Chapter 8 addressed the violence in the Old Testament and how we reconcile that with Christian nonviolence.
Chapter 9 deals with a single passage that gets abused quite a bit: “Let Every Soul be Subject”. Lee Camp tackles what this passage means in context, instead of in the absurd isolation in which it is often quoted, violently ripped from God’s word in order to serve agendas of violence.
If you read the entire passage of Romans 13, you realize that this one phrase was never meant to be a military mantra. We are to “present [our] bodies as living sacrifices” before God, and commanded not to “conform to the age” (often translated “the world”). Since we are a new creation, we live according to a new age. So whatever authorities we are under, they’re not ours.
Unlike the world, we Christians believe that a Kingdom of ultimate peace is ushered in by Christ. That kingdom is here, but is not fully realized in its eternal form until the end. But if we look forward to it, we will emulate it here and now. The kingdom at hand. “We lay down our arms because the Kingdom of God,” says Camp, “which is characterized by beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, has been inaugurated in Jesus’s ministry, death, burial, resurrection and ascension.” We are called to an alternative to the war-making of the age. Oh, and in Romans 12, we are to pray for our enemies, and we are to let God carry out his “vengeance”.
Camp explains how in the West Christianity’s flesh vs spirit teaching has been misconstrued. Martin Luther, though successful against a number of organized heresies, falsely taught that Romans 12 was just about the inner life and Romans 13 was about the outer life. As if to say that God only meant for us to pray for the guy at work we can’t stand and that God will exact vengeance on your brother, but when it comes to the big stuff Romans 13 gives earthly a blank moral check to do “whatever is necessary”?. This may explain why so many German Christians refused to comply with Hitler’s plans. They were just following orders. Romans 13, right?
But despite the West dividing the Bible into chapters, Romans 12 and 13 are all the same string. And the peaceable kingdom of God still stands, though under the subjugation of earthly kingdoms, “authorities”. And how does this look? Well, much how Jesus looked before Pilate and the Roman scourgers. The role of these authorities, in the words of Camp, is “to channel the vengeance and wickedness (of the world) back upon itself, to limit the destructive and maddening effects of violence by turning it on itself.”
I remember once being told that God created three institutions: The church, the family, and the government. As if these three pillars could be found in a Bible passage somewhere, a holy trinity of establishments that are sacred and equal. The church I get, but “institution” is not a word I quickly arrive at when describing it. The family, created before the church was realized to us, only exists to point to the church as the real family. Also, we need to look carefully at what we mean by “institution”.
An institution sometimes means a structure or a mechanism meant to control social capital, like a school or foundation. It also sometimes means a custom that reproduces patterns of social capital, like dating or sending “thank you” cards. The church and the family are not mechanisms or customs in the mind of Christ. They are to be living organisms that produce social capital with new life, not try to control it in the world. The church is not a product of society, but of God. The world sees religion as just an institution of society. Don’t conform to the world. The kingdom of God is beyond the world, not a custom of it.
The government? A different story. An institution, certainly, because it’s a product of society. In fact, there is no Biblical evidence that God created governments (any more than he created “all things”).
“But wait,” one may object, “have you not read your Bible, son? It says it right there: God ordained.” We must look at the actual word, not the translated word. The actual word means to ordinate not to ordain. There is a big difference. The passage is not saying God anoints the rulers of the world, for we know that only in covenant-bound-Israel does he have any record of choosing a king. He ordinates—he lays out their boundaries in an orderly manner so they no king ever becomes to powerful that the earth is without hope.
Yoder puts it best here:
“God is not said to create or institute or ordain the powers that be, but only to order them, to put them in order, sovereignly to tell them where they belong, what is their place.” [my emph. added]
So once again, God is not responsible for the powers’ identity as rebellious to his way, but he does order them. Camp says, “God employs the arrogance and violence of the nations against one another, so that the earth and its creatures are not utterly destroyed.” God creates man, man rebels against God, man seeks to rule himself, becomes destructive, God uses man’s own destructiveness to keep himself and earth from being utterly destroyed. No state is ordained by God, but they are all ordinated.
As far as being subject to authorities, we’re not subject to them because they’re right or good. We’re subject because they are earthly powers and we are a spiritual power, because God uses them as “ministers” against one another’s powers, because Christ subjected himself before corrupt rule. This is subjection, not allegiance. Our obedience to these powers only extends so far as they do not call for us to disobey God or ask us to praise their endeavors. “We must obey God rather than human authorities” (acts 5:29), not “we must obey God and country”. The church is God’s bride, not Caesar.
Camp concludes with a call to drop the damnable rhetoric too many American Christians carry. America is not the world’s great hope. Such a belief, he says, is “patently absurd” and “fundamentally idolatrous”. I’m reminded of when George Bush said in his ’03 address that “there is power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people.” And instead of realizing that he coopted the lyrics of an old hymn about the power of the blood of the lamb that was slain for our salvation into a call to worship the golden calf of American might, droves of Christians pledged their allegiance to yet another earthly kingdom’s sword-bearing hypocrisy. Why? Because his rhetoric sounded Christian and made their blood hot for their country’s pride.
