“Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For government is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath, but also because of your conscience. And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s public servants, continually attending to these tasks. Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor.” (Romans 13:1-7 HCSB)
Over the past seven weeks, we’ve considered how we are to respond to God’s mercy as we give ourselves as living sacrifices in service to God. Generally speaking, Paul’s message has been directed at our interpersonal relationships inside and outside the body of Christ. How we should love and treat one another. How to live in Christian harmony with a single-minded goal of serving Christ. As I’ve stated several times, we must change how we think about ourselves, our Christian brothers and even our non-believing friends, family and neighbors. Paul is calling upon us to live out the principle teachings of Christ as seen in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) and the Sermon on the Plain (Lk. 6:17-49), for example.
This week, we begin delving into the challenges of living for Christ in some areas that often cause friction, disagreement and lots of questions, as if loving our enemies wasn’t enough. How do we live as Christians in relation to governmental authority? That’s a question that I think all of us wrestle with at various times. If Jesus is Lord over everyone and everything then how, where and when does governmental authority fit into our lives? Paul addresses that question and encourages us to be good citizens in both kingdoms, man’s and God’s.
I think it is important that we keep Paul’s words in context as we begin delving into them. So, I would remind you that the chapter and verse divisions that exist in our Bibles are for convenience and quick reference and do NOT necessarily indicate the division and separation of thought that we often place on them. Think of Paul’s words in the context of a letter from him to the Roman house churches, for that’s what it is. He is naturally moving from topic to topic as he is led by the Holy Spirit considering their circumstances and needs. If you’ll recall he had just commanded that they must not “be conquered by evil but, rather, they should conquer evil with good” and then he immediately tells them to be submissive to the governing authorities. Please note, he doesn’t specifically call the governing authorities evil but he does immediately flow into addressing their struggles with their governing authorities in a natural way.
Perhaps some historical context will help us, here. Most New Testament scholars agree that Paul wrote this letter to Rome while he was in Corinth establishing the Corinthian church (see Acts 18:1-17). If you’ll recall, Paul met Aquila and Priscilla who had just come from Rome because Emperor Claudius (who ruled 41-54 AD) had expelled all Jews from the capital city due to civil unrest over someone named Chrestus (as recorded by Roman historian Suetonius). Based on Paul’s reference to Gallio as proconsul in Corinth, we can date this reference fairly accurately between late 49 to mid 52 AD. Now, let that sink in a bit. Paul may be addressing this specific issue or, at the very least, it is in the back of his mind as he teaches the Roman Christians how they should respond to governmental authority.
I think we often read and interpret scripture in, what I would call, a sterile environment – an environment devoid of human emotion, conflict and struggle. In other words, when we read something like Paul’s command to “submit to the governing authorities” then Paul simply doesn’t comprehend the circumstances under which we live and work. I think the context, I’ve provided above, should help you see that simply isn’t true. However, even if that were true of Paul it is NOT true of God and His Spirit and, thus, the inspired Word of God. Paul tells the Roman Christians that they need to be submissive to the governing authorities in light of what has happened as some of them were expelled from Rome.
While I have no doubt that was hard for them to hear, it is also hard for us to hear. Why? Because of our context and experiences. We are more receptive to these words when we believe our governing authorities are doing what we want, considerate of our beliefs or mindful and considerate of God and His Word. However, we struggle with these words and question their validity and application when our governing authorities are opposing our desires, in opposition to our beliefs or acting in direct conflict with God and His Word. How can we can develop a proper understanding and find balance with God’s Word and our experience?
First, let’s begin by hearing what Paul says next, “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves.” Kings and Kingdoms have no authority except what God gives and those that exist only do so because God allows them to exist and rule. While it is easy for us to read more into that statement than it really says, the primary point that Paul is making is that NO king or ruler holds power over God or is above Him – there is no authority except from God. God holds absolute power and authority over them. Jesus pointed this very thing out to Pilate, “You would have no authority over Me at all,” Jesus answered him, “if it hadn’t been given you from above. This is why the one who handed Me over to you has the greater sin.” (John 19:11 HCSB) So, the first thing to note is that earthly kings, rulers and kingdoms have no authority over God, but He has absolute authority over them.
Next, all who rule over men are accountable to God for how they rule and man is accountable to God for how he submits to their authority. I want to address this in two ways, a ruler’s accountability to men and God and man’s accountability to rulers and God. It seems quite apparent that because God grants the authority to rule then the ruler is accountable to God on how he/she rules. That obviously means that God expects rulers to rule well and in accordance with God’s established universal laws, and with honesty, justice and common grace. To put it simply, rulers can only rule men well when their are common, right, good, God-honoring rules and laws that enable men to follow God, according to their conscience. That should be the goal for all rulers and governments.
Then, we are accountable to God for how we obey those in authority over us. We generally have no problem agreeing that government should rule well with man’s good and God’s purpose in mind. But, we balk a little when it gets down to our responsibility to submit to the rule of our government and our rulers. We will, as long as they are doing what’s right, good and beneficial to us. Right? What happens when that changes or they fail to meet our standards or expectations? We have recourse, but only as it fits within the legal means of making those changes within our given civil context. In America, that means we wield the ability to change these things at the voting booth. For others, that change may not come as easily or quickly. My point is, followers of Christ are called to civil obedience as much as God’s commands and our consciences permit.
