Does Paul say that we need to obey all authorities, or only “duly constituted” ones?

Q. In my daily devotional time, I’m reading Romans. I read each chapter twice, once with the New International Version (NIV) and once with The Message. It seems to help my understanding. Today I read chapter 13. It didn’t help. It confused me. Verses 1-7 in the NIV don’t seem to jibe with the same verses in The Message. If I am to believe the NIV, it would seem that Martin Luther King, Jr. (to name just one) would have been violating Paul’s teaching here. But if one believes The Message, he would not have been, since this version includes qualifiers (“insofar as there is peace and order,” “duly constituted authorities”). Help.

Are leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela examples for us to follow of using civil disobedience to oppose injustice? Or were they violating Scriptural teachings?

First, let me commend you for reading the Bible daily, and for comparing two different versions as you do. This usually helps a great deal in understanding the Bible, as you’ve found. One version will say things in such a way as to bring out certain emphases, and the way another version puts them will help fill out the complete picture.

But I can see why you would have been confused in this particular instance. The NIV and The Message seem not to be saying the same thing in different ways, but actually to be saying different things. Here are some examples, with the NIV in purple and The Message in blue:

There is no authority except that which God has established.
Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order.

Whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.
Live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God.

Rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.
Duly constituted authorities are only a threat if you’re trying to get by with something.

If you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
If you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it.

So what is Paul saying here: that God uses the police to keep order, or that rulers are God’s agents of wrath to bring punishment? That we must live responsibly as citizens, or that we must not rebel against authority? That God has established duly constituted, peaceful, orderly authorities, or that God has put all rulers in place?

Here we see clearly the difference between the methods behind the NIV and Message versions (although I think there’s something further going on, as I’ll discuss shortly). Every translation of the Bible requires a trade-off of some degree between reproducing the words of the original Greek or Hebrew and capturing the meaning of those original words in fluent, current English (or whatever the target language may be).

Versions such as the New American Standard Bible (NASB) strive intentionally to represent the original words. The NIV is generally considered to occupy something of a middle ground between reproducing the original words and expressing their meaning in equivalent words. The Message is so far over on the “meaning” side that it’s technically a paraphrase rather than a translation: It seeks to speak in a very contemporary idiom (“the police,” for example) at the necessary cost of choosing one possible meaning of the words and losing other possibilities.

So that’s one explanation for what’s happening here. But I think there’s an additional one.

This passage in Romans provides an excellent example of why we need to “compare Scripture with Scripture” in order to arrive at the “full counsel of God.” It’s true in general that followers of Jesus can obey governing authorities and not worry about suffering at their hands so long as they don’t do wrong. (Paul probably needed to reassure the Romans of this because they lived so close to the center of power in their world, and their rulers did not acknowledge the true God; instead, they often wanted to be treated as gods themselves!)

However, in specific situations, sometimes followers of Jesus are persecuted by the government specifically because they are followers of Jesus; in other situations, they need to challenge unjust practices and laws by breaking them (as in the cases of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and others who resisted racial segregation).

We see examples of disobedience to authority at other places in the Bible. For example, when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem forbid Peter and John to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus, they reply, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” And in the book of Revelation, believers are warned that they must resist the spreading cult of emperor worship even at the price of their own lives if they want to be faithful to Jesus.

What I think is happening here in Romans is that The Message is drawing the “whole counsel of God” from throughout the Bible into the passage, as if Paul were saying all of it: “In general, this, but in particular cases, there are exceptions.” I believe that instead Paul was simply saying, “For where you are in place and time right now, this is how you need to live.” The vast majority of the Bible is written from that standpoint, and I think we do well in our versions of the Bible to capture, as best we can, what was said to particular people in particular times, and then encourage readers to “compare Scripture with Scripture” to arrive at more general, nuanced, and comprehensive understandings.

In other words, while it’s very helpful to compare different versions of the Bible to get the fuller meaning of a given passage, it’s also helpful and necessary to compare different passages on the same subject to get the Bible’s full counsel about it.

If the U.S. government creates policy based on biblical principles, aren’t we then a theocracy?

