Explore the Bible: Citizens

The Explore the Bible lesson for May 17 focuses on Romans 13:1-14.

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  • The Explore the Bible lesson for May 17 focuses on Romans 13:1-14.

One of the most heart-wrenching and life-changing experiences for my wife, Nancy, and me happened when we participated in a Buckner International mission trip to work with Eastern European orphans in Riga, Latvia, and St. Petersburg, Russia.

The children were aged from preschool to twelfth grade. Almost to a person, they were “social orphans.” That meant their parents were still alive, but they were alcoholics, no longer capable of caring for their children. The Latvian government, once part of the Soviet Union, had taken the children and placed them in the care of orphanage

In Latvia, orphans were second-class citizens. Fully 80 percent of the young girls would find meaningful employment impossible, which meant their consignment to a life in the world of sex slavery.

Every morning, a pile of washed clothes was dumped in the middle of the dormitory floor. After that, it was each child for himself or herself. They’d rush the pile, grab what they thought could wear and what they hoped would provide adequate protection from the weather, some of the most brutal on the European continent.

Color and style coordination were luxuries orphans could not afford. The orphans took what was offered them and what they could grab before anyone else did. No one ever accused this writer of being a clothes horse but, in the presence of those orphans, I looked like I had just come from the cover of a GQ magazine.

Good citizenship

As the Apostle Paul nears the end of penning this fabulous guidebook for Christian thinking and living, the book of Romans, it is interesting that he provides the reader with something of a civics lesson. Of all things, Paul is insistent that our witness to this world often begins and ends with the ways in which we commit to live as good citizens of the world we presently inhabit.

Though Paul doesn’t outright say it, the clear moral absolute intertwined in his writing is that we will not be able to speak of an earthly realm unless we are good citizens of this one.

Most nonbelievers will not be able to see how we behave when we are around mostly Christians at church. They only will be able to observe what they see of our behavior when we are out, living in the same world they inhabit.

No human has authority over another human without at least the tacit approval of another. In this particular case, the only people who have authority over those of us who have followed Christ are those Christ has authorized to do so

If we want to bear effective witness to this world, we must play by the same rules to which our fellow citizens are bound. If nonbelievers observe us making a mockery of civil law, on what basis could we possibly hope to speak to them of the law of eternal love?

Business people who serve as deacons in their local church but then take advantage of others in their workday worlds are not speaking highly of Christ.

‘Put on’ the Lord Jesus Christ

In the last verses of this passage, we are not instructed to literally dress as Jesus did. Simple sandals and cloth robes long ago ran their fashion half-lives into the ground. Perhaps the one exception might be the costumes used for actors/actresses in the annual church Easter pageant.

In fact, we are meant to put on Christ, clothe ourselves in the wardrobe of love, hope, faith, kindness and so on (see 1 Corinthians 13).

As often happens in Scripture, an answer to one question raises even more. Is Paul recommending blind obedience to all civil law no matter how badly it might violate the laws of God? Is there not a time for civil disobedience if remaining obedient to earthly laws requires disobedience to God?

That is not a question this text answers. There are certainly times for civil disobedience. Ask any of the great mothers and fathers of our faith. Be sure to study Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., all of whom practiced civil disobedience but also paid for their lives doing so.

Then, again, we should be lifetime students of the life, the wardrobe, of Jesus and place on ourselves every piece of clothing he finally ended up wearing to the cross.

Glen Schmucker is a writer and blogger in Fort Worth. He has served as a Texas Baptist pastor and as a hospice chaplain.  

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