Regular readers here will know the commenter RMB. He has recently written an extensive post examining the church-state relationship – whose dysfunctionality has recently been brought to the surface by the recent corona: The Church And State in Romans 13. I will touch on a few aspects of his post, but encourage those interested to read through it in its entirety as it is well documented and well thought-out. Just to set things up properly:
[Romans 13] is commonly used as a throw away statement to say that churches must obey whatever the government says in light of the pandemic. …But is that God’s will?
RMB begins by examining the original meaning of the terms used in this well-known passage, concluding:
So “governing authorities” means those who are placed at a higher rank over us who are given the right to make decisions for those underneath. In each case the words have a broad meaning of leadership.
This could mean any properly ordered governance structure. These range from family to an HOA to political leaders to what are referred to in shorthand as spiritual beings. The modern idea of a nation-state does not hold exclusive rights to this concept, and depending on behavior, may not hold any rights in it at all (more on this to come). RMB concludes this passage:
There is no way to honestly deny that Christians are to be in submission to authority, including governments in a broad sense. That is the plain language of Romans 13. But what does that mean?
And it cannot be denied; but the meaning does not give carte blanche to the authorities. In Acts, when Peter was ordered to stop his preaching, he replied: “We must obey God rather than men.” From here, RMB examines some of the conditions placed on these governing authorities; he does it through the lens of natural law. First, he makes an important clarifying point:
While [Natural Law] isn’t Scripture, [Aquinas] makes important observations about the created order of the God of the Bible.
Why do I find this point important? On the one hand, anything written by Thomas must be considered through the lens of Scripture: does it conform, or at least not contradict, a proper Scriptural understanding? On the other hand, as we all know even in our day-to-day communication: difficult concepts require explanation; these require further development to make them understandable and meaningful to our lives. This has been the ongoing work of Christian scholars since the first century.
But on to RMB’s important point regarding the conditions placed on governing authorities at all levels:
The obligations in Natural Law are applied to all persons, including those in Authority.
The authority must act properly. This means acting in a way supportive of – and not hindering – one’s pursuit of his purpose or telos, as long as this pursuit is performed in a manner respecting the same for others.
The manifestation of this, for those in the US, can be found in the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. One can quibble around the edges, but on the whole these first ten amendments spell out an order that respects the natural rights derived from natural law. And this raises a further important point in this discussion:
For those of us who live in the US this has even more relevance because the ultimate governing authority for us is the US Constitution including the Bill of Rights. Laws and orders from politicians that are Unconstitutional are not legitimate.
Is our governing authority (in the sense used by many Christians) the mayor’s or governor’s or president’s (or any legislative body’s or court’s) proclamation, or is it the Constitution? To ask the question is to answer it – they swear to uphold the Constitution, for goodness’ sake.
RMB continues by examining other words in the Bible that translate to “authority,” but are different words in the original language, with different meaning. It is important to note that Paul did not use these other words, carefully choosing the words he used. The definitions of these other words are much more easily seen in a dictatorial, domineering governing authority – in other words, one not bound by any natural law nor any Scriptural guidance.
He then notes the famous passage from Augustine, summarizing: “a government that does not support justice is a band of thugs.” How might we measure “justice”? At minimum, go back to the Bill of Rights, and further, back to the Natural Rights derived from Natural Law.
So, what are Christians to do? RMB offers a reasoned discussion of how one might consider each situation. He then looks specifically at the situation that has recently brought this issue to the fore: COVID-19.
Governments at various levels have violated what can be deemed a proper use of governing authority in numerous ways, for example: declaring some businesses “essential” and others “non-essential”; treating the healthy as if they are sick; blocking access to public spaces that were built and are maintained by taxpayers.
Government can certainly give advice and counsel; it even has a duty where the risk is overwhelming (I am thinking of nursing homes – if proper focus was placed just here, and every other aspect of life was left to common sense based on rational guidance, how much less would the damage – in every way – have been).
RMB concludes that Christians have a duty to respect properly ordered governing structures:
But at the same time, in order to obey God fully, the Church has a right, even an obligation, to worship God together in the same room when the State commands otherwise. It does not matter if there is a viral pandemic or those in Authority simply wish to change public policy.
I very much appreciate this work by RMB. When I recently wrote on Romans 13, I relied – as I do in much of my writing – on a much more rhetorical (some might even say “fact-free”) style. In contrast, RMB has literally examined chapter and verse. There is much more detail to his work than I have hinted at here.
With this said, our conclusions are similar: we are to obey governing authorities (in the sense used by the Apostle Paul and as described above) when these do not conflict with our understanding of God’s commandments and our Natural Rights as derived from Natural Law.
Almost nothing about this recent corona episode conforms to this justice. Frankly, very little done by our political governing authorities over more than my lifetime does either. But on Sunday, once again, the American flag will be on display – worshipped, with equal standing alongside God, in His house.