The controversy in Houston rages on, after City Hall subpoenaed sermons from pastors and churches on issues of sexuality and gender identity. The obvious violation of basic American principles of religious liberty and separation of church and state here have united even those who are opposed to one another on all sorts of other issues, including sexuality and gender. But there are some who wonder why not simply comply with the subpoenas and hand the sermons over?
These questions come really in two or three different forms. The first is based on Romans 13, the Apostle Paul’s teaching that the government has God-given authority. We submit to government, the argument goes, even when we don’t agree with specific government policies. So why not just send in the subpoenaed sermons, even if we don’t like it, since we have nothing to hide.
The problem with this view is that Romans 13 is not an unlimited authority. Paul clearly bounds in the power of Caesar’s sword to the punishing of “wrongdoers” (Rom. 13:4). That’s why the Apostle says that taxes are to be paid, along with honor and respect, to those to whom such things are due (Rom. 13:7). On the opposite side of the spectrum from Romans 13 is Revelation 13, which demonstrates what happens when a government oversteps its bounds, as was the case eventually in the Roman Empire’s attempt to regulate worship.
Every authority, under God, is limited. Daniel is obedient to King Nebuchadnezzar, until the king decreed the way prayers should be offered. Peter and John are obedient to the authorities, until they are told how to preach, in which case they defy this authority (Acts 4:19-20).
Moreover, the issue is even clearer when we recognize that the City of Houston, and beyond that the broader American governing system, is, unlike in the case of Caesar, not the rule of one man (or one woman). There were all sorts of governing officials up and down the chain in the Roman Empire, but the ultimate accountability was Caesar himself. In our system of government, the ultimate “king” is the people. As citizens, we bear responsibility for electing officials, for speaking to laws that are made in our name, and for setting precedents by our actions. Shrugging this off is not the equivalent of Jesus standing silently before Pilate. It’s the equivalent of Pilate washing his hands, so as not to bear accountability for our own decisions and precedents set.
When the government acts, legal precedents are set. By complying with this unjust decree, Christians would be binding future people and institutions, including those who are the most powerless to stand against such things. If the government can scrutinize the preaching of Christian churches on sexual matters in Houston, the same government could do the reverse in, say, Amarillo. It would be just as wrong for the mayor to demand to see sermons from the Episcopal Church calling for LGBT anti-discrimination laws as it is to do this. As citizens, we bear responsibility. This is analogous to the tax collectors and soldiers coming to John and to Jesus asking how they are to function as Christians in the world of Caesar. They were not to use their power to defraud people or to go beyond their delegated authority (Lk. 312-14; 19:8).
It sounds spiritual and pious to say that we are just going to “give up our rights” and “surrender our place at the table.” We should indeed do that. When we are stricken on the cheek, we turn the other one. When someone takes our tunic, we give up our cloak as well (Matt. 5:40-41). That’s quite different though from those who have been given police authority ignoring assaults; such is injustice decried by Scripture. And it’s quite different from a soldier forcibly collecting cloaks because “you ought to be giving those up anyway.”
That’s why the Apostle Paul, quite eager to give up his personal rights (1 Cor. 11:7-11), appealed to his Roman citizenship repeatedly in the Book of Acts, litigating for liberty. And that’s why he, like John and Peter, refused to comply with a decree that was unjust (Acts 16:35-39).
But, some would ask, aren’t these sermons public anyway? Why would we not want the mayor and the city attorney to hear them? Of course, and of course. The question, though, is who has the authority to demand such things. The subpoena is not a request but rather a use of coercive state power. The compliance with this sets in motion a potential continuation of such unjust power that will harm those, again, with the least power to counteract such things. Imagine such subpoena power being used against impoverished recent immigrants to America, with little knowledge of the language and with few social and political connections?
The issue here is not the end-result of listening to sermons, any more than the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness were about the end result of eating bread and ruling the world. The question is how does one get there, and who is doing the giving. That’s why my Baptist forebears refused to pay the licensing fee to preach the gospel, even though they could have taken up an offering to do so. The issue wasn’t how much money, but rather who was claiming the authority to demand it. That’s not a question of politics, but of lordship.
Yes, the mayor and the city attorney should see sermons. And that’s why I think all of those not subpoenaed should freely send their sermons in, in solidarity with those who are under this subpoena. And that’s also why I think those under the subpoena should refuse to do so. The Apostle Paul left Philippi, just as the magistrates wanted him to do, but he didn’t move an inch until the magistrates’ command to do so was revoked (Acts 16:37-39). Peter and John didn’t stay, all the time, in the temple court preaching Jesus. But they didn’t cease while they were under orders to do so (Acts 4:21-23).
Religious liberty isn’t ours to give away to Caesar, and soul freedom isn’t subject to subpoena from City Hall.