How can we address the problem of political polarization within the American Christian community?

Q. I have become increasingly upset about the intense polarization of political life in the United States. However, I am even more alarmed that this polarization has become part of Christian life in the United States. I will state up front that I am totally turned off by so-called “Christian nationalism,” by Christian support for Donald Trump, and by the Christian banners/themes on display on January 6 at the Capitol. So that is my bias. My questions are: What do you think happened (or has it always been this way, just not so visible)? And what can we do about it? I’m torn between wanting pastors to address this from the pulpit but, at the same time, not wanting to further inject politics into spiritual life. And do you have any advice for how I can set aside my own political biases and be part of the solution, not part of the problem?

When Jesus sent out the twelve apostles, he told them, “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if a person of peace is there, your peace will rest on that person, but if not, it will return to you.” I think that is what you are looking for in the first instance: “people of peace” within the American Christian community with whom you can begin to share your concerns.

One unfortunate fact of the current political polarization is that Christian people, in some cases, have come to believe, or have been led to believe, that certain political commitments are so important that they must not be challenged but instead be held and defended vigorously. The apostle James wrote, “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere.” This is the kind of godly wisdom and character that we as Christians should cultivate. But unfortunately, as I said, some these days seem to have come to consider certain political commitments to be more important than being impartial and open to reason.

But fortunately, this is not the case for everyone. I think that if you look around carefully, you will find Christians on the side of the political spectrum that you describe who would actually be very open to hearing your concerns and considering them fairly. Those are the people you need to start with. You will probably not be able to speak constructively right now with people who are less open. But the people you are able to speak with now may eventually be able to speak with further people.

Readers of this blog will recognize from other posts that I largely share your concerns. I am recommending to you the approach that I have been following myself. For example, if I address a political issue on social media, I am selective about the people I share my thoughts with. I actually have a pared-down list of contacts that I use for such posts. I don’t want to alienate someone who would not be open right now to hearing what I have to say but who might become a collaborator for peace later on.

About some things we simply must speak up and hope that we are doing so in such a way that our manner will give no offense. If people with different political commitments are offended, let them be offended by the specifics of what we have to say, not by how we say it. And if we get push-back, let us deal with that graciously.

For example, on this blog I recently had occasion to explain that Jesus was indeed a refugee (specifically, an asylum seeker) in response to a claim to the contrary by a high-profile political figure. Such posts sometimes draw comments that suggest all Christians should be on the other side of the issue. But as I explain in my “About” feature, “Comments may be edited for length, tone, and content.” You can do the same thing yourself as you seek to engage others constructively about the concerns you have described. You can edit comments in your own head for length, tone, and content, and decide from there how best to pursue being a “person of peace” with the person making the comment and with others as well.

Can Christians engage in peaceful protest or non-violent civil disobedience?

Q. Today, Election Day, my daily Bible verse from was Romans 13:1, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” I am struggling with how to understand and accept this. Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrong to actively work against the Nazi government? Was Martin Luther King, Jr. wrong to (peacefully) break the law in order to protest racial injustice? Is it wrong for citizens to (peacefully) protest government actions or passively resist going along with such policies?

We get the full counsel of God from the Bible about any given matter not from a single verse, but by putting the various things that the Bible says about it into conversation with one another. While the Bible does say in the book of Romans that believers should be subject to the authorities, it reports in the book of Acts how the apostles refused to obey the orders of their governing officials when they told them not to teach in the name of Jesus. The apostles insisted, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” And the book of Revelation was written to warn Christians living in western Asia Minor under the reign of Domitian that they needed to resist the emerging Roman government policy of emperor worship even at the cost of their lives. There was to be no submitting to the governing authorities on that matter.

So how do we sort this out? I think the context in Romans is quite clear about the basis on which followers of Jesus are being told to obey  government officials there: “They are God’s servants to punish those who do wrong.” So Christians are to support the government and cooperate with it in its role of maintaining the rule of law and punishing wrongdoers (even to the point of willingly paying taxes to support the government, Paul adds).

