Before Easter we were looking at Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome. We had seven sessions then, and now we return to it for three more weeks.
I remember that sometimes we didn’t find what Paul was saying very straightforward to understand. Although on the face of it, today’s passage is easy enough to grasp – it’s about being good citizens – I think some people’s first reaction might be, ‘well I don’t think I necessarily agree with some of that. What Paul is saying seems just too easy – was he blind to the reality around him?’
When most of us were young a policeman was a friendly figure – you could ask the time, or directions and, although he could be stern if necessary, he was there to make sure everyone was safe and that the rules were kept.
What about the ‘government’ or the ‘council’? Although we elect these, many people have become quite cynical about their elected representatives as a whole – you only have to listen to the news or pick up a newspaper to know that whatever these people do or don’t do, they apparently never seem to get it right. And this frustration has, to some extent, become true of our feelings about the police and judiciary as well.
Yet, compared to some countries, our democratically elected figures of authority are very benign. In many places the police and rulers are justly feared and often hated, even by those who are doing no wrong.
This was also the case in Paul’s day, when the far from pleasant Emperor Nero, amongst others, ruled the Roman Empire. It seems hard to imagine how Paul could have written the instructions in these verses to believers who were living under such a corrupt and cruel government.
Today’s reading is part of a bigger picture in which Paul outlines other relationships. In the previous chapter he talks of how we should be with God, with ourselves, with other believers, and with our enemies. And now he continues, thinking about our relationship to the state, and how we are to be conscientious citizens.
“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities” Paul says – because, he believes, the authority of the state is derived from God.
He is quite sure about this – he says so three times: “There is no authority except that which God has established” (v1b). “The authorities that exist have been established by God” (v1c). And “Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted” (v2).
What Paul does not mean is that all the Caligulas, Herods and Neros of his time, and all the Hitlers, Stalins, Amins and Saddams of our time were appointed by God and that their authority is under no circumstance to be questioned.
Take a step back and look at the wider picture – What Paul means is that although he believes that all human authority is derived from God’s authority, he also understands that rulers can very well misuse this God-given authority, just because they are human.
Paul knew this from experience. It was not always the case that rulers commended those who did right and punished those who did wrong – If courts were always just he would not have needed to appeal to Caesar.
If a miscarriage of justice never occurred, Jesus would not have been condemned as he had been. And it’s interesting to notice what Jesus said to Pilate, “You would have no power (or authority) over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19: 11). Human reality usually falls far short of God’s ideal, but Jesus also believed that the authority of those in charge came from God.
Of course this idea has often been used – and abused – by those in power. It was the line taken by white people, and particularly those in power, in South Africa during the time of apartheid. By taking these verses out of context rulers feel they have every right to demand unconditional obedience – and indeed President P.W. Botha was known to read these verses from Romans 13 to anyone who came suggesting that apartheid was wrong.
But of course these verses do not mean that bullying, misguided rulers can do exactly as they please. If they reverse their God-given duty and begin to commend those who do evil and punish those who do good, then society is heading for chaos.
It’s a basic human instinct to want justice – we are not happy with the law of the jungle – we much prefer an ordered, properly functioning society. Paul is saying that civic authorities are there because God wants his world to be ordered, not chaotic. It does not validate the actions of misguided governments, but it does say that some kind of government is necessary.
It is the duty of government to promote and reward good, and to restrain and punish evil. Paul has already said in the previous chapter (12:19) that taking private revenge for wrong is not allowed – it is the ruler or the state “who is God’s servant” who has the responsibility of administering justice (13: 4). Private individuals are not authorized to take the law into their own hands and punish offenders. The punishment of wrong is God’s prerogative, and he carries it out through the law courts of the land.
So what happens when a government mis-uses its authority? Are citizens still to submit?
No – the principle is that when the state asks its citizens to do what God forbids, the time has come to disobey the state and to obey God.
When Peter and the other apostles were arrested by the authorities they told the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish court, that they “must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5: 29).
When Paul was in Philippi and the authorities acted illegally and unjustly by imprisoning and beating him, he had no hesitation in telling them they were in the wrong and insisting that they follow the rules (Acts 16).
And there are examples in the Old Testament as well.
When King Darius made a decree that for thirty days nobody should pray to any god or man except himself Daniel refused to obey (Daniel 6).
In fact whenever laws are enacted that contradict God’s law, it is a Christian’s duty to express disagreement. But before civil disobedience comes into question, some kind of discussion is appropriate. Only this week there was a headline in the paper that read, “Churches rebuke Government over the ‘human cost’ of austerity measures” (Times). The Baptists, Methodists, United Reformed Church and the Church of Scotland took the government to task over the effect new measures would have on the poorest in our society, and for refusing to listen to genuine concerns. And last week Justin Welby also queried the Work and Pensions Secretary’s plans.
Finally we come to the last verses of the reading – verses 6 and 7 are about paying taxes – a thing we all enjoy! Bearing in mind that the authorities are God’s servants, it follows that we should pay our taxes with good grace. There are obviously some services that the state must provide for its citizens – these have to be paid for, so taxes are necessary.
If the taxmen and women are seen as God’s agents who do their job for the benefit of society in general then they deserve our respect for carrying out a difficult task. Indeed all those in authority in our land deserve not only our respect but also our prayers. Paul tells us that if we rebel against the governing authorities we are rebelling against God himself, because it is he who has placed them there.