The Apostolate of the Laity

Waxing philosophical in communion with one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

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Location: Portland, Oregon, United States

I am just a sinner who holds fast to the notion that every human being on the planet is the result of a thought of God.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Divine Right of Kings

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good.
Romans (RSV) 13:1-4

St. Paul asked the Roman Christians to not worry about the pagan rulers of the day but rather he implored the early believers to have a little faith that God had the situation under control to the point of advancing the idea that even the pagan ruler was a result of the will of God. That was likely a hard pill to swallow for the early Church. Today, that same message might prove a little more difficult to choke down. How many Republicans would concede that Bill Clinton was president for eight years because of the will of God? Probably only slightly fewer than the number of Democrats who would boldly proclaim that George W. Bush is President today for the same reason.

And yet, St. Augustine took this concept and ran with it in his twenty-two volume, De civitate Dei (The City of God) when he emphasized that while the aims of man often run against the Divine, nevertheless, the person placed into a position of authority over man gains his authority solely to serve the ultimate will of God. No matter how rapacious for power or personal gain the day's politician might be; no matter how inept; or no matter how downright evil; whomever gains the throne owes his rise to the Almighty even if the ruler is too blind or corrupt to see it.

These are hard words indeed. For taken to the next level, if one believes that the ruler gains authority from God, then on what basis can one question the authority of said ruler? For to do so questions the very will of God. Such was the argument of many a monarch born during and shortly after the Reformation. Borrowing from Augustine, and slightly twisting his meaning, they interpreted sacred scripture to mean that God not only gives authority to the ruler but literally ordains him, too. The king answers to God and God alone and as such his wisdom must also be considered of heavenly origin and certainly not questioned.

Of course St. Paul never had in mind this wishful thinking by these kings who often exercised their Divine Right in spectacularly sinful ways. Nowhere does he suggest that one should follow a bad leader into immorality. Were that the case, Heaven would be occupied by far fewer martyrs. No, the message clearly reminds the reader that the authority for man to be ruled by kings, presidents, and the like is a gift from God, but it falls on the shoulders of person gifted with this position to conform with God's will. If he doesn't, those subjected to him might indeed suffer and might even die, but that ruler possesses no power over them greater than the love of Christ.

This should be a warning to those who seek leadership over people. For if one finds oneself in a position of authority, one has a huge responsibility to do the will of God which as Christ demonstrated is a ministry of service and gift of self. The Church's first Pope, St. Peter, also reveals the special place authorities have when he writes:

Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.
1 Peter(RSV) 3:21-22

The leaders of a nation are subject to Christ which ultimately means they answer to Him. They have been given more by being placed in a position of power, and more is expected. To abuse such power may endanger more than their electability. Indeed, their very souls stand at risk.

Let all pray that the people who have been given the gift of public service be open to the grace that comes with such high levels of responsibility. Let them truly be as St. Paul proclaims, God's servants for good.


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