Tuesday, June 19, 2018

On submitting to authorities and demanding submission

As a pastor, I am very hesitant to wade into political issues. This is not to say I don’t have political views that are informed by my faith or that I don't try to teach how we take our faith into the public square. I don’t however believe any particular politician or party will always have everything right or be in complete alignment with my faith and values and I recognize that there are brothers and sisters in Christ who fall all across the political spectrum.

I do however, feel compelled to articulate some thoughts when a politician or government official uses scripture to explain or justify a policy or action taken by their government. Regardless of how much one believes any person of faith, be it a pastor or layperson, should speak their faith into the political arena, I should think we can agree that any statement made publicly should be evaluated. I believe that someone such as myself who has read and studied the Bible throughout my life in addition to 7 years of post-secondary, and stands each week to help those I minster to understand and apply scripture, is qualified to evaluate a politician’s use of those very scriptures. What I seek to do here is not evaluate policies or actions from a partisan position, but rather share what I believe was a troubling misuse of scripture to justify actions taken. 

Unless you have been completely disconnected from the world for the past week you likely know the news story that prompted this. There is a great deal of information and mis-information circulating and what is credible or not is hotly debated. I do not wish to wade into the debate, other than to say when the situation on the ground is one where families are being separated there is either an extremely flawed directive going out to those doing the separating or there are families in such dire straights that they see no other options. Either way, anyone who truly takes Jesus and His teaching seriously should be greatly troubled and prompted to action and many other brothers and sisters have spoken to this fact.

What I found particularly troubling this past week was the statement from a top government official that it is biblical to follow the law, citing Romans 13:1. This verse reads “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.” (NIV) In fact, if one reads all the way through to verse 6, it is very clear that governments are established by God, they are His instruments to bring order and wrath and therefore we must submit to them. 

Though not cited at the time, his point is further strengthened when we look at 1 Peter 2:13-14 which reads “13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” (NIV) This is part of a larger block that tells us to properly submit to authority over us in the various areas of our lives. So the bottom line is, yes, we as Christians are to submit to the governing authorities over us. Of course there are limits to that when the government compels us violate our conscience and our faith and living in a democracy we should certainly use our voice and influence in the public square to shape public policy but that’s not my point here today.

My struggle with the statements made by this official and others in the administration is this, it is one thing for us as believers to submit to the authorities over us, it is another thing for the authorities to cite these texts as a justification for their actions. These commands were written to those who were to submit to authority, not to the authorities to give them carte blanche authority to do whatever they see fit. In fact, if one reads the whole Bible they will find many instructions as to how those in authority and leaders should act in a godly way. Here it must be noted that in the case of the two passages cited, the authorities that the Apostles Paul and Peter where under in no way represented “Christian Values” nor did they govern by biblical principles.

The New Testament was written in the time of Roman rule, which we as Christians must remember was rarely favorable to Christians, or anyone else who upset the status quo. The book of Romans was almost certainly written in the first few years of Nero’s reign and fresh in the memory of the church was the expulsion from Rome of all Jews. This was likely the result of the disruption caused when many began turning to Christ, under emperor Claudius. 1 Peter was written later, when Nero had begun his campaign of persecution against Christians which included the kind of brutality the Romans excelled at. It was in these times, with emperors who killed at a whim, who sent armies to crush any uprising, who rounded up people to be enslaved, beaten, thrown the in the area or even used as human torches, that both the Apostle Paul and Apostle Peter said we are to submit to the authorities over us. With that in view I find it deeply troubling when any government official stands up and essentially say obey the law, the Bible says submit to the government, and in so doing putting themselves in same camp as those who ruled in the time of Peter & Paul as well as countless others who have cited the same texts to justify themselves.

What makes matters worse is this is from a government that has courted the support of many prominent church leaders and has at times claimed to champion Christian values. This administration, as with any administration has taken many actions that have faced great outcry and controversy however, what I believe sets this past week apart is when then went scripture to justify their actions, they went straight for submission. Had they pulled a verse (and by some miracle kept it in its context) that directly supported the reason for their actions that would be one thing. Going however straight for “the Bible says to obey,” almost certainly points to something not adding up. It is much like one marriage counselor's take on the command just a few verses later in 1 Peter, that commands wives to submit to their husbands. This counselor has observed that in decades of marriage counselling he had not encountered a single case where a “submission problem” wasn’t really an issue of a demanding husband who was showing a lack of maturity and failure to prioritize of the kind of love he was to have for his wife.

The bottom line is, whenever someone, be it a husband, a boss or even a government chooses to defend their actions from Scripture and the full extent of their argument is “because the Bible tell you to submit to me” take pause, because barring any other biblical argument, they are submitting to no authority but their own. If anyone is going to use the Bible to call for others to submit, they better be ready to have their actions evaluated against the rest of the scripture, otherwise they run the risk of simply being another Nero, and in a liberal democracy where every citizen has to the right to speak up we must.

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