Thursday, August 10, 2017

Robert Jeffress' Use of Romans 13 and God-given Authority

I had two reactions when I heard Pastor Robert Jeffress recently claim that President Trump had “God-given authority” to take out Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Dr. Jeffress appeals to Romans 13 to make his case: “That gives the government…authority to do whatever…to quell the actions of evildoers like Kim Jong Un.” My first reaction was, yes, God has ordained rulers to maintain orderly societies. A sample of Rom. 13:1-7 states that, “The authorities that exist have been established by God…the one in authority is God’s servant for your good…They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer”(Washington Post interview). So, in a way, Jeffress may have a case. But, my second reaction was that his language as a pastor and a spokesman for the Prince of Peace just didn’t sit well with me for some reason (and I believe he has read more into Romans 13 that is there and he misunderstands the idea of God-given government authority).

Jeffress has claimed that if you have a problem with what he has stated, it is because either you don’t read the Bible or you don’t believe the Bible (, see 2:32 to 2:46).

I do read the Bible, and I believe what it says, so I thought I would take another look at Romans 13 to see if Jeffress is correct in what he states about the president’s authority to use nuclear weapons against North Korea. Jeffress states, “When it comes to how we should deal with evildoers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil…In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.” I want to take a look at Romans 13 to see how clear the case is.

Paul is a Roman citizen who is writing to a collection of house churches in Rome. At this portion of his letter, he is giving them ethical instructions based on his presentation of the message of Jesus Christ. Paul calls that message his “gospel”. Keep in mind, in the Roman world a “gospel” message (euangelion) was an announcement about the emperor, celebrating his birthday, a military victory or the anniversary of his accession to power. In Paul’s mind, the true ruler is Jesus. But Paul also recognizes that God has given to the world governing authorities to maintain orderly societies. Paul’s words in this chapter are directed to Christians living within the power structure of the Roman Empire. Paul’s words are not directed to the emperor dictating the boundaries of his power. Paul is telling his fellow Christians in Rome to be good citizens. If a citizen should step out of line, the government has the God-given right to correct that citizen, even with force.

So really, this passage says nothing about the God-given authority that rulers may have to wage war against enemy nation-states. But the idea that political authority is from God is an idea within the Judeo-Christian worldview. In Daniel 1:2, the prophet states that the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. So it seems possible that God can put a godless ruler in power for God’s purposes. Later in Daniel, the prophet writes that, “the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes…” (Daniel 4:17). One of the Deuterocanonical books, the Wisdom of Solomon has the same idea, that the kings of the earth had their power given to them by God: “For your dominion was given you from the Lord, and your sovereignty from the Most High…” (Wis. Sol 6:3). Both of these passages are followed by serious consequences for rulers who do not rule well. Nebuchadnezzar’s story continues to show God humbling him and causing him to lose his power for a period of time (Dan. 4:28-33). The passage in Wisdom of Solomon contains a threat to those who do not rule rightly…or walk according to the purpose of God, God will come upon them terribly and swiftly, because severe judgment falls on those in high places (Wis. Sol 6:4-5).

In the book of Romans, Paul is writing to people who are living in a state whose “powers were exercised by a few by right of birth, or connection, or wealth, or ruthless self-advancement” (Dunn, Romans 9-16, 770). That could very well describe Kim Jong Un’s leadership. Could the people of North Korea then appeal to Romans 13 as support for their leader’s positions against the U.S.? We have to be careful when we read letters like Romans. They were not written to give the president of the U.S. in the 21st century the authority to make a pre-emptive nuclear strike or assassinate another leader. This passage was written to help Christians be good citizens and help maintain order in the society.

And as far as the rhetoric of a pastor advocating the president to go to war with an evil world leader (and Kim Jong Un is evil), is this the kind of message we need from a representative of Jesus Christ? Jesus states, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt. 5:9). Jesus tells us to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39) and Jesus radically reinterprets who our neighbor is to include those we may hate (The Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37). In a pluralistic nation like the U.S. I don’t expect the president to behave like a pastor, but I do expect the pastor of a Christian church to speak words of peace and love. 

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