Trying to get this church-state thing right


Some Bible verses are so clear and direct they are like taking a finger in the eye; you can't ignore them. Paul seemed to specialize in the finger-in-the-eye genre, while generally, Jesus was more subtle, as if whispering a word one had to take some time to think about.

In one of Paul's finger-in-the-eye passages, he told the Christians in Rome the following:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment (Romans 13:1-2, NRSV).

This verse is a bit striking because history has exposed some very evil governments.

The key to understanding finger-in-the-eye verses is to read more verses, including the more subtle ones, especially the ones in which Jesus spoke.

Paul told the Corinthians to not take their grievances to the courts (1 Cor. 6:1-4). He called the Roman courts unrighteous. Settle issues among yourselves because you understand some things the unbelievers will never get.

He also told the Corinthians that the "rulers of this age" do not understand God's wisdom. In fact, those rulers, the Romans again, "crucified the Lord of glory" (1 Cor. 2:6-8). Mature believers know a greater wisdom - God's.

Jesus also had something to say on the subject, and, as usual, He said it in rather veiled language because some people were trying to trap Him in theological and political debate. Jesus said:

"'. . . Bring me a denarius and let me see it.' And they brought one. Then he said to them, 'Whose head is this, and whose title?' They answered, 'The emperor's.' Jesus said to them, 'Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.' And they were utterly amazed at him" (Mark 12:15c-17 NRSV, also see Mt. 22:21).

We sometimes take this as meaning the state and God have an equal claim on our lives. That is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus is saying certain things belong to the government, such as taxes.

What belongs to God? Our lives.

If Paul's words in Romans 13 are taken alone, they can lead us into untrue places. Governments reign for a time, only for a time, but we are part of a greater kingdom - God's.

We do not stand idly by as governments trample upon innocent people, or at least we shouldn't.

Unlike the Rome of Jesus and Paul's time, this nation of ours is uniquely ours. We elect our leaders, and we communicate our opinions. And we do so in the midst of a public square, which includes people with very different ideas and opinions.

As Paul said, we owe our governments great respect and deference. But, as Jesus made clear, it is important to remember we owe our lives and ultimate allegiance to God. As a result, in all that we do, we stand for the things of God: for love, for grace, for fairness, for kindness, for morality and for the "least of these."

We respect government. We worship only God. And we can be thankful we live in a nation, which grants us the freedom to worship. If it didn't, we would worship anyway.

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