I’ve been involved in my fair share of public demonstrations. I’ve protested against my government’s decisions on a number of issues. I’ve marched against war and in favor of Aboriginal reconciliation, climate change policy and nuclear disarmament. I’ve been arrested for refusing to vacate the Prime Minister’s office while praying for asylum seekers.
I’m a citizen of a modern liberal democracy and I have no compunction about expressing my resistance to my elected government’s policies.
And yet, at various points, I’ve had well-meaning Christian friends quote Romans 13 to me and tell me I should be acquiescent to those God puts in authority over me. You can read the whole chapter here, but this is how it begins,
“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.” (Rom 13:1)
Paul, the writer of Romans, then goes on to commend the church not to stir up trouble against their rulers. In fact, he’s quite adamant about it, compelling them, “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.” (Rom 13:3)
In other words, live a quiet, non-rebellious life and things will go well with you. Pay your taxes (v7), obey the law (v8), and behave decently (v13).
Okay, fair enough. Paul is pretty clear about what he wants from the church in Rome.
And I repeat, the church in Rome.
Remember, Paul wrote his letter to the Roman church during the early years of the reign of Emperor Nero, who had succeeded his great-uncle Claudius to the throne in AD54.
Nero was compulsive and corrupt, and his rule was characterized by tyranny and extravagance. He had his own mother executed and probably his stepbrother as well.
This is the guy who was said to have had Christians dipped in oil and set on fire to light his garden at night.
You’ve heard stories about him playing his fiddle while Rome burned. Well, that was much later in his reign. But even in his early days, people knew he was an impulsive despot.
It makes perfect sense that Paul would commend the fledgling church to keep its head down, to avoid rocking the boat, to submit quietly to the prevailing political winds. They had no choice. They lived under the authority of a dictator.
But we don’t.
We elect our leaders from among the citizenry.
Our presidents and prime ministers are accountable to us, the voters.
Does the advice Paul offers the Romans in the 13th chapter of his letter have anything much to say to us today? A few things, in fact.
Firstly, don’t use Romans 13 to silence dissent.
For the reasons I mention above, I don’t think we can use Romans 13 to shame those Christians who choose to protest against an elected government. When Paul says, “…for there is no authority except that which God has established,” (v1) he is stating the fact that they, the First-Century Christians, have no say in who rules them. Only God does.
But today we do have such a say. We elect people from among us to do the job of administering government for the good of all. The president isn’t an emperor. The prime minister isn’t a king. She or he is answerable to us. For that reason alone, we have every right – indeed, I would say, obligation – to hold them accountable to the task to which we elected them.
Secondly, that doesn’t mean we don’t trust in the providence of God.
We have to agree with Paul that God is sovereign and that all political power is subject to God’s ultimate purposes. This doesn’t mean God endorses all elected governments and everything they do. Hitler was duly elected. As was Mugabe and apartheid era South African presidents. But we can breathe a sigh of relief with Paul that God’s plans are not finally thwarted by earthly powers.
Thirdly, if we protest, let it be that we also do good.
The primary gist of Romans 13 isn’t to quell political dissent, but to promote godly living. Here’s how Paul says you should respond to the oppression of a cruel and vindictive regime that’s persecuting you:
Love your neighbors (vs9-10); Live as light-bearers (v12); Avoid carousing and drunkenness (v13); Avoid sexual immorality and debauchery (v13); Avoid dissension and jealousy (v13).
In other words, live exactly unlike the way everyone else in Rome lives.
If we protest against our elected government it should not be in some childish, passive way, demanding our government merely do our bidding.
Instead, we should be resolved to enflesh the values of God’s kingdom, to out-love our society, to serve the least, to love the lost, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. We must embody the very values we demand our government should embrace.
As Stanley Hauerwas writes, “To be a Christian does not mean that we are to change the world, but rather that we must live as witnesses to the world that God has changed. We should not be surprised, therefore, if the way we live makes the change visible.”