Oh, we’ll get to the sword-wielding thing. The next chapter deals with Jesus meant when he said he came to bring one.
Oh, and to be fair, I promise to criticize Obama as well as Bush. Not just because it’s fair politics, but because it’s a consistent judgement of policy. We’ll see why.
So how do you feel about the church-family-government trinity idea? Has anyone ever taught it to you? Have you ever questioned it? If so, what was their defense? Did they provide a scriptural proof of this triad relationship?
If given the choice to obey God or your government, what would you do? Are you consistent in this belief, or do you only apply it to certain scenarios? Would you apply it to acts of violence? How do you feel about endorsing such actions?
Do you see serving God and serving your country as equal pursuits? What popular oaths can you think of that suggest such an attachment? How do you feel about reciting them? How do you imagine Hananiah, MIshael and Azariah would feel about this?
[next chapter: Did Jesus bring a sword?]
Are you suggesting that God does not “select” our rulers today? Daniel 4:32 seems to suggest that he does (as that seems to be what he is reminding Neb of). Perhaps it’s more like the rest of his providence – he certainly can intervene, but may not necessarily always. That’s what I’ve come to understand on providence anyway. I will think on it.
I like the idea of rejecting the compartmentalized institutionalizaiton of the church, family, and government. Sometimes I think we look back at the way someone presented the truth and start taking hold of the outline they used as a filter for our understanding (the 5 acts of worship and the 5/6 steps to salvation are other examples). The Bible never uses these lists, nor does it compartmentalize these concepts as such. While it may be a good way to organize some of this material for presentation, we need to focus on the message itself, not the organization of that message. And we need to be careful not to begin viewing such an organization as God-breathed. I think there are some significant negative implications in treating these as such, but I won’t go into all that now…
I studied Romans 13 in conjunction with 1 Peter 2 recently. This analysis may have something to contribute to the conversation.
Thank you for your comments.
As to whether God “selects” leaders today, I’m not sure to what extent, and it depends on what we mean by “select”. Daniel 4:32 is relating to a king that has trampled on Israel. We are looking at the old covenant, and we are looking at a nation that deals with Israel, a nation-state. I think that’s important to keep in mind when we look at any Old Testament passage. God may still visit curses upon leaders based on their decisions, but I have yet to see anyone in these times who can correctly prophecy on such things.
I would certainly say God can pick leaders through providence. He picked Saul and then later picked David and Solomon. I don’t believe we have verses saying that He picked all later kings that would come. My other question on that though is, to what extent does God pick leaders if He does do that? Does he pick VP? Secretary of State? All members of Congress? All those who sit on the Supreme Court? All Governors? All state congresses? All mayors? I mean, the ranks go on and on, and to what extent do we say God does or does not providentially pick every leader? I would certainly think that it seems more likely and Biblical that God allows people to pick their own leaders, though sometimes, for His own purpose, He can and does place leaders and can arrange or ordain them to fulfill that goal, or move toward it.
Let’s just say though that God hand picked Obama. This is just me thinking out loud, so feel free to call out any illogical points. If God hand picked Obama, then why do so many people who proclaim Christ seem to almost, if not, hate him? Why do they want him out and state that he should have never been president in the first place? If God picks every leader, wouldn’t such thoughts and statements be arguing against God’s plan? We don’t have to accept his policies as moral because a lot of them aren’t, but if he was hand picked by God, to what extent do we have, or not have, the right to criticize him?
Okay, God can play a providential hand in anything he wants to. Like Mordecai did with Esther and Paul with Onesimus, we should approach this with uncertainty – “who knows” and “perhaps”. I used to think that the ruler of a nation worked differently (for reasons I won’t go into now including Daniel 4:32). I don’t think this makes sense (great points on the potential irrationality of this, Carl), nor upon reconsideration of what the passages related to this actually say do I think the Bible teaches that this always happens necessarily.
But regarding a fervent opposition to Obama if he was, in fact, hand-picked by God…
With our form of government (a form of democracy), the people have (corruption and cheating not considering) a responsibility as a function of the government to understand God’s intention for government (as far as it is presented) and to act in accordance with that understanding. Whether or not God may or may not have selected a man to hold a position does not have much implication as to whether or not we support that man or speak out against him. Consider Pharaoh. Evil is evil even if God uses it to accomplish good, and we are called to stand in opposition to evil (not men themselves – so it’s not okay to “hate” Obama – but the dark forces that drive them or are promoted by them). It is our duty as citizens in a system driven at least partially by democracy to seek to work as agents of influence for good within the government – and influencing good not as we see it, but in accordance with the purpose for government as far as God has given us insight.
Thanks for the response, and I think that’s a great way to look at it. I also think the second paragraph is wise. It was a thought of mine that I was exploring, but you pointed out some illogical parts of it, and I appreciate that.
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