Every day on the news we see countries that are torn apart by conflict. The news is filled with protests, riots, and debate. We are inundated by commentators in our own country, who point to the evils, or mismanagement of our government. No matter what side you are on in the political spectrum there are certainly things you would like to see changed.
It is easy to become cynical about anything related to the government. It is tempting to adopt an adversarial role toward those in authority over us. It is tempting, but…according to Paul, it is also wrong.
It might seem strange that Paul moves from how to make friends of our enemies to submission to the governing authorities. But it’s not as strange as you might think. In the beginning of Romans chapter 12 Paul told us to submit to God and he followed that command by giving us practical expressions of that submission. We are to serve the church by using our gifts and abilities, we are to love one another, we are to bless those who persecute us, and we are to overcome even the evil people with good. In each case we are to give ourselves in obedience and submission to the Lord. In chapter 13 Paul continues this discussion. We also show submission to the Lord by submitting to earthly authorities.
In Paul’s day this was radical teaching. Paul was a Roman citizen but he was also Jewish. Most Jews viewed the Romans as oppressors who occupied Israel. I think it would be safe to say that most Jews of Paul’s day viewed the Romans like many Jews of our day view the Palestinians.
Paul however urged the new believers to be supportive of the state rather than to take the approach of the zealots who constantly opposed the state. Down through the centuries (even during great persecution) church leaders have always advised the same thing. In our text in Romans 13 we are going to see why this is important. Paul gives us some important principles that serve as the foundation of our submission to earthly authorities.
GOD ESTABLISHED THE PRINCIPLE OF GOVERNMENT
Paul lays down an important principle right off the bat: there is “no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Paul is not alone in his opinion. Peter writes,
13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. 16 Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. 17 Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king. [1 Peter 2:13-17]
Neither of these men tell us that God has established only every authority that we agree with, or only those authorities we believe are good. We are told that God has established every authority. There is no one who is in a position of authority that is not in a sense representing God in his or her service.
In Paul’s day, the King was Nero. Nero was a crazy tyrant. Even so, Paul says that we ought to obey, serve, and pray for even this leader. I don’t think Paul is arguing that God appoints every leader in office or that He is pleased with every leader. In other words, I don’t think God selected people like Saddam Hussein to be King. What he is saying is that we should respect the principle of authority even when it is being administered poorly. God can still work through the godless leaders.
The Lord established government for the purpose of keeping order in society and reigning in the sinful nature of man. If we did not have the government there would be no public utilities, no military, no police force, and no public aid. Without the government we would have no assurance that our food sources were safe and there would be no court system (even if we are disappointed with the way the courts are going it is still better than anarchy). Without the government defending the powerless and protecting the little guy, the powerful would victimize the weak. God ordained government for the public good and to restrain the sinful nature of men. We ought to respect those in authority because God designed those authorities to help us.
GOOD CITIZENSHIP MAKES SENSE
Paul alludes to the fact that being a good citizen actually makes sense for two reasons. The first reason is that being obedient frees us from fear. If we obey the law, the government is not a threat to us. For believers it was very important that they not be known as rebels. Leaders are put in place to do us good. When we submit to the government IN MOST CASES the result will be a greater freedom to live. If we are good citizens we will benefit from what the government is able to do for us. In the Christian community this means that we will be given a greater measure of freedom to share our faith and to serve God. When we obey the government we will be left alone by the government. When Christians serve as good citizens and are respectful to those in leadership positions, our churches receive tax breaks, our opinions will be listened to, and we will be free to “do our thing”. As soon as Christians become troublemakers, those in authority will begin to seek to limit those same freedoms. When believers abuse the system government will work to stop that abuse. In short: you will accomplish more by showing respect than you will be showing disdain.
The second practical reason for submitting to the government is that those who do not submit will face the power of the government. The government benefits those who submit, but punishes those who do not. Paul tells us, “he (the authority of government) does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
The government has (and must have) the power of coercion (or the ability to force compliance to the law) without that power there will be chaos. We see a negative example of this in our school systems. The power of coercion has been largely taken from teachers and administrators and the result is a staggering lack of respect for teachers and administrators.
God gave power to the authorities to help restrain the sinful tendency in humankind. People who break the law are punished. People who don’t pay their taxes go to jail. Those who kill may be executed themselves. Churches who abuse their tax-exempt status can have that status revoked. Companies that engage in illegal activity can be fined and its executives can be put in jail. God gives “the sword” to the government to try to keep things in order.
CHRISTIANS SHOULD BE THE BEST CITIZENS
Paul does not leave the matter here. He tells us that we should also honor those in authority “not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.” (Romans 13:5) In other words we should be obedient not just because we don’t want to get in trouble. We should be respectful because it is right in the eyes of God.
In truth, being a good citizen is part of being submissive to the Lord Himself. In verse 2, Paul says, “Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
We show submission to God through our submission to even sometimes unjust rulers. God gives us situations every day that teach us how to bend our will to another. If we don’t learn proper submission to parents, teachers, coaches, employers, and governing officials our supposed submission to God may be only an illusion. Consequently, we should be the best workers and the best citizens because we respect the authority (and the one behind the authority) even if we do not like the person who is position of authority.
