I’ve been pondering the question posed in today’s title for a number of years now. How much obedience do we owe to human authorities, both inside and outside the church? Is a Christian allowed, per scripture, to speak against people in authority? Are they ever encouraged to stand up and fight against authority that is unjust and immoral? And why are churches, even those that preach the importance of obeying God’s word, so reluctant to talk about submission to authority passages like Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-19?
Until fairly recently, this was mostly an intellectual puzzle for the American church. Then came questions about baking cakes for same-sex weddings, then whether or not to assemble for services when governors shut down states, now debates over the mask issue, and rising fears that a Covid vaccine might be the Mark of the Beast. We live in confusing times, and they’re forcing us to face questions and wrestle with decisions some of us haven’t had to deal with before.
Those of us who prize our independence might be angry about infringements on our freedom, wrestling with whether to follow our personal choices or do as we’re told. Those of us who struggle with anxiety might be scared — paralyzed, even — both by everything that’s going on and by not knowing what is the right thing to do. Those who are people-pleasers might be running up against the fact that we’ll need to pick a side and can’t make everyone happy.
Today’s post isn’t going to offer answers for the specific issues we’re facing right now. Rather, I hope to highlight scriptures that provide principles which we can use whenever we struggle with how to respond to human authority in a way that honors God. This is a question we will face at some point, if we aren’t facing it already. We need to be prepared to answer these questions, to ourselves and when asked by others, in a Biblically solid way. Read more →
We can all answer this question a variety of different ways. Our identities are multifaceted things — human, female, Christian, daughter, American, writer, friend, white, Midwestern (to give you some of mine). Some are chosen by us, some are given by God, nature, or other people. The things we identify with, wherever those identities come from, shape who are are.
Sometimes our identities might be in conflict with each other, or with those of other people. We need to be able to handle and resolve those conflicts. On the small scale, it might be something like “student” vs. “friend” (such as finding a balance between needing time to study and finding time to maintain friendships). On a larger scale, it might be something like “national” vs. “religious” (such as wanting to uphold your country’s ideals, but finding some of them at odds with your faith, and needing to choose between them). Or it could be an interpersonal situation where you find yourself interacting with people who have different political affiliations, ethnicities, faiths, and priorities than you do.
How we resolve these inner and outer conflicts says something about who we are and what we value. As Christians, we have an identity that is meant to be first in our priorities and underlie every other part of our lives. But we don’t always live as if this is truly the case. Sometimes we choose to put other beliefs and identities first, and if we do that too often it can damage our relationship with our primary identity as children of God.
The Problem of Conflicting Identities
I recently listened to a podcast episode titled “A First Step Toward Racial Reconciliation,” which was an interview with Mark Vroegop. His book Weep with Me: How Lament Opens A Door For Racial Reconciliation is coming out next month. In this interview, he talks about how the church should be the best place to resolve racial differences because “the gospel creates an identity that gets underneath all other identities.” Read more →
If you follow any sort of Christian news outlets or have Christian friends on Facebook, there’s a good chance you’ve seen headlines like, “California Bans Bible Sales.” Or, as the title of a YouTube video I recently saw states it, CALIFORNIA BANS BIBLES!
The law in question is “California bill AB 2943, a measure that puts strict limits on programs that aim to change a person’s sexual orientation. The legislation, which passed out of the state assembly and over to the Senate, bans any advertising, offering to engage in, or engaging in sexual orientation change efforts with an individual'” (PolitiFact.com).
A quick Google search will reveal that this Bill does not, in fact, ban Bibles. It doesn’t even ban churches from offering conversion therapy as long as they don’t charge for it (FactCheck.org). And the fact that Christian news outlets are relying on the false claim of Bible banning as a headline is undermining their credibility. This is click-bait at it’s worst, designed to scare Christian readers rather than start an actual dialogue about the real dangers of the bill. And anyone (even a Christian) with a logical, questioning mindset who fact-checks this claim will quickly find it’s wrong. And then why should they bother listening to what else the news article (or its source) has to say?
That’s what irritates me most about Christian response to this bill. They/we are not talking about what’s actually going on. We’re twisting facts to scare people. No wonder people accuse Christians of not being in touch with reality!
The reality is that California’s new law bars people who want to determine their own sexual orientation from getting help. It forbids people who have homosexual urges and want to change from seeking counseling, and it also stops people who could help them from offering counsel. There was already a law in place preventing “sexual orientation change efforts” for children under the age of 18, but this new bill restricts the rights of adults to voluntarily seek counselling. I’m sure the people who advocated for this law would be enraged were it reversed (forbidding people who’ve lived as heterosexual from exploring other options).
