December 29, 2019
I was looking for a pinata for New Year’s Eve and I was immediately presented with two choices:
- No Trump 2020 Pinata
- Make America Great Again 2020 Pinata
Political leaders are, and always have been, polarizing. Therefore, if you don’t like the current leadership, Paul’s words are concerning to say the least.
- Romans 13:1-2: Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
These words of Paul have been used to defend every tyrannical government and unjust regime from the dark ages until today. Nazi commanders who killed Jewish people and murdered prisoners of war, doctors who performed inhuman experiments on people with disabilities and the mentally ill, used a similar defense:
- “Befehl ist Befehl” = “An order is an order.”
At the Nuremberg trials, various commanders argued that an order is an order. And they all failed. In 1946, it became international law that an order is not an order if it flies in the face of basic moral responsibilities.
- “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.” ~Nuremberg Principle IV
And indeed, in Hitler’s Germany, a moral choice was actually possible. Among many others, the Confessing Church, led by Karl Barth, stood up against Hitler, but did so on biblical grounds, arguing that Hitler’s government was fundamentally sinful because it placed the German state in the place of God. Their Declaration is part of our Constitution in the Presbyterian Church. Indeed, throughout the Bible we have examples of people who defied oppressive and unjust regimes.
The Egyptian midwives, for example, defied God’s orders, refusing to kill Jewish babies. Not only does the Bible honor them by recording their names, Shiphrah and Puah, Scripture says God rewarded them for their disobedience. So how, then, do we understand Paul’s words counseling submission? Look at verse 3:
- Romans 13:3: For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.
Paul counsels us to do what is right above all. He calls for the followers of Christ to submit to just rulers, not to injustice. The first seven verses must be read in light of the next seven:
- Romans 13:8-10: Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Paul meant for us to submit to authorities unless submitting to authority meant defying God, the ultimate authority. Why did Paul find it necessary, then, to speak so strongly in favor of authority? I think it may have been because new believers, intoxicated with the freedom of life in Christ, stopped paying taxes or following laws they found unnecessary. Paul wants to be totally clear: being a Christian does not mean you can jaywalk. Since Adam and Eve, there’s a certain part of each of us that wants to rebel for the sake of rebellion…and the gospel of grace is so freeing that, Paul feared, it would give life to this rebellious spirit. Paul wanted to make sure that our understanding of grace was balanced with our understanding of justice, that our understanding of freedom in Christ was balanced with our understanding that God is not a god of disorder. Authorities are necessary, and we are called to honor them, respect them, and obey them so long as obeying them does not mean disobeying God.
- Some system of authority is a requirement of all communal living, and it is only the man dwelling in isolation who is not forced to respond, through defiance or submission, to the commands of others. ~Stanley Milgram, American social psychologist
In a certain light, the message of Romans 13 is just another form of the message of all of Romans, and one of the core messages of all of Scripture itself: obey the law, and obey the law of love above all others. The law of Moses must defer, ultimately, to the law of love. This is why Jesus healed on the Sabbath; this is why Peter and Paul preached to the Gentiles; this is why the early Christians refused to worship the emperor; this is why Christianity is so challenging and yet so simple. Love God; love others. This is the whole point.
So simple, yet so challenging, to live under the law of love. It means reexamining all of our actions, all of our decisions. It’s a much harder way to live than just simply following the law, isn’t it? It means living life awake, or what the early Christians called becoming “children of the day.”
- Romans 13:11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.
It’s a life of what is called integrity. Integrity means being a whole person. In mathematics, an integer is a whole number, whether one or negative one; a fraction, or a divided number, is not an integer. In the same way, integrity means you don’t live a divided life. You live the same way in the day as you do at night. You do what is right, not what is legal. You love others whether they are worthy of love or not because love is worthy of everything you are and everything you have.
- Romans 13:13-14: The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.
I’ve learned, to my great joy, that the best lawyers counsel their clients to tell the truth at all times. Why? Not only because lying under oath is illegal, but also because, in the long run, you’ll nearly always trap yourself in a lie, because you’ll say one version at one time and a different version at a different time. On the other hand, if you tell the truth to everyone, you have less to remember. It’s the same with living your life in daylight. If you live your life in the light, you don’t have to hide your phone or your browser history. If your personal life comes to light, you may feel violated, and that’s fair—but you will have no cause to be ashamed.
While we are called as Christians to share with others what’s fully ours and appropriate to share, there’s a certain health in having a few trustworthy people in your life with which you share your most personal secrets. A Bible study or small group of kind, caring, and committed Christians is a healthy place for this. Why do we need a place to share our dirty laundry? Well, as anyone who’s ever used a clothesline can tell you, sunshine is a good disinfectant. When we air our dirty laundry, we’ve got a good incentive to, well, wash it up.
- “Visibility goes hand in hand with accountability.” ~Anton Daniels, blogger & influencer
A new year is starting. New year’s resolutions are continually, almost comically, broken. Perhaps some of the reason for that is that our culture is so individualistic, so isolated, that we make these commitments to ourselves but don’t share them with others who can hold us accountable. Make a resolution to hold yourself accountable and share that commitment with other believers—whether in Bible study, a small group, or even through text, email, or social media. And if you are unable to do any of those things, there is one Friend who I promise will hold you accountable, who doesn’t require a text message or a calendar appointment. Open your heart to Jesus; air your dirty laundry to Him, and ask for His Spirit to help you and hold you accountable.
Bringing the light is not just what He does; the Light is who He is. Come to Him, and let Him shine on you.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.