1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. 3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; 4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. 7 Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. 8 Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. – Romans 13:1-8 NASB
I recently read a fantastic book on Rome in the times of Paul the Apostle called “The Flames of Rome” by Paul Maier. It is historical fiction, but the emphasis is on history, with enough fiction thrown in to fill in some details to make it a story. He paints a picture of Nero, the emperor of the Roman empire at the time, that shocked me. I came to picture Nero as Justin Bieber, with less talent, way more power, and far fewer morals. He was repellant in the highest! With his mother’s help, he murdered his stepfather Claudius the emperor, and thus came to power. Eventually he murdered his manipulative and conniving mother, his first wife, his second wife, and he ended up marrying a young boy who kind of looked like his second wife. He fancied himself a musician and poet, and so spent a great deal of his time at these pursuits in neglect of the duties of statehood. In fact there is probably some truth to the idea that Nero played his fiddle while Rome burned. There was a great fire that destroyed a good deal of the city of Rome, and he probably was preoccupied with practicing his lyre while this was going on. The violin, after all, hadn’t been invented yet.
This is the man who was in power when Paul wrote Romans 13. This is astonishing, and disturbing! Nero, of all people, was thought to have been a governing authority who was established by God! Paul, are you crazy or something? Nero went on (at the counsel of a young scoundrel of a compatriot) to blame the growing faction of the Christians in the city for the fire, even though there was absolutely no evidence for this at all. He organized a repugnant and evil festival at the Coliseum in which Christians were killed by wild animals, crucified, and burned to death. In the end, this caused the sympathies of the Roman citizenry to turn in favor of the Christians and against Nero, who was soon afterwards deposed. The church flourished in the aftermath. I propose that this document, the letter to the Romans, richly helped their cause, because it was thoroughly documented as a point of praxis that the governing authorities should be honored. There was no basis for anyone to think that Christians were anything but model citizens who were encouraged to support the governing authorities as being established by God.
Going all “Grudem”?
Do not think this is some veiled defense of Donald Trump. Anyone who follows me on Facebook knows that I have extremely strong opinions against the man. He is easily an older and more orangey and fuzzier and less eloquent version of Nero. I also tend to call his opponent Hildemort – a cross between Hillary and Voldemort, the stealthy evil antagonist to Harry Potter. As my friend Lloyd Jensby has pointed out, it’s like trying to choose between two turds – the big orangeish stinky fresh one, or the tight hard stale one. We do have a constitutional right to choose one of these people, and whoever we choose will be established by God.
Now the evangelical church has been really terrible about this. By and large, it does not seem that the evangelical church has been able to accept that President Obama has been established as a governing authority by God. In fact there has been a level of invective and hatred that seems to me to be completely beyond what might be warranted. But this is the message of scripture: we are to honor whoever is in power as being established by God. As of now, it is not a given that either of these turdish choices will win – but whoever does, the imperative we are given in scripture is to be in subjection to them, and to pray for them, and to consider that they are servants of God devoted to our general welfare. If we resist or oppose this authority, it is considered to be resisting the very ordinance of God, and that there will come condemnation because of it. So I will need to repent of my ideas about these two being some kind of turd, and come around to being in subjection.
Turds established by God?
The question becomes, how does this end up being a gospel imperative? Where is the grace in it? I’m just supposed to grit my teeth and pretend to honor someone who is repellant to me? One answer is this: look at how it turned out for the church in Rome. It was really really really awful – much more awful than anything we will experience. These Roman early Christians’ “subjection” ended up causing them to be fed to the lions and to be publicly executed. Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton will round up Christians by force and murder them as a public spectacle. But in the end, this turned the sympathies of the Roman citizenry at large towards the Christians, and caused many conversions – to the point where Rome became the very seat of Christianity in the western world for centuries. Now, if we choose to continue to ignore this, if we retain our own sovereignty over our subjection and over whom we choose to honor, we might well be fighting against the very sovereign will of God Himself.
Where is the Gospel in all of this?
This is not where the gospel is in this, though. The gospel is in this: the government has no sovereignty over us. Not really. Jesus Himself said that we should render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. There is not a separation of church and state because the state is a bigger deal than the church and needs to be kept free from its control. There is a separation of church and state because the state is of this world, and is concerned with small temporal fading issues that will soon be forgotten. There will always be wars and rumors of wars. The poor you always have with you. But something greater is here. God Himself has come in the person of Christ as our servant, and has swept in and solved all of our problems of justice and suffering through the cross. The church isn’t some voter block courted by a particular political party. God forbid! The church is the manifold wisdom of God displayed to the rulers and authorities in the heavens (Ephesians 3:10)! The church is the gift of God the Father to God the Son (John 17:2,6), the very bride of God the Son (Ephesians 5:31-32). The church stands in a wicked world trapped in its own sense of justice and condemnation as a great beacon of light on a hill, declaring that there is real love, real hope, real truth, real significance. The church holds out dialog on the real human issues, such as the problem of evil, the nature of love, the great mystery of mercy and forgiveness, and why we are here and what will happen to us in an ultimate sense. The church frankly acknowledges what we all know: we are eternal spiritual creatures, and we are eaten alive by our own sense of right and wrong. The church stands established by God through the millennia declaring the direct deep inward solution to the problem.
The state can only barely touch on these things with a weak grasp on the most ineffectual practical attempts to solve the most glaring of these problems. It is a truism that political solutions are usually ineffectual lies. But we all know that even if we were able somehow to vote in a way that abortion were to be eliminated, abortions would still happen. If we voted to eliminate alcohol, drunkenness would only increase. The war on drugs isn’t working even though we incarcerated so many people for carrying minuscule amounts of marijuana. What we call “controlled substances” aren’t really controlled at all. The state really cannot control anything. The church stands apart. It says, the aim is not to control you – even God knows this won’t work. He says, murder is wrong, but here I am – kill Me! I will overcome. I will resurrect – despite your best efforts at stopping love. I will win you with ridiculously persistent affection. This is what the church declares, what the church administers. Political solutions to these problems may be important, and God does establish rulers. But make no mistake, the church’s administration of the grace of God in Christ in word and sacrament are the real solution. The state’s solutions are mere child’s play, and will be no more permanent or lasting than peace in the middle east or the promises of a politician.
So let us keep our hearts full of astonishment at the prize: that we know God. Let us endeavor to grant honor to whoever is elected to office, and let us remember that as Christians we are the head and not the tail. We have the real solution to all of the world’s problems – the cross of Christ. Let us hold fast our confession!