Pet Bible-Thumping Peeves: Obey Authorities

We like an orderly world with easy answers. We like to leave darker issues for others to deal with and carry on with our comfortable living or at least seeking after our personal comfort. Along that theme, many have found security in reading a verse from Romans 13, where Paul instructs believers to “Be subject to the governing authorities.” Let's put a little bit of context to those words.
Certainly, Paul had lived up to his own command here, as he was writing this letter to Rome most likely from prison, expecting to have an audience before Caesar. He was not in prison for having broken laws, but he had been taken into protective custody and then appealed to Caesar when he was about to be released and got wind that there was a plot to kill him. He had been imprisoned before on various occasions, but never for having disobeyed the law or the local authorities.
So far, so good. Then, however, we have to look at a few other passages like Acts 4, where Peter and John were arrested and imprisoned for preaching about Jesus. They had healed a lame man and were busily telling people that it was due to Jesus they were able to heal him. The authorities commanded them to remain silent and no longer speak about Jesus. They responded, “Whether it is right in God's sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
Peter and John were in a different situation, but found a disconnect between the orders of the authorities and being true to God. They made the determination that obedience to God had to trump any obedience to the authorities. They continued speaking of Jesus, despite what the authorities ordered them to do. While some have claimed that these were simply Jewish authorities, not Roman, it was under these same authorities that Paul had begun persecuting believers, throwing them in jail, and killing them.
To further muddy the water, we turn to Revelation, where John assumes that the rulers of the world are anti-christ. The kings of the earth suffer God's wrath along with the rich and otherwise powerful. Babylon is cast as the ultimate enemy of God, and while it exerts authority over the earth, it also finds itself under God's condemnation for not following God's decrees. It has authority, but it does not use it in concert with God's will.
This is a very similar picture to what we find throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as we look at the prophets and the roles they held in the ancient world. They critiqued the kings of Israel, Judah, and the surrounding nations on the basis of what Yahweh wanted of them. They called these kings to account for their injustices and proclaimed God's judgment upon them for their actions. Often as not, these prophets did not so much submit to the kings they confronted, but evaded capture or continued to call them to account from prison. It is this role that John the Baptist played and landed him in prison to eventually be decapitated.
It is in Jesus, though that we have what is perhaps the clearest picture of how God desires that we respond to rulers and authorities. It is a more complicated picture than what we find in Romans 13, to be sure. On the whole, we find that Jesus submits to the authorities, but this is not always the case.
There were many times in Jesus' life when Jewish authorities attempted to entrap him. They were opposed to his teaching and he knew that. He persisted, anyway in proclaiming an understanding of God's reign they could not accept. He did not lie down before them because they wanted to kill him. He made them work for it, all the while continuing to teach openly and lead the crowds in ways the authorities over them did not accept.
When we find Jesus in the outer courts of the Temple, the marketplace, turning over the tables of money changers and driving off animals being sold for sacrifice, he is definitely not acting in subjection to the authorities. The authorities would never have condoned that kind of activity, not then, not now.
When we find Jesus before Pilate, his submission to Pilate's authority is still irksome. Pilate asks him a question and he responds that those who had brought him before Pilate had performed the greater sin. He was calling Pilate guilty, even while remaining in subjection to Pilate's authority. At the same time, he referred indirectly to his own authority as greater than that of Pilate.
As Jesus, John the Baptist, and the Hebrew prophets, we are called to be more than simply submissive to authorities. We are also called to confront, challenge, and stand up to them on behalf of those who have no voice or suffer injustice. We are called to be more than doormats for authorities in public life. We are not necessarily called to challenge authorities through violence, but through our words and actions as we place God's values and priorities ahead of legal ordinances, regulations, and laws.
In the modern world, believers often have many options that were not available to people like Paul. We have a political voice we are allowed to use. Following after Jesus' example, that voice is to be used in challenging authorities who act in and encourage injustice.

So, sure, submit to the authorities, but do not be silent. Even Paul challenged the kings and others before whom he had audiences to review their lives and make changes. Submission does not mean the quiet acceptance of the status quo or passivity in the face of oppression and injustice. The submission we are called to includes the responsibilities of action to right the wrongs around us.

©Copyright 2017, Christopher B. Harbin 


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