Thursday, March 19, 2009

Respect For Authority

I was reading Romans today, and a familiar passage caught my eye. (13:1-6)

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God's appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgement (for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad).

Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation, for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God's servant to administer retribution to the wrongdoer.

Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience. For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants devoted to governing.

It's been a long time since I read this passage. I think last time I read it, I took it at face value. And why not? I have been taught that God acts in chance meetings of friends, that he communicates in mundane circumstances and coincidences. Why couldn't he wield authority through the state? If it is written that government is appointed by God and that I am to respect it, I will do so. The case is open and shut.

It's been a few years, though, and my outlook has changed a bit. I've studied more history, I've seen an election or two. The political junkie in me has been steadily drifting libertarian, and views government, if not with a hostile eye, at least with a criticial one. Statesmen create states of varying quality, and I am quick to criticize the harm they do. Respect government as a God-ordained authority? That's hard to swallow.

These days, the theologan in me is alert for passages that don't make sense. A paradox means you have an unstated false assumption. Things that don't make sense are thus opportunities to learn.

When it's scripture that doesn't make sense, there's an extra tension. There are two ways to go -- faith or skepticism. We can declare that the passage must be taken at face value, run out, try it, see what happens, hold to it. Great discoveries can be made that way. Bull-headed zealotry happens that way, too, though. Or we can criticize the conclusion, puzzle over what it means, consider it a riddle and think about it until it makes sense. Great discoveries can be made that way. Sophistry and powerless faith happen that way, too, though.

We must avoid both pitfalls, and it's not a case of compromise. Sometimes God intends a plain truth or command, and we would dishonor it by watering it down. We do not honor the command to love our neighbor by philosophizing all day long about what love entails and who our neighbors are. Then again, sometimes a riddle is intended. When Jesus tells us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, the response shouldn't be, "That doesn't make sense, but I'll believe it on your authority" but rather, "What does he mean by that?" Sometimes the critical response is the intended one. No, it's not just one way or the other; there's no interpretational middle ground. Rather, you have to get it right in every case. The goal is neither literalism nor conformance to previous knowledge, but rather honoring what the author intends.

How do you tell? Try it one way and see where it takes you. Then try it the other. Hold on to what works and what makes sense.

Or, sometimes it's obvious. What's funny, though, is that I used to think this passage was obviously plain. And now I think it's obviously a riddle!

How can government be appointed by God? How could resisting it automatically incur his judgement? We have a proud tradition in the West of resisting unjust laws and unjust governments. We sailed to the new world to flee a government, and then rebelled against it on political principle. We make heroes of those who lied to Nazis to hide Jews or broke laws to shelter runaway slaves. They're not evil. They're not opposing God's authority. On the contrary, they're doing God's work!

Can Paul really mean that righteous people have nothing to fear from government? That seems crazy. Sure, with a good government, that's generally true. But it's an ideal. There's not a government anywhere that's so good it's always true. And there are a lot of governments under which it's not true at all. States are wrought by man, and are capable of great inhumanity to innocent man.

And here's the zinger--it's not even true of the specific government Paul was writing about. Rome was no servant of God. Paul had directly experienced that! Sure, Rome kept order, and the Romans were pretty fair-minded. But Rome had also been the power behind the crucifixion. Christians were being imprisoned and killed with the blessing of the state; Paul had participated. He himself had been beaten and jailed for nothing worse than preaching the gospel. In fact, come to think of it, he was probably writing these very words from prison.

Unjustly arrested, sitting in prison, he wrote, "it is God's servant for your good," of the very government that would someday behead him.

Really? Surely he doesn't mean that!

And yet his actions indicate that he does.

In Acts 16, Paul and Silas are attacked by a crowd. They're dragged before a magistrate, falsely accused, beaten, and thrown in prison. It wasn't just. It wasn't even legal. And then a miracle occurs--an earthquake cracks the jail's foundation, throws the doors open, shakes their bonds loose. If ever there was a time to thumb your nose at the government, that was it. And yet they stay there and wait for the guard, apparently out of respect for the law!

The theme seems familiar, somehow. David spared Saul out of respect for God's authority, even though Saul was clearly evil. Jesus went willingly with those who came to arrest him, and even healed them in the middle of an evil act. If your enemy is hungry, feed him. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

So submission has nothing to do with whether the government is good. You can still respect an evil government, and Paul clearly did.

But that doesn't solve the whole riddle. He didn't stop at, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities" but several times declares actively that the government is God's servant to administer justice. "The person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God."

But I think I get it now. He's not stating overt history. States are wrought by men in history, overthrown by men in history, resisted and assisted by men in history. Yeah, by God, too, sometimes (well, okay, always), but that's a separate theological mystery.

Government doesn't represent God, it serves God. Not in the sense that God controls it, or that he historically created it, or even that it is trying to do what he says. It is by nature God's servant, simply by virtue of what it is. Just as we are by nature God's ambassadors or we reflect God's image.

The role of the state is to administer justice, to run society, and that is a good service that is blessed and ordained by God. It is the nature of a government to attempt that. It is taking part in a relationship with its people that God has standards for. Nobody said it wanted to be God's servant. Nobody said it was trying to do his will. Nobody said it was doing a very good job. Nonetheless, by virtue of the relationship it takes up, by virtue of what it attempts to do, by virtue of wielding power secretly granted by God, it is God's servant. He will hold it accountable to his standards.