Q. I appreciated your response to the question, “Is Pope Francis right that Christians who chase away refugees are hypocrites?” It makes a lot of sense to me. But I have a followup question. Is Jesus—and more broadly the Bible—talking only to individuals about how they should act, or also to entities, such as government? If the U.S. government creates policy based on biblical principles, aren’t we then a theocracy? I believe that our country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles but I also believe in church-state separation. If I think our government’s policy on refugees—or anything else—should be different based upon my Christian beliefs, aren’t I a hypocrite?

I think I’ve addressed many of the concerns you express in another post entitled, “Should Christians try to impose a moral code legally on people who don’t believe?” I invite you to read that post, as I think it will answer many of your questions. In it I basically argue against theocracy, but then note that as a Christian, “If you are a citizen of a democracy, you have an obligation to support and work for legislation, and promote social measures, that will encourage people to live by the most transferable values of the kingdom of God.”

The United States is not governed by explicitly biblical principles. But that doesn’t mean it has been established on no principles. It embodies the ideals of liberty and citizen participation. As Lincoln said, it’s supposed to be “of the people, by the people, for the people.” You are one of those “people.” And so you have a responsibility to make your voice heard and  contribute to the shaping of our nation’s policies and programs, according to your informed conscience and Christian convictions.

Everybody else is supposed to be doing this, and they have a right to be disappointed if you’re not, even if they disagree with you! So get into the mix and don’t worry about theocracy or hypocrisy. We need concerned, compassionate voices like yours now more than ever.

Is Pope Francis right that Christians who chase away refugees are hypocrites?

Q. What is your opinion on the following quote by Pope Francis?

“It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help. If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.”

(According to the Catholic News Service, Pope Francis made these remarks on Oct. 13, 2016, while answering questions during an audience with Catholic and Lutheran young adults visiting from Germany.)

Let me say first that I admire Pope Francis tremendously. Even though I am a Protestant, I have been experiencing the same “Francis effect” that many Catholics have been reporting. My faith has been strengthened and energized by his leadership and example.

As for the quotation itself, as a biblical scholar and former pastor, I am entirely in agreement with the spirit of it. I believe it expresses the essence of Jesus’ teaching that “as you have done so for the least of these, you have done so for me”:

I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

The only word in the statement I have a slight issue with is “hypocrite,” though this may be due to my Protestant perspective. In his capacity, Pope Francis likely has every right to use it.

Hypocrites are people whose inward attitudes, priorities, and commitments do not match their outward statements and claims. Put simply, a hypocrite is someone who’s pretending to be a Christian, but really isn’t. The Protestant tradition emphasizes how no one but God really knows another person’s heart, so I don’t feel I’m able to say definitively that a particular person who claims to be a Christian is only pretending to be one. I can say, however, in full agreement with Pope Francis, that if we truly want to follow Jesus, we should put his teaching and example into practice and care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger (foreigner), the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned. Anyone who is actively opposing such ministry, or who is indifferent to it, can indeed be asked to “show cause” why they should still be considered a Christian.

I think Pope Francis is within his powers when he applies the word “hypocrite” even more strongly. As the spiritual head of the Catholic Church, he is responsible to define what Christian belief and behavior mean for the members of that communion. And so it’s valid for him to say, “If you chase away refugees, you’re not doing what we’re doing, so though you might still claim to be one of us, you’re really not.”

I recognize that the world’s refugee crisis is a complex problem and that people of good will can believe that differing approaches are called for to address it. I respect that. But whatever approach we take should be characterized by a compassionate desire to welcome and help people who have had to flee from their homes because of war, persecution, natural disaster, or other dangers.

Even measures that are taken, by their own description, to try to get a handle on the refugee crisis so that it can be addressed more effectively need to express compassion and consideration. I don’t believe I’m being inappropriately political on a blog devoted to non-partisan answers to questions about the Bible when I say that President Trump’s recent executive order suspending refugee admissions to the United States for 120 days (1) should never have been issued, but (2) if it were going to be issued, this could have been done with a far more charitable spirit. To give just one small example, people already cleared for entry who were on flights to the U.S. when the order took effect should certainly have been admitted. There was no reason to create such anguish for them and their families. The executive order could simply have applied to future processing, and let cases already approved go forward. I trust that in the days ahead, through the advocacy of concerned Christians and all people of good will, the unfortunate situation created by this executive order will be resolved in a compassionate, humanitarian way.

Thank you very much for your question and the concern behind it.