But a question remains doesn’t it? What if the one in authority goes to far? What if they use their God given authority to rebel against God? For example,
- what if the government passed a law that said we could no longer worship?
- What if we are told we must not talk about our faith?
- What if we were told we had to turn in every copy of the Bible?
- What if the organization we belong to uses our funds to support immoral causes or engage in other illegal activities?
- What if an employer asks you to do something illegal or unethical?
- What if a military officer asks you to do something barbaric or inhuman?
- What if your employer asks you to promote material that is obscene, slanderous or demeaning to someone else?
- What if a Doctor asks you to assist with a procedure you believe is immoral?
- What if a coach, teacher or religious leader asks you to participate in actions that are inappropriate?
How far are we to take our submission? The principle is this: whenever an authority seeks to overrule God, we must resist. We have a higher motive for obeying those in authority over us because we see that obedience to authority is actually obedience to God. However, we also have a stronger reason for disobeying when disobedience is necessary because we know God is the highest authority.
We see several examples of this in the Bible. Daniel was told not to pray but he did and was thrown to the lions. Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were told that they must bow down to a golden statue when the band played. They refused to bow down to anyone but the Lord and were thrown in the fiery furnace. Peter and John were told to stop talking about Jesus but they refused, saying, “We must obey God rather than men” they were put in jail. Throughout the history of the church brave men and women have refused to deny their allegiance to the Lord. The have refused to call Caesar Lord and been burned at the stake or thrown to wild beasts. During World War II many Christians refused to disclose the location of Jews hiding in their homes even if it meant some of them would be arrested.
We can (and must) resist the unjust practices of a corrupt law or government but we must do so with respect. Boice illustrates by talking about the issue of abortion,
we will get nowhere if all we do is adopt the world’s methodology—sit-ins and pressure tactics and more laws. The world will use that against us, and has. Instead, we need to explain that the only view of mankind that protects us from exploitation by tyrannical rulers or others is that we are made in the image of God and are therefore valuable to God, even in an embryonic state. We need to show that the disenfranchising of the unborn child is no different than the once-popular defense of slavery by calling blacks less than human or the murder of the Jews by calling them a threat to society. We must show that human beings are all made in God’s image and therefore must not be destroyed for anyone’s convenience, even that of the mother. [Romans p. 1667]
Attitude is everything. We can and must protest without becoming ugly. When we protest we must understand that at times there will be negative consequences to our protest (as with the protestors of the Bible). We must be willing to accept the adverse consequences, if that is what it takes to serve God rather than men. Ultimately, we must be willing to stand with Christ even if it results in death! In each case, the values of God must be put ahead of the directives of men.
The problem with this principle is that it is a little slippery. It is easy to elevate personal preference over God’s truth. Some horrible things have been done over the years in the name of Christian principle. We must examine our position and the Scriptures carefully and then take our stand boldly. We must beware of using faith to justify injustice, a lack of compassion, lawlessness or disrespect of any kind.
IMPLICATIONS OF THESE TRUTHS
Paul gives us his own practical conclusion, “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” [vv. 6,7]
Our first responsibility is to be good and law-abiding citizens. It is the Christians responsibility to
- Report their income accurately and pay their taxes (yes, tax rates are high but they were even higher in Rome)
- Comply with government standards
- Obey traffic laws (including those about speed limit, the age requirements for driving a car, and carrying the required insurance.)
- Tell the truth when asked to testify
- Be an informed voter
- Respect the property of others
- Report criminal activity
In other words, we are to be model citizens. We should submit to the government joyfully as a way of honoring the Lord. We should not give anyone cause for offense because we do not do what is right. When people are offended at us let it be because we act like Jesus, not because we are law-breakers or obnoxious.
This does not mean that we should remain politically aloof. Perhaps you need to run for office to provide people with a better alternative. We must be informed as to where our representatives stand on various issues. We are given the right every 2-4-6 years to vote for new leaders. We should exercise that right intelligently. We should write our officials when we disagree with them on an issue; this is legal and appropriate. However, we must never resort to threats, personal attacks, or abusive speech. This is not effective…and it is not Christian. Our job is to address issues and to do so in a way that treats the person in authority with respect and honor.
The Bible tells us that we should pray for those who are in authority over us. This is true whether that leader is an employer, a supervisor, a parent, a coach, an elected official or any other position of leadership. We should pray that leaders are guided by God’s wisdom. We should pray for their ability to handle the stress of their position. We should pray that they might resist the temptation that power brings. We should pray for their families because they too must deal with the consequences of authority.
We are to give honor to those in authority. This means we should speak of them respectfully and treat them with respect. The President of the United States should be honored and respected regardless of which man has the title. The office demands respect. We should speak of our employers honorably rather than running them down before others. This holds true for coaches, parents, teachers and anyone else in authority.
In all things it is important that we remember that our primary goal as believers is not to exert political clout or to legislate morality. Our job is to show the world the love of God and introduce those around us to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. We will do this most effectively when we relate to others with humility, love and respect rather than with threats and attacks. If we will honor those in authority over us, (even when….or especially when, we disagree) whether in the school, workplace or in government, we will be most effective in our primary goal of honoring God and pointing other people to Jesus.