Paul says 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.
So. What do we do with this section of text? Because it gives rise to all sorts of questions. How, for example, does this passage relate to the message of the book of Revelation, whose summary is something like “The government is demonic, and resist it at all costs.” Of course: Revelation was written to particular churches, in their particular contexts, and Romans was written to a particular church in its own particular, “pre-Revelation-by-50-years” context. We need to ask “What about Jesus?” Because Jesus ultimately allowed himself to be killed by “bad government,” didn’t he, by a ruler in Rome’s pocket, who ruled a puppet government which did, in fact, hold “terror for those who did right?”
What do we do with this passage, when in fact, if past Christians had “submitted to the authorities,” we would still have institutionalized slavery in America, we would not be our own country, but be ruled by Britain, and we would not be “the Brethren Church,” but probably Catholic. Much of the history of the past 500 years–whether that’s “church history” or “history of the world,” has been shaped by Christians who decided not to submit to their authorities. And of course, the early church didn’t either, when they were told that if they didn’t deny Christ they would be mauled by wild animals as afternoon entertainment.
This is a real conundrum, you know? This really is. Because Paul says that the governing authorities are God’s servants, that they’ve been established by God, that they “bear the sword.”–a reference, it’s important to point out, toward state policing, law enforcement, not a reference to war. “To bear the sword” is an idiom, a phrase that means “to have the ability and authority to punish.” And what Paul says here is nearly exactly what Peter writes, when he says “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor…or to governors…who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.”
But if we want to be people who take scripture seriously, and allow it to direct and influence our steps, we have to really take scripture seriously and deal with this part of today’s passage. And the question that I want to pose, which this passage often gives rise to, is this:
“Why do Christians take part in civil disobedience when Paul seems to say here, don’t take part in civil disobedience?”
Some things. We’re talking about Christian choices, here. Paul’s talking to God’s People, not those without faith. I don’t care this morning about a non-Christian perspective on this topic. I just don’t care.
And this, too: “civil disobedience” is what it sounds like. It’s the choice to not submit, to disobey, the civil authorities for some reason or another. The choice to disobey the civil authorities and the laws that go with civil life for some reason or another.
And “what that reason is” is what we need to talk about. We’re going to move a little quickly, here. So. Let me read a couple of verses again:
13:1-2: Regarding God’s Use of “Governing Authorities”
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.
You’ll remember particularly in Brenda’s message on Romans 9, but just generally, that we’ve recently mentioned a number of times God’s ability to raise up nations, groups of people, to use for His redemptive purposes in the world. For those of us who were a part of the Adult Ed class on Isaiah, we talked about the way God uses entire nations and people groups in his attempts to spread salvation from sin and death out into the world.
This, it seems to me and others, is what Paul means when he says that “the one in authority is God’s servant”–we shouldn’t confuse terms here, and think that somehow, a governor or senator or king or city council member or queen is somehow an especially holy person, closer to Jesus than the rest of us, with a greater measure of the Holy Spirit, or something. I mean, that person may not even be a Christian, right? Simply holding a civil office does not make someone holy; it does, however, include someone in the work God is doing as He uses governments and nations to promote not only his redemptive purposes in the world, but order itself.
Remember that the God who loves us is a God of order, not a God of chaos. The very fact that creation exists points this out. God didn’t toss out creation hurdy-gurdy, he gave it order. Now: I’m not saying God set into creation itself hierarchies that should exist for all eternity, or something like this: I’m saying simply that God created order, and God is orderly, and governments are one of the many ways God helps to promote orderliness in his world, and a just orderliness, too.
But Paul says here that if we rebel against what God has instituted, what God has set up for his redemption purposes, these governments that help keep order and, in their best cases, really do promote good, then we’ll bring judgment on ourselves. The question, of course, is whose judgment? God’s? Or the nations? And the jury’s divided; I tend to think that we’ll bring the judgment of the government we rebel against down onto us–I think this is why Paul continues the way he does:
13:3-5: Rubber & Road Meet
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.
Let’s talk about this section positively. Should murderers be afraid of the one in authority? Yes, they should. Robbers should too. God uses government to help keep order, so not everyone is going around stealing and killing, right? And this provides for the general good and common welfare of the society that’s being governed. There is a place for good law and the support of it, and in this way, God uses good civil government to both position people to realize God’s own goodness–if we didn’t have the right to assemble peacefully, we wouldn’t be gathered in this building right now–and minimize evil. Again, that note about, “bearing the sword” is a statement about the ability authorities have to punish those they have authority over. And good governments enforce good laws for all their citizens, whether they’re rich or poor or corporate entities or just simply folk.
