That Time our Hermeneutic Didn’t Come Home for 3 Days

This is one essay in a series on the topic of government.

Tim Kennedy on Twitter: "You can't go to church, buy seeds or ...

This one may require a cup of coffee to get through, especially since its Monday morning. But my thoughts are burning and now is the time to light the fire. So here we go. Lately the world of Christendom has been wrestling with how to respond as citizens to the acts of the government in response to Covid-19. In the course of that discussion an appeal is often made to a couple of texts that we should look at more closely, especially by those stressing that the only obligation for believers at this time is to submit to the governing authorities. First, thank you for actually quoting some Scripture. That’s a great place for believers to start. And end, for that matter. But in between there must be a lot of thinking.

Matthew 22:21ff

Context: this is a trap laid by the Pharisees for Jesus. Our Lord’s famous response to “render to Caesar the thing’s that are Caesar’s and render to God the things that are God’s” was in response to the question of whether it was lawful to pay tribute (taxes) to Caesar. The aim was to either alienate Jesus from the crowd, whose sentiment was decidedly anti-Roman, or to accuse him before Caesar of insurrection. If all Jesus is saying is to obey God and obey government, the Pharisees would not have marveled at what Jesus just did. So what did Jesus just do?

When Jesus asks them “whose image and inscription is this?” he is using theologically rich language. The first time we hear of an image in Scripture it is the image of God in man in Genesis 1. It is the crowning difference between Adam and every other creation. Caesar’s image may have been imprinted on the coin, but God’s image was imprinted on everyone listening to Jesus that day. Jesus reminds them that all Caesar can take from them is some money. Give Caesar your money….but render yourself to God! In answering this way Jesus’ words could be copied down word for word and repeated to Caesar without any issue.

But Jesus also puts Caesar in his place, which is a decidedly lower place than Caesar wanted (and modern Caesars want) to occupy. Caesar claimed some sort of right to the tribute money because they bore his image, but he had no right to the people themselves who were stamped with God’s image. And if having your image stamped on something indicates that item belongs to you, whose image are you stamped with Caesar? Caesar may be able to demand tribute money from the Jews, but God will demand tribute from Caesar, who bears His image.

Thus, the Pharisees marvel that Jesus avoids offending Caesar or the people (not that Jesus was necessarily concerned about either of those things in principal). Simply saying that Jesus taught people to submit to the governing authorities misses the incredible thing Jesus did, which is to declare God’s rightful authority over all of His image-bearers, whether they be Jewish or Roman, rich or poor, tax takers or tax payers.

Romans 13

Paul says some very straightforward things in this text, about half of which gets communicated. Before we delve into it, let’s think about how we interpret another text that has to do with submission. Ephesians 5:22 tells a wife, in no uncertain terms, that she is to submit herself to her husband. It’s hard to find very much preaching on that these days, especially preaching that does not insert so many disclaimers that the point is lost completely. But even among the complementarians, the wife’s responsibility to submit to her husband is always tempered with the husband’s responsibility to love his wife. Some would even go so far as to say that Paul has flipped the table on the husband and is laying a greater burden on him (which I would agree with). As the one with greater authority, the husband has a greater responsibility.

But when it comes to Romans 13, I have yet to see anyone show how the text comes down just as hard on governing authorities as it does on the subjects of that authority. Its clearly not just a text about spirit-filled subjects, but also about righteous government. Consider the following clearly enumerated points in the text:

  1. Rulers are not self-appointed, they are God appointed.
  2. The job of a ruler is to reward the righteous and punish the wicked
  3. The ruler is really a servant…of God.

Each one of these points brings government under the rightful rule of God. I don’t know how Plutarch would have felt about this, but based on what I know of the Caesars I bet they wouldn’t have agreed. When those in authority only exert their power unto selfish ends, they don’t enjoy hearing that theirs is a derived authority and not an original authority.

In Defense of Defensiveness

I have enough of a rebellious streak running through me to guard myself against it. I don’t want to be guilty of turning the plain teaching of Scripture into something else in order to justify rebellion towards governing authorities. But some of the wooden application drawn from these texts stems from a wooden hermeneutic and someone needs to set a match to it.

In the overlapping arenas of government God has ordained, the Church and the government often come into conflict specifically because the Church is the pillar and groundwork of Truth. So regardless of what the legislature does, the Church has the moral high ground. Condemning “legal” practices like abortion is exactly what the church is supposed to do. And individual believers protesting at abortion clinics is good and right. The Church rightly declares the government to be out line with God even if they are in line with the laws they have written.

Furthermore, the Church may call the government to live up to the standard it has set for itself. And because we have inherited a nation birthed by Christendom, it is legal for us to do so. Paul appealed to Caesar like we appeal to the Constitution. In doing this we save our children and grandchildren from the very sort of abusive government from which our ancestors fled. But let’s save that for another post.

To suggest that anything but meek acquiescence in our response to Covid-19 constitutes sin is not a biblically justified charge. Now sin is sin, whether it is the fearful cowardice found in the slavish or whether it is the pugnacious rebellion found in the scoffer. But disagreement and protest are not intrinsically sinful.

What does that mean for me? I have led our church to comply with all government regulations regarding meeting while influencing my “vast readership” to think. I would support new language in our state legislation that defines more clearly the definition of “quarantine” and “state of emergency”. I have conversations where I bring up these things without speaking ill of my elected officials who have had to respond to a new and pressing crisis without any history to lean on. I pray for those in authority to exercise that authority with wisdom and justice. And I am thankful for those pushing back against the use of executive powers to an extent not seen before in our history. Is that messy and complicated? Sure. It would be easier to just pick a “camp” and run with the crowd: should I burn or should I bow? But my hermeneutics just showed back up and complicated my life.