Often the Bible tells us to do hard things–hard because they go against our grain.
And it’s no wonder, sin does that to you. As the prophet recorded our Lord saying, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). It’s actually a bit of a wonder (Amazing Grace, to be precise) that any of it gets through!
But sometimes, your culture and upbringing develop this sort of insidious worldview that makes you look at certain commands and it’s almost like your mind wants to literally re-write the words as you read them.
For example, when the Apostle Paul writes this to the Roman Christians:
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
Straightforward and simple, right?
What orthodox, conservative, Bible-believing Christian would deny that? Or who would dare to re-interpret Scripture to suit us?
After all, Revelation 22:18-19 is still on the books!
God is in charge of everything! God’s the Sovereign Creator! God has it all under control!
Yet, it wasn’t that long ago, that I posted this quote on my social media timeline:
One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Now I posted that quote on my timeline because it squares with my culture and worldview. The quote raises some sort of hackles within me and gets my blood moving. It makes me want to take action for truth and right.
But, how does it square with a faithful reading and application of Romans 13:1-7?
I suppose you could throw an Acts 5:29 (“we ought to obey God rather than man”) defense in there.
And you’d be right.
Even Romans 13:1-7 indicates that the ultimate authority is God. And we know that God doesn’t contradict Himself. And we know that human authority–ordained (under and appointed by) God as it may be–is sinful, flawed, and faulty.
So when any authority demands we disobey God, the response needs to be a hard no.
But what Dr. King–and my own libertarian mind–is advocating isn’t just disobedience when government demands we go against God’s clear commands. What I liked about his quote is that it suggests fighting city hall, slapping the hand of government overreach, pushing back and speaking out against what is immoral and unjust in the halls of power.
There’s a proactive nature to his sentiment, and to the way many like-minded Christians would practically interpret Romans 13:1-7.
Said another way, we’re not just saying that we have to obey God rather than man, but that we actually have the right and responsibility to force government to obey God rather than man. And if the government won’t comply, we need to fight back (albeit nonviolently, if we’re listening to Dr. King).
My heart swells at this thought in light of the genocide of abortion, the abomination of racism, the unjust treatment of the poor, the broken judicial system, the polluted politicians, the twisted logic of sexual deviance that’s fast becoming codified into law and judicial precedence, the systematic abuse of women by men (and women) of power, and so much more.
But is that really what Romans 13:1-7 is saying?
Is it suggesting or even leaving the door open for us to resist the power, especially when Romans 13:2 explicitly connects resisting authority with resisting God’s appointment?
Or is it much more difficult, painful, and even subversive than that?
Could it be that faithful, God-honoring Christians don’t have the luxury of taking the fight to Washington (or any center of power) because they live lives so diametrically opposed to unjust government that the fight actually comes looking for them?
Could it be that the reason we get to debate this sort of thing at all is because we’ve coalesced with the whole system so much that we can’t tell where we end and “it” begins?
Could it be that if we will conscientiously obey all authority up to the point that it comes in conflict with God–and not just picking and choosing what offends us, takes our money, hurts our feelings, or demeans us–that we will find ourselves fighting a real battle, not a theoretical, rhetorical one about “unjust laws,” but one for our own lives and one that has eternal meaning?
How do you think that those folks mentioned in Hebrews 11:32-39 earn their spot on that list? Those were people who–by the writer of Hebrews’ own admission–hadn’t even yet seen the promised coming Messiah. But they had faith in God’s ultimate authority, trusting Him fully, without looking for loopholes.
Of course, while Romans 13:1-7 does command obedience to authority, it doesn’t necessarily require passivity or silence. In fact, didn’t John the Baptist lose his head over speaking truth to power? And Jesus Himself was notable for pushing back on the religious leaders of the day (of course, as the King of Kings, He does hold a bit of a different position in all this, now doesn’t He?).
Do you have a perspective on a faithful reading and application of Romans 13:1-7?