4th of July and 13th of Romans

Once again, we Americans are getting together to barbecue our hot dogs, chill our beers, and light our fireworks for the Fourth of July celebration of American independence. I’ll celebrate too … I love a good party and I have been known to contribute my share to the libations and explosions that accompany such events.

I’m also grateful to live in the United States. This is a country that, with all our numerous and indisputable faults, has given me the opportunity both to live and to serve in ways that I might not have done in other circumstances. There is much good in our people, and when we put our minds to it, we can do and have done much good in the world — though not, I grant, as frequently as we ought.

But it seems to me that in the celebration of our nation, Christians fail to recognize that it is founded on a direct violation of a direct command of Scripture. I refer, of course, to Romans 13:1-2:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

This principle is also articulated in 1 Peter 2:13:

For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.

There can be no more flagrant violation of this command, than to take up arms and overthrow an established government. When the purportedly Christian colonists engaged in armed insurrection against the British rulers of the colonies, they directly and overtly disobeyed the command Paul relates in Romans. Many, including dear brothers in my own church, have suggested that Rom. 13:3-4 provides the context for rebellion — that is, when a government supports evil instead of good (v. 3), or fails to punish the evildoer (v. 4), then that authority is no longer fulfilling God’s mandate and therefore is rightly subject to overthrow. But this cannot possibly have been Paul’s intention, given that he was writing in the context of Nero’s Rome, and coming from the perspective of a Jew from occupied Israel. The government in Paul’s day routinely punished doers of good (not least, Jesus Christ himself) and inflicted evil on the people.

Nor is this the only baldfaced violation of Romans 13 that I’ve encountered among patriotic American Christians. Many Christian conservatives are staunch supporters of the Second Amendment right to bear arms. They argue that a key reason for the Second Amendment is that the people reserve the right to overthrow an American government that becomes oppressive in its own right. I believe my conservative friends are historically correct on this point: those who penned the Second Amendment had only recently revolted against the British, and clearly the concept that good government can be corrupted was not far from their mind. As stated in the Declaration of Independence, they certainly still held

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

And further:

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

So I think it indisputable that the Founders of the United States intended an armed populace to be an insurance policy against government overreach. But the founding documents of the United States are not God-inspired scripture, and must never be treated as such. The unmistakeable command of the Apostles Paul and Peter is to submit to the authority of established government. While it is very American to overthrow a government, it is fundamentally anti-Christian.

I must, at this juncture, hasten to add that it’s important to qualify what I believe the Apostles meant by “submission” in this context. It is certainly not blind obedience. The Apostle Peter modeled this vital nuance in the account given in Acts 5:27-32 among other places — when the authorities commanded the Apostles to desist preaching in Jesus’ name, they disobeyed the command with the statement “We must obey God rather than men.” But note what the Apostles did, and did not, do in this context. Yes, they disobeyed. But they did not rebel or attempt to seize power. Rather, they accepted the consequence of their disobedience — in this case a flogging (v. 40) and later prison and for some, execution.

This, I believe, provides us the context for correct understanding of the Christian’s role vis-a-vis earthly authority. It is not to support or obey unjust laws — which is why the use of Romans 13 to defend the Fugitive Slave Law in the 19th century or to defend American abuse of immigrants today is completely beyond the pale (note this recent article in The Atlantic). There are perfectly valid reasons why Christians may need — indeed, be obligated to — disobey the civil authority (and, in so doing, accept that authority’s punishment as a consequence). But active, armed rebellion against civil authority is completely unacceptable for the follower of Jesus.

So enjoy your picnics and your fireworks. I will. But never forget that this nation, however much it has been used by God since, began in absolute disobedience to divine order. We who believe, have no right to follow their example.

16 thoughts on “4th of July and 13th of Romans”

  1. Robert Roberg

    This leads me to believe that a nation formed against the will of God is not a legitimate country at all, but a gang of thieves and anti-Christ usurpers and therefore no one needs to obey it. As a nonviolent pacifist I can never support the overthrow of any group whether they are legitimate or illegitimate, but having been born in defiance of God’s will, they have no right to ask anyone to now submit to Romans 13.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Missing the point somewhat, Robert. If you’re looking for a nation/government anywhere that can lay claim to have been founded justly and in obedience to God’s commands, I think you’ll be sorely disappointed. That, too, cannot have been a criterion in Paul’s or Peter’s mind, when commanding Christians to submit to earthly authorities. Roman authority was grounded in conquest and usurpation … hardly a godly start.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Wrong. Paul’s point is that we are required to submit to earthly authorities except when they ask us to act counter to the ways of God, but even then, to resist submissively, if you will…that is, to accept the consequences, not to rise up and fight.

