Living Civilly With Civil Authorities.
Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. – Romans 13:1 NLT
Now Paul changes his focus from discussing our relationship with our enemies to how we should interact with the government under which we live. Keep in mind that Paul is writing to Christians living in Rome. They are under the iron-fisted rule of one of the most powerful nations that has ever existed. So when Paul tells them to submit, his readers immediately had to think about the heavy-handed reign of Caesar and his far-reaching empire. The Romans ruled from England to Africa and from Syria to Spain. Every one in four people on the planet at the time lived under Roman law. The Roman Empire governed all of life, including a person’s social status. Roman rule could be both sophisticated and brutal. It was the Romans who perfected the use of the cross as a means of capital punishment. The Romans were intolerant of dissension or civil unrest of any kind.
And yet, here is Paul encouraging his readers to submit to governing authorities, including the Romans. Why? Because according to Paul, all authority comes from God. He is the ultimate authority and no one rules on this planet outside of His overarching, divine authority, including Satan. It is interesting that Paul concluded chapter 11 with an admonition about taking revenge into our own hands. For those living under Roman law, there would have been the constant temptation to rebel against or at least resist their all-encompassing influence – perhaps to even consider retaliating against what they believed to be unjust and unbearable requirements. Even the disciples had an expectation that Jesus, as their Messiah, would at some point overturn the rule of the Romans and reestablish the Jews as the authorities in Palestine. But Jesus’ agenda was not political, but spiritual. When confronted about whether or not the Jews should have to pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus replied, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:21 NLT).
The real issue here is about the sovereignty of God. As believers, we must understand that God is the ultimate ruler over all things, including earthly governments, whether good or bad. Paul says that we are to submit, not just obey. That word conveys a willing decision to come under the authority of another. When we do so, we are really coming under the authority of God, recognizing that, in His sovereignty, He has ordained where we were born and under what government we live. And ultimately, government is a God-ordained institution designed to provide order, protection, and punishment for wrong when necessary. Paul writes, “The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong” (Romans 13:4 NLT). Governments inherently establish law as a necessary means to maintain order. Order prevents chaos. Much like Paul’s discussion of the Law of Moses and its role in the lives of men, civil law provides a bench mark for behavior. We have traffic laws in order to establish and maintain some sense of order. Without them, it would be every man for himself. The laws provide standards for behavior, that when broken, require punishment. Paul says that we are to submit to those laws or standards, willingly and with the understanding that when we rebel against the authority placed over us by God, we are really rebelling against Him.
In saying all of this, Paul is not encouraging blind submission or allegiance to an unjust, unfair government. Those in authority over us must also ultimately answer to God as their authority. When civil authority contradicts the divine authority of God, we must obey God, which may require us to disobey those in authority over us. But we must do so submissively, willingly accepting the consequences of our actions. If the government should require a believer to do anything that contradicts the will of God or to violate our belief system, we are obligated to disobey, but we are also obligated to accept the consequences of our disobedience. Daniel disobeyed the civil authorities of his day when he refused to bow down and worship King Darius as if he was a god. His punishment? He was thrown into a den of lions. Daniel obeyed his God, but willingly submitted to his fate for disobeying the civil authorities.
There is no perfect government. Governments are ruled by fallen men with wicked hearts. Even those with the best of intentions are marred by sin and prone to selfishness. And yet Paul lets us know that God has ordained all governments. They are tools in His hands to accomplish His divine will. All throughout history, God used both good and evil rulers to bring about His divine plan. He used the Pharaohs to enslave the Israelites for 400 years. He used the Babylonians to conquer the southern kingdom of Judah, and the Syrians to conquer and capture the northern kingdom of Israel. God used King Herod to attempt to eliminate the baby Jesus, forcing Mary and Joseph to seek safety in Egypt, all in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. Our problem is that we are cursed with a limited perspective. We have a hard time seeing government as good. We focus on the flaws and fret over what we see as the inequities of their rule over our lives. But Paul would say, “Submit!” He would encourage us to recognize all rulers and authorities as having been placed there by God. So at the end of the day, we are really submitting to the sovereign authority of God over our lives. We must trust Him, much like Daniel did. We are to “give respect and honor to those who are in authority” (Romans 13:7b NLT). That is our God-appointed duty. Should the time come that we must disobey that authority because it requires us to do anything that goes against the will of God, then we must do so submissively, not violently. We must be willing to obey God AND accept the consequences of our actions. And when we do it that way, we can do so with a clear conscience. Jesus willingly submitted to the authorities in His day, accepting the punishment of death on the cross, even though He was guiltless and innocent. His only crime was claiming to be the Messiah, the King of the Jews. All He had to do was renounce His claim and He could have saved His life. But He refused, because that would have been to disobey God. So He willingly submitted to the civil authorities, and accepted their punishment of death on the cross – a Roman cross. At no time did He lash out. He didn’t rail against the Romans and their tyrannical rule. He didn’t attempt to start a rebellion in order to save His life. He submitted to His authorities as though placed their by God, and willingly accepted His fate – all to God’s glory and our ultimate good.
Father, this is difficult. We live in a world where governments are corrupt, untrustworthy, and even ruthless in their treatment of their citizens. We struggle with remaining obedient to what we believe to be unethical systems of rule that violate our freedoms and trample our rights. But Paul reminds us that, while we are citizens of heaven, we must remain submissive and obedient to the authorities under which we live. We must view them as placed there by You, and trust that You have a plan in place of which we are ignorant. You left us in this world, with its corrupt and flawed government, for a reason. Show us how to live as children of light in the midst of a dark and depraved world. We need Your help and a glimpse of Your perspective. Amen.
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men