If you were to ask me what passage of scripture I’ve heard quoted more than any other since the presidential inauguration, my answer would be easy: Romans 13:1-4. It reads:
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgement on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason.”
In other words, “Be quiet. Submit. Stop protesting. Stop resisting. This is what God wants. So just sit back, relax and accept the next four years as “part of the plan”.”
But is this really what God wants? Did God specifically choose the next leader of the free world and/or control the election? If someone peacefully protests and resists any political leader, are they rebelling against God? Is this what the Bible is saying?
I don’t believe it is. Here’s why:
First, wouldn’t it be rather ironic and hypocritical for the Apostle Paul (the writer of Romans) to tell his readers to subject to Roman authorities when he himself was later beheaded by Roman authorities due to his own rebellion against the emperor? And he wasn’t the only one: Jude and James (son of Zebedee) were also beheaded, Thomas and Matthew were martyred and Peter, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Simon, James (son of Alphaeus) and Jesus himself were all crucified by the Roman authorities.
Second, things get really interesting when we take a closer look at one of the words used twice in this passage. The Greek word for rulers here is archōn, which is used to describe Jewish rulers in the New Testament (see Luke 8:41, Luke 18:18, Luke 23:13, Luke 23:35, Acts 7:27, Acts 7:35, Acts 14:5). This gives us reason to believe that Paul was referring to the religious Jewish rulers rather than the governmental Roman rulers. This makes sense when we look back to Romans 9-11 where Paul urges Gentile humility toward non-believing Jews. It also makes sense when we look ahead to Romans 14 where Paul lays out instructions on Gentile eating habits in regards to Jews with different convictions and his plea for submission.
Third, and most importantly, Jesus. In the first century, the titles Lord, Messiah, Savior and Son of God were reserved for Caesar and Caesar alone. So, to refer to anyone else as Lord, for example, would be to imply that Caesar is not. This was treason.
Check out this excerpt from the Priene Calendar Inscription (9 BC) that celebrates the birth of Caesar Augustus:
“Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him which Asia resolved in Smyrna.”
So, Augustus was a god and a savior sent by Providence to bring good tidings (i.e. good news, gospel) that would benefit all humanity by ending war and arranging all things.
Check out the first two chapters of Luke, which hardly seems original after reading the Priene Calendar Inscription. Maybe the very birth of Jesus is told in this way to signal that the gospel blatantly clashes with the Roman Empire and that Jesus is the real Lord and Caesar isn’t. Luke is telling a counter narrative.
Then check out Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7), which was one massive slam against Roman oppression. His entire life message was that the kingdom of heaven is here and now in our midst. It’s not to be aligned with any political entity.
Today, in a democracy, the government works for us – not the other way around. Yes, we should pay our taxes and obey the law, but as Christians, we are dual citizens. First and foremost we are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:30), so when the government oversteps its bounds, we have an obligation to act against abuses of power – especially on behalf of the oppressed.
Bible scholar and theologian Peter Enns says, “God did not put Trump in the White House anymore than God put Obama, the Bushes, Clinton, or Reagan in the White House. We did. And Christians have had the obligation to hold to account all of them, those we voted for and those we didn’t. Remember that the first Christians had all sorts of opportunities to align their movement with political power, but they rejected that option each and every time.”
For too long, I believe, we Christians have used Romans 13 to squeeze God into our own political parties or as an excuse to do nothing at all because, let’s be honest; kingdom work isn’t always easy.
It’s not always easy for me to love my neighbor.
It’s not always easy for me to turn the other cheek.
It’s not always easy for me to pray for my enemies.
It’s not always easy for me to forgive.
It’s not always easy for me to show mercy.
It’s not always easy for me to be a peacemaker.
“Make America Great Again” doesn’t really fit into any of that. But the gospel does. And when we live like this, we are bringing the Lord’s Prayer to life when it says, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
So protest, but do so peacefully.
Resist, but not out of blind rebellion.
March, but let love be your motive.
Give your time and money, but do it humbly.
Let’s partner with the Divine in bringing heaven to earth, right here and right now. Let’s remember that we are, first and foremost, citizens of heaven. Sometimes that may clash with the country listed on our passports.