Everyone must submit to the government 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.Romans 13:1-2
As some churches move to reopen Sunday services, while others choose to remain fully adherent to continued local and state COVID-19 restrictions, hardly one biblical verse has received greater attention in the last 8 weeks of Coronavirus lockdown than Paul’s opening salvo in Romans 13 about the relationship between the State and the Christian church. Pastors have wavered however, and understandably so in light of the sheer complexity of the current crisis, about whether or not the breadth of local and federal restrictions has been warranted, and how, if at all, churches should submit. While most Evangelical churches have taken Paul’s exhortation seriously and complied with local guidelines, again others have worried about the moral and spiritual implications of the Church being too “subservient” to secular governors, mayors, and other local authorities. After all, what if those authorities are not trustworthy or competent?
At the same time those churches that have indeed been compliant (again, the vast majority), have looked to verses like Romans 13:1-2, and 1 Peter 2:13-17 to ground their position vis-à-vis federal and local restrictions. Both passages seem to be straightforward about how the Christian, and the Body of Christ that is the church, should relate to secular authorities in the land. 1 Peter 2:13-17 seems entirely unambiguous about how Jesus people should view the reigning authorities.
Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase makes it vivid for contemporary contexts:
Make the Master proud of you by being good citizens. Respect the authorities, whatever their level; they are God’s emissaries for keeping order. It is God’s will that by doing good, you might cure the ignorance of the fools who think you’re a danger to society. Exercise your freedom by serving God, not by breaking the rules. Treat everyone you meet with dignity. Love your spiritual family. Revere God. Respect the government.The Message
The simple interpretation has tended to go something like this: “The federal and local governments are our secular authorities, the Bible says we are to submit to secular authorities because they are ‘God-ordained’, therefore whatever policies the federal and local governments enact, we must obey them, unless of course they go directly against the Word of God, which current restrictions seem not to do.” This is overall a very reasonable view and one that should keep us humble.
However, while this may very well be a generally correct attitude, can this reading of those passages be as straightforwardly applied to today’s context? Or, are there some aspects of both the biblical context and the present conditions that must be taken into account to better understand how the general principles of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 are to be made concrete today? First, let’s consider some aspects about the relevant historical background of those Epistles. Then we can take a more careful look at our current political situation and see if we can better understand Paul and Peter in lieu of where we are right now.
The Church in Romans 13 & 1 Peter 2: Obedience in the Face of Imperial Power
From Romans 13 some general principles can be drawn. This is put succinctly by the great Princetonian Theologian Charles Hodge in his commentary:
“The duty of obedience to those in authority, is enforced, 1. By the consideration that civil government is a divine institution, and, therefore, resistance to magistrates in the exercise of their lawful authority is disobedience to God, vs. 1, 2. 2. From the end or design of their appointment, which is to promote the good of society, to be a terror to evil doers, and a praise to them that do well, vs. 3, 4. 3. Because such subjection is a moral, as well as civil duty, v. 5. On these grounds the payment of tributes or taxes, and general deference, are to be cheerfully rendered, vs. 6, 7.”Charles Hodge. “Commentary on Romans.”
Hodge goes on to say that even when rulers themselves become “a terror of the good” or supporters of “them that do evil,” that they “may still be obeyed.” Not as a sign of agreement or approval, but merely because “the remedy may be worse than the disease.”1Hodge, Commentary on Romans, Apple Books, 1165. We will see this principle again later in another part of the letter to the Romans, for it is implied that the”remedy” itself may be morally suspect.
At face value, it sounds like Hodge is leaving today’s pastors and Christian leaders with little recourse than to fully adhere to any and all restrictions initiated by local government officials on account of the Coronavirus. Some well known, contemporary pastors have voiced a similar position. After all, staying at home for the purpose of protecting the health of vulnerable members of the community, or closing places of business to slow the spread are clearly not attacks on Christians in particular, or on religious faith and practice more broadly (even if there has been instances of “tough-guy” rhetoric by some local “magistrates” and some evidence of biases).