This sort of law shouldn’t just worry Christians. It should worry anyone who doesn’t want the government legislating their sex life, their access to mental health resources, or their religious expression.
The headline “California Bans Bibles” is inaccurate and misleading. It’s not responsible reporting. And it’s actually distracting from talking about what’s really going on. Why aren’t more Christian websites using a headline like, “California Restricts Adult Citizen’s Rights To Seek Counseling”? That gets to what’s actually going on and it’s something non-Christians might click on as well.
Once we’re talking about the human rights that California’s bill is restricting right now, then we can talk about the danger of it leading to more restrictions in the future. Because when a state assumes the power to dictate what sort of programs a church can offer, that’s a freedom of religion violation. And it’s not much of a leap to go from a vaguely worded prohibition against selling any program designed to change a person’s sexual orientation to banning books, which is a freedom of speech violation. This makes California’s bill a violation of everyone’s First Amendment rights. And that’s a much bigger story than the inaccurate claim that they’re banning Bibles.
A number of years ago I was sitting in a church service listening to the minister introduce his sermon topic for the day. One of the first things he said was, “Close your Bibles and put them on the floor. I’ve got something to tell you this morning.” Smacks of Bibles hitting linoleum is a sound I hope never to hear again. While teenage me wasn’t brave enough to stand up and walk out, I did keep my Bible open in my lap so I could do my own study while he lectured on American history.
The United States of America, rather than something out of the Bible, should feel like a strange topic for a sermon. And yet I’ve heard other sermons, though much less extreme, preached about this topic on a fairly regular basis. Typically, it’s presented as something like “the Biblical history of our country” or “America’s Christian heritage.” The speakers usually do turn to scriptures, but they may spend more time quoting founding fathers and presidents than they do Jesus.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me. This isn’t a rant against my country or an article condemning people who love the U.S. of A (which is why I didn’t post this 4th of July weekend, though it would have probably gotten more views then). Nor am I saying Christians teachers shouldn’t quote writings outside the Bible. My concern is that patriotism for our physical nation has gotten muddled up with our Christian faith as if the two are, or should be, interconnected. But I don’t think they should be.
Not Of The World
When Jesus walked this earth, He said He was “not of this world” (John 8:23, KJV). At the Passover, He started describing His followers that way as well (John 15:19; 17:14-16). We still have to live in this world, as Paul points out in 1 Cor. 5:10, but we don’t belong to it.
“We know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness” (1 John 5:19, KJV). The present world is evil because it has fallen into sin and is under Satan’s sway (Gal. 1:4; John 14:30). I think most Christians would agree with that at least to a certain extent, otherwise we’d have no need for a Savior. But often, we think of this world’s evil as an abstraction. The world “out there” is wicked, “society” is evil, or there’s a spirit of wickedness at large “somewhere.” But maybe my neighborhood, this city, our country isn’t really all that bad.
Here in the U.S., we don’t yet face the sort of persecution that would serve as a constant reminder that this world isn’t a Christian’s home. I’m thankful for that, but I also wonder if it has made us lose sight of some important truths. The United States was founded with some Christian principles and a guarantee of a religious freedom, but it was never a “Christian nation” and it hadn’t even looked like one for a long time. And while you have the right as an American to get involved in pushing your country toward where you’d like it to go and a duty as a Christian to stand up for what’s right in God’s sight, this physical nation isn’t where we owe our primary allegiance. Read more →
I’m sitting here thinking, “What does one write on Independence Day when one is rather disappointed in the direction one’s country is headed?” Thousands of babies are being slaughtered, we just had the largest mass shooting in US history, there’s a systematized rejection of gender and acceptance of child abuse … the list goes on and on, and our presidential candidates aren’t making things look any better. I wonder if this is something like how Hamilton felt facing the election of 1800.
Except I’m not sure which of our current candidates is Burr in this analogy and which is Jefferson. I’m probably just going to not vote at all (side note: for some reason I’ve always felt uncomfortable with/guilty for voting, even though my church doesn’t teach against it. Weird, huh?).
Anyway, this isn’t going to be a depressing post! We’re celebrating Independence Day, and I’m quite certain the best way to do that this year is listening to the Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording. It’s on Amazon Prime, Spotify, YouTube — you have no excuse not to listen. Nor any excuse not to think about what you’re listening to.
