January 18, 2020

Romans 13 is Not an Endorsement for War

Does the Christian New Testament endorse war and the use of violence to defend and advance a country’s interests worldwide? Does it require an unquestioning submission to an American leader who’s been installed by God? The killing of Iranian leader Qasem Soleimani, by order of President Trump, and the subsequent celebration of that death by many Americans has caused me to ask these questions. The answers I received have been widely varied.

From this Facebook private message:

…to a friend’s assurance that Romans 13:1-5 justifies the action. That answer provoked me to a bit of digging.

Some interpret that passage to say that God appointed Donald Trump to be the authority over our country and, therefore, we must submit to President Trump’s actions and understand that the president has been given the authority and charge to to mete out God’s judgment on people like Soleimani that we view as evil. That answer makes perfect sense, when looked at through the American value system – with our reverence for our military might and Sunday morning celebration of war victories every 4th of July, Veterans Day and Memorial Day Weekends. After all, this Bible passage says it’s a God-given duty for an authority to punish the wrongdoer, while giving assurance that anyone who is good has nothing to worry about. Yay for our side, too bad for them.

There’s a problem with this American Christian logic, however. Jesus didn’t model this mindset. In fact, Jesus’ value for living as a suffering servant is diametrically opposed to it. It was Jesus’ laying down of his rights and even his life that was transformative to the world, not his ascension to wrath-giving power. Peter came to Jesus’ defense by taking a sword to the ear of a Roman guard. Rather than praising Peter for his zeal for “good,” Jesus admonished him to put it away as “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” Jesus then miraculously healed his enemy’s chopped ear.

There’s a problem with this American Christian logic, however. Jesus didn’t model this mindset.

Where was the wrath of God on these evil men? Jesus was doing good, why then did the God-installed authority of his country come to do him harm? Like Peter’s sword, we sometimes slice portions of the Bible to fit our narrative, rather than fully living the whole of the Bible’s guidance. Peter, the other disciples and the first century religious leaders wanted a military and governmental conqueror. Out of the best of their hearts they wanted “evil” to be killed. But Jesus told them he can to save people, not to destroy them and that their desires would kill their ability to love people, something Jesus demonstrated was unacceptable. Would Jesus likewise encourage us to put away our swords (drones and bombs and sophisticated killing technology?)

Let me take a side road for a moment and assure everyone that I honor those who have sacrificed to serve in our military, so many fought so gallantly when their country called on them.

Knowing what Jesus said and demonstrated, I’m equally committed to do all I can to help us send as few of our young men and women into war as possible in the future. I’ve seen the destruction done to our own kids as we subject them to the horrors of combat.

When I study Romans 13:1-5, a couple thoughts come to mind. First, I can never remember a Christian, in my circle, using this passage in reference to Bill Clinton, Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi. I’ve never seen a Christian comment with this “command” in response to a negative social media post about our governor in California. Could it be the longtime partisan mindset of the Evangelical Church causes us to strongly believe in Romans 13:1-5 – but only when it’s a Republican to whom we’re subjecting ourselves?

Next, does the supposition of God’s installment of governmental authority for the purpose of wrath extend to other countries? Like Iran? Or only in western nations like America? The Bible says God used the Old Testament Babylonian king as a tool for getting Israel’s attention. Would the Iranian government also be installed by God for the purpose of handing out God’s wrath? I would say the obvious answer to this is God wants all of us to discern if a governmental leader is following principles of integrity and law. Turning off our discernment and blindly following any leader is actually the opposite of what the Christian life should be. After all, we love Dietrich Bonhoeffer for his attempts to take down Adolph Hitler, but had the Church of Germany stood sooner against this ignoble leadership, instead of enjoying its benefits, we might never have had a need of Bonhoeffer.

We need to be honest in understanding that our history in the Middle East hasn’t always been filled with the purest intentions or actions. I know one’s patriotism can be challenged when raising that issue, as former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley did in a recent Fox News interview, but, I believe desiring an America that is powerful and good IS a patriotic desire. My love for this country drives me to demand that our leaders be constrained by our high integrity in the use of our great military power. And that we be sacrificially honest when evaluating our actions.

Finally, let’s look at the context of Romans 13:1-5. The text immediately preceding it commands us to love our enemies, live peaceably with others whenever possible, leave vengeance to God and overcome evil with good – not return evil with evil. The passage after it commands us to pay our taxes to our leaders with honor. In other words, the text does not support the uber-conservative political mindset of the American Church unless you surgically lift out part of the full passage and ignore the rest – and ignore the life of Jesus himself.

Our republic is specifically designed to not give any one person the right to use our military and our wealth as they personally see fit, nor to use it for their own personal benefit. Asking questions is exactly what citizens and Christians should do. We should never try and force the New Testament to fit our American Christian nationalism. The Bible says the beginning of a land’s healing is in the followers of God choosing to humble themselves. Maybe John Lennon wasn’t so wrong when he sang “all we are saying is give peace a chance.”

Could the world be transformed by America making a choice to serve rather than conquer? Could we trust God’s ability to make peace through the Bible’s true road map more than we trust our ability to do so by bombing raids? Personally, I believe the Bible gives merit to the idea. It’s a hard question worth asking ourselves. Let’s see if Jesus didn’t mean it when he said “blessed are the peacemakers.”

Scroll to top