How do we stay anchored when presidents change? When we don’t even know who the president is? How do we stay anchored when we feel the person that gets elected is going to end life as we know it?
The Apostle Paul wrote to a community of Christians in Rome. At the heart of the most powerful empire perhaps ever known to human history. He is going to spend a good chunk of verses encouraging submission to the governing authorities.
If you’ve listened to sermons before, you probably know how important context is. What was going on at the time the Biblical books were written. Sometimes, it’s also really important to know the context of the 2000 year history of interpretation of the Biblical text you are reading. That’s especially true with Romans 13, the text we are looking at today.
Romans 13 is maybe the most misused verse in the whole Bible.
Leaders of the church in Germany used Rom 13 to justify obeying Hitler.
Many white people, include those in governing authority, used Romans 13 to keep Apartheid in place in South Africa. Knowing this history, I want to tread carefully here and give you the best Biblical explanation I can.
Scripture can be abused. But that doesn’t nullify the Word of God.
Satan knows to quote Scripture and misuse it. He did it to Jesus. Jesus responded to Satan’s misuse of Scripture with more Scripture.
When a Biblical passage is hard to understand, we need to bring in other Biblical texts in conversation with each other to get a more accurate picture. Romans 13 by itself, is not a complete answer to how Christians are to relate to government.
So if this passage can so easily be misused, if not is meant to be a complete summary of church and state, then why is it here in Romans in the first place?
Here’s a clue for Biblical interpretation:
Encouragements and commands in Scripture are often given because people are either breaking them or are being tempted to break them.
It seems there were a group of Christians in Rome trying to rebel against and/or overthrow the governing authorities. Why?
Setting the context:
Jesus’ Kingdom was and is a subversive political entity.
Violent Revolution was a Real Option
Remember that Romans 13 is connected to Romans 12. Sometimes chapter divisions are horrible. Paul just laid out a beautiful vision of pursuing peace. We are not to take vengeance into our hands. In a world that makes enemies, we make peace. In a world that does evil, we do good. So that’s our political strategy in this broken world. With that in mind, Paul says this in Rom 13
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. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
This is a strong statement. Even though these verses have been misused. There is good Biblical truth here. God has established authority, in principle, to exist in the world. In a world of sin and injustice, this is a basic human need. Even if we live in a society where we despise the authorities, when a horrible murder or robbery is committed, we hope to see a good government seek justice for the victim. We know that anarchy would be chaos for the world.
At the very least, we can say God has established authority and government in the world, for the good of the world, and for the restraining of evil. God is always working for good, in spite of, sinful human beings being in charge. He can and does bring good out of evil governments. We can affirm that.
What about individual leaders?
Paul and other passages of the Bible seem to affirm that God is at work deposing kings/raising up other ones. For example, God uses the evil king Nebuchadnezzar for a purpose and Cyrus of Persia as well. But knowing the history of this text, we need to be careful about saying that God has appointed a specific person to be our leader. God may allow or even specifically appoint a leader to be in charge for a purpose only he knows, but that certainly doesn’t mean he approves of that leader, approves of everything they do, or that we have to obey them because God put them in charge. That can turn destructive really quickly.
In summary,God has established authority and government for our good. He is at work, mysteriously, through the governing authorities.
So, I hope I’ve cleared away some of the thorns from this passage, let me try to state for us what we can learn about staying anchored no matter who is in authority.
In the Roman empire, Paul’s encourages the believers to do three main things. I’ll add a fourth thing as we look at the context of Scripture.
Overcome evil with good, but be submissive.
Romans 12 comes first. Overcome evil with good while submitting to governing authorities. We need to get out of our minds that we are passively do nothing and wait around until Jesus returns. We are called to work at overcoming evil while rejecting the way of rebellion and violence.
The answer to governing authorities is not violently overthrow, but to overcome evil with good.
In a world that makes enemies, we make peace. Violent revolution and overthrow is not the way of Jesus. So we submit to the authorities over us, where God has placed us, and all the while we pursuing peace, building houses, raising families, planting gardens, and overcoming all evil with good. As the church of Jesus Christ, we hope to be a positive force for good in the world. A divided nation, needs a united church. We are united by our mission to be light. To overcome evil with good in the places where we live.
That way you are anchored no matter who is in authority or where you live.
Avoid Punishment, Do what is right, and Pay Your Taxes.
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.4 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.5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
In general, governments are supposed to encourage people to do what’s morally good and to punish what’s morally wrong. They have real authority to punish wrongdoing and Paul warns the early church about that.
To those in the early church who are planning revolt, those planning to use violence, to those who are withholding their taxes from the tax collectors, to those who are rejecting the government’s authority as a matter of principle, Paul says watch out. God has setup government and they do bear a sword. So you should submit them to avoid punishment and to obey its moral laws. God has established the authorities to promote good and restrain evil, so be submissive to that out of reverence for God and his mysterious purpose.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 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.
To a secular, heathen, pagan govt, Paul says pay your taxes, because even if those leaders don’t acknowledge it all, God is working out his purposes behind the scenes.
But the question that gnaws at us about this text: What do we do when government does the opposite of what its supposed to do? Paul said its supposed to commend the good and punish the bad. What happens when it punishes the good and rewards the bad as has so often happened throughout history?
We are to obey God rather than sinful laws.
Acts 5:29 29 Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than people”. This is good political theology. Quite often, governments promote sinful policies and laws. So as followers of Jesus, citizens of Heaven, we will always have tension, if not significant tension, with the governments of this world. We must be discerning to always obey God rather than sinful laws. Just because something is legal, that doesn’t make it right. Just become something is illegal, that doesn’t necessarily make it wrong.
Although the Bible tells us to submit to authority, it also is filled with examples of obeying God and His Word over people. So Paul, at the end of this passage, reminds the Christians what’s most important. Romans 13:9-10 “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” Loving God and Loving Your Neighbor/Loving People are the highest laws in the universe. These must supersede any law of the land.
Remember the time is short, so repent and follow Jesus.
11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.
Ever since Jesus came, we’ve been in the last days. We certainly nearer now to the end than the Apostle Paul was. Salvation in Christ is what will last forever. This life and the kingdoms of this world will not last.
Kingdoms rise, kingdoms fall. But God’s Kingdom always advances.
No matter what happens politically or who is in power, God’s kingdom is always advancing and Jesus is always still on the throne. He is coming soon to fix this broken world.
While we await that day, perhaps with more eagerness now that we have before, we adopt a posture of submissiveness, we pay our taxes, we seek the peace of the place where we live, we overcome evil with good, we obey God rather than people, and we pursue following Jesus, our one true king, and then we will be anchored no matter who is authority.
So Let’s put away the deeds of darkness and put on the Lord Jesus Christ. He is only our hope and the savior of the whole world. In Jesus, we will be anchored now and through all eternity.