It is an entirely separate question what Christians should do when the government instead punishes those who do right, for example, those who teach in the name of Jesus, or those who refuse to worship a human being. Other parts of the Bible address that separate question, and the answer seems to be that Christians need to obey God, rather than people, when what people want conflicts with what God wants. Christians even need to be willing to suffer for doing right the kinds of punishments that the government would ordinarily inflict on a wrongdoer.

The examples you have given of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. represent Christian leaders who have followed this course in more recent years. (Regarding Bonhoeffer specifically, you may want to read this post.) And I would say that peaceful protest and non-violent civil disobedience are other examples of measures that Christians can take to help call the government back to doing right and punishing wrong. These are loyal measures, taken in the best interests of the government itself, not acts of defiance against the government.

However, I really should distinguish between peaceful protest and non-violent civil disobedience in one important sense. Peaceful protest is actually something that is encouraged and protected by law in free countries. So it should not be seen in any way as failing to submit to the government. Rather, it is doing exactly what the government says it hopes its citizens will do. Governments of free countries also hope that their citizens will exercise their rights to vote, assemble, and speak out. Christians should be doing all of these things, and none of them represent a failure to submit or obey, even when they represent working within the system to change existing policy.

There may be other circumstances in which Christians will need to obey God by disobeying laws and policies that are contrary to God’s ways. As I said earlier, when they do that, they need to be willing to suffer if necessary, trusting that God will ultimately use their obedience to him to bring about transformation in the society and culture.

I hope these thoughts are helpful. I also hope that you voted today! I did.

Does God bring judgment on a people after a certain point?

Q. Does God wait for a people to surpass a certain point before He  brings judgement on them? Do we have the means to know what that point is? I ask because in Genesis, when Abram falls in a deep trance, God says that the iniquity of the Amorites hasn’t yet reached its full extent. We learn that the Amorites were later destroyed, during Moses’s time. The timeline seems to fall in place with the conversation God had earlier on with Abram. However, Moses says in Deuteronomy that God made Sihon king of the Amorites stubborn and obstinate. Why wasn’t Sihon given more opportunities perhaps to repent, as the arrogant Pharaoh of Egypt was given before God hardened his heart? In light of all this, how do we take part in God’s story though history, and are some people predestined for destruction regardless of how thing turn out?

Let me start with the later part of your question and work my way back to the beginning of it. While Moses does say that God made Sihon’s heart stubborn, I think we actually should see the way that God treated Sihon as  similar to the way that God treated Pharaoh. First each ruler chose to disregard God’s supreme power and authority, despite warnings, and then God confirmed the ruler in that choice.

We learn from other Old Testament narratives that the peoples living in the area where the Israelites ultimately settled were aware of what God had done to free them from slavery in Egypt. Late in the time of the judges, for example (under Samuel, the last judge), the Philistines were fighting against the Israelites and they learned that the ark of the covenant had been brought onto the battle line. They recognized the ark as an embodiment of the presence of God, and they cried out, “Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? They are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues!” The Philistines fought extra hard because of this, and while they won the battle and captured the ark, they were then struck by plagues themselves and had to return the ark in order to be delivered.

Similarly, when Joshua sent spies to explore the land of Canaan, Rahab told them, “All who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan.” So news of God’s earlier victories spread to the surrounding peoples, and this can be considered a warning that they should have heeded. Rahab herself expressed faith in the true God and helped the Israelites, and so she was spared with her family. I think we can conclude that Sihon should have known enough, from what he must have heard about God striking the Egyptians with plagues and drying up the Red Sea so the Israelites could escape Pharaoh’s army, to allow them to pass through his territory, which was their only request. But instead of allowing them to go by peacefully, he attacked them, and in the battle that followed, he and his army were destroyed. We don’t know exactly where his own choices ended and God’s confirmation of those choices began, but in Deuteronomy Moses is describing the latter part of that process.

