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(The following is an opinion piece written by, Dr. Curtis W. Freeman, Commentary, Times Union, June 21, 2018)
“The Bible verse “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1) has joined “Let your women keep silence in the churches” (1 Corinthians 14:34) and “Slaves obey your earthly masters” (Ephesians 6:5) as one of the most abused passages of scripture in history. There is a long history of misusing this text to argue that Christians are always duty-bound to obey the civil authorities. This past week U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions added his name to that history.
“According to this absolutist view, to resist the civil authorities is to oppose God. God, it is argued, appointed government both to punish wrongdoers and promote good. Civil and religious leaders across the political and ecclesial spectrum have widely invoked this interpretation as a theological weapon, ascribing punishment and damnation to dissenters.
“Based on this reading of Romans 13, evangelical Christians in Germany during the Third Reich believed they could question political authorities only if they were forbidden from preaching and practicing their faith. So they said nothing. As the regime’s evils mounted, these people of faith remained silent and deaf to the cries of the oppressed. That history is grounds for suspicion that absolute obedience to civil government is neither wise nor warranted.
“Paul himself did not obey civil authority. Nor did he suggest that the state and its officials must always and absolutely be obeyed. He recognized that the power of law can be used for justice or for injustice and evil. So he urged his readers to be subject insofar as conscience allows (Romans 13:5). Eventually his own conscience got him in conflict with Roman authorities, for which he was imprisoned and finally put to death at their hands.
“When Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested and jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, because he violated laws that were being used to maintain policies of racial discrimination and segregation, he wrote a letter to white ministers explaining his use of nonviolent direct action. He wrote, “One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.'”
“Romans 13 is not a manifesto on the divinely ordained power of the state, and it does not call for absolute obedience to civil authorities. Instead it offers a provisional account of the limits of civil authority for all people of conscience.
“By invoking Romans 13 as calling for absolute obedience to civil magistrates, Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration have embarked on a highly problematic path. They are standing on unstable ground that has been used as a license for tyrants and a justification for abuse. In doing so they invite people of conscience not only to oppose but to disobey unjust laws.
“I urge those who would stop reading Romans 13 at verse one to continue a little further. There they will discover that the true civic duty is not blind obedience to civil authority but love for God and neighbor. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law,” Paul wrote (Romans 13:10). Let’s start with love.”
(Book review and synopsis on “Undomesticated Dissent: Democracy and the Public Virtue of Religious Nonconformity.”)
“Curtis W. Freeman is a research professor of theology and director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke University Divinity School. He is also the author of “Undomesticated Dissent: Democracy and the Public Virtue of Religious Nonconformity.” Undomesticated Dissent provides a sweeping intellectual history of the public virtue of religiously motivated dissent from the seventeenth century to the present, by carefully comparing, contrasting, and then weighing the various types of dissent, evangelical and spiritual dissent (Bunyan), economic and social dissent (Defoe), radical and apocalyptic dissent (Blake).
“Freeman offers dissenting imagination as a generative source for democracy, as well as a force for resistance to the coercive powers of domestication. By placing Bunyan, Defoe, and Blake within an extended argument about the nature and ends of democracy, Undomesticated Dissent reveals how these three men transmitted their democratic ideas across the globe, hidden within the text of their stories.
”Freeman concludes that dissent, so crucial to the establishing of democracy, remains equally essential for its flourishing. Buried deep in their full narrative of religion and resistance, the three monuments at Bunhill together declare that dissent is not disloyalty, and that democracy depends on dissent.”
Although Freeman makes some good points, carefully comparing, contrasting, and then weighing the various types of dissent, evangelical and spiritual dissent, economic and social dissent, radical and apocalyptic dissent, it seems sadly obvious to me that exposes himself as a liberal-leaning research professor of theology, standing in judgement on the Word of God as he crosses too many Biblical and theological lines when he conjoins
Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities”,
1 Corinthians 14:34, “Let your women keep silence in the churches”,
Ephesians 6:5, “Slaves obey your earthly masters” as being “one of the most abused passages of scripture in history”, to argue that there “seems to here is a long history of misusing this text to argue that Christians are always duty-bound to obey the civil authorities”.