However, what Hodge does not go into in his commentary is the great difference in political and social structures that exists between the time of the Apostles and our own times (or for Hodge, in his 19th century American context).
Alternatively, in his commentary theologian Robert Gundry, does make it clear that the reader should take into account Paul’s use of the word “existing” in Romans 13:1:
“But Paul’s description of the authorities as “existing” suggests he’s referring to contemporary governmental authorities because at the time and on the whole they were maintaining peace and justice (as indicated in sources outside the New Testament).”Excerpt From: Robert H. Gundry. “Commentary on Romans (Commentary on the New Testament Book #6).”
Gundry argues that Paul is talking about the particular authority in the place and at the time of the writing of Romans. What makes this statement an incredible sign of Paul’s faith in God’s providence, however, is that the likely authority at the time of Paul’s letter was the Emperor Nero! Certainly not the most just of earthly kings to live under. So how could it be that Paul is commending the early church to be subservient to such tyranny? And, if the early Church could submit to the whims of a madman like Nero, clearly we can submit to the demands of someone like Newsome?
Of course, the fundamental and relevant difference between Paul’s circumstances and our own is the very nature of the governmental structures in question. For Paul and Peter are living not only under a monarchy, but an imperial monarchy nonetheless, the last vestiges of the earlier senatorial Republic having been expunged by the “divine” Augustus. Not that the Republic would have made much a difference to the majority of the early Jewish followers of Jesus.
The fact being, however, that this simply is not the same type of political world as the constitutional republic set up by America’s founding fathers. There is no political participation or representation to speak of for most of the early church, at least not for its first roughly 300 years. While Paul’s citizenship may have had some benefits, neither kings like Nero, nor prelates like Pontius Pilate were going to simply be “voted out” if they were found wanting. To remove authorities like Nero from office would require far more drastic measures, in his particular case, assassination. Later Emperors would tend to meet similar ends.
In this sense, we could wonder what real options the Apostles had under such a system and under such men other than simply to submit to those authorities and rest their hope on God’s providence. For clearly the only other route to political change was violent rebellion and that option had been precluded in virtue of the Messiah Himself, the suffering servant who overthrew the king of this world via His sacrificial death. As the divine example had been set for the Church, and although ultimate victory would come until the second coming of the true King, the current mission demanded a non-violent approach to evil. For, as Paul wrote ironically to the church in Rome,
“And why not say, just as some people slanderously claim we say ‘Let us do evil so that good may come’? Their condemnation is deserved!”Romans 3:8
In other words, let it never be the case that evil be committed, even if some greater good be in sight. For Paul to do evil for the sake of some greater good, even the greater good of removing a tyrant like Nero, was not possible for the true follower of Christ. For to excuse an evil for the sake of some “greater good” was to deny the intrinsic nature of evil itself. Peter has this same principle in mind in 1 Peter 2:18-20
18 You who are slaves must submit to your masters with all respect. Do what they tell you—not only if they are kind and reasonable, but even if they are cruel. 19 For God is pleased when, conscious of his will, you patiently endure unjust treatment. 20 Of course, you get no credit for being patient if you are beaten for doing wrong. But if you suffer for doing good and endure it patiently, God is pleased with you.New Living Translation
To do any evil, even one that may bring about some good consequence, like the end of slavery, is antithetical to the God who is Love (1 John 3). Our freedom in Christ is to be used only to do “God’s will at all times” and no instance of evil can ever be the will of an all-good God. This is why the bond-servant in the Apostle’s day is exhorted to be a good servant, for if there is to be a “change in the system” it must come from within the system, not from without. But, if the ultimate source of the corrupt system is the human heart itself, it is there the change must begin. It is the servant who through serving the cruel master in Christ-like fashion can win him to Christ, and in doing so be the catalyst of societal change.
This principle therefore is immutable, and itself cannot change regardless of time and context. As such, even in light of the worst tyranny, so long as the practice of Christian faith is not expressly under attack, or some clear command of God being broken, then there is to be obedience to the secular powers in the land.
