Not too long ago, my friend and fellow Christian Kris Parker posted on one of my random Facebook posts that I should write something on the thirteenth chapter of the book of Romans. I believe I said something snarky in response, but the thought has lingered in the back of my mind the way leftover Chinese take-out lingers in the back of your fridge. I’ve considered taking Kris up on the challenge, but could never think of an appropriate way to do so.
Over on my local Patch, one of the more active articles is one regarding prayer at the UGA commencement. Essentially, a contingent of students has written in protest of the traditional prayer at UGA’s commencement ceremonies, saying that it violates the separation of church and state clause in the First Amendment. What has made the story newsworthy is that the contingent wrote not only to the UGA administration, but to the website of famed New Atheist Richard Dawkins’. Naturally, an article such as that generates a lot of discussion, and I couldn’t help but venture into the fray. It led to some interesting thoughts.
I won’t rehash all of the comments here, but suffice it to say that I found myself in agreement with Grant Mackay (one of the Patch’s outspoken non-religious readers): the simplest solution is for the University to simply hold a standard commencement service, with no prayer or other religious invocations. Just let the folks get their diplomas with no fuss or muss. And if some of the campus organizations – be they religious in nature or not – want to have some sort of ancillary celebration that allows for their particular beliefs or worldviews to be expressed, then so be it.
Now, I am writing this in full knowledge that there will be people who take issue with that position. Tyranny of the minority view. The continued de-Christianization of the nation. One more blow against religious freedom. I understand those points of view and can appreciate them.
But here’s where Romans 13 comes in. And I quote:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath, but for the sake of conscience.
And just out of respect for some of Grant’s more passionate rumblings, let me add the next couple of verses:
For because of this you pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Now, keep in mind, the Apostle Paul is writing this advice to Christians living in Rome at the height of the Empire. Most historians put the date of writing at A.D. 57, so the infamous Nero is in power; yet, historically it was a time of relative peace for the church, not quite at the beginnings of what would become widespread persecution of Christians.
So, in a time of relative peace, beneath a government that was content to allow the Christian faith to go on its merry way, Paul’s counsel to the Roman believers was to submit to the government. And he connected that submission with submission to God the Father.
Yeah, take a minute and re-read that: submitting to the government is submitting to God.
Makes this coming Sunday a day of worship in a whole new way, don’t it?
Now, lest you think I’m misreading this passage (and depending upon your hermeneutic, I might be), let me take you to the book of 1 Peter, chapter two, verses 13-17:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether is be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Now Peter was writing from Rome in A.D. 64, either immediately before or just shortly after the death of the Apostle Paul. The emperor, Nero, has moved from being tolerant of the Christian faith to actively persecuting Christians and using them as political scapegoats within the Empire. It is a vastly different culture for the Christians Peter is writing to, and yet his message strongly echoes that of Paul.
Submission to the government is submission to God.
So let me bring it back to the article I mentioned at the beginning: as Grant and others have pointed out, there exists in the Constitution a clause that, while open for interpretive movement, expressly prohibits the government from either instituting a state-mandated religion or instituting a ban on the individual freedom to worship. In our current political and cultural climate, the reading on that clause is different from where it was 50 years ago; we currently live in a post-Christian society, which means that the values and mores employed back in the day aren’t the values and mores employed today. You can debate the goodness or badness of that reality, but you can’t debate the reality itself. We live in a nation that wants its religion and its government separated.
So then, in today’s climate, a government run institution shouldn’t have an invocation as part of its ceremony. Period.
And we, as Christians, as people who say we live by the imperatives of Holy Scripture, should be at peace with that. Doesn’t mean we have to consider it a wise or good decision, but we should, at minimum, submit to that decision (if such a decision is made) because of our love for God.
I’m sure there will be some debate on this. We have a long-standing cultural history that says if you don’t like the government, you have the right to change it – either through your vote or your violence (cf. 1776). And that history is so ingrained in us as citizens that we automatically want to fight any time the government makes a decision that we find disagreeable, be we religious or not.
But those of us who follow Christ have been instructed in the Word to submit as an act of reverence and worship to the God who is in control of this world. Those who don’t believe as we are free to do whatever their worldview compels them.
And there’s the rub: when we rail against the government, and castigate those in power, or act out in defiance of those who make decisions that go against our deeply cherished beliefs, we are violating our deeply cherished beliefs ourselves.
We have to decide whether or not we’re Christians first, Americans second or whether it’s the other way around. If Christ comes first, then we as a Christian community have some serious thinking to do.
Now feel free to tell me I’m an idiot. The comments are yours.