As a college professor, one of the Bible courses I teach is Paul’s letter to the Romans.
And as luck (or rather: providence) would have it, the next passage on the docket—for the day after the 2016 presidential election—is none other than Romans 13.
It’s controversial, and it reads like this:
1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
The text has been unpopular for ages, and it has sometimes been abused.
It also raises massive questions.
For instance: What about truly wicked or dishonest leaders (like Hitler, Stalin, or Bill Belichick* [*joke] )? Did God establish them? What does “established” even mean? What are the limits of Christian submission to authority? And while we’re at it, didn’t Paul get his head chopped off by one of these divine “servants” (Nero)?
All this takes on added significance in the wake of this year’s presidential contest/raging dumpster fire.
Because regardless of who wins (I write this on election morning), the majority of Americans will be very disappointed with the kind of person we’ve elected.
Given that, it seems fair to ask this question:
What does Romans 13 have to say to Christians?
A few thoughts:
- God is sovereign over nations, kings, and presidents.
It’s worth noting that Caesar Nero would have found this text troubling for the exact opposite reason as many modern Christians. Paul’s claim, if we read carefully, is that all earthly authorities (exousias) fall below a crucified Jewish carpenter on the “org chart” of the cosmos.
As Jesus said to Pontius Pilate “You would have no authority if it were not given to you from on high” (Jn. 19.11). And since the later Caesars viewed themselves as gods, Paul’s statement represents a big demotion. As N.T. Wright likes to say:
“If Jesus is Lord, Caesar isn’t.”
In truth, this does not dispel the vexing questions regarding God’s role in “establishing,” bad leaders. Then again, if you’re expecting this blog to resolve the mystery of divine sovereignty, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
- Submission doesn’t mean unqualified obedience, but it does imply respect.
When Paul calls Christians to be subject (hupotassesthō) to governing authorities, he does not mean that we must do everything they say. As the book of Acts makes clear, there will be times when “We must obey God rather than human beings” (5.29).
Still, Paul is clear is that Christians should not be tax-evading (vs. 6–7) insurgents (vs. 2) who take every opportunity to thumb their noses at the emperor.
In 57 AD, Nero’s tax policies had become massively unpopular. There were riots. And in Judea, anti-Roman zeal had reached a fever pitch. Several Jews had even started blogging (*sarcasm).
Yet in the midst of this, Paul’s advice was for the church to remain calm, to remain on mission, to be good citizens, and to be respectful to authorities.
As N.T. Wright goes on:
Rome could cope with ordinary revolutions, but a community committed to the crucified and risen Lord, living out his story and teachings—now that was dangerous!
- Paul practiced what he preached.
It’s easy to be cynical about Paul’s claim that “rulers hold no terror for those who do right.” And indeed, the irony drips like the blood from the blade of Paul’s executioner. (Is not beheading the archetypal form of terror? Turn on the news.)
Yet like Jesus, Paul was willing to live out this non-violent and respectful posture even to the bitter end.
In Acts 23, the apostle lost his temper (which makes me feel better) and shouted at the Jewish high priest who was having him beaten without cause: “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!” (vs. 3). Then, after regaining his composure, Paul apologized:
Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: “Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people” (vs. 5).
Like many of us (read: me), Paul sometimes lost his cool when faced with the nonsense of political elites. Yet in this case, he chose to respect the office, even when he could not respect the person holding it.
May we do likewise.