This may point to at least part of the answer to your original question. If a people and its leaders are no longer considering the warnings that God has given them—particularly, in the case of modern societies, in the biblical record of God’s dealing with humanity in former times—then we should indeed be concerned that they may have passed an ominous point. This is true at least descriptively: If people are no longer heeding God’s warnings, how can they be expected to change course?

But I would hesitate to say this prescriptively, that is, “Once we see a people reach this or that particular stage, we know that they’ve passed the point of no return.” To answer the first part of your question directly, I don’t believe we have the means to know that what point is. So we should always pray and work for God’s standards of justice and compassion to be honored in our societies. Even in a situation where we may think that things have gotten so bad there’s no way we our society can escape divine judgment, we can still respond with repentance, prayer, and advocacy. We can say, as the king of Nineveh did even after Jonah told him that his city was going to be destroyed, “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” In short, I don’t believe that any particular people is predestined for destruction regardless of how thing turn out.

Did the command in Romans to obey the government justify separating families?

Q. Attorney General Jeff Sessions got the whole country discussing the Bible when he quoted from Romans, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established,” to defend the Trump administration’s policy (now discontinued) of separating the children of migrants from their parents. Was that a valid argument?

Attorney General Jeff Sessions addresses law enforcement officers in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on June 14, 2018. (Photo by the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel.)

I’ll address the interpretation of that passage in Romans shortly. But let me make a preliminary observation first.

Sessions quoted the Scripture about obeying government authority not in support of a law, but in support of a punishment. Here’s what he said in his speech on June 14, 2018 to law enforcement officers in Fort Wayne, Indiana (text from the Justice Department website):

“Let me take an aside to discuss concerns raised by our church friends about separating families. Many of the criticisms raised in recent days are not fair or logical and some are contrary to law. First- illegal entry into the United States is a crime—as it should be. Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”

We can see that Sessions was trying to counter criticisms of the government “separating families” on the grounds that by doing this, it was prosecuting those who “violate the law.” As an aside of my own, I would observe that it’s an open question whether a person who enters a country without prior authorization specifically to request amnesty is breaking the law. But for the purposes of argument, let’s assume that it is. A government’s responsibility to enforce the law doesn’t give it the right to use any punishment it wants. The U.S. Constitution itself forbids “cruel and unusual punishments.” The question then becomes, what does the Bible say about the punishment that Sessions was defending for such cases?

One of the most poignant passages in the Bible is Jeremiah’s description of the people of Judah mourning over the children they were separated from when the Babylonians carried their younger generation off into exile:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
    mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

The New Testament says that these words were “fulfilled” (that is, they took on a further meaning in light of later events) when Herod executed all the baby boys in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus. So in terms of family separation as a sanction, the Bible identifies Jesus with those who have suffered this punishment, not with those who would inflict it. It portrays the anguish that it causes, rather than celebrating those who use it to control populations. So I would say, to begin with, that it was not valid for Sessions to appeal to the Bible to support the punishment he was defending.

As for the passage in Romans itself, while Sessions stated that it taught that God has ordained the laws of government “for the purpose of order,” it actually says that “the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.” The Greek term is agathos; it’s also translated “welfare” or “benefit,” or “to help you.” In other words, the government is given power under God not to keep everyone in line with the way it wants things (to maintain “order”), but to promote the welfare of everyone under its control. Everything begins with God wanting good for people; God then creates governments as His agents to promote that good.

While not stated explicitly in Romans, the implication is that when governments fail in that responsibility, and particularly when they oppose what is good and become destructive of it, then God’s people no longer have an obligation to obey. Instead, they have a responsibility to disobey as a loyal protest, in order to call the government back to fulfilling its rightful role and original mandate.

(Incidentally, the American Declaration of Independence says essentially the same thing: “Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends”—Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness—”it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” And so if Sessions was instead promoting an unconditional obedience to government, whatever its actions, he was undermining the original foundation of the American government itself.)

A single verse of Scripture never contains the whole counsel of God. We must consider the teaching of the entire Bible on a given question in order to understand the answer to that question in a full and balanced way. And the Scriptures provide numerous examples of people who resisted and disobeyed their governments in order to be faithful to God’s purposes. These examples are informative, and they fill out the picture provided in Romans.