However, what can change, and what has changed in the course of history, is who or what the secular authority to whom the Church is supposed to be subservient actually is. It is here that we must ask the question in today’s context of “Who is the secular authority to which we owe obedience?”
The Church in Modern America: Balancing Our Spiritual and Civic Responsibilities
The biggest difference between Peter and Paul’s 1st-Century, Roman, imperial political context and ours today is that we live in a time where much of the Christian values that were emerging in light of the Church’s birth and eventual spread have become embodied in our own political structure. The biblical view of the human person as made in the image of God has for the most part won out in the West, a notion that most of us take for granted, as if it had always been this way. And, while we do see clear examples to the contrary of this truth (e.g. slavery in the 19th century or abortion today), and also contend constantly with metaphysical views that would argue the claim itself to be false (e.g. atheistic materialism), nevertheless much of the ethic of imago Dei theology still persists in our times. As such, we see, as our founding fathers saw, the best of government authority as being an authority for the people, by the people, and most importantly of the people.
But if the secular authorities that govern us, to include those of us in the Church, are authorities “of the people,” then we are in a legitimate and meaningful way, the same authority we are called to submit to. For we choose people just like us to make decisions on our behalf. So it is in a representative democracy.
This is not the political world of St. Peter and St. Paul by any stretch.
In fact, one previous President’s campaign mottoes embodied this political reality, stating “We are the ones we have waited for.” Applied to the arena of politics in America, and most western Christianized countries, this is just a true statement. The responsibility of political decisions and the construction of societal laws is very much in our hands. This is not something Peter or Paul would have been able to say, or perhaps even think!
Of course this truth, that we possess a civic authority unlike that of the early church fathers (especially the very early church fathers), does not mean that God is not ultimately, providentially in control of all things, to include things happening at every level and in every domain of local and national governments. For God’s governance of all reality supersedes and guides all other secondary causal sources (leaving aside for now the nature of human freedom). But, this truth doesn’t preclude us from relating differently to governmental structures today in virtue of those structures being vastly different from those of the ancient world.
We are not just citizens of the Kingdom of God, spiritual denizens of the mystical Body of Christ that is the Church. We are also embodied men and women who are citizens of a particular nation at a particular time and place, a nation that we ourselves rule through electing our officials. If God has chosen to grace us with such a great commission, to be responsible governors of our own republic, then we must see to it that we do it with excellence.
However, this kind of responsibility inevitably entails not just praying to God for His providential hand to move over the murky waters of politics and culture, but also for us to step into the role He has allowed us to play, a role that includes warning our elected officials about potential overreach and calling out potential injustices when we see them. And not even those that primarily affect our life as believers, but those injustices that hurt or degrade human life more broadly. Watching out for the common good of all men and all women and all children who are all made in the image and likeness of the Creator is part of our role as good governors of the secular domain given to us.
Therefore, in times like these the Church must guard against two polarities: first, against becoming a mere mouthpiece or functionary of our local government, doing what it says, when it says, and how it says without offering any commentary or critique. We are not called to slavishly submit to a government that we are responsible for. We exercise our spiritual citizenship, when we respectfully challenge either the corruption or incompetency of elected officials.
Second, we must exercise our moral voice in such a way that itself does no evil, not acting as the brash rebel willing to crack a few heads or shame a few innocents in order to institute some greater good. Ours is not a consequentialist ethic, in which only the results of our actions matter. Every action has its own intrinsic value, and therefore our civic action must always be inherently dignified and imbued with grace.
As we balance the very fine line then between human freedom and the value of physical health, we should therefore not be afraid to call out officials who have possibly acted from bad intentions or out of severe incompetence, and that in ways that have caused great damage to human persons or revealed their unlawful biases. The truth is that when we ask ourselves the questions “Who is the Church?” and “Who is the Government?” we should have the same answer for both: “we are.” Therefore, in times like these we are called to be dual citizens: citizens of Heaven, and citizens of the nation.