Romans 13: Tying up loose ends

All right, let me try and tie up the loose ends from this series:

  • Paul begins a section of thought in Romans 12, speaking of how to offer ourselves as living sacrifices. This lifestyle is highlighted by an attitude of love. Love for enemies, priority of peace, refusal to take revenge… all of this is a part.
  • Romans 13:1-7 is a part of that life of love. Rather than getting caught up in the social unrest of the moment, the Christians were to submit to this evil government. Though Paul recognizes that there are sinister powers at work behind the government, God has “ordered” those powers, keeping them within prescribed bounds.
  • If the Roman Christians will eschew the rebellious attitude typical of the Jews, Paul says that they need not fear the present government. This is especially true within the big picture of Christ’s return.
  • It bears repeating that the principle of honoring authority and obeying laws is repeated several times in the New Testament. This is part of living at peace and respecting others.

I really think that, because of the misuse of this passage, our discussion yesterday of what isn’t said here is as important as the discussion of what is said. If we’d limit ourselves to what Paul is actually discussing, we could actually learn a lot.

Romans 13: What it doesn’t say

Some passages in the Bible take on a life of their own, living independently of their own context. As such, they can be made to say any number of things, some not even remotely related to the original meaning. Frankly, Romans 13:1-7 is one of those passages.

Discussions on politics, on military service, on voting, on citizenship… this short passage can appear in any and all of those discussions. Before rounding out what the passage is saying, let’s take a moment to talk about what it isn’t saying:

  • Government was created by God.” You might can make that argument from somewhere else… though I’m not sure where. It’s my own personal belief that government naturally arose as man rejected God’s protection and chose to depend on other men. It’s the story that played out at Babel.
  • Christians are called to be an active part of their government” or “Christians are called to be good citizens” or “Christians have a civic responsibility to vote” or… Yeah, there are a whole bunch of related ideas that people try to support with this passage. Huh nuh. Think about the situation in the first century. Would any of those things have been remotely conceivable to Paul or the Roman Christians? We can’t take our situation and superimpose it on theirs. Again, you might be able to make those arguments somehow, but not based on Romans 13.
  • Christians must support just governments, but should oppose unjust governments.” Sorry… you can’t make this passage play both ways. If it applies to every government throughout history (which I don’t believe), then it applies to the good and the bad. If it was of limited application (which I believe), the direct application was to one of the cruelest, most unjust governments that has ever existed. If we submit to all governments, we submit to all governments: good and bad.

I could go on, I guess, but those are some of the main ideas. Care to mention any others? Or dispute what I’ve written here? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Romans 13: The rest of the chapter

Before leaving our examination of the text of Romans 13, we really should discuss the remaining verses in the chapter to round out our earlier discussion of the context.

Verses 8-10 discuss the pre-eminence of love, concluding with the statement: Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Verses 11-14 discuss the imminent return of Christ, and the effect that return should have on our lives. While many see a focus on Christ’ return as somewhat “pie in the sky,” Paul saw that focus as having a very practical effect, changing our behavior in almost every way. It is because of this imminent return that we do not live as others do (which reminds us of Romans 12:2). We do not focus on human desires but “behave decently.” We are to be clothed in armor of light, putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.

These last two sections in the chapter echo the instructions given in Romans 12, reminding us that this section is a unit. We should not rip Romans 13:1-7 out of this context, as if it were a tract someone found and inserted into the book of Romans. As we interpret these 7 verses, we must do so in a way that is concordant with the previous chapter and with the remainder of chapter 13.

Romans 13: Giving the government its due

OK, let’s finish off our examination of the text of Romans 13:1-7. I’ll include verse 8; even though it’s often seen as being just a bridge to the next section, it may prove relevant:

“Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:7-8)

The principle of honoring the head of state is repeated several times in the New Testament:

“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (1Timothy 2:1-2)
“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.” (Titus 3:1-2)
“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” (1 Peter 2:13-14)
“Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.” (1Peter 2:17)

This principle doesn’t just apply to the Romans. Some of the aspects of Romans 13 may be unique, but the general principle of honor and respect for authorities is taught consistently.

This is not the same thing as partnering with these powers, nor does it say anything about nationalistic loyalty. There is no call to political action nor warrant for joining the military. Any of those things would have to be shown from other texts.

I think the reasons given in 1 Timothy 2 explain a lot: we seek peace, peace to live quietly and to be able to evangelize. James Harding argued that should be seen as the basis for our evaluation of any government. He would pray for the continued success of any government that allowed for religious freedom and evangelistic activity and would pray for the downfall of any government that persecuted the church or limited proselytizing.

Personally I think that our prayers for government should be that they provide a peaceful environment for the spread of the gospel.

Romans 13: Rulers as God’s servants

In the verses that follow in Romans 13, Paul calls the rulers “servants” (diakonos):

“For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.” (Romans 13:4-6)

Does this mean that the rulers are voluntarily in service to God? No. Does this mean that the rulers are godly? No again. God has inanimate objects as his servants (Psalm 104:4; 148:8), which does not imply any type of piety on their part. God can raise up rulers, even evil ones, and use them for his purposes.

God has “ordered” the powers, putting limits on what they can do. He can use them when they serve his ends. When they are being used by God, man is not to oppose them, but is to submit to them.