Detail of a stained glass window depicting the parable of the sheep and goats, Church of St Mary the Virgin, Gunthorpe, Norfolk
Detail of a stained glass window depicting the parable of the sheep and goats, Church of St Mary the Virgin, Gunthorpe, Norfolk



Does the principle of healing the “land” in 2 Chronicles now apply to our sphere of influence?

Q. Does the principle of “healing their land” in 2 Chronicles now apply to our sphere of influence rather than to a plot of ground? Since Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, can we still say it applies to all Christians who humble themselves, pray, seek Him, and turn from their wicked ways?

Sometimes when that passage in 2 Chronicles is quoted these days, “my people, who are called by my name” are equated with contemporary Christians, and “their land” is equated with the nation-state that a particular group of Christians is living in at a given time. I think we need to be careful about that. The passage actually expresses God’s reply to Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple about something very specific.

Solomon prayed: “When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain because your people have sinned against you, and when they pray toward this place and give praise to your name and turn from their sin because you have afflicted them, then hear from heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel. Teach them the right way to live, and send rain on the land you gave your people for an inheritance.” Solomon then prayed the same thing about “famine or plague, blight or mildew, locusts or grasshoppers.”

God appeared to him after the temple dedication ceremonies and promised in reply: “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

So this promise has to do with giving the land, the literal “plot of ground” on which the people of ancient Israel were living, relief from what we today would consider “natural disasters.” In the theocracy period, these were to be taken as prompts for the Israelites to examine themselves for any disloyalty or disobedience to their covenant God.

So I don’t think we can make a direct application of the promise to ourselves today. However, I think there is an important indirect application, along the lines you suggest. I think there are many indications in the Bible that the people of God, even in the current phase of redemptive history when they are the multinational community of believers in Jesus, can and should have a positive and preserving influence on the society around them.

We see this, for example, in Jesus’ parables about the mustard seed and leaven. While I think these have a legitimate application to the work of God within an individual’s heart and life, I believe they also describe the effects of the presence of the “kingdom of God” on its surroundings. (I understand the kingdom of God to be that community of people within which God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, that is, without resistance.) I think these effects actually extend to the physical environment, but that is not the only or even the primary place where they are felt. Primarily, the presence of the kingdom of God influences human relationships, making them more wholesome, healthy, and harmonious.

I think other Scriptures point to this same thing. For example, there’s a statement in Psalm 84 that those “in whose heart are the highways to Zion” pass through the dry valley and turn it into a place of springs. (I’m interpreting this symbolically, but I don’t think the psalm itself is making a literal statement in any event.)

I would include the passage in 2 Chronicles together with these others and conclude that there is an indirect promise in the Bible that repentant, obedient believers will have a positive impact, individually and especially corporately, on their “sphere of influence.” (To use your well-chosen phrase—I think that’s the right thing to envision.)

Something to which we can all aspire in this new year!

"When those in whose hearts are the highway to Zion pass through the desert, they turn it into a place of springs." (Photo credit: Digital Aesthetica, Flikr_0413)
“When those in whose hearts are the highway to Zion pass through the desert, they turn it into a place of springs.” (Photo credit: Digital Aesthetica, Flikr_0413)

Should Christians try to impose a moral code legally on people who don’t believe?

Q. This is a sort of church and state question that is more theoretical than anything. What I’m wondering is if Christianity is true, and God made the universe according to his nature such that there are objective moral absolutes and so on, should Christians try in any way to impose a Christian moral code on people who don’t believe? In other words, if the best thing for human flourishing is to live in alignment with our God-ordained natures, to what degree should Christians try to make laws that outwardly compel people to live according to more or less Christian values (for their own good)?

For starters, let me say that I believe there’s a practical problem with the  approach you’re asking about. Passing a law forbidding something doesn’t effectively prevent it, and passing a law requiring something doesn’t effectively make it happen. That’s because people typically don’t obey a law if they really don’t want to do what it says, or if they want to do what it says not to do. Fear of punishment is only a partial deterrent.

