“You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16:19–20 ESV)
Last week I asked the question when is it okay for a Christian to not obey the authority structures in place around us. I asked this because, as we discussed the evangelical response to immigration, this more fundamental issue came up. Christianity has a history of civil disobedience. However, there are important passages, specifically Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, that tell believers in no uncertain terms that we are to submit to the authorities that preside over us.
I appreciate the input that I’ve received from people this week either through the blog or through conversations on this issue. For me, the biblical theme that I think frames my response to this question is the theme of God’s justice.
The Meta-narrative of Justice:
As you read through the Bible, the issue of God’s justice comes up over and over again. Multiple times in the Pentateuch, God commands his people to treat not only one another with justice, but also the outsiders among them. God even goes so far as to say he hates those who do not treat the poor, the sojourners, the widows, and the orphans with justice and fairness. In the Psalms, God’s justice and righteousness is a constant coupling as describing the character of God. If I had to name an overarching theme of the prophets, specifically Isaiah, Amos, and Micah, it would be the the ruining of worship by the injustice of God’s people. A constant theme of Jesus’ parables is the injustice of the Jews in light of their religious ritual zeal, which was highlighted by my post yesterday.
Although it is not the only mega theme in Scripture, the justice of God and the desire for his people to be just is one of them. Tim Keller, in a recent sermon on justice, defines justice as the pouring out of ourselves and our resources into the needs of those around us in order to bring creation back to a state of harmony and wholeness. He says that it is this radical view of justice that permeates the pages of Scripture and that we as Christians are called to live by. You can listen to the sermon here.
How the meta-narrative of justice informs Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:
Understanding the greater theme of God’s justice and the creation of a people of justice, not defined by rule following, but defined by radical generosity towards those who are lacking, is integral for understanding the backdrop of passages like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. Romans 12 is a chapter where Paul is pleading with us to treat each other with justice. The beginning of 1 Peter 2 talks about God establishing a royal priesthood in his people in order to manifest his character to the world around us.
When both Paul and Peter address the issue of submission to authority, they do so in the context of God’s people being a people of justice. In light of God’s people being a people of justice and blessing to the nations, Paul and Peter in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 are imploring believers to not go out and break the just laws of God that are being enforced by government institutions and ruin the witness the church has on the world. The issue in question is integrity, not blind patriotism. What Paul and Peter are saying is that God has a passion for justice in society and that there are authority structures put in place in civilization in order to enforce and carry out the justice of God.
Once an authority structure moves from enforcing the justice of God to subverting for the sake of power, it ceases to be a legitimate institute of authority, and thus demands no loyalty by Christians.
One thing I love about our country is that we are in a unique position to where we don’t need to revolt or rebel in order to correct excesses and abuses in our government. We live in a country where civil disobedience is a protected part of our political process. Because of this, we don’t need to allow our patriotism to blind us to injustice.
To sum up, we as Christians are called to submit to authorities, but once those authorities cease to uphold and enforce true justice, the authority structure is precluded and no longer worthy of our submission.
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24 ESV)