What many pastors and Christians are twisting Romans 13 and 1 Pet. 2 to mean is laughable, I mean, literally. That’s what God does with kings and nations that use their power to plot against God and His anointed (and that includes His people and their freedom). God laughs (Ps. 2:4). So Christians should laugh too.
But it’s also sad that many pastors and Christians have become so dull in their thinking, so biblically illiterate that they have virtually no clue how radically freedom-loving the Founding Fathers were and the Bible actually is. Well, they likely know the passages and stories that are meant to shock us into the fresh air of Christian liberty, but we’ve been marinating in the hot house of bad seminaries and worse preaching for so long, we wouldn’t know Christian liberty if she dumped a bunch of tea in the Boston Harbor while singing the Star-Spangled Banner.
“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1). God commands Christians to resist every form of slavery and tyranny. Why? Because Christ has set you free.
But many Christians think this freedom is almost nothing. They think it is freedom in their hearts, freedom to go to heaven when they die, freedom to have emotional orgasms on Sunday mornings during that one chord progression and all the hands go up. But that isn’t freedom. That’s like calling a kiddie sticker with a palm tree “Hawaii.” That’s like calling grape juice “wine.” Oh. Wait. Heh. Yeah…
But the Bible opens with God creating the universe, setting one tree in all of creation off limits, and firing the starting gun with enthusiasm. Go! The world belongs to men to rule, to enjoy, to glorify. Yes, sin has slowed us down and interrupted this mission, this dominion mandate, but it has never been set aside. Every man has a direct commission from God to explore the world, to invent, to discover, and in Christ we are sons of the King of the Universe. We don’t need no stinking permits. Building codes? Heh.
And somebody somewhere is hyperventilating, worried that I’m condoning shoddy work and irresponsibility, but I’m actually not. Working in this world as free men and women under the blessing of God is not irresponsible and must not be shoddy. It strives for excellence in every direction.
Neutered Bible Stories
One of the ways we have neutered Biblical freedom is by butchering Bible stories. Abraham lies his head off not once but twice to the “magistrates” in Canaan to protect his wife, and what does God do? God blesses his socks off. What do we do? We shake our heads condescendingly and make up moralistic myths about how God can even use liars like Abraham, weak in faith. Except the Bible says that Abraham was God’s friend and the father of all the faithful. The Bible says that when Abraham and Isaac and Jacob lied to tyrants and tricked their unfaithful superiors, God blessed them. Do we want that blessing?
Jacob gets the worst treatment of all, with our Bible translators playing along, twisting Scripture at the outset calling Jacob a “quiet” or “plain” man who dwelt in tents (Gen. 25:27), when the word is “perfect,” the same word used to describe Job, the righteous. But we just can’t bring ourselves to see in Jacob what God sees in Jacob, a faithful man, a man who wrestles with God and defies imperious men, hungry for blessing. There’s that blessing again. Do we want God to bless America like He blessed Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?
Time would fail us to tell of Moses defying Pharaoh, of Gideon and Samson and the judges running black markets and underground operations, David’s mighty men like Robin Hood in the Cave of Adullam, Paul walking around the Roman Empire like he served the One who owns the world, and Jesus coming like He didn’t even care about Herod or the Pharisees or the High Priests.
For liberty Christ has set you free.
If Jephthah Was American and the Church was the Tribe of Ephraim
What if you could start a government from scratch? OK, not from scratch, but almost from scratch? What if you had inherited 5,000 plus years of cautionary tales about tyrants, mobs, oligarchs, anarchy, and the slimy, sinful condition of every man’s fallen heart – and you could structure a new constitution? Well, that’s kind of what America was.
The American experiment, the US Constitution and our state constitutions, encrusted with many humanistic barnacles and much corrupt corrosion, was nevertheless established with a suspicious, steely eye staring directly at the tendency in man to corruption. They knew the truth of Lord Acton’s creed in their bones: “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So they set about to establish a Republic, not a democracy, not a monarchy, not an aristocracy – “a Republic, if you can keep it,” Benjamin Franklin famously quipped. But not just any Republic, a Republic particularly skeptical, cynical, and leery of political power.
We often use the phrase “checks and balances,” but I’m not sure we realize how thoroughly the Founding Fathers thought of this. While the Bureaucratic Administrative State has become a massive, oozing cucumber-shaped tumor out the side of the Federal Head, the Constitution itself is a short, iron-clad document, primarily full of limiting features. Let us call them chains and locks and cinder block walls with barbed wire and broken glass scattered generously across the top.