Moses’ parents hid him rather than obey Pharaoh’s order to kill him by drowning him into the Nile. Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego refused the command to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, and they were thrown into a fiery furnace. Daniel broke the law that Darius passed that no one could pray to anyone but himself; Daniel continued to pray to God, and he was thrown into a den of lions. (In all of these cases, God miraculously or providentially preserved the lives of those who disobeyed for the sake of faith and conscience. We must recognize that this may not always be the case, and we must be prepared to suffer if necessary.)

Jesus himself was accused on many occasions of breaking the law, for example, when he healed on the Sabbath. His response was that it was lawful on the Sabbath to do “good.” In Mark and Luke, this is the exact Greek term that Paul uses in Romans (agathos); in Matthew, it’s a synonym (kalōs). Either way, the argument is the same: God’s desire to do good for people comes first; laws come second, to support that.

When the Jewish government authorities forbade the apostles from speaking about Jesus, they continued to do so anyway. When the authorities arrested them and demanded to know why they’d done this, the apostles responded, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” So according to the Bible, obedience to government is not an absolute, unconditional obligation. Instead, God’s people have a responsibility to hold the government accountable for fulfilling the purpose for which it has been constituted, which is to promote the welfare of everyone under its control. By this test, the policy of family separation was not a biblically valid exercise of government authority.

We may note, finally, that the apostle Paul, who wrote in Scripture that everyone should be subject to the governing authorities, was himself executed by the Romans as a lawbreaker. The charge was that he was promoting loyalty to Jesus rather than to Caesar.




What was Jeremiah doing in Egypt?

This post is the second in reply to a series of questions asked by someone who’s reading through the book of Jeremiah. The first post, about whether Jeremiah was a protester, is here.

Q. When Jeremiah’s nation didn’t listen to him, the king of Babylon ensured his safety when he finally captured Jerusalem. What’s going on there? The dynamics of how God is working seem to be very complicated. God calls the king of Babylon His servant, even though he doesn’t seem to acknowledge Him. Then at another time in the book, Jeremiah goes to Egypt, even though Nebuchadnezzar had some personnel attending to him while he was in Jerusalem. What is he accomplishing in Egypt besides prophesying, and doesn’t that get him in trouble with Nebuchadnezzar? Is he trying to create a movement or revolution of some sort?

“Jeremiah foretells the conquest of Egypt.” (Artist unknown)

God had already determined to judge and punish the Judeans for their disobedience, particularly the wrongs that the nation did under King Manasseh. In Samuel-Kings, a narrative compiled over time by the prophets God sent to the people, when the Babylonians effectively subjugate Judea, it says, “Surely these things happened to Judah according to the Lord’s command, in order to remove them from his presence because of the sins of Manasseh and all he had done, including the shedding of innocent blood. For he had filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the Lord was not willing to forgive.”

Since God had already decided to punish the Judeans through the Babylonians, God sent Jeremiah with the message that they should accept vassal status (i.e. being subjugated) and the exile of their king and many of their nobles and artisans. God promised through Jeremiah that he would bring the exiles back in a generation or two. In the meantime, they were to accept that their home would be in Babylon, and they should make a new life for themselves there.

However, after initially becoming vassals of the Babylonians, the Judean kings then betrayed them and tried to make an alliance with the Egyptians. False prophets claimed that this would “break the yoke of the king of Babylon” and bring the exiles back right away. This led Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian emperor, to lead an army against Judea and besiege its cities, notably Jerusalem. Jeremiah urged the people to surrender peacefully, in keeping with his earlier messages. But they continued to resist, and ultimately the Babylonians defeated them, destroyed Jerusalem, and sent most of the rest of the people into exile.

