Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed… Romans 13:1-2
I thank God that I have never lived in a place where there was no law and order. I hope that’s true of you as well, though I am aware that there could be someone reading this who is in exactly that position. (Certainly, I know that there are those who live in places where law and order is, if not non-existent, corrupt or weak.)
No stable government… no police force… no legal system… no magistrates’ courts… probably no traffic regulations or tax system or education system or health service… There is only one word for such a situation: chaos. The powerful may get by, but the weak go under.
A nation can no more govern itself without leaders than children can run their school without teachers, wonderfully exciting though that prospect might seem.
Fact, then: human societies need government. And, according to the Bible, that is the way God has decided it should be. Human authorities are, as Paul puts it, “instituted by God” essentially as a bulwark against anarchy and mayhem.
Yes, we may grumble at those who govern us – at least those of us fortunate enough to live in parts of the world where we can do so without fear of ending up in prison. But deep down we know we have much to be thankful for.
It’s with this background in mind that we must read Paul’s words in Romans 13.
Paul, of course, was a Jew, but he lived in the time of the Roman empire, and it was that empire that bossed the known world. At the time he wrote Romans, the Jews, and the new-born Christian church also, had quite a good time of it in comparison with many. (Things would soon change.) They were permitted to worship the one true God, and they enjoyed certain freedoms and protections.
So his instructions to the Roman church are entirely understandable.
On a purely practical basis he knew that any significant opposition to Rome (as practiced, for example, by the dagger-carrying hotheads, the Zealots) would be utterly futile. The Roman army was one of the most ruthless and efficient killing machines the world had ever seen; any rebellion would be totally squelched in five minutes flat.
But more than that, he was determined that Christ’s church would conquer by the power of love, not by the sword – by prayer, by the preaching of the gospel, by Christ-like living. And so he urges his fellow-Christians to be good citizens – obeying the law, paying their taxes, praying, indeed, for those who govern them.
And that is the essence of Romans 13. That is the general, overall principle Paul is setting out.
However … what Paul doesn’t tackle in this passage is how Christians should respond when the powers that rule them are clearly anti-God and wicked.
This isn’t because he thinks it unimportant, but because it isn’t the topic he happens to be dealing with. We know from elsewhere that he wasn’t afraid to stand up against corrupt powers (for example, Acts 16:35-40), though he was very happy to take advantage of his privileged position as a Roman citizenship to avoid this if possible.
And we can be sure that he would agree with other Christian leaders who were called to put their lives on the line. He would go along whole-heartedly with the brave, ringing words of Peter before the Jewish authorities in Acts 5:29: “We must obey God rather than men!”
And he would agree too with the writer of Revelation, writing under much more difficult circumstances than he was, who saw the Roman power as a monstrous anti-God beast (Revelation 13) or a lecherous whore (Revelation 17 and 18) who needed to be thrown down.
This reminds us that when thinking about any topic, we need to take the whole of the Bible into account: no single passage, such as Romans 13, can cover everything we need to know. The vital thing Paul doesn’t include in this passage is: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities unless to do so would lead you to be disloyal to God and to violate your own conscience.” That’s a very different matter!
So…yes, as a general rule Christians are called to be “subject to the governing authorities”. But make no mistake, there may well be times when the church of Christ is called on to stand up and say “No, this is wrong! This must stop!”
Good citizens, yes. But not doormats!
[This is getting rather long, so I think it will be best to return to it next time for a second instalment. See you again soon!]
Oh God, please help me to be a truly Christian citizen, whether I live in a relatively peaceful democracy or under a corrupt and oppressive government. Amen.
I am very grateful to my friend Karen for suggesting this topic – it’s certainly made me do some thinking! Please do let me know if there is a passage or theme you would like me to tackle. I’m no expert (of course!) but I will certainly do my best.