Christmas came between Romans 12 and 13. So, to best understand 13:1-7, a brief review is in order. In chapters 1-11, Paul proclaimed God’s mercy in Christ: all have sinned against God and fall short of his glory, but are made right with God through faith in the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
Now Paul turns a corner. “ . . . in view of God”s mercy”, here is how the church should live . . .
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God– this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is– his good, pleasing and perfect will” (12:1,2).
How is the church to live that body-sacrifice and that moral transformation? By humbly exercising spiritual gifts as members of one body (12:3-8). By genuinely loving one another in the church and living in peace with outsiders (12:9-21).
By living in subjection to ruling authorities (13:1-7) . . .
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities . . . ” (13:1a).
This grows out of Paul’s appeal for the church to do good to enemies (12:20,21). For, even though the Roman Empire largely treated the church with indifference, tension ran beneath the surface between the two.
For example, just six years earlier Emperor Claudius had banned Jews (Christian and non-Christian) from Rome. Although a new emperor, Nero, allowed them to return, they became his scapegoats. Then when fire ravaged the city, Nero blamed Christians.l/.
Paul’s reasoning is radical—and takes submission to government far beyond 1st century Rome all the way to us in the 21st century.
“ . . . for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (13:1b).
All authority comes from God. Not from the emperor, as in Rome. Not from a written Constitution, as in the U.S. From God. And those who have authority to rule, whether an empire or a democracy, have been appointed by God. He is the sovereign authority of his creation.
In Israel, only a Jewish king could be recognized. Now Christian Jews were urged to subject themselves to a pagan king. Because “those authorities that exist have been instituted by God”.
God institutes authorities. If a government exists, it is ordained by God. The government—dictatorship or democracy—derives its power from God and is limited to what he intends for it.
This has a serious implication for resistors—and the church under Roman rule might resist . . .
“Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (13:2).
The “therefore” is obvious—and frightening. Resisting a king appointed by Rome was risky enough. He wielded the full weight of Roman authority—and judgment. But, worse, God had appointed that authority, so to resist him was to resist God’s authority—and to incur God’s judgment.
“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer” (13:3,4).
Years ago, in a Sunday Worship Gathering, we honored out local police. Many came. I preached from this passage and found it strange to speak of them as God’s servants, especially since I knew many were far from believers. But Paul doesn’t mean Emperor Nero is personally God’s servant, but positionally. Nero is God’s servant without knowing it!
What does Paul mean “[the authority] is God’s servant for your good”? He may mean for the church’s moral good. That is, living under a pagan emperor tests Christians’ faith and so develops character. Or he may mean for the church’s benefit—though its rather hard to see how a pagan emperor’s edicts could benefit the Christian church. Unless Paul means the authority benefits the church, because it keeps society from anarchy. In any case . . .
“Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience” (13:5).
In other words, writes Paul, the church must obey the laws of the land, not only because of possible punishment if they don’t, but out of moral obligation to God (“conscience”).
So, another occasion, again years ago, Lois and I are driving north on an empty Sunday morning stretch of U.S. 19. Headed for church. Speed limit’s 50. I’m pushing 60. Suddenly, a Tarpon Springs cop in my rearview mirror. Sick fear stabs my stomach. Ticket for sure. But, know what? Even on my way to worship, no stab of conscience because I’ve broken my moral obligation to God.
This is what God deserves. Not our submission to civil laws fearful of punishment, but out of a deep and full submission to him.
“For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (13:6,7).
The State holds the right to levy taxes (even if the system is corrupt, as was often the case with Rome’s tax collectors”) and citizens have a moral obligation to God to pay them. But payment isn’t enough. “ . . . the authorities are God’s servants”; therefore, Christians owe them respect. The church must not merely tolerate government authorities, but honor them as God-appointed.
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Paul isn’t writing a theology of church and state. (For instance, he doesn’t discuss how Christians are to respond when the state demands something God forbids.) His concern is pastoral. He wants the church at Rome to be submissive and “to do what is good”. And, because all authority is God’s and the authorities that exist are God-appointed, he’s exhorting us.
To see government as a God-appointed agent instead of the church’s opponent. I never think of our government as God-appointed for our good. Holy Spirit, renew my mind so my thinking is transformed, and I see our government as appointed by you.
I have to confess: it’s hard to “wrap my brain” around governments being God-appointed. Does that include Hitler’s? Russia’s? Syria’s? North Korea’s?
To respect governing authorities. I think the key here is God-appointed. How can I respect congressmen who are so partisan they refuse to work with the party “on the other side of the aisle” for the country’s good? Who are involved in sophomoric sexual-escapades and worse? Who with straight face lie “under oath”? Who “play” to their (voter) base rather than do what’s right for the country? Who do their job to keep their job rather than to promote national well-being?
Holy Spirit, renew my mind so my thinking is transformed, and I respect our leaders’ position, if not their practice.
Bob Deffinbaugh (Texas pastor) wrote, “There may be reason for disobedience to certain laws, but there is no excuse for our spirit of insubordination and for an obedience which is more compliant than it is cooperative and supportive.”
To that, how can I not say “Amen”?