>Over the past few weeks I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on my attempt to remove the teachings of Jesus and the early church from any kind of political debate. Many of my readers have taken offense, or at least questioned my understanding of the role of the church in politics. They site passages such as Romans 13 that emphasis the centrality of God over all things, including government, and state that Christians must therefore become more involved in the political process in order to ensure that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
Nice thought but that leads to a whole other debate over how well we understand what God’s will is in any given situation. Perhaps I’ll get into that one day but for now let’s stay focussed on one debate at a time, shall we?
I maintain that Jesus teaching on the centrality of brotherly love [Matthew 22:35-40] and enemy love [Matthew 5:43-47] transcend all politics and therefore must be held above any partisan debate over such trivial things as personal freedom, border security, economic policy and even the rule of law. They will know we are Christians by our love, not our political affiliation.
Indeed, even in the aforementioned Romans 13, Paul reiterates brotherly love as the central theme of Jesus teaching.
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. [Romans 13:8-10]
But I’m jumping ahead; my critics never get that far, they fixate on the first half of the chapter and miss the broader context. Romans 13 begins with this;
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. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. [Romans 13:1-5]
Interesting stuff no doubt but to fully understand what Paul is saying here we need to understand a bit of historical context. Read that passage again but this time, think about who were the “governing authorities” that Paul was referring to.
Paul is not talking about a democratically elected government. The “governing authorities” to which he is referring were agents of a Roman despot who held on to power through brutal oppression and coercion. It is impossible to read this passage and apply it to our western, democratic, capitalist values system that includes personal freedom and the rule of law, those things simply did not exist in Paul’s day.
No; this passage is a pragmatic call to pacifism in the face of brutal oppression and a reminder that no matter how evil and oppressive the governing authorities get, it is ultimately God who is in control. Paul reminds his readers to do what is right, not to rebel and God will take care of them. He goes on to remind them that there is no law against brotherly love, even going so far as to say that loving your fellow man is the fulfillment of all the laws [Romans 13:8-10].
But it’s also important to note what Paul does not say in this passage.
He does not say that Christians have a role to play in government. Yes the rulers are God’s servants but that does not mean that they need to be Christians too. Again, you have to remember the historical context. The Roman authorities that Paul is referring to were not Christians. They weren’t even Jews. The very notion that a breakaway Jewish sect would have a snowball’s chance in hell of significantly influencing the Roman government is simply ludicrous and the thought would never have crossed Paul’s mind. What Paul knew was that God could and often did use pagans to further his purpose here on earth, as He still does today.
This of course leads to another question, whether or not it’s possible for non-believers to be considered good. While I’m sure that would be a fun debate too, I’m not prepared to go down that road right now, as I said earlier, one thing at a time.
Finally Romans 13 ends with what is a familiar refrain in Paul’s teaching –
The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. [Romans 13:12-14]
When in doubt, act like Jesus.