Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil.
Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.
Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. (Romans 13: 1-7, NASB95)
Christians and Government in Perilous Times
Romans 13:1-7 is an interesting passage of Scripture often used by contemporary preachers and teachers to reinforce our personal obedience to those in government. Fair enough. However, we often forget several important issues. First, we forget the context of this letter, which is important. Second, we forget this passage is not about governing authorities, it is about obedience to God in all things. Finally, we confuse “subjection” with unquestioning obedience. Since it is an election year in the United States, let me tackle these three misunderstandings.
Context for the Letter
First, scholarly consensus is that Paul’s letter to the Romans was written between AD 55 and 57 from the City of Corinth in Greece. During this time, Nero was the emperor of Rome. The situation in Rome, as well as the Roman Empire in general during Nero’s rule, was one of growth and prosperity. However, Nero took the throne in AD 54 when he was 15 years old. Because the empire was in “good shape” he spent his time on diplomacy and trade, as well as his own passions for acting, writing poetry, music, and chariot driving. The despotic Nero we know of his later reign had not shown up yet. When Paul writes his letter to the Romans, it is the young Nero who is emperor. Thus Paul’s concern at this point is not that the Roman Christians might rebel against a tyrant, but rather that they should not despise this new young emperor, and that he is there for good, at God’s pleasure.
God’s Kingdom: Priority Number One
Second, the issue at stake here is not the rule of the Roman Emperor, but rather the rule of God and God’s establishment of temporal ruling authorities. Our subjection to the rulers is, in actuality, submission to God’s authority. A Christian’s faithfulness and loyalty is always to God. Any other loyalties derive from this primary commitment. In our day and age, that issue tends to be reversed and compounded. Today, the loyalty of many American Christians goes first and foremost to our governing authorities. Then afterwards, and secondarily, we give God our “faith.” This is not only a direct contradiction to Scripture, but it undermines whatever faith we believe we have. Jesus Christ and God’s Kingdom are priority number one, and our temporal governments are secondary.
Submission vs. Unquestioning Obedience
Finally, we tend to confuse “subjection” with unquestioning obedience. The word Paul uses is ὑποτασσέσθω, which in this context means “to submit to one’s control; to yield to one’s admonition or advice: absolutely.” It is a willing submission and agreement to abide by the rule of another. This is not to be confused with the Greek term for absolute obedience, ὑπακοή, which is obedience as a soldier to a centurion—an absolute, unquestioning obedience. I realize the difference between these two concepts is one of degree, yet it is an important distinction. Obedience is unquestioning; submission involves a subjective yielding, which in order to continue requires an engagement that will naturally involve questioning. The Roman Empire was not a democratic republic; the United States is not a monarchial empire. As Americans, we live in a democratically-elected republic which requires us to “submit” to our elected government. However, our submission to that government requires us to ask questions and to push back against that government when it steps beyond its authority. That is not illegal, nor treasonous; it allows our government as a republic to function responsibly, as servants of the citizenry.
In 2020, Christians need to revisit some basic civic responsibilities. We have had presidents, governors, and representatives who failed to serve the citizenry while in office and were rightly censured or removed from office. That’s the way a democratic republic works. Understand that Paul wasn’t suggesting a blind obedience to ruling authorities; he was asking that we submit to those over us because they were placed there by God. That kind of submission requires prayer, questions, and answers in order to engender personal obedience.