Today: [Romans 13:] Be Subject to the Higher Powers: In Romans 13 Paul challenges the thinking of his fellow citizens regarding their attitudes toward the Roman empire. Could this chapter have any relevance whatsoever for modern Christians? Today political upheaval is an absolute art form even among the community of believers. What is your idea of a proper attitude toward government? Does it line up with Romans 13 and if not do we have permission to just disregard these particular passages as not applying to our day or our generation?
[Rom 13:1-14 KJV] 1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. 2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to [execute] wrath upon him that doeth evil. 5 Wherefore [ye] must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. 6 For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute [is due]; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour. 8 Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. 9 For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if [there be] any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 10 Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love [is] the fulfilling of the law. 11 And that, knowing the time, that now [it is] high time to awake out of sleep: for now [is] our salvation nearer than when we believed. 12 The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. 13 Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. 14 But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to [fulfil] the lusts [thereof].
The reading of Romans chapter 13 may seem out of date for modern Christians. It constitutes a call for believers to live lives of willing subjection to government and those that are in authority. In the age of representative government is this a relevant view? As we go through an election cycle we will witness attack ads and dissension rule the day as we are called upon to cast our vote to bring down incumbent officials and install promising new ones. How do we reconcile the spirit of the current political climate with Paul’s call for believers to have a different attitude than the world in these matters?
We might think in Paul’s day perhaps things weren’t so complicated as they are today. That would be an incorrect assumption. Paul lived and traveled among nations conquered by Rome among whom sedition and insurgency were considered a patriotic duty. In just a few years of this writing, the civil war would break out leading to the eventual destruction of the temple, the sacking of the city of Jerusalem and the expulsion of all Jews from the newly created province of Palestina.
At the very time of this writing, Nero was burning Christians at the stake to light his garden parties. Eventually, even Paul himself would be beheaded. Is Paul naive, then? That isn’t likely because Paul spent most of his life in court standing before corrupt officials who imposed heavy burdens upon him in hopes of receiving bribes from his supporters. With that in mind, we must read with sobriety what Paul is saying in this chapter.
Let every soul be subject to the higher powers. Who are these higher powers? Are they the ones we agree with only? “Do we only have a posture of subjection to those powers that originate from our political party? The word subjection in this verse means “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden…” How could Paul ever impose such an injunction upon believers living under the despotism of Rome or the murderous administration of leaders originating in Jerusalem?
Paul goes on to strengthen his statement in v. 2. He says that whoever resists the power, puts himself in resistance against God Himself and would place themselves under damnation. Think about the last rant you leveled against a government official you didn’t agree with. Was it consistent with Romans 13 or did it according to Romans 13 put us under damnation? In reality, Paul’s words were prophetic because those who needed to hear the most in a few years would die by the thousands for their part in their futile resistance against Rome.
Paul goes on in verse 3 to tell us that rulers are not a terror to good works but evil works. He emphasizes that there is no need to fear government intrusion in our lives if we are doing that which is good. Is this consistent with American values? Our nation was founded in rebellion against tyranny. As Americans, we would have had much in common with the zealots and insurgents all around Paul at this time who would attempt to throw off the weight of Roman rule by armed rebellion. The primary difference between them and us is that our forefathers were successful and theirs were not. When Paul makes the statement that the revenger did not carry the sword in vain, it could only be construed to apply to the hated Roman soldiers that garrisoned every city in the Middle East at this time.
In verse 5 we find Paul makes these supporting statements to the declaration that we must be subject not only to avoid wrath but for the sake of our conscience. How could he make such a politically obscene statement? In our day we cite our conscience as the REASON we resist a current administration for policies that come nowhere near the extremes that existed when Paul wrote these things. Is Paul out of touch? In retrospect of years to come after the failed attempt to overthrow Rome, the only conclusion would be that things would have been much better off if the people would not have rebelled. Jerusalem would have still been standing, the temple would not have been destroyed, and 1000’s of Jews would not have lost their lives and their livelihoods.
In verse 7 Paul goes on to speak of taxes. The taxes paid in Paul’s day went to finance the obscene lifestyles of Roman rulers and their ongoing campaigns of subjugating lesser countries for the greater glory of the empire. What about today? If our tax monies go to fund things that are contrary to our Christian conscience are we not within our rights to resist this injustice? If we answer yes, how do we reconcile this to Paul’s remarks? Does Romans 13 belong in the canon of a 21st century Christian? There are scriptures throughout the New Testament that leaders and teachers readily and with great eloquence point out that they cannot possibly apply to us today. What about Romans 13? May we in our wise and prudent exegesis exclude ourselves from the mandates of Paul’s exhortations to us concerning our attitudes toward government and the higher power? After all, Paul evidently knew nothing of the obscene platform of the Democratic National Convention, or the excesses of the Republican party!
In verse 8 Paul demurs to a loftier (and perhaps less invasive) theme – that of loving one another. We are to owe no man anything except to love him. Many in years past have taken this as a prohibition against going into debt. In some extremes, teachers take this to mean if you are in debt you are in sin. Is this true? We live in an economy utterly based on indebtedness and funded by a currency of no more value than the confidence we choose to place in it. To what degree may we encumber ourselves financially and still consider ourselves in compliance with the mandate of verse 8 to owe no man anything?
Paul proceeds then to remind us (if we need reminding) of the ten commandments and the fact that through the teachings of Jesus they are summed up in working no ill will against another and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. What if our neighbor is a Muslim or a homosexual? Are we exempt from loving those who fall outside the parameters of what we would consider good Christian behavior or morality?
Surely these questions plagued the minds of Paul’s readers as they inevitably must challenge us if we read them with any intellectual honesty. We can deal with these things according to the problems they create for us or we can ask the Father to show us our deeper need. Paul seems to go in this direction in verse 11 when he states that the issue is that it is high time we wake our of our spiritual sleep not because the end is near but because our salvation is near! Paul insists in verse 12 that if we find ourselves at odds with his exhortation, it is because we need to cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. In other words, the people who read Paul’s writing would have protested:
“We are just trying to protect ourselves and our children!”
To which Paul’s answer is as a believer in Christ you have no justification to protect yourself from darkness in high places by adopting attitudes of resistance and contrarianism that originate in the same darkness you want to overthrow. We are to walk honestly in the broad daylight of transparency and humility, not in riot or overthrow on the one hand, neither in drowning our sorrows in overindulgence because we don’t want to think just how corrupt our world is.
What is Paul’s conclusion? We are to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh. No doubt Paul was surrounded by people and writing to a people who were draping themselves in the flag as it were to justify all kinds of activism, insurgency, and dishonesty. Paul identifies this not as patriotic duty but merely fulfilling the lusts of the flesh to overthrown any restraint laid against it. What about in your own life? Currently, there is an administration in power that comports itself very friendly and supportive of our values as Christians. What happens when that changes as it surely will with the tide of the political process? Some very well known Christian leaders under the previous administration were very openly calling for the overthrow of the federal government and looking for military men to stand up and make that happen. Is that what we would support if our leaders were as corrupt and cruel as Nero (at the time Paul wrote this?). How do we reconcile ourselves as modern believers to this passage? Do we disregard it as inconvenient to our political ideology? No one can answer these questions for you, and the person that tries to do so would be an absolute fool. Yet the admonition of Romans 13 could not be more relevant. Perhaps it is too relevant. Maybe this is one chapter in our chapter-by-chapter study of the Bible that we might have skipped. Should we disregard it altogether?
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