3 New Testament Messages for Resisting Autocracy

3 New Testament Messages for Resisting Autocracy July 9, 2024

When the colonies united to fight the autocracy of King George III in the 1700’s, churches played an important role in educating, organizing, fostering unity, and providing moral leadership.

Stand up, speak up
Churches and clergy must stand up, speak up to resist autocracy. Photo by Mathias Reding on pexels.com

Today, churches and clergy need to step up again.

This time, the threat of autocracy is not just coming from across the ocean.  It’s now within our own country.

On July 1, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Trump v. United States that presidents are immune from criminal prosecution for “official acts” in office.  Thus, SCOTUS has effectively set the stage for an autocracy. If Trump is elected, both he and the architects of Project 2025 have plainly stated that this is how they will rule the country from “day one.”

So how can clergy speak out against this plan and stand up against this movement toward autocracy?  One option is to preach or teach a series about the biblical response to authoritarianism.

In my previous piece, I gave a synopsis of three Old Testament passages on the tyranny of kings and how they relate to our current situation.

Here, I provide a summary of three messages from the New Testament for resisting the evil of autocracy.

God is the Ultimate Authority

Romans 13:1-10

It’s tempting to misinterpret Paul’s instructions to the church in Rome about how they are to relate to governing authorities. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” he writes in Rom. 13:1. What they miss is the next part of the sentence: “for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”

This means that any governing authority that gives itself god-like power with no accountability, which the Supreme Court has granted the office of the presidency, is abusing its role.

SCOTUS conservative justices 2024
SCOTUS conservative justices 2024

As my colleague Jerry L. Sumney writes in The Politics of Faith: The Bible, Government, and Public Policy: “acknowledging that governments are set in place by God does not mean God’s people should not oppose their unjust policies,” (89). On the contrary, “Like the Israelite prophets, Paul can say the government is both there by the will of God and that it does evil that God’s people should resist,” (90).

As the Hebrew scriptures established, governments must be accountable to God for how they use their power.  According to Deuteronomy 17:14-20, this means no ruler is above the law.  The Supreme Court ruling has violated not only the rule of civil law, but God’s law by elevating the office of the president to a level beyond accountability and justice.

Thus, as Sumney writes, Romans 13:1-10 “might suggest that Christians be good citizens and accept the authority of the state when it does not violate their faith and work to change it when it does” (91).

Because the Supreme Court has violated our faith, we must work to change it by voting for those who would reform and expand the Court and reverse this ruling.

The Rulers Lord it Over Them, But You are to Serve

Matthew 20:25-28, Mark 10:42-45, Luke 22:25-27

The three synoptic gospels all have a version of the same admonition Jesus gives his disciples when they argue over who is the “greatest.” Here’s Matthew’s version:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Matt. 20:25-28)

The “rulers” Jesus was referring to were those in the Roman Empire. Rome effectively functioned as an autocracy. The emperor wielded supreme power and controlled both the military and political institutions. Not only was he above the law; the emperor was the law.

This emperor-like autocracy is exactly what Trump desires for himself and what the extremist theocrats behind him envision for America.

In contrast, Jesus embodies what God truly desires for those who lead – dedication to serving others.  This should be the criteria for Christians choosing their leaders as well.

How do we know which leaders are dedicated to serving?  Watch their actions and listen to the words they use when describing their vision of leadership.

Orange Trump
The face of tyranny.

Trump: “I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution. I am your retribution.” (CPAC Speech, 2023)

Biden: “Our purpose is to serve others. To know everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect.” (Speech at Mt. Airy Church of God In Christ, Philadelphia, 2024).

Trump’s orientation, and the Supreme Court’s vision, is antithetical to Jesus’s teaching.

Joe Biden presidential portrait
President Joe Biden official portrait (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

President Biden, however, has demonstrated a lifetime of public service and has dedicated his presidency to restoring hope and dignity to our nation. “We can all seek a life of light, hope, love, and truth,” he said in his speech on July 7.

Only one candidate and his administration have articulated and embodied Jesus’s vision for servanthood leadership. Vote accordingly.

Endurance Needed to Resist the Beasts of Blasphemous Power

Revelation 13:1-18

Contrary to literalist interpretations of Revelation, this book is a work of apocalyptic prophesy that relies on symbols and metaphors to convey its critique of the Roman Empire.  Because Christians at the time (circa 90 CE) were experiencing economic and social persecution, John used coded imagery to speak about the ordeals to which they were subjected. Thus, when they heard about a satanic red dragon and its two accompanying beasts, they would have recognized the symbolism.

Drawing on ancient mythology, John’s imagery represented Rome and the imperial cult.

The dragon and its accomplices believed (and convinced others) that they had universal sovereignty. They instilled awe and fear: “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” (Rev. 13:4). This allowed the monstrosities to blaspheme God, unleash violence on those who resist them, and demand idolatrous worship of their power.

Similarly, the movement of Christian nationalism that propelled Trump to the presidency in 2016 has convinced many that they have universal sovereignty.

And, in fact, the Supreme Court has now written this sovereignty into law, far overreaching their role in the three branches of government. If Trump would return to the White House, there would be nothing to stop him and his minions from taking away the rights and protections of millions of Americans, destroying the institutions of government, and unleashing violence on those who oppose them.

So what are Christians to do?

John’s warning to all who will listen is this: “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (Rev. 13:10). It will take a united, concerted, and focused movement of nonviolent civil resistance, community organizing, and getting people to vote.  We need to stand firm against the march toward autocracy and support each other, especially those who are most vulnerable.

We must also remember who holds the true power and sovereignty – God.

Our worship must never focus on a single man, a singular institution, or movement, or any human-made idol.  Our faithfulness will sustain us because God’s promise to be in solidarity with us will never fail.

Are you wondering what preachers can and cannot say in a sermon that addresses political issues?  Stay tuned for an upcoming article about that.  And click the link in the side bar to sign up for the Patheos Progressive Christian newsletter to get the latest articles! 

Read also:

3 Old Testament Passages about the Tyranny of Kings

How Should Clergy Respond to Presidential Immunity Ruling?

Preaching 2024 Election – How will Clergy Navigate Issues?

Leah D. Schade
Leah D. Schade

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade is the Associate Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky and ordained in the ELCA. Dr. Schade does not speak for LTS or the ELCA; her opinions are her own.  She is the author of Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) and Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the co-editor of Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). Her newest book is Introduction to Preaching: Scripture, Theology, and Sermon Preparation, co-authored with Jerry L. Sumney and Emily Askew (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023).

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