First, a proviso: I’m probably the least competent among those who wish to quote the Christian Scriptures to settle a question about the church’s stance in relation to a tyrannical government.
While I may have read it from cover to cover in my mid-twenties several times, and taught it book by book for four years as a teaching elder in a Christian fellowship we called Harvest, neither cherry-picking verses here nor there, I don’t think my life today can stand up to its scrutiny. My cats have better chances of being saints than I could ever dream of being.
Thank God for the Savior who is the same yesterday, today and forever.
But just the same I will do it because, well, I can and that they were the ones who started it, and because I find it necessary to the task at hand.
That being said, allow me to cut to the chase. Yesterday, I stumbled upon a meme posted on the timeline of a Facebook site managed by the Police Regional Office 13 (PRO13) of the Philippine National Police (PNP). As part of the government security infrastructure, it is expected of them to support the now controversial and largely despised Anti-Terrorism Bill.
The meme I am referring to says just that, but goes on to quote the Christian Bible, particularly Romans 13:1–2, as the final and unchangeable rationale behind the people’s obedience to the government and the law.
I find it strangely out of whack for a government agency to quote the Letter of Paul the Apostle to the Romans as its defense of a bill believed by many Filipinos to be a tool of state repression.
For one, there is the democratic principle of the separation of the Church and State, meaning, the people’s freedom and power to worship must never infringe on or share in the affairs and power of the State and vice-versa. Article II, Section 6 of the Declaration of Principles and Policies of the 1987 Philippine Constitution says that “The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable.”
We are a republic, not a theocracy.
Likewise, if this particular police agency knew the background of the letter, they would cringe at the mere thought of quoting the said lines because of one crucial fact: Paul’s letter to the Romans was once considered a subversive document.
Why? Because in the first century, Christianity was a banned faith. Any and all who were caught with documents written by any of the apostles — who were writers, by the way — must suffer the wrath and brutality of the Roman emperor’s legions.
Jesus Christ was believed by the authorities of his day as a coddler of renegades, insurgents and rabble-rousers, and his disciples rebels preaching the good news of the reign of another king. In the ears of the Roman emperor who believed himself to be a descendant of the gods, if not a god himself, what Paul wrote down in his letters were largely treasonous to the crown.
Obviously unaware of the context of Paul’s letter, PRO13 included it in the meme with the intention of defrauding people of their right to critically assess the said bill. Between a bible verse and a constitutional provision, the former would be the best fish hook to drag people by the nose. Seeing that a bible verse would automatically compel the majority, those who don’t know any better, to give up his right to oppose the will of the state, the agency has set the stage “for the kill”.
If they can convince the people that God is on the side of the Duterte regime, that’s more than half the battle won.
But see, that’s just the thing when Bible verses are taken out of context: quoting the first two verses of Romans 13 doesn’t give anyone the complete picture. In Romans 13:4, Paul categorically describes the leader whom God has chosen: “For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.”
Here’s a bit of a background. The letter was written three years after the 16-year-old emperor Nero had ascended the throne. There was a change of political guards, compelling Paul to write the letter from Corinth so the church in Rome would know what to do.
The relationship of Christians with the government of Rome had faced a snag when emperor Claudius, the previous potentate, expelled the Jews from the city because of their fight against the Greeks. At the time, Roman authorities did not make any distinction between the Jews and the Christians.
Little did Christians know that seven years later, Rome would burn and emperor Nero would use this event to spark the widespread killings and executions of Christians.
And so Paul wrote Romans 13 under these circumstances, reminding the church that while “there is no authority except that which God has established,” this same authority bears the responsibility of being God’s ministers the way Paul was a minister and servant of Christ.
In the first century church, Christians knew the meaning of Paul’s words: God’s minister. It was the same title with which Paul was bestowed, which he mentioned in Romans 1 during the introduction: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God”.
God’s minister is synonymous to being God’s servant — a follower of the will and words of God. Any and all who defy God’s words and message through the gospel of Christ was not worthy of bearing the title of God’s minister regardless of one’s stature in society and government.
This is why no reader of the Bible should cherry-pick its lines and use the same beyond the context on which it was written. When Paul wrote in the fifth verse that “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience [emphasis mine],” conscience being a believer’s personal awareness of what it right and wrong, then it made perfect sense for Paul to raise the issue of taxes, revenue, but more importantly, respect and honor to whom respect and honor were due.
