“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”[i] The thirteen colonies unanimously endorsed the Declaration of Independence which spells out the reasons the colonies felt compelled to break from English rule, knowing that it would come to war. The vast majority of the men of the Continental Congress that drafted the Declaration would consider themselves Christian or members of the universal church.[ii]
The Laws of Nature, as understood by the writers of the Declaration means that “all people have inherent rights, conferred not by act of legislation but by God, nature, or reason. Natural law theory can also refer to theories of ethics, theories of politics, theories of civil law, and theories of religious morality.”[iii] In God’s relationship with His creation, according to Thomas Aquinas, He placed within each human a realization of natural law which teaches the person that “good is to be done and pursued and evil is to be avoided.”[iv] A mistake man makes, according to Aquinas is to believe that natural law, because of its name is non-religious but rather it is an instrument of God which helps draw true believers to salvation in Christ while also arguing implicitly against false religions.
If Natural Law and Nature’s God entitles humans to assume the powers of political sovereignty and separate from other political powers it is the responsibility of those seeking separation to state their specific reasons. A general consensus of the need for separation will benefit the fledgling country or political entity and its leaders should attempt to avert any opposition to their cause through reason, when possible.
One such reason for which such separation is demanded is the physical threats of death inferred and consummated against Christians by political leaders and national powers. This can extend as well to the evil done in the name of a national power which is threatening the same and even committing murder against non-Christians. Christians understand a responsibility for protecting all persons and in so doing are doing good in the Name of Christ. Good is to be done and evil avoided (Aquinas).
The logic of such an argument for the use of all legitimate means, including war, against the offending realms must then be weighed against the biblical commands to honor political leaders. Paul writes in Romans 13, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.”[v]
It is believed by many that the creation of the United States through the Revolutionary War was divinely blessed by God. In the Twentieth Century, most who sided with Allied Powers against the mass murderers of the Third Reich and the Japanese Imperial forces believed their cause to be just and true. They believed their cause to be blessed by God and many believed that their protection of the Nation of Israel and Jews the world over was divinely orchestrated and victory was assured. How does that square against Paul’s writing that occurred during a time when the Roman government was sending Christians of all ages to be torn apart by vicious lions and gruesome deaths in spectacular arenas?
Was Paul declaring a submissive attitude or a respectful attitude and what is the difference? An examination of the Greek verb phrase be subject in the Strong’s Concordance, is defined as:
ὑποτάσσω hupŏtassō, hoop-ot-as’-so; from G5259 and G5021; to subordinate; reflexively, to obey:—be under obedience (obedient), put under, subdue unto, (be, make) subject (to, unto), be (put) in subjection (to, under), submit self unto.
An explanatory example of the verb phrase is:
“a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden”.[vi]
The question comes, is Paul directing his submission command to the church or to individual Christians in their daily walk? The statement Let every soul is a clear answer to this question. How does that play out in ‘real life?’ Let’s review one simple biblical event that creates a conundrum for us in this discussion.
When God, through His angel, released Peter from prison and he fled after making himself known to the church in the house of Mary, John Mark’s mother, was he not breaking the law and not submitting to government? According to the biblical record in Acts 12, the church was praying for Peter’s release and God answered their prayer. There are more examples of Christians fleeing persecution in the New Testament. If they were to submit in the way we are defining it here, shouldn’t they simply have gone to the officials and stood in line to be executed rather than fleeing? Recall that in the 1st Century, when the church fled Jerusalem, God used it to spread the Good News across the region. Peter broke the law yet God ordained it and used it for His good.
Evil seems to be ever present in our society. How can a true Christian stand by and watch immorality such as mass arrests, deportations to concentration camps, and murder of people for any reason continue? Is there no command to combat evil?
…any disobedience is allowable only if a person is fully convinced that we stand at the eschaton and that this state is actually the particularized embodiment of Antichrist, which is to say totally of evil, the very incarnation of the demonic (which, by the way, is a judgment I would think sinful human beings are hardly qualified to make). And, Bonhoeffer continues, if that state is Antichrist, then Christians dare not render it obedience in anything. If the state is not Antichrist, total obedience; if it is Antichrist, total disobedience–these are the only options Bonhoeffer considers. Thus he leaves himself no room for the other biblical command about our obeying God rather than man.[vii]
During World War II, one Christian pastor in Germany knew he could not just stand by and watch. His name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Vernard Eller, writing on the works of Bonhoeffer, makes this conclusion based on earlier Bonhoeffer’s earlier writings:
The passages Eller uses to sustain the idea that Bonhoeffer felt so strongly about simply submitting to government were all written before Bonhoeffer became part of a plot to assassinate Hitler. That is an obvious indication that he had come to a point where he either, believed Hitler to be an anti-Christ if not the Anti-Christ, or he had come to rethink Romans 12:21. I will illustrate what I mean there in a moment.