But we asked a question, which was “Why do Christians take part in civil disobedience when Paul seems to say here, don’t take part in civil disobedience?” I mean, if someone is about to murder a person, and thinks to himself or herself, “Hey. If I do right here, I won’t need to face punishment nor will I have to fear the one in authority! I think I won’t kill this person I am preparing to kill.” Then guess what, government has worked, right? That’s great.
But there have been many Christians who have looked at their government and effectively said “In this situation, right and wrong have been reversed, and the ruling authorities hold terror for those who do wrong, not for those who do right.” And they have decided, in light of this, and with counsel from the church, to disobey their civil authorities.
This happened with the early Christians in Rome, right? They were being punished by the government simply for not worshiping Caesar–a thing they simply could not do. So they did not submit to the authorities, and were punished for it. In the middle of the last century, Christians throughout the south and the north felt that it was inappropriate for the US government to deny rights to African Americans, and so they did not obey the laws of the government–laws like letting white people have the best seats on a bus. Before this, of course, Christians and churches all over the United States decided to disobey the government by helping runaway slaves to reach places of freedom, and let their convictions lead them to disobey the government to such an extent that war broke out.
And of course, early members of the Brethren Church were tossed into prison and had all their property seized by the state when they decided to disobey the government and be rebaptized as adults against the wishes of the state church.
These folks looked around them and saw that the rulers held terror for those who did right, and they feared the one in authority, because that one was no longer just a servant for their good, but also a servant against them. And this get’s tricky. Murderers and thieves were still held in check by the law and those who enforced it, right? But at the same time, these Christians were also being punished as wrongdoers because they did not submit to the laws of their governments, because they felt those laws betrayed their highest law of obedience to Christ.
And we would say, I think, thank God that they did not submit to their authorities, because again, life would be very, very different, and much more oppressive, if they had not. Institutional slavery would still be around and anyone who wanted to follow Jesus outside the state church would be liable to imprisonment or death for one thing–in this imaginary what if world.
I want to make some important points.
Important Point: Accepting Punishment
First of all, Christians who truly practice civil disobedience realize that they will likely be punished for it by their governments. This is important. When these examples I’ve mentioned did not submit to their governments, they were punished for it, and they knew that punishment was coming. They didn’t fight against their punishments, they didn’t run away, they simply allowed themselves to be punished; after all, the government was bearing the sword, was enforcing the law, and they were breaking it. They simply knew that the couldn’t submit to their government, because their government had betrayed and left behind that “rulers hold no terror for those who do right” warrant.
This is a very matter-of-fact perspective, isn’t it? But it’s critical, I think, if a Christian is to consider all that not submitting to the ruling authorities brings with it. To resist the government that is bearing the sword and to try and avoid punishment–by lying, or running away, or something like this–it’s like trying to have your cake and eat it too. It just doesn’t work.
Important Point: A Tested Conscience
And remember, Paul says this in verse 5: “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” The punishment we’ve talked about–it’s part and parcel when it comes to civil disobedience. That’s what a government does to those who don’t obey laws, it’s one way in which order is maintained, but this issue of conscience is a critical one.
Because any Christian who practices civil disobedience–and this is happening all the time in all sorts of places, including our country–they do so because they are convinced, in the best case, by Scripture, by the Holy Spirit, and by a very wide sampling of the church, that the government has turned away from punishing the wrongdoer, and is a terror to those who do right, instead of those who do wrong.
And whenever people come to a conclusion like that, they can’t do it lightly, can’t do it as a matter of convenience. People come to these conclusions because they believe that the government is asking them to violate some high, biblical law that is more to be followed than the laws of the state–for example, that institutional slaver is wrong and not to be supported, or that denying Christ is something that they simply cannot do.
Important Point: Christlikeness
And so importantly, Christian civil disobedience is non-violent, must follow the example set forth in Jesus, who “committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” Sin can’t overcome sin; only good can. We always act like Jesus.
Christians who act in civil disobedience, who do it anonymously and violently, are not acting in line with Jesus, who allowed himself to be led like a lamb to the slaughter, and took punishment on the chin, who told his followers he was going to “go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt,” and was.
