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Friday, January 27, 2017

Christians Don't Have to Submit to Government.

Several of my friends have recently asked me how I (as Christian with a high view of Scripture) handle Romans 13 and sometimes and answer requires a blog post. For context, the relevant portion of Romans 13 reads as follows:

Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For government is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath, but also because of your conscience. And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s public servants, continually attending to these tasks. Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor.(HCSB Romans 13:1-7)

Now I am not going to offer a developed theology of how Christians are to relate to the state or the best, most rigorous, exegesis of "submission" in Romans 13. If you are looking for resources on that I would point you to the work of Greg Boyd, Brian Zahnd, Scot McKnight, or another specialist in the field. Instead I want to talk about who it is that we are supposed to submit (to whatever degree and in whatever way).

The specific concept that I want to look at is that of "governing authority". When Christians in the United States go about applying this passage to our own lives, the easy tendency is to map our government onto the passage as a neat contextual equivalent to the government Paul was telling the Roman church to submit to. It is obvious - their "governing authority" was the Roman Governement (Caesar) and our "governing authority" is the President (and maybe Congress and the Supreme Court). It may be obvious but I don't think it is correct. So far as I can tell from my rusty and limited Koine Greek, the words which give us "governing authority" essentially mean "the authority over them". Not too different (and I wouldn't quibble with the translation), but places the focus of the "whom" on "that which has legitimate authority over the Christian". And in the United States (as well as in many other countries in the modern world) that is not the Government.

The major political revolution of the enlightenment was the shift from thinking of Government as a deriving it's authority of the people directly from God (what is known as "divine right" or "mandate of heaven" theory) to thinking of Government as deriving its authority directly from the people themselves. The clearest example of this is in John Locke's Second Treatise of Government wherein Locke argues extensively that political powerwhich he defines as "a right to •make laws—with the death penalty and consequently all lesser penalties—for regulating and preserving property, and to •employ the force of the community in enforcing such laws and defending the commonwealth from external attack; all this being only for the public basic to each individual. Then the individuals provisionally grant their power to an institution which is intended to wield it for the good of the community. As a result, in an enlightenment style polity, power is passed around to various individuals and institutions (the president, the legislature, etc...) while the authority over that power only ever rests with the citizens of the polity.

Now I am not trying to argue that this understanding of the basis of government is inherently better or worse that the divine right theory. My point is only that it is different, and that that difference requires a different application of the text. Specifically, the "governing authority" to whom US Christians are to submit is not the Government but the people. The United States government is not our authority, it is the collection of employees we hire to administer our collective political power.
And the fact of the matter is that this makes the American Christian's job really complicated because we are not "under Caesar" as the first century church was, we are Caesar. And just as the only child of a medieval monarch had no functional choice about becoming the ruler one day, we don't really have any choice about being sovereign. 

I think that there are a lot of conclusions and applications which need to be drawn from this but let me just point out one. Calling out, protesting, blocking, obstructing, and otherwise non-violently interfering with elected officials is not a direct violation of any part of Romans 13 regardless of what you think it means to "submit" because they aren't the "governing authority" we are to submit to and these are some of the many means we have established for the rightful authority effect its will (or at least the part of it you represent) on its employees. When you protest or engage in civil disobedience (within the bounds of love for one another and all persons), you aren't opposing the "governing authority" you are embodying the conscience of the "governing authority". 

If you are looking for a good, but easy read on how a follower of Jesus should think about political power, I would highly recommend Greg Boyd's Myth of  A Christian Nation