Wednesday, August 03, 2022

Quote of the Day (43)

The always-excellent Antemodernist performs surgery on a post about Romans 13 and submission to authority from Stand to Reason’s Jonathan Noyes:

“Suppose a stranger walks up to you and declares himself a king and says he is your king, and by virtue of his authority over you, he compels you to pay taxes and serve in his militia. A bit strange, and you’d probably pretend to take a phone call to get away. Mr. Noyes, if he is consistent, cannot do this. He’d be disobeying authority.”

Like many of our readers, I have been struggling with this issue since early 2020. Prior to that point, if you had asked me when Romans 13 does not apply to Christians, I would have promptly answered, “When we are told not to preach the gospel.” That much I was sure of. Beyond that, I’m afraid I hadn’t given the illegitimate exercise of authority much thought. Since then I’ve had to give it plenty, the results of which you can find here and here.

Antemodernist has obviously been doing a fair bit of thinking as well.

The Historical Example

Most of my arguments against submission to the illegitimate exercise of authority have revolved around the examples of Christ and his apostles. My main point is that it is not good scholarship to interpret Romans 13 in a way that Paul himself did not, and it will not result in good practice. If Paul believed there were times believers were justified in thwarting the will of the governing authorities (and he very clearly did), then we are not interpreting him correctly if we insist on making universal submission to authority our rule of thumb.

Most Christians realize this at some level, but mounting a coherent, biblical counter-response to the masking, distancing and church-closing mandates of the past couple of years still took most of us a painfully long time. Many churches have still not done it, probably in hopes that the problem will solve itself in due course. During that period, Romans 13 was frequently referenced but not-so-frequently re-studied.

Antemodernist takes the time to walk through Romans 13 to see what it says and what it doesn’t, following which he demonstrates that Jon Noyes’ strategy of submitting to subvert (“smash [corrupt governments] with love in the hopes of their coming to Christ”) is both unhistorical and unlikely to produce positive results, not to mention a misreading of the passage.

The Example of the Lord Jesus

He also dismantles Noyes’ argument for submission from the example of the Lord Jesus:

NOYES: “Jesus modeled this. This is WWJD, right? Jesus is hanging on that tree, and he’s looking at the very people who put him up there, and what did he do? He pleaded with the Father for their forgiveness: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ In Matthew’s account, Matthew says that the centurion and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the things that were happening, they said, ‘Truly, this was the son of God.’ There’s a submission to subvert. They see this radical love pouring out from Jesus on the cross, and they’re converted.”

ANTEMODERNIST: “But what caused the suffering here? It wasn’t obedience to the state; if Christ had obeyed the human authorities, he wouldn’t have suffered. If early Christians had obeyed the state and offered the pinch of incense to Caesar, they’d live, too. No, this passage is a great example of the precise opposite of what Mr. Noyes was teaching earlier; the situation where we ought not to obey, and that suffering will often result, and we are to endure it. That’s why the preceding verse says: ‘For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.’ ”

Doing Right and Suffering

The question, as always, is what it means to “do right”. If doing right involves universal compliance with authority, it is hard to see how suffering would ever be the outcome. Suffering happens to the non-compliant, not to those who go along to get along.

Like Antemodernist, I believe the meaning of “doing right” in the context of a clash with authority very much depends on the legitimacy of the authority in question and the type of compliance for which they are calling. Moreover, a Christian response need not be binary. We do not have to choose between compliance and rioting. There are other options more consistent with the New Testament.

As Antemodernist puts it, “It’s not trivially simple, but it’s not too difficult understand, either.”

Let’s give it a shot then.

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