On respecting and submitting to the governing authorities

“Been following some of your facebook posts. How do you reconcile your views with passages like Ephesians 4:2 and others that require us to submit to and pray for those who God has placed in positions of authority over us? Just wondering . . . “

That’s a question I received today from one of the loveliest souls in my whole family tree, a childhood playmate whom I have seen far too rarely over the last four or five decades.

Some of my FB friends are from my academic and professional worlds—and you’re great. But on FB I’ve been more interested in reconnecting with people from my childhood and elementary-school and high-school years, and then also from college and from churches I’ve passed through over the decades. Such warm memories I have of them, and now we’re so far away from each other—in multiple ways. So maybe my professional and academic contacts can just do something else while I devote this post to people I love from longer ago. Here’s how I replied to the question above.

Dear ________,

You remember the train tracks that ran along _______ Street where we grew up. Once when I was a child I had a dream of a huge train car that came down the tracks and paused over our house. I say “over our house” because while its base was on the train tracks, it was immense, a massive structure, I suppose 70 or 100 feet high, and circular, something like a giant flying saucer—except that it was rolling, not flying. It represented some kind of dark power. In my dream I stood in our backyard looking up at it in dread. I never forgot that dream. And it became associated in my mind with another dream I had, in which I and my family and many others were down at a beach, and a throne was set up on the beach, and everyone was convinced somehow that what was rising up out of the sea and setting itself on that throne was God, and that we should all bow in worship. But I was doubtful. I thought—why would we think it is? And what if it’s not? And I tried to speak to my parents and others around, but they weren’t having it—they had no idea what I was concerned about—and I awoke, anxious and troubled.

Those dreams, I guess, are what you get when you expose a child to Ezekiel and Revelation. You could easily locate the biblical passages on which those dreams are dependent. Here’s the thing: they are not biblical passages that we think of much when we ask ourselves questions about disciple-formation, about what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the world. But we forget them at our peril. Scripture spends a lot more time than we do meditating on the possibility of deception, mass delusion, and apostasy.

As I think you know, Ephesians 4:2 is addressed to a Christian community, calling for unity between Jews and Gentiles who have been brought together into the one body of Christ. In that setting and beyond, gentleness, humility, patience, and love are admirable and godly qualities. Not only in our churches but in our families, in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods, and in our communities more broadly, we should show forth the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, etc. These are marks of the presence of the Spirit and also from another angle of vision they are Christian virtues. These are qualities I have seen and loved in you, and I sometimes I wish I had more of them myself.

But I think you also know the Bible as a whole—the Law, the Psalms, Wisdom Writings, the Prophets, the Gospels, as well as the Epistles, Acts, Revelation. You know that these books, given as Hebrews says “in many segments and in many ways,” speak to a diverse people of God across the course of many changes in circumstance. God’s messengers sometimes spoke with gentleness, humility, and patience, but as my mind flits across the scriptures I would hardly say that’s the predominant tone. Certainly not the only tone. When Jesus calls Pharisaic hypocrites whitewashed tombs, how gentle is that? How patient and humble was his action in the temple? When Paul learned that some teachers were pushing for circumcision of gentile converts and said “I wish they would go all the way and castrate themselves,” or when he storms “You Galatian fools!” he’s not exactly tiptoeing through the tulips is he?

The kindness and gentleness of the Lord, and of his prophets and apostles, is reserved for the lowly, the downtrodden, not served up as dessert to the self-exalting plunderers and dominators who have been eating the lunch and dinner of the vulnerable and the gullible, and especially not when the plunderers falsely present themselves as servants of the Lord and his word.

The New Testament epistles are addressed, to generalize broadly but truthfully, to small pockets of despised, poor, and powerless people who trust in a savior who is not acknowledged at all by the worldly powers around them, including the governing powers. They have no wealth, and they certainly have no political power. To them the Spirit through the apostles addresses words of comfort and assurance, and with regard to life in the public squares of the imperial cities, it tells them they will do best to be quiet, pay all due honor and respect to their overlords, and trust in God for their ultimate salvation. So you get Romans 13 etc.

But you also get Revelation 13. Reread that chapter and tell me whether its writer thinks that every human ruler is always God’s appointee before whom believers are commanded to be docile, subservient, perhaps even flattering? John of Patmos knew a Beast when he saw one, and he called ‘em as he saw ‘em.

The Old Testament prophets address kings who have wealth and power in Israel and Judah, who by and large profess to be worshipers of the God for whom the prophet speaks, but who are not conducting themselves according to the Torah of God, are not bearing up the widow and the orphan, the destitute and the alien, but are plundering the people to feather their own nests. Find me a prophet who speaks gently, patiently, with respect to a king under those circumstances. When a prophet commanded the courtiers of Queen Jezebel to throw her from the window so that she could die on the street and be eaten by dogs, I don’t think she saw that as a gesture of gentle subservience.

The prophets who bow and scrape before the king and tell him that whatever he does is good are the false prophets. Reread the story of Micaiah ben Imlah. Or of the prophets of Baal in the days of Elijah. The prophets of Baal are the closest biblical analog I can think of to the mob of fraudulent health-and-wealth preachers who suck up to Trump at every available moment, laying hands on him in bogus prayer for photo-ops. Biblically speaking, the prophet who stands before the king to praise his wonderfulness is a faithless and worthless prophet. When the biblical king recognizes the true prophet, he calls him “my enemy.” And you know how things end for the kings of Israel and Judah.

And where on earth would anyone get the idea that Ephesians 4:2 is the one verse from the whole Bible that ought to be plucked out of context and served up as God’s instruction for commenting, or not, on a grossly foolish and unrighteous national leader?

Christians in the United States (and other modern constitutional democracies) are not in the position of the OT prophets, who could claim ownership of their nations in the name of God. And neither are we in the position of the believers of the first-century Roman world, disfranchised and having to look to Rome to find the “governing authorities.” We are not the poor, the dispossessed, the exiles. Some of our fellow citizens are, but not you and I. We get to speak and vote for or against political candidates. We get to run for office if we want to. We—members of your and my family—have worn military uniforms in service to this country—not as its captives or subjects or mercenaries but as its citizens. Its government is what we say it will be. The “governing authorities” are—US. WE are the ones who have power, under our nation’s Constitution and in comparison to the population of the world at large. We should be ashamed to pretend that we are the weak and lowly, owing quiet earthly obedience to some great emperor off in a distant capital city. That is not faithful application of Romans 13 and 1 Peter etc.; it is a travesty and a shirking of responsibility for which we should expect a Nathan or an Elijah or a Jeremiah to rise up and denounce us. For which we should expect the Lord Jesus who came to announce freedom for the captives to denounce us as whited sepulchers.

______, I do pray for Donald Trump. I pray that God will grant him the grace of true repentance. I pray that like Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel he will be humbled and debilitated and turned out to pasture to eat grass under the dewy sky until he comes to the realization that there is a God in heaven, and that when he was falsely claiming to be himself the God-given savior of the followers of God, he was under a strong delusion and spreading delusion. What a glorious testimony to the kindness of God and the power of grace that repentance would be.

Meanwhile, if anyone, whether it’s Franklin Graham or Jerry Falwell Jr. or Robert Jeffress or some local preacher or an angel from heaven tells you that in order to serve your Lord Jesus you need to acknowledge that Donald Trump is his servant to whom you owe respect and allegiance—in that moment, in my opinion, you will have heard the voice of Antichrist himself.

Well, you asked.

God bless you and keep you, my cousin and brother.

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