Read a companion article by David E. Garland: Digging into Paul’s view on God and government in Romans 13
In the summer of 2018, our nation was embroiled in a bitter partisan debate about immigration, in general, and conditions along the Mexican border, in particular. At some point in the national conversation, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions referenced Romans 13 in his challenge to American citizens to obey the laws of the land.
This particular text has been used (and abused) for centuries by theologians, pastors and governmental officials to argue just about every position on civil authority imaginable.
For example, both protagonists and antagonists of the Revolutionary War in the United States used this text to support their respective views. Later in the middle of the 19th century in America, both abolitionists and slave owners used this same text to demonstrate God was “on their side” on the issue of slavery.
Paul’s admonition in Romans 13 is important, and it is the word of God. However, it is a not a full and exhaustive analysis of the relationship between all Christian citizens and every form of human government for all time. Yet, there is enough in this text to warrant our full acknowledgment and obedience.
We have to discern God’s instruction to us in this text and seek to obey in God-honoring ways. So, with that said, let me offer a few words of instruction as a pastor who is leading a congregation in the 21st century in the American context.
History—Romans 13 in context
It is important to give some historical context to both what the Bible teaches us and to our personal setting.
Paul wrote these words somewhere between A.D. 56-58. We believe he was in Corinth and was planning to visit Rome on his way to Spain.
In A.D. 54, Nero became the emperor of the Roman Empire as a 16-year-old youth. The early part of his reign was directed by his mother, Agrippina, and the beloved Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca. At the time of Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome, Nero was not yet known for what would make him infamous. It was a relatively peaceful time in Roman history.
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Paul was challenging these Roman Christians to live well during this peaceful time. In spite of the pagan power in Rome, these believers could live humbly and, hopefully, peacefully so that the movement could continue to grow unfettered.
Our particular context is radically different from these early believers. We live in a representative republic where we are able to voice our political opinions and exercise our political convictions through voting. Further, we have the incredible perspective of evaluating most every form of human government possible from a vantage point of freedom and liberty. We are truly a privileged people.
Holy—Foundation for government
Don’t miss the holiness of God’s design for humanity represented in this text.
As Baptists, we are fond of stating that we believe in the separation of church and state. That is an institutional reality. However, as individuals, this text is challenging us to embrace the holiness of God’s will with regards to the civil sphere.
The principle of governing authority and the reality of it are both holy. Why? Because this is God’s design. He is a God of order. God is not an anarchist. He is not the God of chaos.
Human beings need some level of civil order to guarantee civil liberty and the overall well-being of citizens. God’s answer to that is some sort of human government. So, we are to acknowledge the holiness of this idea, and we are to recognize civil authority to be an expression of God’s desire for humanity.
Humility—Our relationship to government
What is our posture towards our civil rulers? Humility.
Paul challenged the Roman church to subject themselves to the governing authorities. This requires humility on our part. This is particularly true for us as Americans.
We have been blessed with more than 200 years of representative government at every level in our nation. While there have been many injustices—slavery being the most egregious—the opportunity to shape our future through political dialogue, involvement, participation and reflection is unparalleled in human history. We should remain humble as the people of God when we reflect on our democratic process available to us.
Help—The Christian duty to the community
As Christians, we should help the good causes of our republic. We should participate in supporting good legislation that will ensure the rights of everyone are honored in our nation. We should participate at every level of our representative government to make sure our laws don’t punish good people for good behavior (Romans 13:3-5).
We support the positive elements of our government by being informed, participating in the voting process and by paying taxes. Yes, paying taxes! As Christians, we should be at the head of the line in sharing resources to finance the betterment of our communities. We support education, transportation, commerce and various benevolent causes through our tax dollars.
The people of God are not to be politicized in partisan causes, but we should be humble servants who truly care about the well-being of all citizens.
Honor—How we treat the civil authority
Paul concluded this section on civil authority by encouraging the Roman Christians to pay honor to those in authority. My goodness, we could use a big dose of that in our day.
It is so easy to criticize, demean, curse, criminalize and dismiss our political leaders. This is especially true in this era of social media proliferation. Where is our conscience? Christians are responsible for our speech, even if it is typed on our Facebook status or tweeted out.
One of the ways we can honor our leaders is by praying for them. In fact, in another passage, Paul commands us to do so (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Perhaps if we spend more time praying for those who lead us than we do demeaning them, things might change for the better. After all, the Bible declares a king’s heart is like the channel of a stream in the hands of God (Proverbs 21:1).
Health—A time to challenge the government
One other thought: As Christians in a representative republic, we should strive to provide the healthiest climate possible for everyone. Sometimes this calls for civil disobedience.
Our nation needed to be set free from the bonds of slavery. Good people violated bad laws to bring about change. Our nation needed to be set free from oppressive systems that institutionalized prejudice and racism.
People like Rosa Parks and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. practiced civil disobedience on occasion to lead us to a healthier nation. Sometimes that is needed. This text does not prohibit this course of action because it is not addressed at all in Romans 13. Other passages in the New Testament offer us insight into this justifiable expression of civil liberty.
May God bless his people, and may he use us to bless America.
Dennis Wiles is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.