Does “legal” mean “moral”?
Something I find interesting is the connection people inherently make between laws and morality. In other words, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking if something is legal, it is okay. And if something is illegal, it is bad. But the distinctions that make up legal and illegal are typically very arbitrary. For example, it is illegal to buy alcohol before you’re 21. Since it’s illegal to buy alcohol as a minor, I think most people would say that drinking before you’re 21 is bad. I am in no way assessing whether this is or isn’t a good idea, I just want to touch on the arbitrary nature of the age 21. The thinking goes “drinking as a 20 year old = bad,” “drinking as a 21 year old = not necessarily good, but at least not bad.” But why 21? If I were 20 years old and my birthday was tomorrow, would it still be “bad” to drink since it would be illegal? Or maybe an easier analogy is speed limits. If the speed limit is 60 and I’m driving 70, I’m breaking the law. Am I a criminal? What if I drove 65 in a 60? Not as bad, right? What about 61? Cutting it close. When you really think about it, many of our laws seem nonsensical in the sense of the “perfect” number or amount of things we are or are not allowed to do.
What I’m driving at is that what is deemed legal is not always moral, and what is illegal does not necessarily mean immoral. A simple example of the first would be slavery. It was not illegal (thus implicitly legal) until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. But just because it was legal, we obviously wouldn’t say it was moral. An example of the latter would be the Civil Rights protests of the 60s. It was illegal for Rosa Parks to remain seated once the all-white section had filled up, and yet no one would consider what she did immoral. These are both obvious examples, but they exemplify the fact that positive law (i.e. “man-made”) is potentially erroneous. It would be a dire mistake to assume all laws and regulations made by any form of government were moral or immoral simple because they exist. The irony is that oftentimes the laws made by governments change incentive structures so that the thing we aren’t supposed to do actually becomes more dangerous. When the government enacted the 18th Amendment prohibiting the manufacturing and sale of alcohol, moonshiners and mobs took over, often providing dangerous forms of alcohol via violent means.
Consider also “driving while texting” laws. The most obvious result will be that people text below the line of sight of police officers, thus taking our eyes even further off the road. I agree that texting and driving is not a good idea, and that it could be fatal. But there is no such thing as a potential crime. A crime would be crashing into someone or something, not the possibility of this happening. Imagine the slippery-slope of allowing the government to regulate anything that is potentially hazardous. By the end of the week you wouldn’t be allowed to have kitchen knives in the house. And out with cars altogether, since you could wreck even if you weren’t texting and driving.
I could list many more laws that, while legal, do not imply that they are moral, and that while illegal, do not mean they are necessarily immoral.
And thus, we arrive at Romans 13.
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. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.3 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, 4 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. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 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. (ESV)
I’m not a theologian, nor do I possess the skills to explain every facet of this passage’s context, implication, and application. I only want to discuss some dangers of taking this passage on its face and applying it to Americans’ allegiance to their government.
I’m primarily going to focus on the first verse, “be subject to the governing authorities.” I’ve heard this statement misapplied so often I’ve lost count. It is in the Bible. I am not denying that. I maintain that the Bible is infallible and is the inspired Word of God. However, if the Bible were black and white, we wouldn’t need pastors or references or any outside help understanding the text. There have been massive schisms within Christianity (most notably the Protestant Reformation) over differences in interpretation of the Bible. Even today we have dozens of denominations within the Church due to differing understandings, and therefore beliefs, about the Scripture. We know, then, that the Bible is complex and meant to be studied and learned. So saying something is “in the Bible” is not a trump card for debate. If we took this first verse literally and applied it to everyone and every instance – be subject to the governing authorities – then victims of genocide throughout history (Jews, those under the Soviet Union, the Armenians, etc.) would have had no justified Biblical recourse while being oppressed. In fact, slaveowners in America often used the Bible to subjugate their slaves. If people want to say “well it’s in the Bible,” then why couldn’t slaveowners use that line, too? I’ve had discussions about the Pledge of Allegiance and heard “well it’s the law and the Bible says to obey earthly authorities.” But that is a ridiculous line of reasoning. What people are in effect saying is “never ever question people in power, ever.” But what about the Jews during the Holocaust? We find that this verse does not mean “sit there and take whatever governmental abuses come your way.” Consequently we see that using this verse about obeying governing authorities cannot always be applied literally and to every situation. If we concede that this verse was not intended to always be applied literally, in every situation and for all time, then it opens the door to questions such as:
- Who are legitimate governing authorities in my life?
- Which forms of authority does God ordain?
- Does God approve of leaders’ actions simply because they’re in power?
- When is it okay to disobey?
- Is disagreeing the same thing as disobeying?
- To what extent may I ethically disobey?
I think people are quick to concede egregious violations throughout history such as the Holocaust, but won’t even discuss the possibility that the Pledge of Allegiance, the income tax, military conscription, and foreign wars could also be violations of Christian conscience. However, we have already shown that being subject to the governing authorities in every situation is not an accurate reading of the text. Twentieth-century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the most significant Christian figures in the modern era, eventually became involved in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. So here he is – a man of God who has devoted his life to scripture, charity and teaching – who is actively planning to kill a “governing authority.” More than that, he is violating the commandment which prohibits murder. Was Bonhoeffer a heretic to be shunned by modern readers, or did his understanding of the Gospel and the Bible directly lead him to disobey the governing authority?