Some Christians don’t get this, and use their frustrations with government as a chance to act with hate and anger and violence, rather than to take up a path of willing death.
A Christian cannot, in their refusal to submit to government, do so in a way that is unlike Christ. This is critical. If you do, you’ve sawn off the log you stand on, traded a place of conscience and moral certainty for same bed sinners sleep in, and you’ll lie with them.
Christians have often prayed that God would make their governments just and good, and we should pray for it, too, and pray for those who make up the “ruling authorities” and “law enforcers.” We must; and we should be more than thankful that civil disobedience can be a last resort thing for us, because we’re able to vote, able to change the ruling authorities and the laws that rule over us.
But now and then and here and there Christians have rejected submitting to the authorities that rule over them because to do so would seem to them to be denying some basic element of their faith. And so they act with civil disobedience, and do it knowing that they’ll be punished, accept the punishment that comes their way, they do this in a way that models Christ, the Prince of Peace, in every way, and do everything in their power to ensure their civil disobedience is in fact done with Scripture in mind, the Church in counsel, and the Holy Spirit characterizing everything.
13:6-7: Appropriately Give
Paul ends this section by saying this, and really, it just follows what he’s said before:
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.
We won’t talk much about this bit. Let’s just note Paul’s insistence that we pay what we owe to whomever we owe it, whatever it might be.
And what he says next naturally flows from this call to pay those what we owe them.
I’ll read at verse 8.
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Paul reminds us to pay the debts we owe, and tells us in the same breath, that we can never pay back the debt of love that we owe our faithful God. But God doesn’t want us to pay our debt to Him; he wants us to pay it to one another.
It’s a continuing debt, and it’s a debt that lives up to the spirit of the whole Law, that good thing that kept Israel in relationship with God until God could deal with sin and death and open His special relationship up with everyone. And Paul’s just echoing Jesus, here, in a rare near-quote, when Jesus, in response to a test question lobbed at him by an overly-religious audience, said “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.””
We Just have to love one another.
We just have got to love one another. This isn’t hard, you know.
It’s not a piece of cake, but it’s not a piece of, say, poison cake either. It’s not hard.
“Love does no wrong to a neighbor,” Paul reminds us. Paul isn’t calling us to cultivate sentimental mushy feelings in our hearts toward one another, he’s telling us to live in a way that doesn’t harm people. So let’s spend our lives living up to that one, empowered by God, of course.
Regarding Permission, Unity, & Love:
And this mention to love one another is important in light of the first part of Romans 13, and whatever we might think about it, or whatever else we’ve seen in Romans.
We need to love one another as neighbors, as people who live in shared spaces. We need to always, always, always be that community of permission, where we encourage one another to explore difficult things in conversation with each other.
We cannot do what the world does, which is divide around causes, around fears, around genetics, language, gender: anything they can find to divide about. Our own denominational history is full of divisions, and full of the wounds and hurts that come from them: our little church can be a witness to the world of a community that stays together even when we disagree, and values every single person who forms and shapes it. And in fact, this is what Paul’s talking about in Romans, right? The way salvation & church are tied together, the way humanity–divided into Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, Greek and Barbarian–are renewed in Christ’s saving work for us all.
The church witnesses, when we rest on the Spirit, to new creation, and a world in which differences are sublimated, tugged underneath, the unity that comes from Christ’s faithfulness and our faith keeping with him. Every were we go, we bear witness to a new way of being human. And that way of human is characterized by Love, a love we can act on no matter what comes our way, because the Holy Spirit is alive in us. .
And Paul finishes Romans 13, having just told us to love, with some things that we need to hear, especially, maybe, near the end of a long winter, and the short days it leaves us with:
13:11-14: Urgency & Integrity:
11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.
We’re to live as if everything we do is public, is seen and noted, as if there is no darkness in which we can do private shameful things, but we’re to live as if our lives are lived in a bright public place, where what we do is seen.
So, first of all, there’s this: What wouldn’t you keep doing, what behaviors would you cease doing, if you were in a public park instead of the false security of some private place. Is it gossip? Is it porn? Is it hoarding and self-protection? Stony hearts and carelessness for others? Secret distrust and the relationship it leads to?