I think perhaps Eller would have done well to explore further one of his own earlier points. The conclusion that Bonhoeffer left no room for anything but submission and no room for the commands to obey God rather than man. Earlier in his thesis, he quoted Bonhoeffer, “The whole of Paul’s doctrine of the State in Romans 13 is controlled by the introductory admonition: “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). It is immaterial whether the power be good or bad, what matters is that the Christian should overcome evil by good.[viii]” He quotes him again on the point of the world versus Christianity. “The world exercises dominion by force and Christ and Christians conquer by service”[ix] In this treatment of Bonhoeffer and the view on what Eller describes as Christian Anarchists, it is important to understand Eller’s own pro-liberal viewpoint. He writes, “I am not surprised to find a conservative, legitimizing tendency surfacing in Bonhoeffer’s thought.” Rather than see Bonhoeffer’s re-thinking of his position as growing in an understanding of the full meaning of scripture, Eller sees it as Bonhoeffer’s conservative values twisting the Word to fit the conservative narrative and supporting action against the state. An analysis of the change in his position is warranted to help us better understand what our role should be as Christians in the 21t Century.
Let us go back to our original question of how revolution, civil disobedience, the work of undergrounds to save the lives of hundreds, if not thousands upon thousands, in the days of slavery in the U.S. and opposing Hitler in WWII. Are these actions legitimate when it comes to Romans 13? The entire book of Romans, remember, is one text, not written in chapters or in numbered versus when Paul penned it to the church in Rome. So, one needs to read the letter in whole and, in this case, go back a few paragraphs to what we know as Romans 12:21.
“21 Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”[x] Overcoming evil with good is a command from Paul to the church. I am not playing a game of semantics here to justify something that would be illegitimate for a Christian to become involved. A misapplication of this command would be to infuse a political change of power only to replace one set of politics for another, neither God-honoring or divinely ordained. Seldom is that an answer and it does not fit in the schematic we have here of a Christian doing good in the Name of Christ to overcome evil. A Christian’s allegiance is always to God not to party.
When the cattle cars are lined up and your neighbor’s family is being herded away with certain death the end result, finding a way to stop that or prevent their arrest is doing good. Sending a runaway slave farther along the Underground Railway is doing good but against the law. When we can say our actions are in the Name of Christ and not in the name of the GOP, we are on the right track. We must never wrap the cross in the flag. Hitler did until finally his flag replaced the cross. The question comes to each individual member of Christ’s body and to the body as a whole. Church leadership must be certain of their own theological understanding of Romans 13. To read into it a one-way only with submission the singular path and no contextual connection to Romans 12 is to err in such a way as to leave too many believers struggling with how they are to contend against evil in their own roles.
The church in America and around the world showed itself susceptible to the manipulation by governments during the recent pandemic when isolation, closures, edicts of masks and physical separation all but silenced the church for over a year. Sadly, the silence of the churches sent a message loud and clear. Driven by a narrow focus on Romans 13 and fueled by the fears of the congregants, the churches capitulated.
The church, not simply the pastors and leaders but every member of the Body of Christ must know scripture and must know how to read it correctly. Proof-texting, of which some may accuse me even in this instance, by taking one set of verses outside of their context to support a cultural stand is dangerous, divisive, and perhaps even, demonically driven. The whole counsel of God, the Bible in full must be brought to bear on such serious decisions as when to obey God and not man, not government. Our founding fathers took their role very seriously and much prayer and much contention came as they argued the merits of their actions. Each knew they could be killed under the current law for the insurrection they were planning. It was, without a doubt, treason under English law. Under God’s law, it was the right thing to do. Can we today, draw our line in the sand and say, ‘to here and no further for in all things I will obey God before man?’
Allow me to close with a movie quote. You knew you would not get all the way through this sincere effort to bring today’s struggles with evil and the response of the church to bare without at least one good movie connection! It comes from the movie, The Patriot. Reverend Oliver surprises everyone when he prepares to join the Revolution. His response is timely. “A shepherd must tend his flock, and at times, fight off the wolves.”[xi]
[ii] Universal church is not to be confused with the Universalist Church which accepts all gods, all religions. The Universal Church is the body of true believers, followers of Christ across time, across all political and denominational boundaries that are the hands of Christ reaching out to the world in His Name.