“The most improper job of any man is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.” – J. R. R. Tolkien, 1943
This great quote is from a letter that Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher in November of 1943. In the same letter Tolkien goes on to describe his own opinions about government. Knowing that Tolkien was a devout Catholic, it’s interesting to consider his apparent anarchist perspective.
Jesus is quite clear on the topic of “bossing other men” in Matthew 23:
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
This seems to run counter to modern Christian culture because it does. As with many other examples from this chapter alone, Paul seems to contradict this teaching in Romans 13. In fact, there are many places where Paul instructs believers to submit to different agents, such as governing authorities, or husbands or one another. We must reconcile Paul’s ideas with Jesus’ specific teachings – which only reference submission when referring to demons. It’s not difficult to recognize several misunderstandings in the process.
First, Paul was not a perfect representation of Jesus. Unfortunately, among the many pitfalls of the idol of Biblical perfection, is the idea that every author of every part of the Bible were perfect anytime they were writing anything unless they specifically state otherwise. Once we recognize that Paul was not perfect, it’s not too difficult to imagine that he exaggerates the good advice that he gives us in Romans 13. To tell the believers in Rome to submit to the Roman leaders is just common sense. If we do not extend Paul’s letter into a supernatural context we don’t even have to recognize Paul’s own imperfection to reconcile this with Jesus’ command.
Secondly, and the point of this post, we should not ever confuse submission for service. Service is a matter of choice, where as submission results from insistence. The greatest among us will serve others, but that doesn’t mean we become great through subjugation. It means that choosing to serve is virtuous. Being forced to serve is simply slavery.
Paul lived in a specific time, and when we remove the requirement that his every word must be a divine reflection of God’s will for everyone everywhere we can actually appreciate his heart all the more. He wanted Roman believers to understand that there are some battles that they were not called to fight, like taking on the Centurions and those who ruled them.
Today misinterpretation of these ideas have lead to entire institutional (small “c” church) requirements that rely on submission and even go so far as to determine your submission to God based on your submission to its leaders. To that I leave you with a simple question: If my submission to God is defined by them as equivalent to my submission to them, than who would their God be equivalent to?