Are you reading Romans 13 wrong?

Did we render unto Caesar those things which belong to God?

I know some people who recently attended a District 6 School Board meeting in Greeley Colorado. For nearly a year, these folks have been trying to get the school board to address the content of about a dozen books that are available to students in several of the school districts' libraries. I would love to share with you the material that they found objectionable, but it is so explicit that it is not suitable to reprint here. In fact, in a meeting several months ago, one of the parents who had become outraged over being ignored by their elected representatives caused an uproar by reading from one of the books in the public meeting in an effort to bring attention to it.

Apparently, one of the moms was directed by someone in the administration to fill out a complaint form. This is a form which states where the book is located and what the objectionable content is. These concerned parents then organized and generated one of these forms for each book at each location with a brief description of what was in each book. Then they mobilized to  get as many people as they could to sign them. They did this because the district has maintained that it is only a few people who object to this material. I will tell you that as I was reading the descriptions of what was in each book I struggled because this was very explicit and vile. Altogether the group collected about 4000 written forms and took them to the school board meeting. Tensions were high and ultimately the meeting was cut short by the president of the school board, Michael Mathews who is the Sr. Pastor of St. Patrick Presbyterian Church.

Why am I writing about this in a church blog? Well this is a cultural flashpoint that is playing out in different parts of the country and this one is significant to me because this is where I live. There is more to it however, there is something very significant about this particular situation. As I mentioned before, the president of the board is a pastor, what I haven't mentioned yet is that there was another pastor who accompanied the group of frustrated parents. This was my friend and mentor, Pastor Steven Grant. The dichotomy of these two pastors seeing this issue so differently makes it difficult to imagine how it might be possible that both men serve the same Christ. We can be assured that both men will stand before their creator and give account of their actions so that isn’t exactly it either. What has inspired me to write this is a question that has been nagging at me for the last three years. Where are the rest of the Pastors? 

Our culture is in great moral danger. We are being led by people who have not only turned their backs on the creator, but have openly declared war on God and His Christ. Where are the ministers of Christ’s church to stand up and be counted? I often wonder if this is how Dietrich Bonhoeffer must have felt as he watched Germany be taken over by a diabolical satanic death cult that went by the name NAZI. There is a sentiment often attributed to Sir Edmund Burke that goes something like this. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” However, Bonhoeffer argued that the man who saw evil and remained silent could not be good at all. He believed that seeing evil and doing nothing was in fact evil itself. These two ideas are not in conflict, simply stated in a different way. Let me ask you the reader, if a good man could stop evil as Burke suggests, and chooses not to, can he be called good? In Romans 1: 21-24 Paul writes this:
Romans 1: 21-24
“Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four footed beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves.”
Is the silence of the church in these dark times evidence that we are in a Romans 1 judgment? I don’t know the hearts of these men who choose to remain silent, but I suspect that they hold to the belief that it is not the church’s responsibility to oversee the culture. They sincerely believe some variation of “we are called to reach the lost and not be involved in politics.” This is what I wanted to write about here because this is a widely held sentiment in the church today and one of the reasons I believe darkness is overtaking the light in a nation who people once recognized as ”God Blessed” One of the proof texts for this is Romans 13.

You're probably Reading Romans 13 wrong.

If you hold to this ideology then let me suggest that you are probably reading Romans 13 wrong. Because Romans 13 tends to be read in isolation, separated from the context of the previous chapter, the modern church really misses what Paul was trying to teach in this passage, but you don’t need to take my word for it, let us look at what the scripture actually says.
Romans 13:1 
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
Apart from context and because the following verses lay out the duties and responsibilities of civil authorities, many people assume that “higher powers” that are “ordained of God” are specifically speaking about civil authority. However the book of Romans was not a book like we see being written today where when the author finishes a thought, he starts a new chapter and begins a new thought. Paul was writing a letter that was not divided into chapters and verses. So to get context on Chapter 13 verse one, we must look back to chapter 12. Let’s look at three verses.
Romans 12:17-19
“Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” [Emphasis added]
When you read these verses, it becomes clear why Paul is writing to these people. He is letting them know what God’s justice looks like. More importantly I believe he is referencing a biblical principle that he wrote about frequently, that is authority. “Wives submit your husbands” “Servants submit to your masters” “Children honor your parents”. In every area of life there is an order. Moreover, in each of these areas that deal with authority, the scripture is quite clear that there is a subsequent responsibility of those in authority over those in their charge. For example, husbands are to love their wives as Jesus loved the Church giving His life for it. At the last supper, when Jesus washed the feet of His disciples He was teaching them about Biblical authority and how in the Kingdom, the master serves those he leads. He is responsible for them. Much like the husband is responsible for his family and parents are responsible to their children. In America, we still call our elected officials civil servants as an echo of what Jesus taught His disciples in that lesson.