However, since Jeremiah was known to have counseled peaceful surrender, Nebuchadnezzar didn’t regard him as an enemy. He gave his officers instructions to protect Jeremiah, provide for him, and allow him to return to his own home. Shortly after this Jeremiah was apparently rounded up  to be sent into exile anyway, but one of Nebuchadnezzar’s officials recognized him among the captives and set him free once more. I hope this answers the first part of your question, about why the Babylonians ensured Jeremiah’s safety.

The question of why God would call a pagan emperor his “servant” highlights how that term is used by the prophets with a variety of meanings. The usage here in Jeremiah is similar to that in Isaiah. On the one hand, the people of Israel and Judah are called God’s servants because God has chosen to use their nation to further his redemptive purposes in the world. God also refers frequently to “my servants the prophets” because he has sent them to bring his word to that people and call them back to their chosen role. But God also calls pagan emperors his “servants” (or something similar) because he is using them to fulfill his purposes. God calls Nebuchadnezzar his servant in Jeremiah, and in Isaiah he calls Cyrus “my shepherd” who will “accomplish all that I please.”

In the case of these emperors, the servants may not have known that they were actually serving God by carrying out his purposes. We learn in the book of Daniel that Nebuchadnezzar was actually quite defiant and resistant at first towards the God of Israel, until he was humbled and he acknowledged him. Maybe the take-home message is that God accomplishes his purposes through human agents, as I’ve said in other posts on this blog, and it’s best if we human agents seek to discover those purposes and cooperate with them intentionally!

As for what Jeremiah was doing in Egypt, he actually didn’t want to go there. As you noted, the Babylonians appointed a governor over the Judeans who were left in their land. But this governor was assassinated by some men who apparently wanted to keep resisting the Babylonians any way they could. After this, the remaining Judeans were afraid of reprisals, and they wanted to flee to Egypt for safety. But they asked Jeremiah about this first, promising to do whatever he said. When he told them they could stay safely where they were, they fled to Egypt anyway—and forced him to come with them! So Jeremiah ended up among people who were rebelling, but he wasn’t trying to do that personally.

As a result of this forced departure from Judea, Jeremiah’s final oracles come to us from Egypt. (The image above depicts one of those oracles.) There, as far as we know, he completed his career as a prophet and died. These final oracles continue to challenge the people’s disobedience and call them back to the worship of the true God.

Was Jeremiah a protester?

Q. What was Jeremiah’s status in his society? Was he like a protester, as we think of our modern-day societies? Or he was something else? We know as readers that he was a prophet of God, but it seems somehow Judah didn’t see it that way. Reading the book of Jeremiah, it would seem that he didn’t care about his social class, but if I try to imagine, it seems that he was a vocal individual and that this got him in trouble with the authorities on many occasions.

When his nation didn’t listen, the king of Babylon ensured his safety when he finally captured Jerusalem. What’s going on there? The dynamics of how God is working seem to be very complicated. God calls the king of Babylon His servant, even though he doesn’t seem to acknowledge Him. Then at another time in the book, Jeremiah goes to Egypt, even though Nebuchadnezzar had some personnel attending to him while he was in Jerusalem. What is he accomplishing in Egypt besides prophesying, and doesn’t that get him in trouble with Nebuchadnezzar? Is he trying to create a movement or revolution of some sort ?

And a side question, what happened to the Ark of the Covenant when the temple got destroyed? Did Jeremiah have any role in protecting it?

Michelangelo’s portrait of Jeremiah for the Sistine Chapel

Thank you for these questions about Jeremiah. I commend you for reading the book so thoughtfully. I’ll answer your first question in this post and the others in follow-up posts.

Jeremiah was a priest. That was his social status. However, he belonged to a group of priests who’d been forbidden to offer sacrifices in the temple and who’d been banished from Jerusalem to the city of Anathoth. Let me explain the background to that, and then I’ll describe its implications for Jeremiah’s status.

