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Authorities, Submission and “We The People” (Part 1)

I hope that it is clear from (and in) my on-going “Bible & Economics” series that my entire goal is to articulate how I—a young evangelical who takes his faith and duty as a citizen of a free nation—arrived at being entirely comfortable calling myself a free-market conservative. This is my story, my intellectual journey. Along that road away from “serfdom” I have encountered one passage more than any other when discussions of government, law, taxation, etc., arise among fellow Christians. That portion of scripture is Romans 13, specifically the first seven verses. I’ve heard some wonderful—and some not-so-wonderful—sermons, lectures and monologues on Romans 13. I’ve read commentaries, listened to students argue with professors, and meditated on the passage myself many times. My general conclusion is simple: While much of what is said and written on these seven verses is accurate and fair, many wise and learned believers have missed what I consider to be some vitally important points of application. The rest of us have taken what is said—or is more often the case, not said—about Romans 13 as gospel and built worldviews that are incomplete. I’ll get to the applications I have in mind shortly, but I want to start with a brief exegetical overview of the “Submission to Authorities” section of Romans in question.
1Let 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. 2Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3For 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, 4for 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. 5Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 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.
Paul is writing on a very pertinent subject here: What’s the Christian citizen of a pagan (or secular) empire to do? How should one respond to the leadership of leaders who don’t lead with biblical morality as their guiding light? Do we really have to obey the laws of, and pay our taxes to, a secular government that is not simply indifferent to Christianity, but may be openly hostile toward it? Although he gets into some specifics, it is important to keep in mind that Paul is writing about the general principle found throughout the Bible of submission to government (and those in positions of authority over you). We are to be “subject to”—or better still, “obey” —the government because it is ordained by God. The reason I point out that this is a general principle is because we must balance in our minds the fact that many other times throughout scripture God approves of Christians disobeying their government. The “daughters of Israel” in Exodus 1 refuse to simply hand over their sons for slaughter, and my man Moses gets a memorable ride in a basket made of reeds. Obadiah turns a deaf ear to King Ahab’s decree in 1 Kings 18 and does what he can to hide and feed the prophets of Israel. We all know of Daniel’s issues with lions and their dens, a miracle that took place because he was brave enough to continue praying even after prayer to other deities was outlawed. And what about more recent, non-biblical accounts of those who hid slaves along the Underground Railroad in the 19th century lead-up to the Civil War? Would any modern Christian be willing to say that those complicit in helping enslaved humans escape from bondage were living in sin? More importantly, would a modern Christian even be correct in saying such a thing? The list of such examples throughout history could, and most certainly does, go on. But then we also must remember that we have Christ himself telling us in the New Testament to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” So who wins here? How do we rectify some of the seemingly contradictory instructions in the Bible regarding our role as citizens? What began to take shape in my heart and mind as I studied and considered this passage more and more was the outline of a thoughtful believer who was called to first and foremost obey his God (and his God’s law), but then also commanded to obey, respect and even help fund the government he or she finds themselves living under. Perhaps, I told myself, there is no contradiction, only truth and insight that needs unpacking and prayerful contemplation. Verse one tells us that not only do nations gets the leaders they deserve, they get the ones God ordains them to have. But this is not only referring to bad leaders. Sometimes a nation gets an Abraham Lincoln or George Washington. Sometimes Israel/Judah in the Old Testament got a Jehoshaphat or Asa. Some people are born into Castro’s Cuba, others into Reagan’s America. Either God is sovereign, or he is not. If he is, and we truly believe that, then our circumstances—including whoever happens to be leading us at any particular time—must not change our devotion to him and commitment to living out his word. Verses two and three remind us that there are repercussions for disobedient behavior, both here on earth and in the spiritual realm alike. Want to avoid trouble? Play by the rules. Civil government, again “in general,” is a great blessing. We ought to be thankful for the things that provide a buffer between us and anarchy. The debate over size and scope of government is a legitimate one (and will be discussed in part two next week), but the idea of organizing society so that people can live, work and operate within an agreed upon jurisdiction is a good thing. We may pervert it, but the notion of law and order is a holy one. There is much more to get to in these verses, so please do join me next week for part two! We’ll take a look at verses 4-7, and I’ll reveal what I consider to be the most important points of application from this text that Christians across the theological spectrum consistently avoid, misunderstand or remain ignorant of.