continue reading

Science vs. Faith & other myths

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I was watching the show Fringe last night because, well, because of course I was. I could tell you all about the show and the characters and the mythology and how the last 2 seasons have been lousy but I’m sticking around to see how it ends … but none of that really matters.

What matters is that the show had one of those “science v. faith” moments that were super-cool back when LOST was doing it, but turned cliché a few years ago. In the scene one character gave this eloquent speech on behalf of reason – how the universe all boils down to math, and probabilities, and logic and whatnot. The other character – playing the role of “wise, mystical minority who speaks in vagaries and understands the mysteries of the universe”* – responds with a shoulder-shrug, a condescending smile, and says “well, I believe anyway.”  Continue reading