“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” —Romans 13:1–5
Can we all please stop interpreting this passage so narrowly as to condone leadership no matter what direction those leaders take us?
On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. Twenty-eight days later, the Reichstag is set ablaze. Two days after that, hundreds are arrested as the Nazis round up their political opponents. On March 15, Hitler proclaimed the Third Reich. Five days later, Dachau, the first concentration camp, was completed and ready to open. On March 21, 1933, Protestant theologian Otto Dibelius preached a sermon at the “Day of Potsdam” in which he invoked Romans 13 to urge all German Christians to support Hitler and the Nazi regime. Dibelius proclaimed that Martin Luther taught that Christians should always support the state even when the state acts hard and ruthlessly. We all know how that turned out.
Years later, Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer urged Christians to refrain from such a narrow and blind interpretation of Scripture. They wrote powerful anti-Nazi theological treatises in hopes of convincing Christians in Germany that the actions of Jesus and Paul contradicted this narrow reading of the Roman epistle.
One can’t help but process the events that have occurred for the first six weeks of 2021. After years of stoking the fires of insurrection and propagating lies of fraud and corruption all under the guise of conservative leadership while obtaining the support from Evangelical Christian leaders throughout the United States, Donald J. Trump incited a violent mob to storm the U.S. Capitol to overturn a fair election. The very fabric of democracy and the entire United States experiment was undermined.
How can one blindly follow and submit to a leader who does that? Why would one ignore the whole of Scripture that calls us to strive for justice, to seek mercy, to walk humbly with our Creator, to calmly and peacefully resist anyone who threatens the unalienable rights and freedoms of ALL human beings? While at the same time, those same people invoke a narrow reading of a specific passage from a specific letter written to a specific church in Rome, under a specific ruler, undergoing specific circumstances, at a specific time.
Romans 13 reads, “the authorities that exist have been established by God.” God provides these leaders with gifts, power, and skills to lead their people effectively and nobly. So, what happens when our leaders misuse the gifts, talents, power, and authority bestowed upon them by God to mislead others, incite violence, or even murder those who may oppose them or prevent them from fulfilling their desires? Does God automatically remove them from power? No.
In fact, in almost all examples of this in Scripture, God raises up noble people who go about removing that individual from his position of authority. On a few occasions, a millstone plays an important role in that removal.
After Gideon died, his son Abimelek murdered his seventy brothers and had the people of Shechem crown him king. Only Abimelek’s youngest brother, Jotham, escaped his wrath. Before going into hiding, Jotham cursed his older brother and the people of Shechem saying that someday, in the near future, they would turn on each other. This curse obviously came true or I wouldn’t have mentioned it. When it did come to fruition, Abimelek had pursued the people of Shechem into a strong tower. The people locked themselves inside the tower and climbed to the roof. As Abimelek approached the entrance to the tower to set it on fire, a woman on the roof dropped a millstone on his head (Judges 9). Ouch!
We hear about this story again after David sent Bathsheba’s husband Uriah back to the front lines in hopes that the enemy would kill Uriah, widowing Bathsheba and covering up his indiscretion. David’s general, Joab, recalls the millstone that was dropped on Abimelek’s head as a reminder of the dangers that occur when you venture too close to a building (2 Samuel 11). Scripture brings up this story to remind us of something else.
One thousand years later, Jesus mentions a millstone again. Jesus says, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18).
I’m beginning to think that when a millstone shows up, it may be a sign that someone is skirting his or her responsibilities; that they’re failing to actualize God’s purpose for their life; that a leader’s power is out of control; that you’ve caused someone to stumble. This millstone isn’t there to help you grind wheat into flour. It’s probably there to teach you a lesson. In Scripture, that lesson doesn’t end well for the leader.
Our leaders need to be held accountable. As Christians, we can’t politicize this situation. Millstones need to show up. Maybe we don’t throw one from the top of the roof at Mara Lago onto his head or wrap one around his neck and throw him into Atlantic Ocean, but we don’t just stand idly by and use Romans 13 as an excuse to do nothing. Leaders are ordained by God, but they are held to higher standards as well. When they fail and lead others astray, they need to be held accountable to those high standards. God will raise up noble people—and sometimes a large millstone—to do just that.