Romans 13, part 4

So we’ve looked at Romans 13:1-2, but I’d also like to consider the next two verses, for they, when coupled with the cavalier insertion of “governing” in the first verse where it never was to begin with, are perhaps the most horribly misused verses by present-day American evangelicals:

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.

This thought is also paralleled in 1 Peter 2:14. Here we see the first indication that Paul may be speaking of governments, for he does use the word ἄρχων (“ruler”) here. Obviously, though, this passage is flatly untrue when not viewed in the context of the rest of the Bible. If “rulers are not a terror to good works”, why then was Stephen martyred, Paul imprisoned repeatedly, John exiled, and even Christ Himself crucified for doing the good works God had prepared for them to do? We must keep in mind the previous points that a) we must follow Christ over our governments when their agenda opposes Him, and b) Paul is not necessarily even talking about governments — this “ruler” may in fact be a church leader.

Assuming, though, as everyone does, that Paul is talking specifically about governments in these two verses, it does make sense to think of government as God’s minister to us to execute wrath upon evil doers — I can’t think of any governments off the top of my head which don’t have some sort of penalties associated with murder and theft, and God working through those systems is certainly a viable alternative to using lightning bolts to punish murderers and thieves. We must be extremely careful, however, not to read too much into these verses. They in no way say that government is good; they say only that God uses it for good in the same way that He used for good Joseph’s being sold into slavery by his brothers: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” Government may in fact be a bad thing in general (and indeed it obviously is bad in many specific situations like Nazi Germany or current North Korea), but “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God”. Natural and personal disasters are certainly not good in and of themselves, but surely every evangelical Christian has seen how God ordained them in order that He might work them toward a greater ultimate good; in this same way, government need not be good in and of itself (and I would contend in another discussion that it is quite the opposite) in order for God to have ordained it for greater good.

Assuming for the time being, however, that government is not evil in and of itself, as most people do, we must also be extremely careful not to read into these verses that all of the statutes and practices of our government are good — this is where American evangelicals have made one of their largest blunders as the majority of them seem to believe this, provided that Republicans are in charge (Christian Democrats seem to have a similar belief as well). To go back to my example a few posts ago of the Janet and Craig Parshall’s open praise of CIA torture, they seemed quite eager in that radio segment to blur every act of government, at least those initiated or supported by elected Republicans, into a huge grey area where they can say that those acts — including torture — being the method by which our governing authority chose to punish evil doers, are therefore good acts — acts of God — and must therefore be supported by Christians. This is in no way what these verses have said! God may be working the evil of torture for good, but torture is still evil, and I would like to remind my fellow evangelicals, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil”.

I’ve already said American Christians are in a unique position to influence the actions of government. Instead of praising the government for its use of evil in this case (which certainly has the potential to backfire, as I pointed out last time), would it not be more prudent to find a better punishment, perhaps one that is not “cruel and unusual” and that is only inflicted after conviction in a court of law by a public trial by a jury of their peers, and elect lawmakers who will institute that instead? Opposing torture would not make us weak or unwilling to punish evil; we would simply be affirming that such methods of punishing evil are becoming of neither a Christian nation nor a free nation. It would also make it no less true that he who practices evil should have fear of the authority; it would only change the form of vengeance to be feared into one which may potentially be a minister of good even to that practicer of evil. After all, is it not preferable (Luke 15:7) that even Islamic terrorists be punished in such a way as to lead them to repentance and salvation, rather than in such a way as to further invigorate their hatred of America and the Christianity that supports her?

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