The great value of the past is that we can learn from it. One of the reasons that the bible is so valuable is that we are learning how God has related to humanity over the course of at least six thousand years. Though the context of life may appear different, God has not changed and the reality is as human beings we are still struggling with the same issues.
If we were to enter the first century after the birth of our Lord Jesus and were living in the Imperial city of Rome we would be immediately struck with the incredible differences in social status and the daily lives of people. In the time of Caesar Augustus, the percentage of slaves in the city of Rome could be numbered as high as 30% of the population. Many of them were captives of war. It was in this context that the gospel of Jesus Christ made such powerful inroads into that world. The spread of the church began on the day of Pentecost when Jews came from all over the Mediterranean world to Jerusalem to celebrate and many left as followers of Jesus. It was then brought home to their synagogues and eventually extended beyond the Jewish population into those God-fearing Gentiles who heard this wonderful message of forgiveness and hope. The apostle Paul wrote a letter to the house churches in Rome, explaining who he was, the message he had been preaching and his hope of extending his message not only to Rome but beyond Rome. Rome was a melting pot of many ethnic groups in which 60% were from outside of the Italian peninsula. In other words it was a very diverse city. For Rome to govern the Mediterranean world, unlawful assemblies were forbidden. Early Christianity was perceived as an expression of Judaism and was therefore protected, but eventually expelled from the synagogue, it became a persecuted group in the Empire. In the city of Rome, the church went underground to worship. If you were to go to Rome today and go to the catacombs (underground burial sites) of the city, you will see where the early Christians often gathered to worship. Yet, when reading texts from the New Testament we see that at the time of the writings, the church was not seen as a political threat. The teaching of the New Testament toward civic authorities is very clear; as we read in the gospels, the epistles of both Paul and Peter, we are to submit and honor those who govern over us.
God’s word reveals to us God’s will. How many recognize that it is easy to do God’s will when we agree with it, but a far more challenging aspect when we disagree with what we are being asked to do. Then doing God’s will becomes a struggle. Even Jesus reveals to us as the ultimate example of being the ‘perfect man,’ the struggle he had with submitting to the cross in the garden of Gethsemane. “He went away a second time and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done (Matthew 26:42).’” The cup that Jesus was speaking of was his willingness to be crucified as a sacrificial substitute for our sins, and thereby rejected by God, the Father. We are living in a day where there is an absence of respect and honor toward others. Suspicion, criticism, fault-finding, and anger are the order of the day. Yet, as we tour the New Testament, we find a totally different ethic being reflected by Jesus and his followers and their instruction to genuine believers. Peter talks about some of the inward struggle we have within ourselves. He describes them as the ‘sinful desires that wage war against our soul (cf. 1 Pet. 2:11). How do we see others? How do we respond to those we disagree with? How do we respond to those who criticize and attack us? What does it mean to truly become a non-conformist? How do we live a transformed life in a morally perverse world? What does it mean to submit to God, others, and even those who are in various realms of authority over our lives, even when we disagree?
Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.
Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.[i]
Here we see how we are to treat those who God places as authorities in our lives. Let me make a significant and distinctive point here, that as individuals where possible, believers should participate as good citizens in the political process. However, when we consider what the role of the church as an institution should be politically, that is uniquely different. This is where there should be a separation from the state. Neither state nor church vying for dominance over the other.
John MacArthur insightfully points out that:
Many evangelicals believe that Christians should become active in political causes, relying on social action and pressure tactics to change laws and government policies and practices that are plainly evil and to protect cherished religious rights that are being encroached upon. …This zeal for preservation of the Christian faith, both culturally and individually, often gets blended in with strong views about economics, taxation, social issues, and partisanship, so that the Bible gets wrapped in the flag.
Even social and political activities that are perfectly worthwhile can deplete the amount of a believer’s time, energy, and money that is available for the central work of the gospel. The focus is shifted from the call to build the spiritual kingdom through the gospel to efforts to moralize culture-trying to change society from the outside rather than individuals from the inside. When the church is politicized, even in support of good causes, its spiritual power is vitiated and its moral influence diluted. …We are to be the conscience of the nation through faithful preaching and godly living, confronting it not with the political pressure of man’s wisdom-including our own-but with the spiritual power of God’s word. Using legislation, adjudication, or intimidation to achieve a superficial, temporal ‘Christian morality’ is not our calling- and has no eternal value. …even the best of human government do not participate in the work of the kingdom, and the worst of human societal systems cannot hinder the power of the Word and the Spirit. God instituted civil authority for an entirely different, temporal, and transient purpose.
