In the wake of one of the most tumultuous election seasons in my lifetime, we come to Romans 13. And, there have been several moments during our study of Romans where we simply could not have planned a more appropriate text for the moment, and that is certainly true today. But, that said, I will also find this to be among the most challenging things said by Paul in this entire letter, and you may find that the same is true for you.
Starting at the beginning of Romans 12, Paul has been presenting us systematically with a sort of ethics of Christian living. He started in paragraph one of chapter 12 by looking at the individual. He then moved to the church collective, and finally to how the church interacts with the rest of the world. Today, though, he, as always, anticipates the questions his readers will be asking. And, after telling them at the end of Chapter 12 to seek to live peaceably with all people and to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, the question Paul anticipates them asking is: “but, what about the government?”
So, Paul continues with these striking and perhaps even shocking words, “let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”
So, before we read this I want to throw out three problems that we will potentially have with Paul’s words. And, we will then unpack these issues.
- Most of us don’t think about our government in this way. – So, often this text is presented simply as Paul saying, “be good citizens.” But, that is a great reduction about what’s happening here. He’s actually presenting us with a theological vision that many of us simply have not been taught.
- This is not about America. – We have to be careful, as always, to not read ourselves into the pages of Scripture.
- A natural objection we will have will be: “but what if our government is evil or unjust?”
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Most of us don’t think about our government in this way.
Paul presents a clear theological vision that God is not simply in control in a, sort of, distant way, but that God is intimately active in forming, shaping and using governments for his purposes. But, this is not only true of the government; this is true of all things. God is active and present in everything.
Here’s the challenge for us: we are inclined to think that God can only use those who love Him and are obedient to Him to accomplish His purposes, but to think that is to diminish His capabilities. No, throughout the whole of Scripture, God uses all kinds of men and women to accomplish His will. Kings, shepherds, fishermen, Roman governors, queens, Moabites, Babylonians, Philistines, talking donkeys, and on and on.
And, even though we know many of these stories, we quickly forget them because the media and political candidates tell us that every election depends not on God but us. And our American civic model tells us that the government is “…of the people…by the people…for the people.” So, we’ve naturally come to view our government as resting on the shoulders of the people, and if we involve God at all in the process, it is in making judgments and assumptions about which candidate seems to possibly be a Christian.
But, Paul tells his Roman readers something they already knew but we often miss: “you don’t make governments.” The Roman church had no voice in the government, so that was no revelation to them. But, the next part of Paul’s point may have been: “you don’t make governments; God does.” This is about as clear as it gets. The second part of verse 1: For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
God is the real catalyst behind those who step into positions of human authority. Even if they don’t know God. Even if they hate God. Isaiah 45: the people of Israel are held captive in Babylon, which has been conquered by the Persians, and here is what Isaiah says of the Persian King Cyrus:
Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped,
to subdue nations before him
and to loose the belts of kings,
to open doors before him
that gates may not be closed:
2 “I will go before you
and level the exalted places,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
3 I will give you the treasures of darkness
and the hoards in secret places,
that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I name you, though you do not know me.
So, here is a pagan king, not a servant of the Lord, not a moral person, but God says though you don’t know me, I have grasped your right hand. Though you don’t love me, I’m using you to accomplish my purposes. The exact same thing could be said of the Egyptian Pharaoh in the time of Moses. In fact, Paul said back in Romans 9:17:
For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”
One of our favorites, Christian theologian Michael Frost notes: “Have you noticed that Christians have a habit of saying that God *appoints* the leaders they voted for, but he only *allows* the ones they didn’t vote for?
But, notice Paul’s perspective is that no matter how you want to frame it, God is the one behind it.
Paul also speaks in generalities concerning the role of rulers and government. In general, a civic government is meant to protect those who are good and punish those who are bad. Verses 3 and 4:
3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
In other words, if you don’t like a ruler or you don’t agree with a ruler, it doesn’t give you license to not follow the law of the land. Additionally, God uses governments and leaders to carry out his wrath on wrongdoers. More on that in a minute.
Number 2: Another challenge for us is that Paul is not writing into our modern governmental situation. Even though the American model of government is in part based on the Roman republic, He’s not speaking to a group of citizens who get to vote on everything or who have many varied freedoms including freedom of religion. Remember Christianity was technically illegal in Rome until the time of Constantine in the 300s. So, you can’t go to Romans 13 to figure out which presidential candidate you should vote for. Paul’s not going to tell you.
If anything, this should push us towards prayer. In the American model, God is still putting people in positions of authority and leadership, but he is doing that through the framework of voting. It’s similar to salvation in some ways. God is the one who saves people; it’s His power and doing. And, yet, He uses us in that process to declare and demonstrate the gospel and to make disciples in the way of Jesus. We’re not saving anyone through our power, but God is using us to save people.
Finally, what if the government is corrupt, unjust or evil? I think that there are some very natural and yet extremely challenging questions that this text brings up. Over the last 150 years, our world has seen some of the most heinous tyrants and horrific events in human history. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot. Government sanctioned genocide in Rwanda, China, Russia, Germany. Brutal civil wars killing hundreds of thousands. It is natural to ask, “where is God in all of this?” Or even to ask, “did God cause these things?”
Even in America today, we certainly do not have a government that is perfectly moral. Abortion, systemic racism, mistreatment of immigrants. It makes voting extremely challenging for us because neither party is the kingdom of God coming on earth as it is in heaven, and no politician or government is sinless.
Here are things that we know:
- God is incapable of and completely absent of sin. This is known as his divine infallibility and impeccability. God remains sinless even in his wrath because his justice is perfect, and because, according to Scripture, we all deserve death.
- The terrible things we see in our world are the result of human sin and depravity. They are not the result of God. They are founded in the sin of mankind, and perpetuated by the sin of mankind. And, part of God’s judgment, all the way back in the garden, is that we would live under a curse of sin and death because the man and woman were disobedient.
So, one of the best examples we have of how to live under a pagan regime is in the story of Daniel. Daniel is a young man who along with many other people has been kidnapped from Jerusalem by the Babylonians. And Daniel, along with his friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are taken into the court of King Nebuchadnezzar
and are, for some reason, given a certain amount of power and privilege. But, the government does not follow the Lord, and these men find themselves repeatedly in a crisis of conscience. And here is their basic example: They seek to live at peace with everyone. They are not trouble-makers. They are not inciting revolution. They are seeking to serve the king with honor and respect even though he has destroyed the holy city of Jerusalem and exiled the people of God and forcibly taken them from their homes and families. They serve him even though he is thoroughly pagan. But, when the rulers attempt to force them to do things that would be an abomination to God, they respectfully refuse.
- Daniel refused to eat the Kings food because it was sacrificed to pagan Gods.
- Daniel’s friends refuse to bow down and worship a golden statue of Nebuchadnezzar.
- Daniel refuses to pray to the king, and instead makes a somewhat public show of praying to God.
I think this is a Biblical example of what it looks like to live in a pagan society. Daniel and his friends have hard lines, things that they simply will not do. And, there are consequences, but the Lord protects them.
Friends we also are exiles. You may think of yourself as an American, but, if you are a follower of Christ, the Scriptures call you an ambassador of another place.