The classic example of this in the American experience is Prohibition. It did not compel Americans to become teetotalers. No one knows the actual effect it had on alcohol production and consumption, because it made those things very difficult to measure. But the general understanding is that consumption went down at first because supplies were limited, but as soon as illegal supplies came on line, consumption increased steadily. On the other hand, there was a significant and measurable decrease in alcohol consumption in the years before Prohibition, through social influences rather than legal force. I think that’s instructive. The most effective measures were persuasive, not compulsory. In our own day, organizations such as M.A.D.D. are having a renewed effectiveness through such persuasion. So this is something of a parable that Christians everywhere, and particularly in America, should bear in mind, as a reminder of the limits of legal force and the power of social forces.

In fact, I think your question leads directly to another one: For any given behavior we want to discourage, are we really better off passing a law against it? Or are we risking driving people who want to continue that behavior into the hands of criminals, strengthening their enterprises? Some things we simply must forbid, and enforce those sanctions as fully as possible, for the sake of social order and the protection of life and safety. I’m not advocating anarchy here. But we do have to consider that it may be better to allow certain things to remain legal and work to address their causes, rather than try to pass laws against them. In fact, even for things that unquestionably should be illegal, the laws against them are only a preliminary step. Those activities won’t go away, either, until their causes are addressed.

The Bible itself teaches us the capabilities and limits of the law. In arguing that Gentiles shouldn’t be expected to follow the Law of Moses, Paul writes in his letters that it did serve the functions of teaching and restraint. It illustrated for people how they should live, and it restrained, with strict penalties, the worst cases of personal injury and social disorder. But Paul also says pointedly that the Law was not capable of giving people the ability or desire to live in the way it specified. That depended instead on the transforming effects of life in a community that was living in covenant relationship with God, and ultimately on the gift of the Holy Spirit to that community and its members.

In our own day, societies can use all aspects of their “law,” from criminal penalties to features of their tax codes, to discourage some behaviors and incentivize others. In the process, they will teach, because this provides a picture of how they believe people should live. Allowing a tax deduction for charitable donations shows that the society encourages generosity to those in need. Creating and enforcing speed limits and other traffic regulations shows that the society does not want its members to endanger themselves or others by driving heedlessly. Societies also use laws to restrain. Having much more serious penalties for things like murder and robbery shows that such activities are dangerous and antisocial above all.

But this isn’t actually compelling people to live in a certain way. People will continue to do whatever they believe they can get away with until the causes of behavior are addressed, and that takes a lot more than passing a law. So the bottom line is that I don’t think we can “outwardly compel” people to live in a certain way through laws, though they can be an important first step.

But here’s the other side of the coin. In a democracy, people get the laws they work for. Otherwise, they get laws they haven’t worked for. So if Christians really do believe that, by God’s very design, certain activities are harmful and destructive, while others are beneficial and life-giving, then they need to be out there in the public-policy mix, at the very least trying to get positive things incentivized and negative things discouraged.

But I need to state some further qualifiers:

• I’m not talking about creating a theocracy, in which Christians take power and enforce the law of God (as they understand it) as the law of the land. For one thing, every time this has been attempted in church history, it has been a disaster. But in more theological terms, I believe that as redemptive history unfolded, the days of theocracy ended when Jesus introduced the new covenant and the people of God became a multinational community. Followers of Jesus now have a primary loyalty to the kingdom of God that is breaking into our world, but an important and continuing secondary loyalty to their own nations, to help them live up to their own highest ideals, consistently with the values of the kingdom of God. As an American, for example, I believe that I should support the ideals of democracy and civil liberties, while at the same time critiquing American culture’s extreme individualism, which (as social observers have been documenting) has caused narcissism to flourish and undermined our social fabric.

• What I am advocating is being in the mix. Pick your battles. Work for what matters most. To reach particular goals, form strategic alliances with people and organizations who might not agree with you about everything. In fact, they might agree with you about only one thing. But if that’s the thing you’re working for, you’ve got the potential to create a limited partnership with them.

• If what you’re really after is what you believe is best for people—human flourishing—then take care that your campaign, through its tone and tactics, doesn’t have destructive side effects. That would be tragically counterproductive.

I don’t believe it’s realistic to expect to be able to pass a comprehensive set of laws that will compel everyone, at least outwardly, to live as Christians believe people should. But if you are a citizen of a democracy, you have an obligation to support and work for legislation, and promote social measures, that will encourage people to live by the most transferable values of the kingdom of God. Probably the best place to start is with practical contemporary expressions of, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Plenty to work for there.

