Submit to every authority?
January 22, 2021
It seems that, especially in recent years, there’s nothing more American than having strong feelings about our leaders in government. After a tumultuous transition, we got a new president on Tuesday and unless you’re living under a rock, you know that there are strong, often opposite, feelings about him. These divided feelings have reached new heights in this cycle, but there’s nothing new about this phenomenon. So, what do we do about these regular shifts in leadership and, more to the point, how do we understand Romans 13 in a democratic republic?
Romans 13 can’t be a blank check for leaders to do whatever they want and appeal to God-given authority. But we’re also obligated to take it seriously as scripture. Is there a consistent understanding of this difficult teaching that we can agree upon or are we doomed to hunt for a new understanding every four to eight years?
As a start, let’s remember that Paul ministered during the reigns of Caligula and Nero, two of the most brutal Roman emperors. Despite this, he never withdrew his call to respect, pray for, and submit to governing authorities. That said, he also never called on the church to endorse, apologize for, or provide cover for governing authorities. If Paul could walk that tightrope in first century Rome, we should be able to find a way to do the same in 21st century America.
Of course, our situation isn’t identical to that of Paul and the first century church. In the 21st century, we enjoy a blessing that Paul never experienced: democratically elected representatives. I don't think it would be reasonable to deny that this is a blessing. However, like every blessing, it carries the temptation of looking to the blessing rather than the Blesser for our hope and security. That temptation goes even further when we start to prioritize maintaining possession and control of God's freely given blessings over faithfulness to the freely giving God.
Stewardship is important, but stewardship can easily morph into fearful protectionism and self-centeredness. Properly stewarding God's blessings looks like freely sharing what has been freely given, not jealously hording what we have because we're afraid that we won't have it tomorrow. If we believe that our blessing God will continue to bless, this faith can free us from fear.
So, back to Paul and elections. It seems to me that a lot of our difficulties with Romans 13 have more to do with fear than with faith. “What happens if the wrong person comes into power?” The thing is, having a vote in a human government (regardless of how potentially good or evil that government is) doesn't give us personal ownership over that government. We share ownership with the entire electorate. Further, our vote doesn’t free us of our responsibility to respect, pray for, and submit to governing authorities. Finally, it doesn't compel us to endorse, apologize for, or provide cover for leaders who bring dishonor to God's name.
With all this in mind, it's okay (I'd even say good) to hope for God to work in amazing ways through a less-than-ideal authority with eyes wide open to their potentially numerous faults (remember that Paul had Caligula and Nero in mind). It’s also okay (even good) to call out and even condemn the evil actions and harmful words of our elected officials. What's not okay is when we put ourselves on the throne of heaven and decide which authorities God certainly will and certainly won't work through and demand that other believers share our perspective.
In the end, as a Kingdom of anglers and harvesters, we have much more important things to do than squabble about which human authorities we should and shouldn’t obey.
A quick note on a common red herring: Obviously, we don't follow laws that are contrary to the commands of God, but this is a much narrower category than we often want to make it. If your president is telling you to punch your neighbor in the face, just say no. If you're about to be killed for your faith, we have plenty of examples to follow there (see Luke 21:14-15 for some specific instructions). If your government is using your tax dollars for things that don't honor God, take a deep breath, give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and vote in the next election.