On April 29, 1992, a jury acquitted four Los Angeles police officers for beating an African-American man named Rodney King. This, despite film footage showing the merciless beating. He had been arrested following a high speed chase.
African-Americans around the country were justifiably incensed. But the African-American community in south-central Los Angeles came completely unglued and a three day riot ensued.
At the time, I was living in Pasadena, California (a suburb of Los Angeles) attending Fuller Theological Seminary. I’ll never forget walking to my apartment and seeing smoke billowing out of the city. It was like a forest fire in the middle of LA. So I gathered my family, and for the next two days, we locked ourselves in our apartment.
I’ll save my stories for another day, but twice that weekend, my life was in danger.
While holed up in our apartment, I realized how fragile any system of government is. For three days, we basically had no protection from law enforcement. Chaos ruled.
When enough people get fed up with their system of government, they can overthrow it. Quite easily, actually.
But as long as they obey their governing authorities, everything holds together. This is good…most of the time. But what do we do when a system of government conflicts with the conscience of a normal, healthy follower of Jesus and Scripture?
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INSIGHTS AND EXPLANATIONS
2 Chronicles 26:1-28:27. Although his name is fairly obscure, Uzziah was one of Judah’s greatest kings. The New Bible Commentary explains:
Uzziah was a greater king than either Joash or Amaziah. History tells us that he and his northern contemporary Jeroboam II, profiting from a decline in the fortunes of the super-power Assyria, gave to both kingdoms real prosperity and power.
But his prowess to rule also became his undoing. Uzziah’s downfall? Pride. His success as a king led him to believe that he could play the role of high priest. A great error in judgment which led to him being stricken with leprosy—and exclusion from the rest of Israel for the remainder of his life.
Jotham followed his father Uzziah. He was the first thoroughly righteous king in 170 years. His son, Ahaz, on the other hand, was as evil as his father was good. The depths of Ahaz’s depravity were so great that even when he was in severe distress, he didn’t turn to God (2 Chronicles 28:22-23). In the end, he shuttered the temple and erected altars to other gods “at every street corner.” It’s obvious that the people of Judah weren’t impressed by Ahaz because they refused to bury him in the tombs of Israel.
Romans 13:1-14. In verses 8-10, Paul explains how we fulfill the law: love your neighbor as yourself. The word “neighbor” is literally translated “nearby.” A neighbor would then be not only family, not only the people living next door, but every person in whom we come into contact: the waiter who gives poor service, the car mechanic who you suspect is ripping you off, and the homeless person on the street.
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THE WORD MADE FRESH
I’ll be honest. I feel quite ambivalent about the first seven verses of Romans 13. In it, Paul tells us to submit to the governing authorities. When we rebel against them, we rebel against God. While I agree with the spirit of what Paul is saying, I also know the passage has been abused and misused for millennia.
Please excuse my recent World War II references, but the Dietrich Bonhoeffer biography I’m reading—which focuses on events from World War II—has greatly impacted the way I view the relationship between the church and the state.
As the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, the German church found themselves in a quandary. Do they discriminate against the Jews or stand against the state? In a culture that valued the importance of showing patriotism and support for one’s county, the church began to wilt.
Romans 13 became their justification for acceding power to the Nazis. Some people disagreed with the German government, but in the interest being good citizens, they gave in. “We may not agree with the Nazis,” they claimed, “but God calls us to submit to the authorities.”
On one level, the German church was correct. Submitting to the authorities over us is a biblical principle, supported elsewhere in Scripture. We need laws and people need to obey them. We need law enforcement or we would live in anarchy and chaos.
At the same time, when the early Christians began experiencing persecution from the Jewish authorities and were forbidden from sharing their faith, Peter replied, “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29).
What does this tell us?
- God is our authority and is worthy of our obedience.
- We obey God when we obey the authorities he has placed over us—from governmental authorities to our supervisors at work.
- When the authorities over us conflict with our understanding of Scripture, our duty is to obey God rather than those authorities.
Obviously, people have used this as justification for doing some pretty stupid things. However, I see no other way to live. This defies formulas because all of us must live with a conscience in the sight of God. Living like this forces us to live by faith, because we must constantly examine our hearts to weed out rebellion toward our government and God.
But rather than go any further, I’d like to hear back from you.
How far should we go in obeying our authorities?
How far should we go in obeying God?
Let’s get the conversation started.
- What spoke to you in today’s reading?
- When have you encountered a conflict between your beliefs and the authorities over you?
- How did you respond? What did you learn?
- What does it mean for you to “clothe yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ”?
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Michael co-pastors The Neighborhood Church with Eugene Scott in Littleton, Colorado.