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The Limits of Romans 13

Paul’s admonition in Romans 13: 1-7 is quite familiar to most Christians…

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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 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, 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. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 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. (Romans 13:1-7 ESV)

While many Christians are familiar with this passage, at least in concept, there is far from a universal understanding of how we should apply it. I believe that this passage is a crucial one for understanding living under Christ’s Archy because it is one of the most extensive and explicit dealing with the relationship between Christians and the world’s government structures we all live under to one extent or another (see also 1 Peter 2: 13-17). We also need to be very cautious when using these passages to form our understanding of living under Christ’s archy and this certainly is a place where the community hermeneutic is crucial.
I have found that the most important thing I needed to wrap my arms around when interpreting and applying Romans 13: 1-7 is the context in which it was written. I think we tend, at least those of us who are Western Christians living in America or the former strongholds of Christendom in Europe, to read Romans 13 in the context we live in. I have never lived with even a hint of persecution. I have freely voted in just about every election I could since I turned 18. My idea of “governing authorities” are the elected officials in America. Many of them are scoundrels or incompetent but they are hardly tyrants. When Paul wrote these words? The world was the kind of place few of us can imagine. It was a world under the rule of Rome and the governing authorities were the conquering and occupying Romans and their cronies. When Jesus was sentenced to the cross there was no reading of His Miranda rights, no public defender, no decades long appeals process. He was arrested, tried, sentenced and cruelly executed in a matter of hours. The governing authorities Paul was referring to in Romans 13: 1-7 were some of the most unjust, cruel and tyrannical to have ever lived. When examined in light of the Roman Empire, Paul’s words get a lot more sobering.
Having established that, the question becomes one of application. What does it mean for us to be subject to the governing authorities? To what extent? If we are commanded to render unto Caesar and those tax dollars go to paying for abortions, should we pay our taxes? If a Christian is drafted and ordered to fight and kill for their country should they dutifully march off to war? What if the government doing the drafting is not the United States but instead is Nazi Germany? If the government is confiscating your property and taxing you without representation, should a Christian still submit quietly or rise up and overthrow that government by force? These are hard questions but important ones that need to be considered. We need to move beyond cultural expectations and our traditional assumptions and examine closely what it means as followers of Christ to submit to governing authorities.
There are some times when Romans 13 is obviously trumped. When the governing authorities try to demand that we do something that violates what God has commanded, Christians cannot submit. When charged by the Jewish council to stop preaching Christ, Peter and the apostles replied that they “must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:27-33). I would put “going to war” in this category although many others would disagree. I am interested in your thoughts here. Living under Christ’s Archy, what are the limits or the applications for Romans 13: 1-7 in our lives, our churches and our families?

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One Comment

  1. This is such an important topic. For me, it is very relevant, as part of my work at Rabel Christian Civil Liberties is resisting certain developments in government and ruling authorities. It is also very relevant considering the increasing levels of unrest in the world, and the way the ruling authorities are suppressing that dissent.
    I believe the Scripture before us should act as the starting point: a general rule that should be followed as an attitude. The premise that government is inherently evil (which is a strong temptation if one lives in a tyrannical state, and a premise that many Westerners have subscribed to also) is strongly rebutted by this passage. Government is inherently good, though can become corrupt.
    If the government has become corrupt, I believe we can still find a good balance: being subject to the authorities, yet also using the means available to challenge that government into better policy and behaviour. Notable examples can be found in the OT, such as Daniel and Esther.
    Daniel was so obedient and faithful to the Babylonian rulers that he rose high in their ranks. Yet when commanded to stop praying to the Lord, he chose to disobey man but obey God.
    I believe that we should willingly co-operate with the government, yet we must be clear as to the situations where we cannot obey. We must be sensitive to the Spirit and know God’s word.
    Just my initial prayerful thoughts. I’d be very interested in hearing other views.

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