While there would be an executive, he would only serve four year terms and can be over-ridden by the legislature and even kicked out of office. But the legislature is broken into two houses, one leaning more towards popular vote, giving the people an almost direct say every two years, the other, the senate, representing the states, standing for election every six years, but staggered every two years to slow the turnover of its members. And a judicial branch of courts meant to check all of those, and Ten Amendments, Ten Titanium Locks meant to keep the government in its cage. But the chains and locks of this mixed government run all the way down into the states, counties, cities, and people.
And the point of it all was to flatten all political power, to spread it out and tangle it up in as many different directions as possible, with multiple gates, multiple switchbacks and hairpin turns to slow everything down because not to put too fine a point on it: men do bad things with power. And then to put an exclamation point on all of it, the Constitution forbade all honorific, hierarchical titles. No lords. No political nobility. No political royalty. No magisterial class. We’re all just men made in the magisterial image of God.
In other words, our Founding Fathers wanted to establish a nation of limited government where everyone participated, not democratically, not like a giant mob, but covenantally, feudally, federally, with multiple, overlapping jurisdictions and responsibilities, overlaid loyalties, mixed and sometimes competing as a way to spread out the temptations to power, with kinks in the hose every six feet.
In other words, we the people, we the families, we the cities, we the churches, we the counties, we the businesses, we the states, we the free associations and denominations, we the representatives, we the civil servants are all magistrates in America, or else we have no magistrates. When someone is elected to be the chairman of the school board, nobody starts citing Romans 13 if he starts getting snippy at meetings. We tell him to cool it or we give him the boot. America was set up as a complex and intricate system of interweaving boards and chairmen, and maybe that will be our undoing, but America was designed to try keep everyone from getting uppity.
Romans 13 in America
Romans 13 in America means honoring our Fathers who set up that system, that vast system of checks and padlocks, our Fathers who forbade us, the people and our representatives, from allowing power to accumulate in the hands of one man, one branch of government, or one class of people. You cannot cite Romans 13 divorced from the actual form of government established by our constitution. You cannot cite Romans 13 divorced from what our Fathers commanded us to do and that was to keep our freedom.
Citing Romans 13 in its Roman Empire context and applying it straight across to the American project is like citing instructions to slaves to submit to their masters and applying it straight across to employees. Everyone understands (or should understand) that there are analogous lessons and principles in play, but they must be applied differently to a situation where chattel slavery has been abolished. And it makes absolutely no sense to tell an employee with an abusive boss that now she can apply what Peter says about abusive slave masters. Well, yes, there is application there, but it’s not like she’s trapped and has to lay down and take it.
Likewise, when Christianity has permeated a culture to such an extent that the founders of a nation do everything they can think of to pile bricks on the tendency of magistrates to abuse their power, you cannot appeal to Romans 13 and tut-tut American Christians that Paul wrote that during Nero’s reign. Right, but America is not the Roman Empire, and it is nothing resembling Christian in the slightest to passively let such an empire develop. And there is no necessary contradiction between humbly recognizing God’s just judgment in the loss of our freedom on the one hand and fighting to keep and retain and gain true Christian freedom on the other. The Midianites were God’s judgment on Israel for her idolatry, and it was still faithful to join up with Gideon.
Other nations with different civil polities have to do a slightly different calculus, applying the principles of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 to their political circumstances. But in general, Paul would urge all of us to honor legitimate authority and that if we can get freedom from tyranny we should go for it. When American Christians defy stupid mask rules, ignore inane health and safety regulations, and generally live like free men and women, especially in their own homes and businesses and places of worship, they honor the fathers who established this nation, they obey Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, and they honor the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who set us free that we might be free indeed.
One final word on this notion of radical freedom that must be underlined multiple times: this freedom must not be used for the flesh. This freedom is not for smoking pot, getting drunk (or very tipsy), or messing around with your girlfriend or the secretary at work. This freedom is not for looking at pornography. This freedom is not for feeding any hint of wrath or vengeance in your heart or on social media or blowing up at your family or the lady with the potty mouth in the checkout aisle who wants to know why you’re not wearing your woke burka.
This freedom is for obedience to Christ. This freedom is for taking dominion and ruling the world under God’s blessing for the good of our families and neighbors. This freedom is for proclaiming the death and resurrection of Jesus for the freedom and salvation of the world. This freedom is for obeying lawful and godly authority.
The freedom of Christ is full of love, joy, and peace. This freedom is full of forgiveness and mercy, even for enemies and tyrants, praying and hoping for their salvation and repentance. It is precisely because of this peace and joy and grace that it will not voluntarily relinquish its responsibilities. We must obey God rather than man. And when we do that, we must take responsibility for the fallout. We must count the cost. But there is immense blessing for those who are hungry for it.