Let 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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For 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, for 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. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 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. (Romans 13:1-7)
In his pamphlet Common Sense, published in the midst of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine wrote that “government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.” I’m sure we can all think of examples that prove this to be true. We read of politicians using public buildings and funds to carry on extramarital affairs. We see local police departments using their authority to raise revenue rather than to keep the public safe. Our representatives pass laws that benefit powerful special interest groups but endanger freedom and fly in the face of biblical ideals. Our government gave $1.4 billion of aid last year to countries that own U.S. debt (basically we give free money to countries that lend it right back to us for interest).
And that’s just in the United States, a country that has been blessed with a comparatively limited government that (at least in theory) answers to the will of the people. If you’ve had the privilege of traveling overseas, you’ve probably discovered that it’s much worse elsewhere. During my missions trips to Russia, I’ve seen policemen trump up small crimes and traffic violations just to extort a bribe that would be less than your fine or legal costs. I’ve seen the Russian government make it almost impossible for non-Orthodox missionaries to enter the country. I’ve heard of packages sent to help ministries that either don’t arrive or arrive with items missing because customs officials and postal workers helped themselves to whatever they wanted. I’ve experienced how even the smallest interaction with a government official will probably result in a bribe being requested.
One of the saddest things about the overwhelming poverty, starvation, and disease in many African nations is the fact that other nations and charities send enough aid to those nations every year to greatly diminish those problems, but the people’s governments keep that aid for themselves instead of distributing it to those who need it. And of course there are stories like that of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and his sons conspiring with Saddam Hussein to keep the profits from the UN’s Oil for Food program instead of giving the food to the needy people of Iraq like they were supposed to.
Our experience tells us that Paine was right. Government is necessary, but it’s often evil as well, and sometimes it’s so evil that we begin to question whether it is really necessary. And once we question whether it is necessary, it’s not a big leap for us to question whether it is necessary for us to obey it. When government is in the state that it’s in, our natural rebellious hearts combine with our new heightened sense of justice to help us to justify disobedience.
But in Romans 13, Paul commands submission to government. This isn’t really revolutionary (no pun intended), however. After all, most people aren’t revolutionaries. What’s unique about Paul’s command to submit is the reason why we are to submit. If you look around your neighborhoods, you’ll notice that most people, even though they aren’t Christians, do submit to the governing authorities, at least on most matters. But the reason they do so is fear. People are afraid of the consequences that come from lawbreaking (legal hassles and fees, fines, jail time, losing one’s job, etc.). In Romans 13, however, Paul commands Christians not to submit out of fear, but out of conscience. We should submit even when there is 0% chance we would suffer consequences for not submitting.
And then he gives some real-life examples that hit close to home and basically boil down to paying taxes and giving respect.
This past tax season, there was a call by Shane Claiborne and other pacifists for Christians to withhold $10.40 from their taxes, donate it to humanitarian causes, and write a letter to the IRS explaining that the money was withheld in protest to tax dollars being used to fund war. Not only do I think they do a disservice to the biblical texts by using them (selectively at that) to justify their protest, I also think they completely miss the point of why Jesus (and other NT writers, including Paul) often skirted the issue when it came to politics and social justice. It wasn’t because they wanted us to creatively subvert governing authorities to promote biblical ideals; it was because politics and social justice muddy the waters of the gospel.
Paul didn’t tell Christians to submit to corrupt governments instead of rebelling because he was in favor of corrupt governments. He didn’t tell slaves to submit to their masters instead of leading a slave revolt because he approved of slavery. We need to understand, as Paul did, that the gospel is not focused on fixing governments or social problems but on reconciling sinners to their Creator. In his book, What is the Gospel?, Greg Gilbert put it this way:
“…I believe one of the greatest dangers the body of Christ faces today is the temptation to rethink and rearticulate the gospel in a way that makes its center something other than the death of Jesus on the cross in the place of sinners.
The pressure to do that is enormous, and it seems to come from several directions. One of the main sources of pressure is the increasingly common idea that the gospel of forgiveness of sin through Christ’s death is somehow not ‘big’ enough—that it doesn’t address problems like war, oppression, poverty, and injustice, and really ‘isn’t terribly important,’ as one writer put it, when it comes to the real problems of this world.
Now, I think that charge is altogether false. All those problems are, at their root, the result of human sin, and it is folly to think that with a little more activism, a little more concern, a little more ‘living the life that Jesus lived,’ we can solve those problems. No, it is the cross alone that truly deals once and for all with sin, and it is the cross that makes it possible for humans to be included in God’s perfect kingdom at all.”
And so we pay our taxes … even if we are pacifists and the taxes pay for war … even if we believe in the sanctity of life and the taxes fund abortions … even if we work hard for our money and the taxes will be used to give doles to lazy people living in sin … even if we know that if the government let us keep more of our money, we would do more good with it than they would. Why? Because government is established with God-ordained authority and part of that authority is the need and right to collect taxes. And because the gospel is so much bigger than us, our money, or our governments.
In addition to paying our taxes, Paul commands us to give honor and respect to those in authority. Simply put, respect the office, even if you don’t respect the person holding that office. This should be convicting to us. I know it is to me. I didn’t particularly like many of President Bush’s political decisions, but I had great respect for him as a man so it was easy for me to respect his presidency even though I often disagreed with him. I disagree even more with President Obama, but I have much less respect for him as a man so it is much easier for me to disrespect both him and his office. It’s one thing to poke fun at those in authority, but I catch myself laughing at and agreeing with things that are more malicious than just playful fun. It’s interesting that Paul refers to the governing authorities as “ministers of God.” J. Vernon McGee notes, “In this verse the word for minister is one from which we get our word liturgy. It is strictly religious and is the same word used of angels in Hebrews 1:14 where they are called ministering spirits. This means that the ruler occupies a divinely-appointed office. He has no religious function, of course, but he holds a God-appointed office.” Barack Obama’s authority as President is as God-ordained as that of the pastor of your local church or my authority as head of my household. He is due the same respect I want my wife and son to give me and we are to give our pastors and elders. That of course doesn’t mean that he is always right or that we always have to agree, but it does mean we need to submit to him, pray for him, and do our part in the civic process to ensure our government is one that rewards good and punishes evil, rather than the other way around.
This type of submission is hard, especially when government is failing at its God-ordained purpose. But the gospel is so much bigger than us, so we must lay aside our pride and submit. The cross itself is enough of an offense. We don’t need to make ourselves an offense by not submitting and being good citizens.
Things to Reflect on in Light of This Passage:
1. Do I submit to the governing authorities out of fear or out of conscience? Do I pay my taxes out of fear or out of conscience?
2. Is there anything disrespectful in my attitude towards the government and those in public office?
3. Are my political beliefs and my feelings toward those who disagree (especially when they are in power) hindering my witness to my neighbors and community?
4. Am I known more for my allegiance to Christ or for my opposition to (or support for) the government?