It is not that Christians are not to be involved, sometimes directly, in civil government. It is certainly not that believers should avoid expressing their beliefs through voting for the best qualified political candidates and for sound legislation. That is part of doing good in our society (cf. Gal. 6:10; Titus 3:1-2) We should be grateful to God for civil freedom to worship, to preach and teach the gospel, and to live our lives almost without restriction. That is a nice privilege, but it is not necessary to the effectiveness of the gospel truth or to spiritual growth.[ii]
Let me reflect for a moment on that comment. Apart from this past year with Covid restrictions, we have experienced unprecedented freedom unknown throughout most of human history in our western culture. We have been given such freedom as believers that we were unimpeded in our mandate to go and make disciples; and yet in our freedom-loving sphere, we have been far less effective than many of our brothers and sisters in Christ in deeply restrictive parts of our world in fulfilling that mandate. Our freedoms have not translated into fruitful and effective witness, but often our freedoms have allowed us to become distracted by the good things of this world to the neglect of our greater calling.
If we were to survey what is happening on our planet today, we would discover that the fastest growing parts of the church is occurring in areas where there is the greatest political restrictions possible imposed against the church. Countries like China and Iran are witnessing the amazing and phenomenal growth of the church of Jesus Christ.
Years ago, Leith Anderson, wrote an article relating his first trip to China before it became more opened for travelers. He was invited to attend a 3 Self Church in Beijing, which is the government registered church in China. A translator was relaying the message to Anderson which was entirely biblical and consistent with what you would hear in any evangelical church in North America. So, why had the majority of Christians in China refused to register with the government and forced to go underground? To be registered in the 3 Self-church meant that they would have to agree not to propagate the Christian faith. In other words, they would have to disobey Christ’s mandate to ‘make disciples.’ The question then was whether a person could be a follower of Jesus Christ and not obey his words to ‘make disciples.’ The answer for the vast majority of Christians in China was and is no! They are prepared to suffer the loss of jobs, be tortured, to be imprison and if necessary be killed. What has been the result? The church has grown and flourished in China more during a time of restriction than what had occurred previously.
One of the backlashes of this time of restrictions, not only to the church, but to all segments of our society is that some have felt that worship has been impeded and have felt so strongly that they have ignored the restrictions entirely, justifying that this is in violation of God’s word. Regardless of how we interpret that, we need to ask a more significant question: How has this time affected me as a ‘disciple-maker?’ What was I doing before Covid in this regard? And if I go shopping and wear a mask, and then remain a home because I do not want to wear a mask to church, can’t we see how inconsistent we have become in our way of thinking?
But you may argue that the government has no business telling us what we can or cannot do. So, what is the role of government? What should then be our response to civic authorities? The apostles living under a dictatorial regime wrote what we now deem as Scriptures, the word of God, to help us learn how we, as believers, should live in a world that had and still has totally opposite values. Let us remember that in this letter to the Roman church, Paul was making a presentation of the gospel, and its transforming impact on the lives of people who fully submitted to God. Once we have submitted to God, we are instructed to live a life in submission to one another. It really is a life of learning how to love others. First, we are instructed how to love other believers, and finally learn how to love our enemies; those who strongly disagree with us. How do we transform the evil done to us? We do it by loving, praying for, and blessing those who treat us poorly. The Scriptures teach us at the close of Romans 12 that we are to allow God to vindicate and defend us; and then the apostle Paul talks about the need to rightly relate and submit to those who govern us in chapter 13:1-7. Here we discover two responses to civic authorities in our lives as believers.
THE FIRST RESPONSE TO THOSE IN CIVIC AUTHORITY IS SUBMISSION
The idea of being in submission means to be under the authority of someone else.
A. Where does authority originate and who is responsible to whom and for what?
What does submission mean and what are its limitations? To be governed means to receive direction and guidance. Does this then mean absolute obedience?