So, the “higher powers” that are “ordained of God” is a precept that links all of God’s ordained authority that was being commonly taught. Then Paul extends that precept to civil authority. This understanding is important for us today. When we read this passage correctly we are not troubled with the notion that God ordained Hitler or Stalin or Mao or any other of History's murderous thugs and dictators. And when he continues in verse 2:
Romans 13:2
Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
He isn't calling on blind submission to the state, he is sharing a biblical principle that God is a God of order and in His created order, there are roles that are put in place for the benefit of His creation. He expands on this idea in verse 3.
Romans 13:3
For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: [Emphasis added]
When the word says, “...rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil…” what definition of good and evil do you suppose Paul has in mind here? Since our culture has been given over to a postmodern moral relativism, this is an important question and should not be passed over too quickly. What about civil servants who name Jesus as their Lord. Should they be taught by their pastors that it is their role to be a terror to what scripture calls evil? How much different might or nation look today if this were still being practiced? As Paul continues, it is clear that in this realm of God’s created order, as in any other, there is a God ordained purpose for civil authority. The next verse makes this very clear.
Romans 13:4
For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. [Emphasis added]
Pause and consider what Paul means by the words “minister of God to thee for good”. Good according to whom? Then I want you to think about the end of the verse. ”a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” and while you are thinking about that, reread what the verses from chapter 12 that I shared earlier:
Chapter 12:17-19
“Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” [Emphasis added]
God gave us civil authority to provide justice as a gift to us. We still live in a fallen world and man will often stray from God’s principles because we all want to sit on the throne of our hearts as our own god. Should the role of the clergy include teaching a correct understanding all areas of authority that God has ordained, including the state? I think so.

Now that you likely have a better understanding of this passage, what role should the clergy be playing in the culture today? Pastors all across this land should be declaring what God calls good and what God calls evil so that civil authorities are without excuse. Much like the prophet Nathan when he poked king David on the chest and said “you are that man”. The church’s responsibility to the culture has always been to serve as a moral compass for the nation. A perfect example is how the abolition movement sprang up from the pulpits and eventually made its way into the law books. Do we think that slavery would have been abolished if the pastors in that era had taken the view of so many pastors today? No serious person who has studied history would think so

Further, we know what happened in Germany when the pulpit stayed silent, Hiltler reportedly said this to Martin Niemoller “I will protect the German people. You take care of the church. You pastors should worry about getting people to heaven, and leave this world to me.” History does not look kindly on the church in Germany and the atrocities that were committed while pastors remained silent.

Scripture also provides us warnings against such silence as well. Consider the following passages where the prophets try warn Ancient Israel about times that look a lot like what we are living through.
Isaiah 5:20
Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!

Ezekiel 22:26
Her priests have violated my law, and have profaned mine holy things: they have put no difference between the holy and profane, neither have they shewed difference between the unclean and the clean, and have hid their eyes from my sabbaths, and I am profaned among them.

Hosea chapter 4:6
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I will also reject you as My priests. Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I will also forget your children.
The passage from Hosea takes me right back to the children and to the meeting that was attended by my friends where they continue to press the issue of what is and is not appropriate and good for the education of our children. The question seems clear enough. Should children, who are in the care of the public schools have access to what can only be described as vile and explicit material that has always been used by predators to desensitize children and groom them to be exploited sexually? In this meeting we had two pastors who see this issue very differently. Who is to judge? Well, I think the ministers of God’s word should be weighing in on this. And they should be judging the issue against what is in the word. For example the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 18:6
Matthew 18:6
But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
Does this include allowing children to be exposed to this material? Pastor Michael Matthews and Pastor Steven Grant clearly disagree that it does. Jesus said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's,” What things do we imagine Jesus teaching that belong to God? I have made the case that the definition of concepts such as good and evil are clearly God’s that He has given to those who teach His ways. Where are the rest of the pastors? By their continued silence in this culture, I believe they have rendered unto Caesar what clearly belongs to God and we are being destroyed for a lack of that knowledge.

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