From Aisle 12 to Romans 13
Three Christian responses to political authority
I’ve been wanting to write a significant piece about politics and the Christian citizen for some time, but I very much doubt that this week’s Payneful Truth will be it.
It will be a step or two down that road, but it’s unlikely I’ll get all the way to the destination in this short piece. All the same, I hope that it edges your own thinking along the path a little.
We find ourselves at this point because I first observed that expressing opinions (especially in the way that many people do today on social media) can be a foolish and sinful thing to do (‘The Sin of Opinion’, Apr 28); and then I did my best to be more positive and lay some foundations about the nature of justice and judging and political authority (‘Doing Justice’, May 5). I’ll assume you’ve read those pieces. (include links)
However, given that the role of political authority is to make judgements, do we have any role in respect to those judgements? When a dispute does break in aisle 12, and we find ourselves onlookers—when and how should we get involved? What are our positive obligations and opportunities as Christian citizens?
Romans 13 is a good place to start, since it addresses this very question. It begins like this:
1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
The key idea in these verses is conveyed in the recurring Greek word tassō, which means to bring about an order to things, to arrange or fix or institute things in a certain relation to one another.
God has tassōed or instituted ‘authorities’, and these authorities are part of a larger order or arrangement of things that God has established. He has created a world in which there is right and wrong, and good and evil. It’s a morally ordered world in which there is such a thing called ‘justice’ (because of the existence of those standards of right and wrong), and in which there are ordered structures within human communities whereby justice can be done. God has ordered and established all this in place, including the authorities who administer that justice (ESV translates the tassō word in v. 1 as ‘instituted’; ‘established’ says NIV).
Our right response is to submit or sit under this ordered structure of authority—to hupo-tassō ourselves to the authorities that God has established (v. 1). The wrong response is to anti-tassō (v. 2)—to fight against or resist the authority that God has set in place.
In other words, to obey or submit to political authority is not just knuckling under to the big guy with the sword. It is humbly understanding ourselves and our actions within the whole order of rightness and justice that God has established.
(There is a massive side-bar we could explore here regarding a foundational question of all political theory—namely, who gives the state its authority? Is it seized by the strong or the noble? Is it granted by divine right? Or is authority given by the people, and if so, how? In the absence of a God who created the world and us, with standards of righteousness and ordered structures of justice, and who delegates authority to human judges, these questions are difficult to anchor and to answer. But all this is too complicated for here and now.)
So our first response is to submit or sit under political authority. This hardly sits well with us. We don’t like submitting to anyone or anything, and the internet gives us the illusion that perhaps we don’t have to. We can click our way to some snippets of knowledge, argue back and forth with intensity, and then declare judgement on our leaders’ policies or actions—thinking that we have done something significant. But (as I’ve already said perhaps too many times), this online simulation of doing justice is shallow and ineffective. And it expresses a posture not of submission to the structures and agents of justice, but a kind of vacuous, superior independence that derides and dismisses them.
It’s almost a national sport to sneer at our political leaders, to ridicule them, to sit in judgement of them, and to do all we can to avoid paying them tax—all of which is the complete opposite of what Rom 13:7 commands us to do. It tells us to hupo-tasso to what God has tassōed, which means giving to those in authority what is theirs: taxes, revenue, respect and honour.
But (you might say) do we not sit in judgement of our political rulers? Don’t we elect them, and then kick them out next time?
Well, yes. But we elect them to be our representatives, to make judgements on our behalf as a society. Submitting to this arrangement certainly means seeking to make good elective choices, or even possibly seeking to become a representative ourselves. But it also means that we should recognize that it is our representatives’ job to get on with the judgement-making, and we should honour and submit to them in this complicated task.
This leads to a second obligation or response in our particular context—to seek to elect representatives whose demonstrated character and actions make them likely to be good judges; who have the capacity and faithfulness to discern between right and wrong and good and evil, and to do justice (tempered with mercy) according to those standards.
We tend to be impressed by the policy announcements, economic plans and grand schemes that political parties promise in order to attract us at election time. These can be significant (especially if they promote injustice or wrong), but the fundamental thing we elect our political leaders to do is the ongoing task of making judgements—to perceive what is right or good (or wrong or evil), and to enact laws and judgements accordingly. We should focus on electing people with the knowledge, character and ability to do that consistently, in the unfolding, unpredictable flow of events and circumstances.
The further implication of this is that we should try to inform ourselves about our representatives’ actions and record, so as to make a wise assessment of their wisdom and character. This is not always easy, and takes some discernment of its own (usually involving a survey of reporting from both ‘left’ and ‘right’ to build up some kind of accurate picture of the leader and their actions).
The third response that Romans 13 commands goes beyond obeying the authorities and paying what we owe. It calls us to keep paying the never-ending social debt of love (vv. 8-14). And it’s a particular kind of love. It’s a love of neighbour that fulfils all that the law pointed forward to, and that also looks to the kingship and imminent coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s a love that is wide awake to its situation—living in these last days, in which Jesus reigns but in which there is still plenty of darkness along with all its works (vv. 12-14).
It’s hardly controversial to say that Christian citizens should be agents of love in our communities, and there are countless ways this can be expressed.
One particular and often neglected way that Christians can love our neighbours in the political realm is to keep living and speaking as if Jesus is the Lord and Christ (which of course he is). We often fail at this. We partition Jesus off in the private Christian/church part of our lives, and don’t preach his saving Lordship in our public and political interactions.
And this is our distinctive contribution. We’re no better or worse than anyone else in arguing about economic policy, or debating how different courses of action might turn out. The one truly extraordinary and loving thing we can do for our political authorities is to prophesy to them. We can keep reminding them that Jesus is the Lord and Christ, to whom they will answer; to keep directing them to his righteousness, his wisdom, his goodness, as they make their judgements; to keep calling them to serve him and his gospel in all their decisions.
In this sense, public Christianity is the same as private Christianity—it’s proclaiming and living out the gospel of the crucified and risen Christ.
The authorities may not listen. Or they may. (But isn’t that the way with all gospel preaching?) They may well regard us as weird, strange or even dangerous. It has been ever thus.
But in God’s power and kindness, and as we pray constantly for our rulers, they may listen to the gospel and be changed by it. And, as Paul says elsewhere, they may indeed make judgements that enable people to “live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim 2:2).
Even in aisle 12.
Well, that by no means answers everything but it hopefully keeps the ball rolling. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and responses.
This is another freebie edition of the Payneful Truth. If you’d like to become a partner and receive every edition every week, here’s the button to click …