Theology is always in flux. Throughout church history, new ideas have challenged traditional ways of thinking about the nature of God, the authority of the Bible, and science. Almost always, these ideas have been met with much resistance by “classical theologians” and have caused rifts, schisms, and revolutions. And typically, the proponents of new ideas are called heretics by the ones who hold to tradition with a clenched fist. But, sometimes, the “new” idea is accepted as true over time.
In response to yesterday’s blog, I received a question regarding the “application of Romans 13 to this situation”. The situation referred to is the current situation regarding President Obama’s declaration that he will launch missiles into Syria in response to President Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons in the civil war. My good friend Scott posed this question to me and it was helpful for me to articulate a change that has been happening in my theological framework over the past decade or so.
Romans 13 is a chapter about submission to authority. Paul says that authorities are “appointed by God” and carry out his vengeance and justice on people who don’t submit to their earthly authority. Within his treatise about submission to authorities, Paul says that love is not against the law, that love is never going to be met with resistance from those who make the laws. Essentially, Paul is saying that the authorities that God has set in place will not legislate against love, so we should make every effort to act lovingly towards our neighbors, in full confidence that this is the best way to “submit” to the authorities that God has set in place.
Classical theology believes that God never changes his mind, that he has always known what will happen before it happens, and that he has ordained every action in human history as keeping his good and perfect will. Within that framework, verses such as, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves” (Romans 13:1-2), are understood in a very interesting/disturbing way in situations such as the one currently happening in Syria. Let me break it down.
The classical thinker, believing that God controls every thought and action in every human heart, reads this verse and hears this: President Assad was appointed by God to his position of authority. Therefore, the rebels, who are standing in opposition to his God-ordained reign and rule, are rightly being slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands for their resistance. This is God’s will. Since President Assad is in power because God put him in power, everyone in Syria should submit to his authority, and in this submission, they are submitting to God.
There’s a different/new way of looking at God’s role in human history which is unfortunately called “Open Theism”. I was warned in Bible college against Open Theism as it contends that God essentially reacts to humans, is not in complete control, and changes his mind. I was taught that Open Theism was heresy, so I avoided reading or thinking about it. But I had this inkling in my spirit, which I have said aloud on more than one occasion, which is this: I don’t see why it matters if God changes his mind, or even changes his way of interacting with his creation.
I would look at Genesis 6, which talks about how every human’s thoughts and intentions were always evil all the time, and how God regretted making humans, and wonder how that could be. How could God regret his creation? Then, after the flood, God regrets that decision and promises never to destroy creation in the manner he did in the flood.
Classical theology dismisses these verses, and hundreds of other verses in which God seems to relent, or change his mind, or regret a decision, as anthropomorphisms. Anthropomorphisms are human attributes that humans impute on God in order to help us understand God. They don’t define God. Since we know that God never changes, and the text says he does change, the author was simply writing in way that helps us access God in a way that we can relate to. “His ways are higher than our ways,” they say. Whenever something doesn’t make sense about God’s will or actions, classical theologians dismiss it as our inability as humans to understand the mind of God.
Greg Boyd wrote a book (God Of the Possible, 2000) that has helped me understand these apparent contradictions in a fresh way. God has a plan, this much is sure. But the plan of God is a framework that we all live in. His plan has always been, since the beginning, that humans would live in perfect harmony/peace/shalom with hIm. But, God did not create pre-determined robots, unable to make choices that would alter that plan. God made humans with the ability to choose harmony/peace/shalom, or not.
He writes, “Since God is omniscient, he always knew that it was remotely possible for his people to be this stubborn, for example. But he genuinely did not expect them to actualize this remote possibility. He authentically expected that they’d be won over by his grace. God wasn’t caught off guard (for he knew this stubbornness was possible), but he was genuinely disappointed (for he knew the possibility was improbable and hoped it wouldn’t come to pass)” (Boyd, 61). So, God created Adam and Eve and gave them the choice to choose life, or choose to walk away from life by disobeying him. He didn’t expect them to disobey (meaning the outcome wasn’t known by him, and the choice was actually real), but he knew that it was possible that they might not choose the life he wanted for them.
In this light, consider this, my interpretation of Romans 13: Paul’s not saying, I don’t think, that all authorities are just. He’s saying all authorities have been given the opportunity to enact Gods justice in societies. There are unjust rulers, who have chosen to take advantage of their position and use it for evil purposes. This is not Gods design, but mans distortion of the design. I think the distortion is what we are seeing here and in Syria. God may have allowed President Obama or President Assad to be in the positions that they are in. He gave them every opportunity within that authority to act out his justice: but they are not robots. They are individually capable of making decisions that go completely against the ultimate law of love that God desires for humanity. And they have.
God doesn’t call us to blindly submit to authorities simply because they have that position. In the instance that they act unjustly, against God, we should stand up to their authority and call it what it is: Evil. God is not surprised by injustice, but he also does not ordain it. God cannot be both just and ordain unjust leaders. God cannot be loving and ordain unjust actions towards his creation. That’s because God desires us to choose his way, and that choice is real, and has real consequences. We are seeing those consequences played out in real time in our day. May we choose the way of life, love, and redemption that God has planned from the beginning to be the only way that leads to harmony/peace/shalom.