• The BaptistWay lesson for August 9 focuses on Romans 13:1-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-4.
In this lesson, I will focus on Romans 13:1-7 because it has long been—and will continue to be—a controversial passage that provides plenty of meat to chew.
On politics, or how to make people mad
You may recall from the last lesson on employees and employers that I could not stay out of the muck of slavery. In this lesson, I figured I might as well stick my foot into politics, despite counsel to abstain.
Current events provide ample discussion and practice of Paul’s words concerning our relationship to our government. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on same-sex marriage. At last count, 32 Republicans have declared their candidacy for the 2016 presidential election, and two more are exploring the possibility. Police departments across the country are under scrutiny for “excessive use of force.” Russia bristles to our east, while China builds to our west.
We can agree on the raw data, the bare facts of these news items, but we can’t seem to agree on their finer points or on how to respond to them. In general, we don’t agree on whether or not our government is being faithful to what we understand to be its mandate. In light of our disagreement, Paul’s instructions regarding our relationship to governing authorities gives us more heartburn than comfort and threatens to turn brother against sister and vice versa.
Baptists and government
As Baptists, we pride ourselves on our relationship to the government.
We cherish the idea of separation of church and state. We cherish religious liberty. We cherish the right to assemble. We cherish representative government, modeling ecclesial governing structures after it. We also cherish the freedom to rant and rave against politicians with whom we disagree.
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Yet, how does our relationship with our government reflect the Lord we serve? To put a finer point on just one of our freedoms: How do we demonstrate the character of Christ in our passionate opposition to politicians and their policies and to those within our society who like those politicians and policies? I trust we will have ample opportunity to practice our answer to this question in the days ahead, and I hope we will be more than resounding gongs and clanging symbols.
Keeping the Apostle Paul’s instructions concerning our relationship to government within the larger context—and intent—of his letter to the Romans, we must cast our relationship to the government and governing authorities in the mold of love, and not just any love but agape, that unconditional self-giving love of God embodied in Christ about which you need look no further than Romans 12 and 13:8-10.
How can we take part in our representative government, being courageous champions of what we take to be right and do so in a way that embodies agape? Do you have any good examples of this in action?
Kicking things up a notch
As with Paul’s discussion of the slave/master relationship, which we applied to the employer/employee relationship, Paul also casts our relationship to governing authorities within the scope of our relationship to God, here stating three times each that the governing authorities are “established by God” (13:1-2) and that such authorities are “God’s servants” (13:4, 6).
We must understand these two phrases—“established by God” and “God’s servants”—since they are at the heart of the controversy in Romans 13.
In his commentary on Romans 13, longtime East Texas Baptist University professor Bob Utley helps us understand that government in general is ordained by God as a means to maintain order in the world. This is not to indicate that all governments are good but that “civil order is better than chaos,” Utley writes.
Utley goes on to explain that opposition toward or rebellion against the established authority is here meant as an attitude of the heart leading a person to be habitually set against civil order and thereby actively working against it. Such a person does not reflect Christ through his or her active rebellion.
We can agree that such rebellion is a problem in good government. But the controversy surrounding this passage stems from the question of when God-ordained government in general becomes antithetical to God in particular. For example, in an open, secular and relativistic society such as ours, how do we determine when God-ordained justice has been supplanted by injustice. Whose injustice?
At this point, Romans 13:8ff becomes crucial to our reading of verses 1-7. Paul writes: “Give to everyone what you owe them…(taxes, revenue, respect, honor). Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law” (13:7-8).
“Law” here surely refers to the covenant law established through Moses. However, given the preceding instruction concerning submission to governing authorities—exemplified in part by paying debts—Paul seems to play on the word “law” to indicate the Christian’s duty to embody agape within the larger society at all times, both when government operates within its God-ordained bounds and (perhaps especially) when government oversteps its bounds and becomes unjust.