(I meant to do this after doing Romans 12, but since my last post was clearly not well favored amongst you, my readers, I figured I’d just do this one anyway. Also, there won’t be a part 2 to yesterday’s post because it went in a direction I didn’t expect. The subject I wanted to look at will be covered at a later time. I’ll talk more about 12 next week).
This is an interesting portion of scripture to discuss. Lucky for me, I have more than one commentary at my disposal today (meaning, I have two.)
1Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,4for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Oh, do the Reformed and the Just War Theorists have a hey-day with this one. My ESV study Bible is awash with notes justifying the death penalty (bearing the sword in verse 4) as well as war (carrying out the wrath of God in the same verse) and tells readers it is for their own good (Thomas R. Schreiner of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is our contributor here). Mr. Schreiner also points out that “though Christians cannot take personal revenge (Romans 12:17-20), ” it is right for them to turn punishment over to the civil authorities, who have the responsibility to punish evil.” Though Paul also commands believers to resolve all legal matters with other believers by the church, clearly he has no issue with dragging nonbelievers before the courts for any wrongdoing against Christians.
Now, before I go on opposing Schreiner’s stances on this portion, let me state some consistent and Biblically connected truths I see in this passage.
1) God institutes the authority that exists on Earth. Yes, that even means he appointed Hitler, Napoleon, Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Jung Il, and any other nasty dictator you can think of. Yes, he put them in power…and removed them as well. Even Jesus acknowledged before Pilate that the Roman Governor’s authority was only granted by God. It is not, however, that God manipulated them to do the horrible things they did/do; their own lust for power did that. We are all placed in the situations we are in to do the glory of God, but it is our choice to do God’s will or our own.
2) God has utilized governments to carry out his judgment. The Hebrew prophets warned the people of Israel REPEATEDLY that judgment would come from God if the evil acts they committed did not cease and they did not repent of their ways. When that didn’t happen, God allowed the nations around them to overtake them and enslave them, just as they had enslaved the poor, widowed and orphaned in their lands. God’s judgment in this place was a matter of, for lack of a better word, karma enacted on the people of Israel, who did not heed the commands of God. As a result, their judgment was their own victimization as the people they oppressed. Often, the same judgment occurs today with nations that oppress their own peoples, where the rich and the leaders lay heavy yokes on those “beneath” them; they face the same judgment that the people of Israel did, but it can be avoided through repentance (see the book of Haggai).
3) Pay your taxes. For the love of Pete, pay your taxes. One note of Schreiner’s that I want to refute, however, says,
“Christians must not refuse to pay taxes simply because they think some of the money is used unjustly, for the Roman Empire surely did not use all of its money for godly purposes!* So, too, believers are to honor their leaders, even if they are not fully admirable.” (ESV Study Bible, 2180, footnote on Romans 13:6-7)
To be fair, I think Schreiner is ignoring the context of Roman government, and the inability of a citizen to refuse to pay certain portions of taxes that went to ungodly causes. Today, war tax resistance is on the rise, and Shane Claiborne offers a more Christian option based in the use of non-profit organization and donations.
One of our favorite approaches to taxes…is to send a letter to the IRS along with a check for a portion of the taces owed and a receipt showing that the sender has donated the amount that would have gone toward weapons to a nonprofit doing the work of the kingdom of God. (Claiborne, Jesus For President, 256)
I myself have not practiced this yet, and the legality behind it I cannot fully confirm, but instead of just holding onto one’s money and refusing to pay taxes outright, this does seem like a more Christian solution in our democratic society. More information on tax resistance can be found at the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee.
Now, what surrounds this portion affects greatly how we view its meaning, and prior to this chapter, we read passages about not conforming to this world (Romans 12:2) and overcoming evil with good (12:21). A similar passage in 1 Peter is surrounded by talk of Christians being aliens in a strange land. Many scholars like to always point to Acts where Peter tells the Temple authorities “We must obey God rather than men,” sort of as a safety net for when obeying government would mean disobeying God, but this is not an exception, but an indicator that the overarching command is that Christians always obey God and they always subordinate to the authorities.
So what is Paul trying to say here? He never actually gives guidelines on how to subordinate (the true term used here; NOT obedience. Leon Morris, in his commentary on Romans, states “There is nothing servile about the attitude to authority that Paul is advocating) other than pay your taxes. Some scholars suggest that he’s actually trying to prevent insurrection rather than get unpatriotic Christians to be more patriotic. At the time of Paul’s writing, two of his followers had actually been expelled from the city in a tax revolt, and another revolt was in the works at the time. In effect, Paul was working to prevent violent action from the church, something counterproductive to the Gospel of Christ. I agree with this standpoint, and I see where some men (in this case, Claiborne again) could see that, but to me, here, there’s something more.
Honestly, from my standpoint, and after reading more from Morris’ commentary, the section seems more geared toward understanding specifically the responsibility that government has in relation to God. Morris points out that, since orderly governing is of divine origin, this means that governing authorities are the servants of God, and must carry out His will and answer to Him one day. The responsibility that this places on them is great, and I think if kings and presidents would consider this more frequently, wiser decisions would come from Capitol Hill. Other than calling for submission to the authorities in the sense of how brothers and sisters in Christ submit to one another, and the command to pay one’s taxes, though, no sort of command exists for Christians here. Nor is there any sanction for Christians to go to war or to endorse the death penalty (the same sanction doesn’t appear here for government either. The greek words used for “the sword” in verse 4 references the sword the Emperor physically wore as well as that of local policing, and bears no reference to the death penalty or war in context).
So next time you’re reading Romans 13, consider its context, what was going on in that time, and what the words mean when Paul references “the sword” or “subordinate.” Still, what are your thoughts? How should Christians “submit to the governing authorities?”
A better question: what does it truly mean to be a Christian…and to be a patriot?
*A rather dark, but humorous image crossed my mind here of a Christian being burned at the stake and cynically thinking to himself “well, here are my tax denarii hard at work.” Hence the title of this post.