And I want us to realize the resources we have to live in the light. We have each other–which is no small thing, and if not each other, Christians we know who we have got to depend on. We have the Spirit, who, as we’ve seen in Romans, gives us the power to say no to sin, to resist it as we await God’s full redemption in the world. We have Scripture, which we can open, and remind ourselves of God’s great empowering love and great distress over our sin, because it slowly teaches us to trade His love for the fleeting pleasures of endorphins and the approval of evil people.
But more than this, I want us to be a community found, in the words of Revelation, “spotless and pure” when Jesus comes back and sets the world to right. And Paul reminds us that there is an urgency here, a critical need for us to act with an integrity that puts us beyond any reproach: “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” “Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.”
We lose urgency, in this life of faith, we lose it. Life wears us down, with all it means to live it, but we’re never worn out, right? Not if we turn to the Lord and lean on the renewal he gives us, in the moments and days and weeks that we especially find ourselves needing it. And of course, we need to do this as a congregation, too; and I’ve watched us do it and we’ll do it again.
But we’re called to live urgently, and rightly, helping one another put on the “armor” that we need to wear in this life we live. The “armor of light” is something Paul contrasts with the “deeds of darkness,” and this is helpful, because while these dark deeds open us up to sin in its various shapes and the death and separation from God that comes with it, living in “the light,” behaving decently, “clothing ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ,” does something else: it protects us.
It is armor that guards us and keeps us from being agents of evil, the devil’s puppets in the world, and instead, helps us to be the “instruments of righteousness,” the “weapons of God’s faithfulness” in the war against evil that is not flesh and blood, but the spiritual forces of this dark world, that we mini-messiahs, Christians, are supposed to be.
Thinking Later On:
So we have actually walked through this whole chapter together! And at the start of this morning I said that whatever I happened to mention, I suspected we’d need to think more about.
And I still suspect we need to think more about the things Paul leaves us with.
We need to ask ourselves if we believe that our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed? What would it take for us to regain the urgency we may have lost? Where did it go? The hope and promise that “the day is nearly here,” that Christ is on his way, and death will finally die and evil and the devil with it?
Part of an answer may lie in remembering that today is the day we’ve got, not tomorrow, and while we’ve got today, we’ve got to live up to who we are: nearly-resurrected people, filled with the Spirit, blessed to be a blessing and loving the God who loves us.
We need to ask ourselves if we live as if our choices, our deeds, are public deeds? How can we live an “armor of light” life, a “clothed in Christ” life? How can we become people of greater integrity than we each are right now?
Part of an answer may lie in each of us having the courage to take into our confidence someone who will walk with us in our strengths and our failures, our sins and our faithfulness, who will remind us that nothing can separate us from God’s love, and who will reveal to us that having the courage to live authentically before others gets easier with each person you trust, until even strangers peering at our lives doesn’t worry us anymore.
And I would ask us to think deeply about the first Part of today’s passage, the section having to do with how we should relate to those “rulers that are over us.” What are you willing to be punished for? What are you willing to submit to? How does our commitment to Christ–the one whom we must be like in every possible way–affect the convictions we have about these questions? Because Christians and their commitments to being like Jesus have always affected their answers to these questions, no matter what political situations they find themselves in. How will we take seriously what Paul says in today’s passage, and take it so seriously that we may end up punished as he says we’ll be punished? And will we pray and take advantage of the many civil freedoms we have so that “those who rule over us” not only create an orderly world, but a just one?
I think the answers to the questions the start of Romans 13 can give rise to are only found when we willingly engage in constant conversation with one another, Scripture, and the Holy Spirit. And it has to be a conversation that’s just loving–aware of God’s love for us, of our call to model love itself in every way.
And how can we love more perfectly? Because if we’re called to do anything, anything at all as Christians, it’s to love well, to do no harm to our neighbors, to be all that Christ is. And we’re each on a “doing this better” journey, when it comes to love, but we have to nurture the places where our journey’s begin, and they begin in the knowledge that God is in the process of loving us right now, today, this moment.
Each of us have to take Romans 13 seriously, you know? We have to. And it’s a passage about our relationships with one another–in all the places we rub elbows and bump into one another and intentionally meet, just everywhere–and it’s a passage about our relationships with others, with the neighbors around us in this government we all live under.
But I suspect, at the end of the day, regardless of everything I’ve said, if we could love really, really well, and all the time, faithful to both God and people, we’d be doing just fine.