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.[iii]
There are a number of things we immediately notice from this text. The first is that this authority is not absolute authority or supreme authority, but a delegated authority from God. Therefore, all human authority will have to give an account to God for their actions. The principle of submission to governing authorities remains a perpetual principle. In the Jewish mindset, there was a deep recognition that all human government was orchestrated and ultimately responsible to God. Even in the midst of totalitarian regimes like Babylon, in which they lived in exile; Daniel related the principle: “‘…the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of people (Daniel 4:17b).’ Knowing God raises up those in authority, they are then under God’s authority and are ultimately accountable to him. In Daniel’s account, Nebuchadnezzar is chastened by God for his arrogance and pride and we read of his being humbled for a season when he loses his sanity. Finally, Nebuchadnezzar realizes his folly and relates:
At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honor and splendor were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom. My advisers and nobles sought me out, and I was restored to my throne and became even greater than before. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.[iv]
For Jews living in exile, the realization that God was over all humanity had powerful ramifications.
To be able to affirm that God is one, their God is one, and so also God of the Gentiles, meant in the logic of the times that all rule and authority must have come from that one God, their God. The comfort of such a belief was not that it made them any less vulnerable to the whims of such rulers… The comfort was rather that such rulers were by definition responsible before God, and so were under the constraint of God’s final judgment. That particular Jewish belief would, of course, have little impact on the rulers themselves, but at least it gave their oppressed Jewish subjects the assurance that rulers who flouted their responsibility before God would come under his judgment sooner or later…[v]
However, having stated the general principle we need to understand that this is not an absolute principle that negates the individual to assess what is being asked. Submission is more of a general attitude of respect and honor but absolute obedience regardless of what is being asked.
This text is misunderstood if it is taken out of context and used as an absolute word so that Christians uncritically comply with the state no matter what is being demanded. What we have here is a general exhortation that delineates what is usually the case: people should normally obey ruling authorities. The text is not intended as a full-blown treatise on the relationship of believers to the state. It is a general exhortation setting forth the typical obligations one has to civil authorities. …Paul was keenly aware that the ruling authorities had put Jesus to death, and as a student of the O.T. and Jewish tradition he was well schooled in the evil that governments had inflicted on the people of God.[vi]
In other words, the idea of submission is a posture that we should be living out. We know from the Scriptures that submission is a powerful concept to understanding our need to comply with God-appointed authority; like children who are to comply with the instructions of their parents unless what is being asked of them is against God’s moral code. The apostle Paul explains that to make a marriage work, mutual submission is needed. Wives submitting to their husbands, while husbands are submitting to Christ by loving their wives unconditionally and laying down their lives for them. In Ephesians 5:21, we see the general principle being expressed with the ultimate motivation for that attitude: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
This text is often focused on the marriage relationship, but it reflects all that the apostle Paul will say regarding marriage, family, work, which also carries over into other realms of relationships, including governance in the civic area of life. We can also see what the text does not say, which is out of love or respect for the other. Even if our society thought that mutual submission or the willful submission of our lives for others was a wonderful idea, the motivation for doing so ends with our human capacity to love and respect the other. However, problems arise when we lose respect for the other or the effort is simply coming from our own internal and personal resource. We need a power greater than ourselves to fulfill this text of submission. In Christ we have both the motive and the source of strength to fulfill what is being asked. That is why we submit to government, to our spouses, to our employers. The motive is out of our love for Christ. This love is founded on our trust in Christ. Often the issue why we do not submit is that we do not truly trust Christ. This generally only comes to light under pressure. That is one reason why God allows pressures, trials and difficulties in our lives; to help us discover where we are putting our trust. What we often discover is that we are trusting ourselves, things, systems, or others, rather than God.
B. The role of government is to execute justice.
For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.
For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.[vii]
Thomas Schreiner reminds us: “Ruling authorities have a responsibility to correct those who practice evil, so that society is peaceful and spared from anarchy.”[viii] All conflict comes over the issue of control. Here we are told who has the final say, and one of the encouraging things in a democracy is that people have a greater voice and can express during election time who they want to support as their leaders.