Did the colonists sin by beginning a war for independence against the British Empire? Should they have “incurred judgment” for “resisting the authorities” (v2)? Should states or individual citizens incur judgment today when they don’t follow national laws? Was Thoreau sinning by not paying his taxes since he felt his money was going to support institutionalized slavery? If we applied Romans 13 literally, then yes. They were all sinning and all should have incurred judgement from God. We would therefore have no United States, since the colonists would not have rebelled against the Crown. Additionally, slavery would still be legal since obeying the governing authorities meant returning fugitive slaves and abiding by the Constitution which barred interference with slavery.
The point is that there are innumerable examples of Christian men and women outright defying governing authorities. This is why it is laughable to hear “but the Bible says to be subject to governing authorities so…pay half of your salary to the government…stand and salute a piece of cloth once a day…go kill people because your government says they’re bad…get all of these vaccinations for your children because the government says so…offer your employees access to abortifacients because of healthcare laws…drive 30MPH and not a fraction over…go vote for vile, depraved men and women because that’s how you show patriotism.” The list goes on and on. Granted, not all of these are laws, but at the very least they are encouraged by governing authorities. So if we do not obey, are we sinning by not remaining subject to them?
A lot of people are seeing, in light of Ken Burns’ Vietnam War documentary, how evil and atrocious that war was, sending our young men to fight and die in the jungle. I heard yesterday a story about a young man’s fraternity brother dying within sixteen seconds of combat. Sixteen seconds. And he was sent there by “governing authorities.” If he had disobeyed and kept his life, would that have been unpatriotic? Or even worse, sinful? Would he have been “resisting authorities”? Keep in mind, it was our government…our governing authorities…forcing men to go fight. Does submission to the governing authorities still apply in this case, since it’s “in the Bible”?
So what now?
Here is my basic approach toward this passage and toward obeying governing authorities. God places legitimate forms of authority in our lives because we are sinful people and need guidance, correction and discipline. For those of us with good parents, they were our first forms of legitimate authority. God ordained their place in our lives and we were subject to them. We had teachers, parents of friends, youth ministers, mentors, etc. who were also legitimate authorities in our lives. They each had a role in encouraging, correcting and, at times, disciplining us. We get married, and now have another form of authority in our lives. Albeit, I am not my wife’s boss, nor is she mine, but we voluntarily agreed to certain things when we got married – fidelity, support, prayer, etc. My spouse is another legitimate authority in my life. I took a job, voluntarily. My bosses are additional forms of authority in my life. God has placed them in my life to guide and correct me, and I am to be subject to them.
These are all legitimate, God-ordained forms of authority. I cannot speak to God’s thoughts toward secular authorities. There are people far more adept and studied who I’m sure would be able to more effectively articulate the Biblical stance toward secular leaders. What I do know, is that for all of Jesus’ life on earth, as well as the lives of the Apostles, it seems they were constantly clashing with earthly authorities. Earthly authorities in the Bible killed babies, persecuted God’s people, defied God’s judgement, worshiped idols, started wars, murdered Jesus’ followers, and eventually killed our savior on a cross. All of this, done by governing authorities. Even so, I cannot pretend to speak for God and declare that all secular authorities are inherently immoral or illegitimate. I do know that God is not surprised by the leaders we have. He wasn’t surprised by Hitler or Stalin either. But that does not mean He condones their actions. And so, as with most areas of the Bible and Christian walk, there are grey areas. I believe that as followers of Christ, it is my purpose to discern God’s will for my life and to spread the Gospel. And everything else should be subservient to this. My political philosophy should be secondary to my identity as a Christian, even though this is not always easy for me to properly prioritize. To that same effect, though, one’s patriotism should be subservient to his/her identity as a Christian. Blindly voting, blindly supporting political parties, blindly supporting wars, blindly supporting immoral laws, blindly protesting anything one deems unpatriotic, etc. can too often take the place of Christianity in the lives of Americans. If we spend more time talking about NFL players kneeling during the Anthem than we do talking about the Gospel, we’ve missed the mark. That doesn’t mean we can’t be passionate about things. On the contrary, I think God has gifted each of us with certain talents and abilities with the intention that we should pursue our passions. And our passions should glorify Christ. I can glorify Christ by pursuing His will for my life, admittedly not always an easy thing to discern. Teachers teach, athletes compete, pastors preach, electricians…electricitize. We all have governing authorities in our lives. Some we submitted to voluntarily, and others we did not. If we look at Christ’s life and attitude toward earthly authorities, he never strayed from the Gospel message, even when the message was in direct contradiction to governing authorities. However, he also did not make it his mission to overthrow earthly authorities. In fact, we know that this is what many wanted and expected from him…to establish an earthly kingdom.
The concept of earthly power is never something to be sought after in the Bible. The Hewbrews did not trust God’s sovereignty in their lives and thus wanted an earthly king…so they could be just like everyone else. They also wanted idols, so they melted gold and formed a calf to worship. In the New Testament, when Christ is born, many thought that finally, their king had arrived to overthrow the Romans and establish a new kingdom. But Christ’s concept of a kingdom was far different than many thought. His was a paradox of power: submission to God. So what do Christians do when submission to Christ conflicts with governing authorities?
I can’t give the answer to this question. For Bonhoeffer, he felt compelled to literally seek to end Hitler’s life. The American colonists felt that British impositions violated their God-given Natural Rights, and thus seceded. For Thoreau, he was willing to go to prison rather than pay taxes that supported slavery. Each of us is to discern God’s will for his or her life. I only suggest that we proceed with caution when nationalism creeps into our Christianity. What some consider patriotic, others may consider a crisis of conscience.
Should we always “be subject to the governing authorities”?
4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. -Ephesians 4:4-6 (ESV)