While I haven’t written anything on it myself, I’ve published quite a number of books regarding how Christians should relate to authority. These include Christian Archy and The Jesus Paradigm (David Alan Black), Ultimate Allegiance and Faith in the Public Square (Bob Cornwall), Rendering unto Caesar (Chris Surber), and Preserving Democracy (Elgin L. Hushbeck, Jr.). The last one isn’t primarily about the Christian’s relationship to authority, but it does deal with what the author believes are the legitimate functions of government, and ways in which the authorities can definitely be illegitimate.
As I was reading from Luke 12 this morning, and realized that Jesus was speaking to people who were likely facing persecution, sometimes from those very authorities, I started to think a bit about why we tend always to start with the “rendering unto Caesar” passage, and much less from Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17, or Acts 5:29. The first of those passages is quite frequently abused by those who believe that one must obey the government no matter what.
I’m not going to write an extremely long post on this today. I just wanted to bring the subject up. The one line I appreciated most in the commentary I read on these passages came from The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, p. 2029, commenting on Romans 13:3-5.
Governing authorities derive legitimacy and serve God by punishing bad and approving good—that is, by implementing justice. The just purposes of government evoke submission by the ascent of conscience (v. 5) rather than by fear of punishment. An unjust tyrrany, by implication, would not qualify as an authority instituted by God.…
There are a couple of points in that passage that I believe are overstated, but I think the main point is correct. Paul here speaks of the government carrying out it’s legitimate functions, functions which the Roman government often did quite well. When, at other times, the authorities turned against the good, then one must obey God rather than human authority (Acts 5:29). A Christian would obey the legitimate authority even of an unjust government, where that is possible (often it is not), and would reject only the unjust actions. I think 1 Peter 2:13-17 implies this. Christians were to be model citizens wherever they could thus blunting accusations brought against them. When the state ordered them to do something they could not do in good conscience, then the authorities would be unable to say, “These people just ordinary lawbreakers.” Rather, they would only have the matter of conscience at hand.
Having government ordained by God cuts both ways. First, it gives authority and order a divine imprint, and becoming simply a rebel or an anarchist is precluded short of a complete loss of legitimacy. Second, however, it places human government under the divine authority. Note that I don’t mean by this anything at all like theocracy. I do not think theocracy is desirable, nor is it called for in this passage. Rather, what this means in practice is that one’s conscience controls. It should make me subordinate to all legitimate authority and limit when I can stand against that authority to cases when I would be required to perform an act that was evil or unethical.
The “government no matter what” spin that some have put on this passage tends to make Paul into somewhat of an idiot. Perhaps we need another rule of interpretation: If the way you interpret a passage makes the author look like an idiot, reconsider. Sometimes the God’s wisdom may look like foolishness to us, but so does actual foolishness.
I know I’ve left a huge number of holes in this discussion, but I’ll leave those for later discussion. It’s a blog post, and sometimes I have to write one that is less than 1000 words!