Let me take a moment and address the “conscience” issue and how that fits into our lesson. The word literally means a combining of what we know to be morally right and what we know to be spiritually right. In our context, it is the struggle between what our government defines as morally right and good and what our God defines as spiritually right and good. What do we do when these two things are in conflict? We have several scriptural examples: Daniel and his three friends; Rahab and the spies; Jesus opposing the Pharisees; Peter and John before the Sanhedrin; and Paul before Caesar. The basic premise is, when these two “rights” are in conflict then what God wants rules over what man wants. So, when Daniel was commanded by royal decree to only pray to the king, his conscience would not permit him to comply. He knew he could only pray to the Lord, God. However, you should notice that he was subject to the governmental punishment of being thrown to the lions. While God delivered Daniel, that does not always happen and the New Testament disciples are perfect examples of this: Phillip was stoned; James and Paul were beheaded; and Peter was crucified.
These are just a few examples, there are many, many more. Being obedient to God and disobedient to man may leave us subject to the sword of governmental wrath but that doesn’t change what Paul teaches. We must follow our conscience, the combining of what we know to be morally good and spiritually right, and when those two things are in conflict we must be obedient to our God. However, I would caution us to be mindful that we often confuse what God wants and commands and what we want and believe to be godly. In other words, we often confuse our personal rights with godly desires and see our pursuit of culturally sanctioned goals as god-ordained commands. We’ve confused the American dream with God’s plan and purpose for His disciples. So, be careful that you don’t make that mistake.
While these things may seem obvious to some of us, they are not necessarily obvious to many in our post-modern, post-Christian culture. Paul clearly indicates that rulers are given the authority to rule but in accordance with God’s expectations and example. Paul even highlights this very idea in his next statement, “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” Of course, there are those rulers who have been or are a terror to good conduct. Paul’s admonition is obviously expecting rulers to also submit to God and to rule well, in accordance with God’s ideals. Unfortunately, some have begun to view Biblical Christianity as a radical idealism that should be discouraged, suppressed or even outlawed. When rulers fail to rule according to God’s ideal, man can and should respond by calling them to Godly accountability but within spiritual and legal limits. Don’t forget – “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
Paul then gives a contrast of being unafraid of governmental authority because you do good and are approved and being afraid because you do wrong and are subject to its wrath. He says, it [government] does not carry the sword for no reason. While some see this as a Pauline endorsement of capital punishment or death, that is really not the purpose in this passage. While scripture does appear to give that authority to civil governments for particular crimes and for war, the point here is simply an acknowledgment that Roman soldiers bear swords and wield them under full authority of Rome and resistance could easily and quickly result in death.
Finally, Paul addresses the 900 pound gorilla in the room, governmental taxation and personal tax obligations. Why? I can only assume because it was an issue that he knew people struggled with. However, he calls upon disciples to consider conscience (that combining of the morally good and the spiritually right) as a reason to pay our taxes. If God has placed the authorities as public servants to attend to the social good, then we should obey God, honor our authorities and pay our taxes. But notice, he doesn’t limit his reasoning to just taxes… “Pay your obligations to everyone. If taxes, then taxes. If tolls, then tolls. If respect, then respect. If honor, then honor. (v. 7)” This appears to clearly point back to Jesus admonition: “Then He said to them, ‘Therefore give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’” (Matthew 22:21 HCSB)
Though all of these things regarding rulers and ruling are true, I hope you’ve recognized that is not the focus of Paul’s admonition. His focus is not on those who rule but on us, the ruled. He does tell us how rulers should rule, but he’s not addressing rulers. He’s addressing believers and his focus is on how we believers submit to rulers and their ruling. To be honest, I found that to be somewhat disconcerting. Not because I doubt Paul is telling us what God truly wants us to hear, but because it cuts so deeply. I grew up during a very tumultuous time in America. As a young child in 1963, I watched the news as our President was assassinated and heard adults weeping over the tragedy. Then we were thrust into turmoil as our nation wrestled with the issues of racism, civil rights, segregation and yet another assassination – Martin Luther King, Jr’s. If that wasn’t enough, throw in the social unrest, protests and issues surrounding The Vietnam War and the draft. Now, mix in the political upheaval of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. Is there any wonder that so many of my generation give pause when we read these words… “submit to governing authorities… for government is God’s servant for your good.” We have our doubts.
But that’s where our faith calls upon us to trust our God and His purpose and plan. Lest we forget, the Holy Spirit has Paul writing these words to Christian disciples who are living in Rome and are about to be subjected to some of the worst persecution followers of Christ have ever known. In fact, in just a few short years following this letter to Rome, Paul will join them and will be subjected to the same inhuman treatment as he gives his life in obedience to the Lord. That’s why this is so hard for us to hear. Don’t misunderstand, Paul subjected himself to the authority of Rome even as he remained obedient to Christ. That’s where this takes a difficult turn for believers. When our government and rulers fail to follow God’s ideal and rule in a fashion that honors Him and permits us to worship Him as He desires, then we must be obedient to Him and not them even as we subject ourselves to their punishment.
Will God deliver us from punishment like Daniel and his friends? Maybe. Maybe not. It entirely depends upon His perfect will. It served His purpose to deliver Daniel but it served His purpose to leave Paul subject to Rome’s sword. That’s the key, God’s purpose. As I stated before, the focus in these verses is NOT on the failure of governmental leaders to serve well – though they will be held accountable to God, but the focus is upon disciples to submit and obey – to God’s plan and purpose, first and foremost, then to governmental authority. When they come into conflict we obey God and not man, being prepared to endure man’s wrath while praying for God’s deliverance but always, always trusting Him wherever obedience may lead us. Why? Because we know, obey and trust NO HIGHER AUTHORITY than our God.
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