It is apparent that he does this in order to make his point that, “There is a long history of misusing this text to argue that Christians are always duty-bound to obey the civil authorities,”, since 1 Corinthians 14:34 and Ephesians 6:5 have nothing to do with the matter of civil authorities. It is the slick literary trick of eisegesis to sublimely give the context of these scriptures into a completely different meaning carrying a liberal ideology. This also brings to question whether Dr. Curtis W. Freeman, a highly respected, capable and qualified professor, is equally unqualified to exegete scriptures.
Scriptures must be read at ‘face value’ and understood in the context in which they were written. Neither the passage of time nor societal or cultural shifts, change the meaning and the truth of God’s Word. Freeman violates all these standards for political expediency and profit.
But, Freeman is right on this one point: dissent is crucial to the establishing and the flourishing of democracy. Religion, resistance and dissent is not disloyalty, and in fact, democracy depends on dissent.
NOW, LET’S THINK, TOGETHER
Here is the Bible text in question:
Romans 13:1-10, “Every person is to be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a servant of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a servant of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Pay to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; respect to whom respect; honor to whom honor.
“Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the Law. For this, “YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, YOU SHALL NOT STEAL, YOU SHALL NOT COVET,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law.”
First, and most importantly, is for the reader to get the context of these verses. Verses 1 through 5 seem to be a manifesto on the divinely ordained power of the state, and seems to call for absolute obedience to civil authorities, and seems to be calling for absolute obedience to civil magistrates at any and all costs.
But, if you will read the preceding chapter, (12), and continue reading in chapter 13, you will find the context is actually about “present(ing) your bodies as a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And not to be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”
This is truly The Great Spiritual Law of Non-Conformity stemming from the fact that we, as Christians, are not “of this world”, we are merely “in this world”. A colloquial way of saying it could be, “you are to slip in among them and don’t create a stir or an unnecessary distraction. When you draw attention to Christ, and that will be enough of a stir of its own”.
Secondly, many times, the construct of government, being established by God, is a reflection of our own selfish disobedience to God and His Word. In other words, the government is largely a reflection of those who voted it into power.
Read Psalm 81:11-12,
“My people did not listen to My voice, And Israel did not obey Me. “So I gave them over to the stubbornness of their heart, To walk by their own plans. “
Also, read Hosea 13: 9-11,
“It is to your own destruction, Israel, that you are against Me, against your help. Where then is your king, that he might save you in all your cities; and your judges, to whom you said, “Give me a king and princes”? I gave you a king in My anger, and took him away in My wrath.”
And, Romans 1:28-32
“And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, so, God gave them up to a depraved mind, to do those things that are not proper, people having been filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, and evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unfeeling, and unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also approve of those who practice them.”
Thirdly, the Apostles had it right when, in Acts 5:29, “Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”
Getting back to the idea that there is a ‘moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws’, there really is no way to compare or contrast a Christian’s obligation to obey man’s laws versus his or her mission on earth as an emissary of God.
2 Corinthians 5:17-21, tells us that, “If anyone is in Christ, this person is a new creation; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their wrongdoings against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.
“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be in in our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
Romans 13 is clear on these three points:
- It is an accurate description of the placement of, the responsibility of and the benefits of civil authority. It also describes the possible consequences of disobeying civil authority.
- It is a warning and a guide for Christians navigating the maze of laws set down by earthly governments, while accomplishing our primary task as ‘pilgrims of the Dispersion’, ambassadors for Christ.
- It is a clear lesson the on counter-cultural and non-conformity nature of The Body of Christ while living, scattered, as aliens, exiles, sojourners and soldiers of God, invading a foreign soil for the purposes of Christ.
In Summary, Christians have a calling and a mission, above all else, to “go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to follow all that Jesus has commanded”.
All the while, as we work to accomplish our mission, we must be careful not to entangle ourselves in the affairs of this world, while and at the same time, obeying God’s laws over man’s laws, when they come into conflict.
This is truly a God-sized task which only God can accomplish – and He has chosen to do so, through the yielded servant of Christ.
Let’s be one and get this done!
Your Brother and Friend,
2 thoughts on “A MORAL RESPONSIBILITY TO DISOBEY UNJUST LAW”
So very well said, Michael. I appreciate your G-dly thoughtfulness and clarity in addressing what should, to the Children of G-d, be straight forward–but isn’t.
L-RD Bless, Keep, Shine upon and through you and yours, granting y’all His Peace. . .
Thanks be to God! And, thank you for the encouragement, Will. You have the gift of encouragement and it works!
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