C. Two reasons are spelled out for us to develop a right attitude.
“Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience (Romans 13:5).” We do not just obey because of fear of punishment, which is the first reason expressed, but ultimately we submit because we desire to do the right thing and obey God. That is what it means by ‘for conscience sake.’ But having said that, there are times we may have to disregard what is being asked because of that very same ground. Because of conscience sake, we then become conscientious objectors. When we are being asked to violate the ultimate authority which is God, himself. So, what are we to do when government encourages evil rather than good? Throughout history we see that totalitarian regimes have abused their authority and have espoused evil. One biblical example is found in the book of Daniel, where Nebuchadnezzar fashioned a ‘statute’ after his image and forced the people to worship that image. In Daniel 3 we have the example of the three Hebrew friends of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego would not violate the ‘higher law’ of God as found in the decalogue (cf. Ex. 20:3-4), and would not worship the image of Nebuchadnezzar. Thus the ‘greater law’ of God superseded the law of human authority. The result was that they were cast into the fiery furnace. Though God miraculously delivered them, they were prepared to die a martyr’s death (cf. Daniel 3:17-18). This suggests that one of the considerations that we must make as believers is to understand the limits human governance has upon the responsibility of human conscience regarding God’s ultimate laws; that to use obedience to human governance as a reason to violate laws found in the decalogue would be inexcusable. This can be seen in the Nuremberg trials where war crimes were brought to trial. Many of the accused used Romans 13 as a justification for their part in the Holocaust in the Second World War. They argued that they were just following their governments orders to kill people. Yet that argument did not stand as it was taking away human responsibility for doing what was right. Fortunately, most of the atrocities were punished by the sentences given for violating laws against humanity. Laws incidentally which were ingrained into our hearts by a Judeo-Christian ethic. Yet, as the apostle Paul also argues in Romans 2:15, these laws are written within the human heart.
THE SECOND RESPONSE TO THOSE IN CIVIC AUTHORITY IS TO GIVE WHAT WE OWE
Throughout the practical instructions flowing from Romans chapter 12 to then end of the letter, we see that what is outlined for us is the manner in which we ought to live our lives. How does this amazing gospel bring about transformation in our lives that helps us to no longer conform to the values of the prevailing society that remains in rebellion and lack of submission to the ultimate authority, namely God? We are being instructed to grow in our faith and realize that what we ultimately owe to God is to show respect and honor not only to Him, but also to those He has appointed to govern our lives.
Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.[ix]
According to some New Testament scholars, they question how Romans 13:1-7 fits into Paul’s argument for the centrality of love as the Christian ethic? However, as Douglas Moo points out in rebuttal, that the text is actually consistent with the argument of what is required to live a life of love as demonstrated in submission first to God, and then others. It also speaks to the issue of how to live in our present world, yet not according to values that are inconsistent with God’s values as expressed in the Bible.
But Paul’s teaching about the transitory nature of the world might be precisely why he includes 13:1-7. His purpose may be to stifle the kind of extremism that would pervert his emphasis on the coming of the new era and on the ‘new creation’ into a rejection of every human and societal convention – including the government. …One can well imagine Christians arguing: ‘The old age has passed away; we are ‘a new creation in Christ’ and belong to the transcendent, spiritual realm. Surely we, who are even now reigning with Christ in his kingdom, need pay no attention to the secular authorities of this defunct age.’ If Romans 13:1-7 is directed to just such an attitude, Paul may have inserted it here as a guard against those who might draw the wrong conclusions from his concern that Christians avoid conformity to ‘this age.[x]
In other words, these words were written to make us realize that though we have a greater authority that transcends this life, we also are in this world and must submit to the authorities in this world, as much as are consciences will allow.
Another important consideration is that much of the resentment and rebellion that ensued from the Jewish community was the oppressive taxation that was imposed upon them by the Romans. Here Paul is telling us that we are obligated to pay them, rather than rebel and revolt as a result of them.
This excerpt from the life of love in action (Romans 13 is sandwiched in the context of a discussion on a life of love) continues with the exhortation found in verse 8, to ‘let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The idea here is that we are under the obligation to live a life where love is the ruling principle. How are our actions demonstrating this highest principle? All of our actions must be weighed in light of this principle. Are we submitting to governing authorities even when we disagree with them? The whole world in the past year has lived under restrictions. Let us have confidence that God’s word and spirit have not been restricted. People have continued to hear the word of the Lord, and have come to faith in Christ.
[i] 1 Peter 2:12-14. 17, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[ii] John MacArthur, Romans 9-16, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1994), 206-09.
[iii] Romans 13:1-2.
[iv] Daniel 4:36-37.
[v] James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16, Word Biblical Commentary, 38B, (Dallas, TX: Word Books, Publisher, 1988), 770-71.
[vi] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 687-88.
[vii] Romans 13:3-4.
[viii] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, 678.
[ix] Romans 13:7-8.
[x] Douglas J Moo, The Epistle To The Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 791.