Thanks for your thoughtful question! I hope these reflections give you further food for thought.

This poster from the 1920s illustrates the dilemma of Prohibition: once the law was passed, campaigns needed to continue for its enforcement, because people were simply disobeying it.
This poster from the 1920s illustrates the dilemma of Prohibition: once the law was passed, campaigns needed to continue for its enforcement, because people were simply disobeying it.

Does the Bible support the Christian Right?

Q. It troubles me a great deal that in American culture some Christians have labeled themselves as the “Christian Right” and aligned themselves with certain political groups. We all know now why Christ was crucified, but at the time he was persecuted because he didn’t overturn the government as the populace expected him too. I am not trying to be judgmental about these groups, but doesn’t their well publicized agenda turn non-Christians off about being open to becoming followers of Jesus if they don’t agree with their politics? I don’t see the Bible supporting one political opinion over another. Our job seems to be clear: to love our Lord our God with all of our being and love our neighbor as ourself.  Am I missing something?

This question gets into a vast subject that has complex and interrelated political, sociological, historical, and theological dimensions, which I can’t even begin to address here.  For the purposes of this blog, however, let me share a few reflections on what I think are the biblical dimensions of this question.

One thing we discover in the Bible is that government and politics are included in the comprehensive range of cultural endeavors that God wants faithful people to become involved in.  Biblical figures such as Joseph, Daniel, Esther, and Nehemiah provide models for us by the way they exerted a godly influence from the important government positions they held.  Paul writes in Romans that the governing authorities have been “established by God” and that rulers are “God’s servants.”  So the Bible does not support the view that followers of Jesus should stay away from government and politics as if these things were inherently worldly and contaminating–although those who do participate must always be careful to maintain complete honesty and integrity.

On the other hand, we also discover from the Bible that no one political position or agenda fully expresses God’s wishes for a given culture.  One of the best illustrations of this is the way Jesus chose his twelve disciples from across the full political spectrum of his day.  Matthew was a tax collector who had collaborated with the Romans occupation of Judea; Simon the Zealot belong to a party that advocated violent resistance to Rome.  Jesus called both of them, and everyone in between, to join him in a kingdom that was “not of this world,” but which was nevertheless destined to transform the world so that it would once again conform to God’s original intentions in creation.

The outworking of the kingdom of God in a specific culture can take place along many different paths. The Bible itself illustrates how various answers can legitimately be given, in keeping with godly principles, to cultural questions.  Could Jews intermarry with non-Jews?  Some biblical books say definitely not, others suggest that in certain cases the answer might be yes.  Could Jewish followers of Jesus eat with Gentile followers?  The New Testament records that some early church leaders sincerely felt they shouldn’t, while others felt they could.  How should Jesus’ followers relate to Rome?  As noted above, Paul explained that the Roman authorities were “God’s servants.”  But at other cultural moments captured in the New Testament, Rome was an enemy to all believers, portrayed as riding on the beast from the Abyss and “drunk with the blood of God’s holy people.”

So in our own day, we should be careful not to identify a single political movement or agenda with God’s purposes for our nation.  There are at least some things in every party or movement’s agenda that do reflect the ideals of the kingdom of God, and other things that don’t.  All followers of Jesus should be “fully convinced in their own minds” about what political principles to endorse and support, but at the same time they should be gracious and generous towards other followers of Jesus who are involved in politics but who are coming from a different perspective. Each should give the other credit for having good motives and for having thought through the biblical basis of their beliefs.  Ideally Jesus’ followers should be able to model how to work together for the common good across ideological differences–something that is badly needed in our society today!

I believe it is true that the media publicity afforded to some figures on the “Christian Right” has created the impression in some minds that to be a follower of Jesus (or at least to be accepted as one), a person must hold certain political views.  I hope all believers will make every effort to correct this false impression. (This can probably be done most effectively by those who agree politically with the Christian Right.  Blow the minds of your Christian friends who are political liberals by affirming their genuine faith and thanking them for their sincere desire to make a difference in our world according to their understanding of the implications of biblical principles!)

To conclude, I agree that our mandate from Jesus is to love the Lord our God with all of our being and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  How that works out politically will be complicated and it will require lots of good will and cooperation among followers of Jesus who see things differently, but who are all equally sincere and equally committed to the coming of the kingdom of God.