And we, as fellow servants, are to help it achieve its mission. To that end, we are to honor its responsibility and accountability to God, and respect the authority it has been given.

It extends, by the way. The teacher is a servant of God, whether he wants to be or not. So is the husband. So is the child. When you get right down to it, we are all responsible for wielding the authority we have been given according to his standards. And we are all responsible for helping those who have authority achieve the mission for which they have been given it. We are all servants of God.

Pursue righteousness. The statesman is responsible for his state, and the politician for his laws and influence. The state is not soulless, but is another servant of God alongside us, worthy of the right to succeed or fail, worthy of support, correction, and redemption. It may be corrupt; it may be senseless; it may be outright evil. The beating heart of the Christian always sounds redemption.

And that's really where this was going. It's not that the state always acts with the authority of God. The ideal of a good state bears the ordinance of God, and out of respect for that and for our particular state's position as God's servant, we must support and respect it. We are still required to oppose its unjust laws, to attempt reform, even to overthrow it if that is righteous. Righteousness is always a tradeoff, though, and that's the point here: one of the things we value is respect for the law. We may oppose it, but not without moral cost.

We may be called to principled rebellion. But we are not permitted casual rebellion.


  1. We often emphasize God as a personal God, interacting with each of us on an individual level, in order to combat the heretical idea that a person is Christian (or is saved) if they live in a Christian nation or come from a Christian family. But this sometimes leads us to forget that God interacts not only with individuals, but with organizations and groups. The Bible contains tales of God's interactions with Abraham, Moses, and David as individuals, but also with Israel, Assyria, the churches in Ephesus and Smyrna, four generations of Jehu's family, and other groups. We, too, interact both with individuals and with groups, and we are responsible for how we treat the other, regardless of how well or poorly they treat us.

    Individuals are worthy of our love because, intrinsically, they are made in the image of God. God commands us to give even our enemies our love and our prayers, not because they are good people, but because they are made in the image of God and they are God's to do with as He sees fit. We are to treat them with significantly more love and respect than we may think they deserve. We may be called to stand up to them, to fight against their wrongdoing, but if that is our calling it must be out of love rather than anger or selfishness.

    I think Paul is making the same point regarding governments. Intrinsically, because they have authority, they are instituted by God as His instruments. We are commanded to respect them, not because they are good governments doing a good job, but because they are God's to do with as He sees fit! We should not casually disregard their laws any more than we should casually disregard a friend's feelings. We should not harbor hatred toward them any more than we should harbor hatred toward a person who has wronged us. We should, instead, make a conscious effort to respect the government's laws and to respect the government itself, perhaps significantly more than it deserves. If we are to fight against a government's wrongdoing, it must be out of respect for the ideal of government and a desire to make it more godly, rather than out of anger or selfishness.

    Remember, Paul was writing in a situation where there was a strong undertone of rebellion against Rome (the Jews rebelled perhaps a few years after Romans was written, and Jerusalem was destroyed!) Rather than reinforce the people's ideas that Rome should be opposed, that they should subtly undermine and disrespect and hate that authority, Paul told them to be subject to that government and to treat it as ordained by God. How different is our attitude toward a person when we think of them as "made in God's image", and how different is our attitude toward a government when we treat it as "ordained by God"! Instead of casual disregard, disrespect, and hatred, there is a level of seriousness we bring to any conflict -- a desire not to harm the other, but to build it into something that better reflects who God is. As you say, if we are to rebel, it must be principled and it must be focused on redemption or regeneration rather than mere destruction.

  2. What do you mean by "principled rebellion"? How do you intend to distinguish a "principled" rebellion from a "casual" rebellion?

    And even if the distinction is upheld elsewhere, what kind of rebel might continue paying taxes?

    In other words, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?"

  3. Nothing deep here...just the comment that I've definitely experienced the ways in which the government can do wrong to our family and mine, through SRS and the county attorney. Today makes it 5 months, 12 days since Adam has been allowed to be alone with our son, and it will be at least two months more before he is allowed to return to our home.

  4. Catherine, LotharBot, I have to say I heartily agree with your take on this passage.

    In my own terms, I think I'd describe it as Paul talking about respect for the God-given value in human authority, rather than some kind of inherent good in man-made organizations.

    Catherine, when reading your post (er, 'entry'? I'm new to blogging), the perspective of government as "God's servant" was a section I had to re-read a couple of times. That's a tough one to swallow, especially when I try to apply it to evil governments and dictators through history. It's nearly up there with "love your enemies" and "go the extra mile" when looking at the immense wrong that humans in authority can do. You're right, though - there's something about a Godly respect, something that still somehow applies even when authority is abused and twisted into something that acts completely evil.

    LotharBot, I really appreciate the reminder about the historical context, as I think it begins to help answer the question for me. It's not hard to envision Paul writing this to people who were calling for a political revolution; I think a similar sentiment is shared by some people in my own life.

    For me, part of the question still stands, though: How do we handle situations where we *should* resist the actions of an authority? As Doc put it, how do we differentiate between 'principled rebellion' and 'causal rebellion'? (As I understand your terminology, the former is resistance on principle while still maintaining a healthy respect for God-given human authority.) Is the distinction solely in internal motive and respect, or is there a distinction in action taken as well? Maybe more directly, if I discover that I'm resisting authority out of a lack of respect for authority per the passage above... should I stop resisting?