Hamilton didn’t win 11 out of the record-breaking 16 Tony nominations just because it’s a run-away hit with a unique musical approach. The catchiest music couldn’t have sustained this level of success without a story that resonates deeply with fans. One of the many fantastic things about Hamilton is that it presents the founding father’s as real people. They’re not glorified by rose-eyed historical glasses or torn to shreds by an opposing historical perspective trying to vilify them. They’re just real men with a vision for the future and the necessary skills and commitment to found a country that is now celebrating its 240th birthday. Not too shabby a legacy. So what does that mean for us, real people today who have the chance to influence the course of history?
A More Accurate Picture of America’s Ethnic Landscape
The only reason I would ever advocate casting with race in mind is for the purpose of historical or cultural accuracy. Now I’m re-thinking even that. A racially diverse cast works perfectly for Hamilton — America of today telling the story of America’s founding. And even though the individual characters’ casting doesn’t match the race of their historical counterparts, a racially diverse group working together to found our country is more accurate than most people think. Peter Salem (hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill), Prince Whipple (who fought alongside Washington), James Armistead (the double-spy who may have “won the revolutionary war”), Wentworth Cheswell (who rode to say “the British are coming” at the same time as Paul Revere) — they were all black, along with many other key figures in America’s founding.
Renee Elise Goldsberry, who plays Angelica Schuyler, says that the most beautiful thing about Hamilton is that “it’s told by such a diverse cast with a such diverse styles of music. … We have the opportunity to reclaim a history that some of us don’t necessarily think is our own” (quote from Times article “Why History Has Its Eyes on Hamilton’s Diversity“).
One of the lines in Hamilton is “history has its eyes on me/you.” The founders knew what they were doing was going to make a mark on history, but this phrase can also be true of us today. Every generation has the potential to make its mark on history. Will future Americans look back on us and see a group of people who wouldn’t stand for white-washing of their history any more? or will they see us as complicit in maintaining the accepted historic narrative that all blacks were slaves and all whites were oppressors, even if that means marginalizing blacks who held influential positions at key points in American history?
Redefining The Moral Climate of Our Nation
One of the things Alexander Hamilton is known for is being involved in our country’s first political sex scandal. Perhaps this is one reason he was so often overlooked — he didn’t fit the squeaky-clean mold of a founding father that was popular in history books until very recently (now we seem to be going the other direction, trying to dig up as much dirt as possible on everyone. No one’s ever accused the human race of being balanced, have they?).
In a post-Clinton age it seems strange to us that when Hamilton’s affair came out the immediate reaction was “Well, he’s never gon’ be President now” (though I’m sure in more historically accurate language). The idea of someone who cheated on his wife and openly confessed it becoming president was unimaginable. Hamilton himself down-played the seriousness of the affair, concentrating on proving he was a virtuous man innocent of the financial crimes he was accused of. Or, as he says in the play, “I have not committed treason, and sullied my good name.” He even wrote that he believed his wife “will approve, that even at so great an expence, I should effectually wipe away a more serious stain from a name, which it cherishes with no less elevation than tenderness. The public too will I trust excuse the confession” (read the full text of Hamilton’s Reynold’s Pamphlet here).
Committed treason he did not, but sully his good name Hamilton certainly did. “Hamilton’s reputation was in tatters,” an article from the Smithsonian says, “Talk of further political office effectively ceased.” Now, 219 years later, can you even imagine living in nation that expects moral behavior from its politicians? Or where the politicians themselves take responsibility for their own behavior? Hamilton was so worried about the possibility of a stain on his reputation that he confessed to an affair. And even though he did down-play its severity in light of the other charges, he still said of the affair, “I bow to the just censure which it merits. I have paid pretty severely for the folly and can never recollect it without disgust and self condemnation.”
It is one of my favorite things about the play Hamilton that Hamilton takes responsibility for the affair, acknowledging that he should have said “no to this.” It doesn’t absolve Maria Reynolds of her role in seducing a married man, but there’s “No Slut Shaming in Hamilton” either (<- that blog post is what prompted me to listen to Hamilton for the first time). Today, we don’t expect people in the public eye to even take responsibility, much less to hold themselves to a certain standard of morality. We’re scandal-hungry and ready to offer judgement on celebrity short-comings, but we don’t expect anything better. Perhaps this trend will continue until there’s no longer any such thing as a socially accepted moral standard, but I hope not. And when history turns its eyes back on us, will they see a generation sliding farther into cultural decay, or one that took a stand and said, “We expect better things of our role-models and leaders”?
There are plenty of other moral, social, and political issues we could discuss. If history’s eyes really are on America today, what would you like to see change for the better in our generation? financial disparity between rich and poor? the foster care system? environmental issues? whether or not to forfeit our second amendment rights? Please share your thoughts in the comments (bonus points for using Hamilton quotes)!