Romans 13: You keep using that text. I do not think it means what you think it means.

“Respect Authority. Romans 13.”

This has to stop. As a blanket, dismissive response to any and all protest or critique of government, king, and country, it has to stop. When you pull that reference out of context and use it to label as sinful anyone who doesn’t bow to a given authority or symbol of authority, you do violence to the text and to God’s people.

If you disagree and insist on holding to that generalized understanding and use of Romans 13, consider and be prepared to reconcile it with the following:

  • Paul himself, the author of those words, resisted government authorities and defied Roman and religious laws often enough that he wrote words that you probably have on your mirror or desk or bumper sticker or living room wall from prison. You don’t author four books of the New Testament behind bars if the intention of seven verses you wrote to folks in Rome was to require unqualified yielding to all laws and customs of king and country.

  • Jesus violated the patriotic, legal, and religious norms of his day so frequently that he was rejected and despised and, well, killed for it. You can’t strip Jesus down to a spiritual fairy tale and remove him from the legal and patriotic context in which he lived. He was a real man angering real people by not following their customs – customs which existed primarily to show respect and submission to human authority.

  • Exactly no one I know when having this conversation has ultimately held to this position: “Yes, I believe we should always respect and submit to and obey ruling authorities no matter what they do to, ask from, or demand of us.” There is a line of conscience and injustice for all of us; the appropriate drawing of that line is a matter of reasonable debate, but this haphazard invoking of Romans 13 suggests that any such line is sinfully rebellious. I don’t think most who use it that way actually believe that, and I don’t believe such a claim holds up to the weight of the Bible as a whole.

  • This broad application of Romans 13 has been one of the primary weapons against the growth of self-determining government (democracy) for centuries, because such a reading of Scripture easily dismisses even non-violent resistance of human authority (read: voting against an incumbent power) as rebellion against God.

  • We all look around at various ruling authorities in the world every day and hope and pray good people can resist them and free themselves from such oppression. We thank God for and sing hymns about successful revolutions.

  • The flag at the center of our current controversy and the government for which it stands came to be because a group of people decided to no longer be subject to their ruling authorities. We now call them our Founding Fathers. The original American heroes. Celebrating their decision and its successful implementation by means of war is the center of all American patriotism. That it happened a long time ago makes it no less subject to Romans 13. Now we turn around and accuse people who do not appropriately honor on our terms that authority-rejecting revolution and the nation it birthed of not respecting and and being subject to God-appointed authorities. This is a blatant inconsistency.

King George

After the Declaration of Independence was read in New York City for the first time, a crowd of budding Americans headed for the statue of King George in Manhattan. They pulled it down and later melted it into 42,088 musket balls to shoot at British authorities.

  • The flag at the center of our current controversy and the government for which it stands actively defies this universal application of Romans 13 and has done so for well over 100 years. Right or wrong, regime change is central to U.S. foreign policy, and the heart of our approach to regime change is encouraging, funding, and arming local peoples to resist, oppose, and overpower their governing authorities. We’ve done it on every continent but Antarctica and Australia. Recently. To assume Paul’s words uniquely apply to U.S. citizens but not others is not only ethnocentric, it is a terribly poor interpretation of Scripture.

  • Because of that last fact, demanding that people submit and show respect to that flag and the government for which it stands in uniform ways that you approve of actually demands they show allegiance to an entity actively defying the very principle that compels you to demand their allegiance in the first place. (I know, writing that makes my head hurt too, but it has the doubly painful quality of being true.)

I’ll stop there, though this list could continue. None of this means Paul’s words in Romans 13 (or other biblical instruction about governing authorities) are wrong or useless. It means they have a context and meaning that fits in the big picture of Scripture and isn’t determined by our current patriotic sensibilities. The Bible always demands a level of understanding and care that simply isn’t present when we turn texts into oversimplified weapons against those with whom we disagree.

One of the particular errors involved here is that we are allowing the human authority itself (and popular opinion that human authority has helped shape) to define respect and submission instead of letting the full counsel of Scripture and the lived examples of Scripture’s players form our understanding of those concepts. The assumption that the Bible’s and the world’s definitions of respect and submission would be the same or that the Bible is demanding we swallow whole the definitions of submission and respect given to us by human authority runs counter to the clear teachings of the Bible (instructive and modeled) in numerous other texts.

This isn’t an invitation to debate any particular protest, so please don’t do that here. This is a plea to use real care when handling the Scriptures – care for the Bible itself and care for the people you are using the Bible to accuse and dismiss. I know (almost) no one is purposefully misusing the text, but this is dangerous ground for people who love the Scriptures.

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