1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment 3 (for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation, 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience. 6 For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing. 7 Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Romans 13.1-7)
At first blush, this passage seems to run counter to yesterday’s post about the exclusion of violence. I’ve often heard this passage used as a counter to the Sermon on the Mount. (I used to use it that way myself at times!) But a closer look at the passage itself, and the words before and after, reveal that this is a tragic misunderstanding of what Paul seems to be trying to say if we look at this holistically. First, some quick notes about this passage:
- The instructions to Christians are to be subject, pay taxes, and obey the law as much as conscience allows as we follow Christ.
- There is a clear lack of instructions for how to exercise power if you are in the government/political world.
- The power of the sword is clearly given to the state, but there is no encouragement for Christians to be involved in that, at all! While the authorities are called “God’s servants”, they are “devoted to governing”, not God; Christians are called to be devoted to Christ.
- God can use the state, and its authority comes from God. This is not meant to imply that we need to redeem it.
But now, let us set the context to be sure we don’t read too much or too little into these seven verses. Romans 12 begins by talking about presenting ourselves as living sacrifices (verses 1-2), then moves into a discussion of humility and service within the Body of Christ (verses 3-8). Finally, Chapter 12 ends with verses 9-21 which I will quote here:
9 Love must be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil, cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another with mutual love, showing eagerness in honoring one another. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be enthusiastic in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, endure in suffering, persist in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints, pursue hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil; consider what is good before all people. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people. 19 Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head. 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,” (and if there is any other commandment) are summed up in this, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. 11 And do this because we know the time, that it is already the hour for us to awake from sleep, for our salvation is now nearer than when we became believers. 12 The night has advanced toward dawn; the day is near. So then we must lay aside the works of darkness, and put on the weapons of light. 13 Let us live decently as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in discord and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to arouse its desires.