While all Israelite priests were descended from Aaron, there were actually two lines of priests. One line came from Aaron’s son Eleazar, and the other came from Aaron’s son Ithamar. We learn in the book of Samuel that a priest named Ahimelek, who was descended from Ithamar, was the priest at the tabernacle at the time when Saul was pursuing David and trying to kill him. Saul killed Ahimelek and his family because he thought they were helping David, but Ahimelek’s son Abiathar escaped and joined David. Abiathar stayed with David until Saul was killed in battle by the Philistines and David became king. Then David made him the high priest.

However, David also made a man named Zadok, who was descended from Eleazar, another high priest alongside Abiathar. This may have been to acknowledge both priestly lines. When David later had to flee from Jerusalem to escape an attempted coup by his son Absalom, these two men wanted to go with him, but he told them to stay in Jerusalem. This enabled their two sons to serve as his agents, carrying messages back and forth based on information the priests supplied. So both men proved their loyalty to David.

However, after David died, Abiathar joined a coup that David’s son Adonijah was attempting. Zadok, on the other hand, remained loyal to Solomon, who was David’s choice to succeed him as king. When Solomon claimed the throne, he told Abiathar, “You deserve to die, but I will not put you to death, because you carried the ark of the Sovereign Lord before my father David and shared all my father’s hardships.” However, he did tell him, “Go back to your fields in Anathoth.” That meant that Abiathar and his descendants would not be allowed to offer sacrifices in the temple any more.

The Bible says that when Solomon did this, it fulfilled a prophecy that God had spoken against their ancestor Eli when he did nothing to restrain his wicked sons. However, that very prophecy suggested that Eli’s descendants might still fulfill some other priestly functions and so be entitled to support from the contributions that were made to the temple. It may well be, therefore, that the priestly descendants of Ithamar who lived in Anathoth could have been seen in Jerusalem from time to time performing some of the same functions as the other priests.

This would have included Jeremiah. And so to return to the question of his social status, we might compare him to someone today who was a leader or former elected official of a national political party that was now out of power. He would not have a formal position, but he would still have a platform based on his own record of service and on the heritage and accomplishments of his party in the past. This would at least win him a hearing, and from that point it would be up to his own words to make an impact.

This would explain why Jeremiah was able to deliver one of his most controversial but influential sermons from within the temple itself. As a priest, he would have had access to the temple, even though his branch of priests wasn’t allowed to offer sacrifices there.

In the end, Jeremiah’s words, both spoken and written, seem to have created quite a sensation. Shemaiah, one of the Judeans who’d been taken into exile in Babylon, wrote back to Zephaniah, the high priest in Jerusalem, complaining about a letter that Jeremiah had written saying that the exile would be prolonged. Shemaiah told Zephaniah, “The Lord has appointed you priest . . . in charge of the house of the Lord; you should put any maniac who acts like a prophet into the stocks and neck-irons. So why have you not reprimanded Jeremiah from Anathoth, who poses as a prophet among you?

I think Shemaiah’s reply reveals a lot about Jeremiah’s perceived and actual social status. One the one hand, Shemaiah is implying that Zephaniah is a legitimate priest, while Jeremiah is just one of those castoffs “from Anathoth.” He’s also suggesting that Jeremiah is at most a priest, and that he’s only posing as a prophet. On the other hand, Zephaniah’s response to this letter aso shows what great respect Jeremiah commanded as he spoke from the platform he did have. Rather than putting Jeremiah in the stocks, he read Shemaiah’s letter to Jeremiah to see what he had to say about it. In reply, God gave Jeremiah a prophecy of doom against Shemaiah for being a false prophet.

One final thing we should note is that while being a priest from Anathoth gave Jeremiah something of a platform, the other priests there actually told him at one point, “Don’t prophesy in the name of the Lord or we’ll kill you ourselves.” In other words, when we use the platform we do have to speak God’s message to our own place and time, that platform itself may disown and threaten us. So ultimately it’s our faithfulness to God and our courage in speaking for him that give our words their ultimate impact.

We can trust God to preserve us for as long as we’re needed to speak for him when we’re faithful in this way. God revealed to Jeremiah that the people of Anathoth were plotting against his life, and so he was able to escape. This proved that Jeremiah was a genuine prophet!

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)