Supplemental thoughts from Romans 13
This Sunday as we continue the series The Betrayers of Jesus- I wanted to provide some supplementary thoughts about how Jesus lived out the description Paul gives in Romans 13.
(NIV-2002) 13:1 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. 5Therefore, 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. 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.
VERSE 1- A singular word can have a strong influence over the entire reading of a text. While it is good to value each and every word that scripture contains- it is also good to remember that we are after the truth God is speaking to us. The danger in holding tightly to a specific translation is that it may lead us to hold tightly to something that was never intended[i].
For example- the Greek word hupotasso (translated as “subject to” in verse 1) is used multiple times in the New Testament. It is translated multiple ways including: submit, subject to, obey, respect, or under. A look at the definition of this word suggests it may literally mean “to co-operate”. Differences in translation can have a drastic effect on the understanding of this verse. “obey governing authorities” has a very different connotation from “respect the governing authorities”- yet both are valid translations.
It is helpful when reading the Bible to fit our understanding of a specific text considering the bigger picture of God’s word to us. This includes:
VERSES1-2- Two things are simultaneously clear in this passage. Government is not equated to God, nor is it equated to representation of God AND government only has authority because God so choses.
Rebelling against the government is NOT rebelling against God- but it IS acting in contradiction to God’s will and refusing to acknowledge God’s sovereignty to grant authority as He wishes.
It is a serious offence to interfere with how God works with the governing authorities. He does not act according to our wishes or expectations. God’s ways are not our ways- we do not reserve our trust for only those times when we understand how God goes about His business.
At the same time- it would be naïve to believe that somehow because government is under God’s jurisdiction, it shares His characteristics. The government is not God’s mouthpiece- and we should have a very healthy awareness of this fact.
I find it telling that as Jesus sits before Pilate- he speaks to the truth of this verse. Jesus is not suggesting that the Roman government is acting on God’s behalf or is representing God somehow. Jesus acknowledges that Pilate and Herod have authority because God chose it- but this does not make right what they are doing.
VERSE 3- It can be easy to think this verse is suggesting that governments never persecute the innocent. We, of course, know this to be false. And we know from the Bible that Christ was crucified by the government and Paul (who wrote this passage) was also imprisoned and persecuted by the ruling authorities. This is not a suggestion that government is without oppression- rather it suggests that we answer to the one is above us AND above the government. Whatever government may be able to do to us- it is nothing to what God can do. If we are truly pleasing God- we are right and have no fear- regardless of what governments may attempt to do in the meantime. I find it helpful to read this passage in light of Matthew 10 where it reads “we do not fear those who can kill the body but the one who is master over the soul as well”.
VERSE 4-God wants good things for us. When authority works in harmony with God it is to bring about order and peace. [ii] Since this is the calling and purpose of government- it would be wise not to fight against that effort. However, this is not the same as suggesting that government will do good in all instances. Sin exists in all forms of government and in all members of government. Because of sin, government can act outside of God’s desire of goodness for us. In those instances, it is still up to God to bring the reckoning- on His time. To deny this is to deny God’s sovereignty in the matter. A big temptation is to believe that we respond differently depending on if we believe government to be acting in concert with God’s will or not. However, our response remains the same, we are to live in acknowledgement God’s authority always.
VERSES 4-7- When government and God’s call for us align- everything is harmonious. When they do not align- we still must answer for ourselves.
Jesus lives this out with action- even unto the cross.
VERSES 8-10- I included these verses because I think they add so much depth and understanding to the rest of the passage. We can not think about government and our response to government without thinking about how we must ultimately answer for how we address this foundational call to love. We answer to God- we do not answer to God through the government- we answer to God directly. Although God asks us not to interfere with His use of the government- we will answer for how we follow this call beyond anything else. We are to love our neighbor. Paul uses some examples of what this looks like- but he sums it up with this- we are to Love our neighbour as ourselves- and LOVE DOES NOT HARM A NEIGHBOUR![iii]
The western understanding of hierarchy has a strong influence on our interpretation and understanding of God and the Bible.
When we read things about governance or authority, we get a specific idea about what that looks like. Then when we read a text like Romans 13, and we create a picture in our heads like this:
However, this image would suggest that somehow government represents or speaks for God to us- or that we answer to God through the government. When we think about this in other relationships described with this dynamic (Jesus and His parents, youths and elders) we understand that this is not an accurate diagram.
Perhaps a better picture is this:
We answer to God- directly and without mediation. The government is under God’s purview and not ours. There is a relationship between US (the citizens) and the government- and that relationship bears further discussion. But for today I merely want to suggest that this alternative picture may be more accurate diagram of the relationship of God, government, and us. [iv]
We will use this concept of government and authority this Sunday when we think about the example Jesus set in response to a government that was acting in contradiction to God’s goodness. In the meantime, here are few thoughts to consider about Jesus’ example.
1- Jesus spoke truth- It is God’s job to oversee government not ours- Jesus did not fight against this. But He still spoke truth. We do not have to pretend corruption and harm do not exist- we can acknowledge and observe things as they are. But then it is in God’s hands, not ours, to account for it or to bring it to justice.
2- Citizens can be culpable for the government’s wrongdoings. Even in an oppressive authoritarian Roman government- it was the citizens who influenced the outcome for Jesus. Pilate wanted to let Jesus go but it was because of the outcry of the Sanhedrin that Pilate allowed Jesus to be crucified. We are to cooperate with the government. But that does not mean that we are to assist or work to accomplish the governments goals- especially when they are in contradiction to God’s call.
3- Jesus accepted the consequences of answering God’s call that was contrary to the ruling authority. Jesus did not rebel against the requests of the ruling government- but He would not comply either. Jesus suffered at the hands of corrupt and ungodly government willingly. He faced those consequences knowing full well He was answering to God and trusting that there was a bigger purpose. Although Jesus knew and even intentionally prepared for this event- it is still an example of the willingness to accept the consequences when we can not back down from responding to God’s call.
[i] Incidentally this is an apt description of the history of this specific word. But that is perhaps a conversation for another time.
[ii] I am privileged to have experienced this to be true for much of my lifetime. However, the few times I have experienced government causing overt oppressive harm has left me with no pretense that it can and will happen.
[iii] Sorry for the all caps- I struggle with a great deal of frustration over the harm we are causing our neighbours- may God shine light so that we may SEE and show love better.
[iv] I think there is a worthwhile discussion to be had about the use of this diagram as a triangle that would include the interplay between citizens and government. There is so much that can be discussed about the varying forms of government that allow for accountability, the influence of the individual citizen, and obligations of participation in representation and how each of these impacts the dynamic of this relationship between citizens, God, and authority. But that will be for another time.
Meet the Pastor
Pastor Heather and her family have been a part of the Cold Lake Community since December 2006 and she has been the pastor at Community Baptist Church since September 2017.