If Paul were alive today, this is what he was trying to say: “Peeps, let me remind you that all authority comes from God. But you must obey not only for fear of punishment, but also for conscience’s sake. You know what is right and what is wrong. Pay your taxes, that’s good. But more importantly, pay respect and honor to whom respect and honor are due.”
In short, if the leader fails in the matter of respect and honor, then “We must obey God rather than men.”
I believe it’s only proper to mention here that Paul the Apostle was a Jewish intellectual, one who was well-versed with the Old Testament and the Torah. Not only did he know the Scriptures like the back of his hand, he knew God’s words on the matter of good and bad leaders.
Proverbs 16:12: It is an abomination to kings to do evil, for the throne is established by righteousness.
I think that’s simple enough to understand. Leadership emanates from righteousness, not power in excess of what the law requires.
Ephesians 5:11: Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them [emphasis, mine].
Proverbs 24:24–25: Whoever exposes the wicked will be thanked and rewarded.
In God’s eyes, there is nothing wrong when people criticize and expose evil. In fact, a reward awaits them. Remember why John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, was beheaded? Because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
And speaking of mouths, here’s Proverbs 31:8–9: Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Fighting for people’s rights is not a sin, a crime or rebellion. People, in fact, are admonished by the Scriptures to do so without fail.
And then the bomb: Isaiah 10:1: Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees.
Congress and the Senate should have these words carved on its august walls in huge font sizes.
Proverbs 28: 2–26: A foolish ruler hurts the people under him, but a ruler who hates wrong will rule for a long time. A murderer will never have peace. Don’t support such a person [emphasis, mine].
Acts 5:29: Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”
These two passages reinforce what Paul wrote in Romans 13: that while God chooses leaders, He does not encourage blind obedience to these leaders, more so if they are foolish and evil. Our obedience should be based not so much on fear but conscience.
And then there’s Proverbs 25:5: Remove the wicked from leadership and authority will be credible and God-honoring.
In fact, what the Book of Proverbs says here seems to form the basis of the democratic principle of the right to revolution in order to oust or dethrone an abusive tyrant. Philosopher John Locke, in his Second Treatise, wrote:
“The end of Government is the good of Mankind. And which is best for Mankind, that the People should be always expos’d to the boundless will of Tyranny, or that the Rulers should be sometimes liable to be oppos’d, when they grow exorbitant in the use of their Power, and imploy it for the destruction, and not the preservation of the Properties of their People?”
Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic Church’s most honored thinker and theologian, also embraced the principle of justifiable resistance in his Summa Theologica and De Regno.
He wrote in the Summa: “Laws can be unjust . . . by being contrary to the divine good, as are tyrannical laws that induce men to idolatry or to do anything else that is contrary to divine law. It is not permissible to obey such laws in any way at all” [emphasis, mine].
John Calvin of the early Protestant movement embraced the same.
Psalm 58:1–11: Justice — do you rulers know the meaning of the word? Do you judge the people fairly? No! You plot injustice in your hearts. You spread violence throughout the land. These wicked people are born sinners; even from birth they have lied and gone their own way. They spit venom like deadly snakes; they are like cobras that refuse to listen, ignoring the tunes of the snake charmers, no matter how skillfully they play. Break off their fangs, O God! Smash the jaws of these lions, O LORD! May they disappear like water into thirsty ground. Make their weapons useless in their hands. May they be like snails that dissolve into slime, like a stillborn child who will never see the sun. God will sweep them away, both young and old, faster than a pot heats over burning thorns. The godly will rejoice when they see injustice avenged. They will wash their feet in the blood of the wicked. Then at last everyone will say, ‘There truly is a reward for those who live for God; surely there is a God who judges justly here on earth.’”
Lastly, David, who would later become king, prayed for God to smash tyrants, break their fangs, turn them into snails, and give them up to the jaws of lions. This was written at the time when King Saul, Israel’s first monarch, used the law to “red-tag” David as a traitor to the crown.
The Bible is not a book that stops at teaching the fruits of the spirit, and the principle of the meek being inheritors of the earth. In the matter of national leadership, the Bible is brazen and unapologetic in its principles of resistance. This was why the early Christians were persecuted and killed, burned at the stake, fed to lions and crucified because they did not adhere to the Roman government’s ban on worshiping any God other than the Roman imperials.
No leader of immoral standing can claim being chosen by God without suffering the resistance that should follow the heels of a tyrant.
Jesus himself said, To whom much is given, much will be required.