Authority: Romans 13 in the Context of Life in America

A while ago I was reading a book where the following was recounted, in more detail: a man is preaching about Jesus to a group of people who’ve gathered to listen. Another man shows up and tells him to stop. He ignores the man telling him to stop until he notices that the man is a police officer, at which point he perceives his demands to be authoritative and complies.

I don’t wish to criticize the individual in question. I don’t know the particulars of the situation; maybe he was blocking a route and it really was appropriate for him to move. What really bothered me about the story was actually where and how the writer told it; he was using it to illustrate the weight of authority. As such, it is singularly unhelpful and even harmful. Of course, I suspect the writer was taught to see police officers as necessarily carrying some kind of authority and so isn’t really at fault. The belief is, however, seriously mistaken. Police officers are men and, like most men, many of them are at enmity with God. Sometimes, they tell you to do what God forbids or not to do what God commands. When they do this, they have no more authority than any other human being, whether or not they have more power. When the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of Israel, told the Apostles to stop teaching in the Name of Jesus, they said, “We must obey God rather than man.”

American police do sometimes tell people not to do what God commands. I’ve been told that I may not have discussions about God with strangers who want to talk to me while shopping. Just so everyone reading this understands the context: I wasn’t harassing people. If someone said they didn’t want to talk, I never tried to make them. I didn’t chase people around. I wasn’t yelling or getting in people’s way. There was no reason to be upset. Furthermore, Jesus said to preach the Gospel to every creature. That means, every person. You never have any guarantees about tomorrow or even next hour. You never have any guarantee that someone will ever be close again. You never have any guarantee that there will be a better “next time” for you or for them. If God is calling you to speak to someone – if you have an opportunity… you take it. When you know God wants you to talk to someone, and you don’t … well, let’s just say I’d rather die.

Back to Acts. Over and over again the Apostles were harassed by those in authority. One notices that the Jews from Thessalonica follow Paul to other cities because they hate him so much. People listening to him and receiving the Gospel is often followed by other people persecuting him. So, why do so many people think that when people hate us that must mean that we’re doing something wrong? Why do so many people think that if the police tell you to stop doing something, then you should stop doing it? It was actually really easy for me. The police would harass me on days when no one even got upset at me… I was used to talking to people and the instant I said the name “Jesus,” having them decide that they didn’t want to hear from me anymore, but these days when I would get harassed would be the days when none of that happened, when everyone was happy to talk … at least, at first. However, I’ve never understood where in the Bible people get the idea that American police officers do no wrong when acting in that capacity. There’s the verse in Romans 13, where St. Paul writes, “There is no authority but that which God has established; therefore submit yourselves to the authorities.” If you really think about that, though, it’s saying that wherever anyone goes against God’s law they have no authority, since the only authority that is comes from God. At the same place where we are told most strongly to submit to authority as long as it doesn’t actually tell us to disobey God or forbid us to obey God, whether we happen to like the authority or not, whether we think it’s stupid or not, it’s also made very clear that there is no authority that goes against God’s commands … when something goes against God, it is without authority. Just like the command of the Sanhedrin of Israel to not preach the Name of Jesus was without authority, though they still retained the power to imprison and flog, so the command of an American police officer to not share the Gospel is without authority, whatever powers they may or may not have. Of course, Paul went on to write about authorities “being God’s servants to do you good,” and about “submitting to them, not only because of possible punishment but for conscience’ sake.” People should remember that the writer of these words ended up being executed by the “authorities.” Of course, authorities are God’s servants to do us good. That’s what they’re for. That’s how they should act. Like the rest of mankind, they are bound by God’s law and are supposed to live in it. They should make it possible for us to live quiet and peaceful lives, as we are urged to pray for them in 1st Timothy. Furthermore, in Romans 8, Paul wrote, “We know that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him.” So, even wicked and cruel authorities are God’s servants for our good … If God is for us, who can be against us? Who can be against us? All creation must serve, willingly or unwillingly, God’s sovereign plan for our good. And, then, there’s, “not only because of possible punishment but for conscience’ sake.” In other words, our submission is for conscience’ sake … we are to submit to authorities because it is right to do so. When it isn’t right to do so, we must not submit to them but directly to God for conscience’ sake. I think saying that they can punish us when we do this is actually a misuse of the word punish. Oh, they can do things to us, all right. But the word “punish” has the wrong connotations, especially since God is sovereign in our persecution and persecution for the sake of the Name tends to be treated as a reward throughout the Bible. “Punishment” is what someone does to you when you do something wrong … violate something right … break a rule. So, I think it’s better not to use it in this context since, ultimately, there are no rules but God’s … in this case, it’s something that happens to us for obeying a rule (not of course that the Christian life is about rules, but about love, about a relationship where God loved us first and sent His Son to die for us and, because we love Him in return and because He has made us able by His love for us, we obey Him and seek to please Him). In these cases, when “authorities” command us to do what is wrong or forbid us doing what is right, it is obedience to Authority to disobey. We are to do all we do “as unto the Lord, rather than men.” We are called to be always obeying ultimately God. We don’t defy authority; we submit to Divine Authority, through authority and against “authority” when that authority defies Divine Authority and thus loses all authority. “Why do the peoples rage in vain? … He terrifies them in His wrath and rebukes them with a word, saying, ‘But as for Me, I have established My King on Zion, My holy hill.'”

Throughout the Bible, we are told to pray for those in positions of authority, we are told to obey them regardless of our personal preferences as long as their commands do not conflict with God’s will, we are told to obey God even when it means getting their anger and suffering, but I’ve yet to see anywhere where it says to think well of them or their actions simply because they are in positions of authority. If their actions are good and suitable, then they are good. If they are not, then they are not. An authority position doesn’t change that; it only entitles them to certain demands and 1respects, and allows them, even requires them, to do certain things. It doesn’t make their choices automatically wise or intelligent; even less, does it make their characters righteous or their demands moral and right when they go against God’s law.

 

Copyright 2017 Raina Nightingale

 

 

1Respect is another word which is often misunderstood; it doesn’t mean you think someone is right or that you obey them when they ask for what is wrong. It’s more like moving out of their way. Respecting someone’s authority means allowing them to make decisions in the area over which they have authority and respecting those decisions, whether one approves of them or not; it neither means thinking those decisions are right nor allowing them to make decisions in areas over which they have no authority. And, of course, no one ever has the authority to ask others to sin.

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