SUBMITTING TO GOVERNMENT?
HOW DO CHRISTIANS DEAL WITH THE TENSION CREATED BY their presence in a society in which the need to preserve their integrity as individuals and to be faithful to their understanding of the lordship of Christ may conflict with the demands of that society?
In Romans 13 Paul focuses on the tension between the individual and society at large in terms of the problem of civil obedience or disobedience. The question which is raised concerns the individual's responsibility toward the social order, insofar as that social order is regulated by laws that are upheld and enforced by government authorities.
Individual Christian responsibility has often been compromised on the basis of a one-sided use of biblical injunctions. Thus Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-14 are often cited as proof that the state always demands and deserves our total and unquestioning obedience. But Revelation 13 and 18 are neglected. The former pictures the state as a beast opposed to God's purposes; the latter speaks of the downfall of any nation that becomes a modern Babylon, corrupted by wealth, materialism and injustice.
Some Christians are quick to condemn any person who upsets or threatens to upset social norms and regulations. But those same Christians tend to disregard Acts 17:6-7, where the apostles are described as "men who have turned the world upside down" and who "are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus" (RSV).
The Gospel accounts also make clear that Jesus did not accept all legal and governing authorities as ultimate dispensers of God's will. Wherever he went, he bucked the system, upset the status quo and challenged the authorities' claim to the right and the truth. And in the context of a life of discipleship, countless martyrs have given their lives because they resisted the decrees of the authorities.
Thus a serious look at the scriptural material will prevent us from viewing the demands of society and its rulers with uncritical acceptance and automatic approval. Are there conditions when the demands of the social order must be resisted and the worth of the individual as a responsible being before God must be affirmed and defended?
If we cannot give uncritical and unquestioning allegiance to the demands of society and its governing authorities, we must also be careful not to go to the other extreme, that of concluding that government is inevitably an evil institution which should be resisted, disobeyed, distrusted or ignored. For we are instructed to honor and pray for those in authority. The Bible makes clear that government has a positive role to play in God's plans for human community. According to the New Testament, all authority is ultimately under the rule and judgment of Christ.
In light of this double perspective, how are we to understand Romans 13, which seems to come down on one side of this double perspective? First, we need to read Romans 13 more carefully than it has often been read. Second, we need to read these admonitions in light of the context of Paul's missionary activity, which took place in a world in which Roman law and rule had created relative peace and order, conducive to the rapid spread of the gospel.
Statement: ďEveryone must submit himself to the governing authoritiesĒ (Romans 13:1)
Let us carefully follow, in outline form, Paul's argument:
|Answer:||Because all authority exists ultimately by God's design, including the authority of the state (Rom 13:1).|
|Conclusion:||Therefore, to resist the authorities is to resist God's intent (Rom 13:2).|
|Hypothetical Question:||But what is God's intent?|
|Answer:||It is God's intent that through his "servants" (governing authorities) evil acts are punished (Rom 13:4); bad works are restrained through fear of punishment (Rom 13:3); and the good is promoted and encouraged (Rom 13:3).|
In summary, Paul's argument is this: It is God's intent that human life in the context of community will be life in harmony and peace and order (see Rom 12:10, 18). Since life in community becomes chaotic and anarchistic without the presence of regulatory laws enforced by authorities, the presence of these are part of God's overall intent for human existence. Therefore, insofar as the state and its rulers exercise their authority in keeping with God's intent, they act as God's ministers for the common good of society.
If, however, the authority of the state runs counter to this divine intent, then that authority should not be understood as God-given. In fact, it becomes quite clear from Revelation 13 and 18, as well as other places in the New Testament, that the state which persecutes Christians, which dispenses injustice instead of justice, which supports moral decay, which tramples on the weak and powerless, has been usurped by demonic powers and forces diametrically opposed to God's intents and purposes.
The passage that follows Paul's discussion about the relationship between the individual and the demands of the social order (Rom 13:8-10) is very instructive for a proper understanding of that relationship. Most commentators feel that Paul has completed the considerations about obedience to the state and is now speaking about morality and ethics in general. It seems to me, however, that such an understanding of the thrust of the argument overlooks Paul's specific intent at this point.
Indeed, the admonitions concerning love for others (Rom 13:8-10) are not a departure from the previous topic but are rather a climax of the entire discussion. Romans 13:8 picks up very pointedly from Romans 13:7.