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)
There are sometimes points of confusion is Scripture. Things that remain unsettled. Things that reasonable people can reasonably disagree about. Mind you, there is one correct interpretation. God is not the author of confusion. Amidst that one correct interpretation there may be multiple applications for our lives but God meant one thing when He wrote it. The fact that we cannot agree what that one thing is does not change to inerrancy of Scripture. It just makes for some great theological discussions. For me, one such area deals with the key verses today addressing our submission to authorities. Recently this subject has come up with the disagreements between law enforcement and the public. I have had some Christian friends favorable to the side of law enforcement in these matters turn to the key Scriptures as a vindication. To them and many others, this issue is black and white but within the monochrome they fail to see their own inconsistencies with applying these verses. As we look deeper let us make sure we cover all angles of these verses; starting with the direct context. Who was Paul writing to?
Paul was writing to the fledgling church in Rome at the time. New converts to Christianity they were facing great persecution. There was great unrest in the kingdom of Rome and the Christians were not viewed favorably at all. Claudius had just cast the church out of the city and Paul was trying to help them rebuild. There had been riots between Christian converts and Jews. The Jews had a sect of Zealots who advocated the overthrow of the Roman government. Why is this crucial to understanding our key verses? Because the context reveals the purpose behind what Paul is saying. He was taking a stand with the current power structure. Not defending what they do but trying to restore order to what our role as believers ought to be. Paul realized that the fragility of the new church in Rome stood no chance if it was seen in constant rebellion against the instituted powers. In some ways this was a step up from the seeming indifference Jesus showed during His ministry years whenever Rome came up:
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone's opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax." And they brought him a denarius.And Jesus said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" They said, "Caesar's." Then he said to them, "Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." - Matthew 22: 15-21 (ESV)
Paul however was upping the ante. Perhaps because of how dire the situation was becoming in Rome. Now that being said, Scripture still can be prescriptive in nature. This is not an historical narrative and God is always divinely inspiring the author. For the purposes of expositing the text, let's break it into three sections, starting with the premise:
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.
Remember the context. Jewish Zealots were plotting to overthrow the Roman government. Paul was trying to help rebuild a church that had just been thrown out of the city. Delicate and fragile times. Let us deal with these verses individually. Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. Well that sounds simple enough. God certainly does not advocate for anarchy or chaos. He is a God of order. For there is no authority except from God and those that exist have been instituted by God. The Bible confirms this:
Daniel answered and said: "Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might.He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding; - Daniel 2: 20-21 (ESV)
We serve an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent God. He is sovereign over His entire creation. Whether it be through His decretive will or His permissive will, everyone comes to power through Him and He uses all to accomplish His goals and His will. Therefore it stands to reason that if you resist against the authorities then you are essentially resisting against what God has either instituted or allowed. The judgment that might be incurred could be referring to either temporal punishment as meted out by society and/or eternal punishment as meted out by God. Think of someone who has committed murder and is convicted and sentenced to die by the state. They will suffer a temporal punishment of death and unless converted like the thief on the cross, they will face an eternal punishment as well. So far so good but as we head back to the key verses things become cloudier:
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.
There is no arguing that Paul is making a blanket assumption about the powers he is referring to. That assumption is that they are always a force for good so therefore you should never fear them. In a perfect world that might be true but given the fallen and depraved nature of man, this is simply an unsupported assumption. I present first to you, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
"Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act." - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Seems that Mr. Bonhoeffer did not apply Romans 13 the way many do today. You see he was active against Adolf Hitler and the rising Nazi regime. He saw the atrocities committed against the Jewish people and he did not let himself be subject to the governing authorities. He was a Christian dissident who would be captured, sent to a concentration camp, and be hung just weeks before the end of the war. What of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Faced with the atrocities perpetrated against African Americans in this country he led a movement of civil disobedience against the ruling authorities because the ruling authorities were wrong. They were not just. They were not "good." Peaceful or not, disobedience is still disobedience, no? Segregation was the law of the land yet one cannot argue it was righteous. Slavery was once the law as well and that was equally wrong. According to the monochrome view of these verses, Bonhoeffer and King were wrong. They were clearly rebelling against the authorities of their day. To say they resisted would be an understatement. What of today's social issues? Abortion is the law of the land yet the same Christians that would focus myopically upon the key verses would also think nothing of protesting against the abortion laws. They would think nothing of picking and choosing which governing authorities to obey and which ones not to and the rationale is always the same. We only have to obey authorities that are in agreement with the Word of God.