First, what this post is not about. I am not writing this in order to offer an opinion on when your church should or should not open. I have been committed to the principle of localism throughout this pandemic. The people best equipped to make decisions for the well-being of their communities are the people who live in those communities. This principle applies to church openings as well. It makes little sense (and even less kingdom sense) for Christians living in viral hot spots to sit in judgment of churches choosing to reopen in areas that have experienced few if any infections – and vice versa. Further, not every church in a given community is the same. My dad’s congregation has barely 100 members. They have chosen to reopen their building. I believe this was the proper decision for them. The church I attend in the same community has nearly 3000 regular attendees. We have chosen not to reopen. I believe this was the proper decision for us. As I said on Facebook recently, these decisions are impossibly difficult. What is needed is wisdom, patience, and grace.
What this post is actually about is the continued misuse of a particular New Testament text. To be fair, this text has been misused for quite some time, but as churches grapple with extended (and perhaps illegal) orders to keep their buildings closed I’ve noticed that some are clumsily wielding this passage to justify their position of complying with government orders. The passage is Romans 13:1-5.
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. 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. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
A companion passage is found in 1 Peter 2:13-17.
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.
So, based on these two passages, I’ve seen some arguing (usually on social media) that churches should not protest a government’s order to temporarily close their doors. Instead, we should be model citizens and submit to our governing authorities. Is that a good application of these passages?
There is a long history of interpretation of both of these passages, particularly Romans 13. I don’t have the time or, frankly, the expertise to do a deep dive into all of the ways this passage has been understood. My Every Thought Captive friends, Michael and Doug, have much more experience with the book of Romans. For now, I’ll content myself with offering three broad observations:
Submission is Not Agreement
Let’s be honest, Christians across the political spectrum regularly appropriate Romans 13 when it suits their particular agenda. Until recently, however, conservative Christians have made the most use of this passage. Whether it is in support of policies involving illegal immigration and the death penalty or even in regards to support for Donald Trump’s providential Presidency, conservative Christians have been quick to quote Romans 13. At least up to verse 5. (Romans 13:6 talks about the importance of paying taxes.) But now, as some of those Christians ponder protesting or suing local or state governments in regards to polities keeping their church buildings closed, some who are typically on the other end of the political spectrum are quoting the words of Romans 13 back at them.
But then, when President Trump recently encouraged churches to defy their state governors and reopen, the interpretative positions shift again! On the Right: Romans 13, baby!. On the Left: Who cares what Caesar has to say?
Of course the church is essential.
Because Jesus says so.
Not because of anything Caesar says.— Brian Zahnd (@BrianZahnd) May 23, 2020
I’ve got a little Romans 13 whiplash. As one person on Twitter pointed out, part of our struggle is determining who counts as a “governing authority.”
Who or what are the “governing authorities” in Romans 13? Local, state, or federal government? Executive, legislative, or judicial? Constitution, or other documents like Executive Orders? Who or what should Christians submit to when different parts disagree? This isn’t simple.— 𝐂𝐡𝐫𝐢𝐬 𝐁𝐨𝐥𝐭 (@clbolt) May 24, 2020
But something else is happening in the way we interpret this verse that we should rightly avoid. If we only “submit” to our governing authorities when we agree with them politically, are we really submitting? If we choose to only listen to those particular authorities we like, are we really understanding Romans 13? If you are a conservative, did Romans 13 still apply from 2008-2016 the way it applies today? Liberals, did Romans 13 stop applying the minute Donald Trump was elected? It would be a sham obedience if my kids only obeyed me when I told them to do things that they already wanted to do. So it is with our feigning of submission whenever a governing authority happens to agree with our agenda.
Submission is Not Absolute
This second point has to follow quickly after the first. It’s worth mentioning that both Paul and Peter were murdered by the same emperor they told followers of Jesus to submit to. Usually emperors didn’t murder those who were fully submitted to them. The only thing we can conclude is that there must be some limit to submission. Also consider that Paul uses the same Greek word for submission in Ephesians when talking about wives and husbands. Would anyone dare to argue that a wife’s submission to her husband must be absolute and unbending even in the face of abuse and neglect? I suppose we could dig up some who would argue this, but they would be justifiably dismissed as callous legalists.
So, if submission is not absolute, then what are the circumstances that would warrant a Christian protest against the government? This is where the debate really lies. It’s really not about one side claiming to the other that protest is inappropriate. It’s about one side claiming that the justification for protest is unwarranted. The easy thing to say is that a Christian should submit to the government until the government usurps the lordship of Jesus. As Peter and John said to the Sanhedrin in Acts 4, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him?” But that doesn’t settle the debate, does it? Is the government usurping the lordship of Jesus when it tells us we can’t meet in person? Is the government usurping the lordship of Jesus when it sanctions the killing of unborn children? Is the government usurping the lordship of Jesus when it imprisons people at our border? To these and a host of other questions, Christians have varied conclusions.
How Would Jesus Protest?
One of the problems that we have in applying Romans 13 is that our governmental system is so much different than that of ancient Rome. We live in a system where human flourishing requires some level of regular protest from its citizens. Every vote is a type of protest. The whole judicial branch of the government is established on the goodness of civil protest. To participate in government or politics at all in America is to participate in protest. I do not believe in a “naked public square” where people of faith adopt some form of bland secularism in their politics. I believe that in the governmental system we have, Christians would be squandering a gift from God not to conduct themselves according to their deeply held religious beliefs. Should Christians vote as Christians? Of course. How else should we vote? Should Christians advocate for biblical justice even to the point of protest? Yes, I believe so. Should Christians defend their right to worship God as they see fit? Heavens, yes! I don’t agree with every public battle that Christians chose to fight. Such is life. We won’t all agree, but it is a dangerously slippery slope to argue that Christians whom you don’t agree with should just be quiet and submit.
But it bears mentioning that both Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 exhort followers of Jesus to publicly conduct themselves with love and with integrity. Peter says that we shouldn’t use our freedom in Christ as a cover-up for evil. Instead, conduct yourselves like Jesus who willingly went to a cross for the hope of salvation. Paul says, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another.” There’s a lesson here. There is a Christian way to protest. We protest on behalf of others – not selfishly. We protest out of genuine love – not resentment. We want our protest to result in blessing and flourishing. Being good citizens of heaven doesn’t require that we are bad citizens of our nation. If we are criticized, may it be because we are striving to always do the right thing “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). And if we protest may it be for the greater glory of the Lord who reigns over every politician and authority, and not merely the momentary protection of our rights.