Right in the middle of what is perhaps the Apostle Paul’s most highly regarded book of the Bible, he offers what might be the most ignored passage in all of Scripture:
“13 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. 3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; 4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. 7 Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor” Romans 13:1-7.
When read from an American’s point of view, this passage might be somewhat easy to digest. While we may disagree on the particulars, most of the time, our government considers itself to be a positive force in the world and civic pride convinces us we are the side of right, even when we’re wrong. Consider, however, that Paul wrote this passage while living under the reign of Nero. Nero is historically considered somewhat unstable. He is the ruler who pinned the great Roman fire of AD 64 on the Christians in order to avoid blame. He was by all accounts a ruthless and oppressive ruler. One might expect Paul to encourage believer to rise up and revolt against such authority, but he says the exact opposite. Paul actually tells Christians to be in subjection to governing authorities. Paul explains that when we resist the government, we are opposing the ordinance of God.
I thought of this passage this week while watching the video footage of protestors storming state houses in opposition to various COVID-19 stay at home orders. I personally think our governments reaction to the virus has been heavy handed. I also suspect many of our leaders are making decisions in regards to COVID-19 for political purposes … but how is a Christian to respond when they disagree with their rulers? What if their government is evil? What if their rulers are ungodly? This passage raises a lot of questions … and I think, for the most part, most of us ignore those questions. Heck, just a cursory review of trending tweets tell me that. So, how are we supposed to apply this passage to our lives?
The first question we need to answer is, “Are we supposed to apply it to our lives?” Context suggest we are. Beginning in Chapter 12 of Romans, Paul begins giving Christians guidelines for living in light of God’s grace. He passes on such wisdom as avoided pride, blessing those who persecute you, and conquering evil with good. But in Chapter 13, he gets personal by suggesting the gospel should govern the way we live in relation to the government – he knows we’re Americans, right?
As I write this, it occurs to me that this will probably be a deeper dive than one post will allow. So I will take these questions one at time and write a series of posts.
First, what if I don’t agree with my government?
I think it is worth pointing out that no where in this passage does Paul suggest we have to agree with our government. I don’t think his intention is to turn us into citizen cloned automatons. Rather, Pauls says we should live in subjection to our government authorities. Scripture’s use of the word submit has been hotly debated in terms of a husband and wife relationship, but here, Paul uses it to describe our relationship with government. In his commentary, Dr. Thomas Constable describes subjection as an attitude of deference or support. In the marriage relationship, I often define submission as voluntarily placing another’s needs above your own. I think the same is true in this passage. When I submit to the governing authorities, I am placing the needs of the many, above my own. As a rule of thumb, when I disagree with the government, I should ask ourselves, what’s best for the majority of the people? Is this an issue that allows me to place the needs of the many above my own? Does doing so violate my faith or religious conscience?
In most cases, I think we’ll find we can submit to our government authorities (at least in America) with relative ease on most issues. I can remember when the laws changes requiring automobile passengers to where a seat belt. I hated it! Seatbelts aren’t comfortable and I felt like like I had the right to ignore the law. Guess what, I was wrong. The same is true with speed limits and even our current social distancing guidelines. I can stay 6 feet away from most people without violating my conscience. It’s just a rule of thumb, but in most cases, I think we can submit to the government.
But what about when their laws violate my faith? I’ll look at that matter in the next installment.