      1. Robert Roberg

        Do you really think that after telling us the teaching of the ruling sects of Judaism were evil a=leaven and they themselves were money grubbing thieves he would turn around and say obey them? And Rome was not an empire but an anti-christ religion, The Caesars were deities. Do you really thinlk he would say obey that religion?
        And what about the US , born in Genocide and open rebellion. Do you really think he would say subject yourself to that government? I guess as long as you believe that Paul’s writings are from God, we will remain at an impasse.

  2. Frank Reeder

    So, as usual, we are left to live in an uncomfortable balance between our support of or resistance to the governing authorities and our allegiance to the Kingdom of God as described in the Bible. We turn our eyes to him who is the author and perfect or of our faith. (Hebrews 12:1-2) Jesus clearly stated that his Kingdom is not of this world. (John 18:36) Yet he came to establish Kingdom outposts in this world that will be the transformers of a worldly culture. The book of Revelation was written to encourage the early church in this tense struggle to remain unswervingly obedient to the reign of Jesus Christ, while resisting and even graciously redeeming the broken world system until the Kingdom of this World becomes the Kingdom of our God. (Rev 11:15) Christ will accomplish this. We are his ambassadors. (2 Corinthians 5:16-21) So I am first a citizen of the Kingdom of God. And I live as a faithful US citizen, praying for the leaders and the people of our nation that the influence of godliness will become more important to us than the preservation of a worldly and flawed system.

      1. Frank Reeder

        I agree with your caution, Dan. Aggression has little place in Jesus’ way of fighting evil. We do have the sticky instance of Jesus using a whip within the Temple. He did cause a ruckus But I see him lashing no one, just stirring up the crowd to observe the abuse of the only worship space “outsiders” had.

    1. Robert Roberg

      Frank, you had me until you went to the book of Revelation I don’t see anyone being the transformers of a worldly culture. The believers are beheaded and go sleep under the throne. They don’t take up arms and purging the earth. You cannot be a citizen of the heavenly kingdom and an early kingdom. If you are 100% in God’s kingdom you can’t be even 1% of Caesar’s kingdom. Dual citizenship is not allowed. You cannot serve two masters.

      1. Frank Reeder

        Agreed Robert. No one can serve two masters. Our allegiance is always primary to the Kingdom of God. As citizens of that Kingdom, 1 Peter 2:13-17 calls us to honor the human institutions including governors and kings. But if they require obedience to injustice and unbiblical actions, then the choice is clear. In regard to Revelation, it is Christ himself who is the redeemer and transformer of culture. He shall reign according to the heavenly worship scene of Rev 11:15. Those who suffer cooperate with him and resist obedience to the evil structures even if it means losing their heads. They are never told to take up arms and I was not suggesting they do. They wait under the altar for the completion of the battle that Jesus will wage. Thanks for listening. I submit these thoughts with humility.

        1. Robert Roberg

          Good thought Franks,
          but we must always read Romans 13 (the early era) with Revelation 13 (the Last days’ marching orders.) “The nations unite against El Shaddai and his anointed one.” (Psalm 2:2) The one world government ruled by two anti-christs will wage war against the saints. We’ll hardly be obeying to them will we? How close are we? When do we stop submitting? We can’t keep preaching Romans 13 right up the final day. How do we know the final days haven’t started?

          1. Frank Reeder

            Aha, Robert, I see the discrepancy. I believe we are in the final days and have been since the institution of the church. I read Revelation as a message of encouragement to a persecuted church under Rome. So, I take the traditional Reformed view of John’s Apocalypse and therefore marching orders for the church throughout all of history. I am not looking for an argument. But I am glad to entertain other views and respect your perspective.

  3. Scott Smith

    I think my thoughts on Romans 13 are in agreement with yours, Dan. They are: When we visit a foreign country we abide by its laws. Paul would remind us that, as pilgrims in the world, all countries are foreign to us, including the one in which we reside. There’s a difference between submitting to one’s government and condoning its actions — it’s the difference between avoiding rebellion and being an advocate of government policies. An obvious example of this dilemma is the German Church in the Nazi years, but all churches face the challenge to some degree. The State does not bind itself to the commands of Christ but the Christian is bound by them (e.g., Matt 5:38-39, Luke 6:27-28) and cannot use the excuse of government service to avoid them, thereby placing the State above Christ. Peter said: “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29). Romans 13 was not an exhortation by Paul to join the State, and the early Christians didn’t interpret it as such. On the contrary, he said: “our struggle is not against flesh and blood” and “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.” He doesn’t end Romans 12 with: “…unless you’re a soldier.” If there’s any validity to what Paul says in Romans 13, he has to be talking about unbelievers wielding the sword, which was the norm in his day.

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