Paul's primary concern about the civil authority in Romans 13 is that believers subject themselves to it. He opens with the basic imperative to "be in subjection" and provides a series of arguments for it, based upon both the command of God and prudential concerns.
Most remarkable is what Paul doesn't say. Not a word is spent discussing how Christians employed by the governing authority ought to behave in that office. Indeed, advising rulers on how they should govern is not in his purview at all. Nor does he raise the question of the relative excellence of various governors. Paul seems to take it as an established fact that all rulers everywhere are always accomplishing what God would have them accomplish. Remember that Paul is writing to the church in Rome-the Washington, DC or Brussels of the first century. Even if the church contained no government officials, such proximity to power would have surely bred some familiarity and interest in affairs of state. But Paul doesn't indulge it. While the apostle often directs moral instruction to both sides of a societal relationship-masters and slaves, husbands and wives-here he addresses believers simply as the governed.
There is a striking contrast in the approach of evangelical Christians today: dare I say, a refusal to submit. There is a prevailing view that we need Christians in politics. Believers of all political stripes take it for granted that Christians have a uniquely Christian contribution to make to the task of governing. Sophisticated evangelicals may no longer ask whether Jesus would drive an SUV, or if God is a Republican or a Democrat. But they still assume that government is ground zero in the larger battle over the shape of our culture, a crucial instrument to arrest our nation's increasing slide into secularism. And this engenders a strong sense of Christian mission as they seek to incorporate their faith into the callings of lawmaker, regulator, and enforcer.
Properly understood, Paul's command to submit should constrain our optimism about the civil government's capacity to transform, save, or redeem. Civil government is not an aid to Christian sanctification, either on the individual or cultural scale. Rather, it is a dead-end, stop-gap barrier that makes space for the good in a fallen world. In our capacity as believers and as a church, our task is not to ask how to govern well, but to be governed.
Paul's first argument for subjection to the governing authorities is that these authorities are established by God, "for there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God" (13:1). A failure to submit to the civil authorities is a failure to submit to God.
Paul is not saying merely that the idea of government-the office of the ruler-has been ordained by God and left to operate in more or less working order depending on its inhabitant. He is making the much stronger claim that both the office and its particular inhabitants have been established by God's providential hand. There is here no modern distinction between the abstract concept of government and the men and women who wield its power.
In other words, Paul is telling the Romans that God has enthroned Nero to rule over them and has vested him with all proper civil authority. The divine establishment of the ruler is personal and concrete. Roman imperial aspirations to deity, even the imposition of the cult of emperor worship, did not disqualify Nero as a ruler worthy of subjection.
For Roman Christians, this implied a different conception from that of the old covenant theocracy (Israel as a civic entity). Paul is building on Christ's frequent rebuke of the zealots who sought to overturn Roman rule and crown him the King of an earthly Zion. While ruling Israel as a holy nation was inherent to the calling of every Jewish person in the old covenant, the church as the New Israel has no such civil calling. God had a stake in the faithfulness and purity of Israel's kings, he has no such stake in the religious affiliation of earthly rulers. Christians-as Christians-are called to submit.
God's purposes for civil government are therefore accomplished through all governments, regardless of a particular government's religious aims or errors. Thus a truly distinctive Christian political philosophy has both a great confidence that God will accomplish his goals and a radical humility toward the ultimate significance of earthly rulers. God doesn't need either Christian rulers or Christian systems of government to fulfill his purposes, precisely because his purposes for the civil government are not ultimate or religious or eternal. In contrast, a fallen world with its limited horizon will always tend to invest its secular authorities with ultimate significance.
Paul is not saying that there is no relative merit among various rulers or systems of government, just that it's irrelevant to God's redemptive purposes in Christ, realized in the church. Americans tend to think that the founding of their nation was under God's providential governance. In this, they are correct, insofar as the foundation of every nation is an act of God. Yet whatever broad and deep influences the Christian tradition may have had on the political philosophy of our founders are utterly irrelevant to Paul's concerns, and not just because he couldn't have imagined such a well-founded nation. Rome, with a tyrannical system of government utterly foreign to Judeo-Christian values, is equivalent to the United States of America for God's limited, civil purposes.
This is not to say that humanly speaking we can't discriminate among competing systems of government. Just because all governments are sufficient for God's ends doesn't mean that all governments are morally equivalent. Given the opportunity to shape one's own political system, as Americans are, we are compelled to pursue the most just system available to us.
The contrast with Israel in the Old Testament couldn't be more telling. Israel was God's theocratic response to the equally "theocratic" pagan nations that surrounded her. She was a holy nation, a civil order that testified to the absolute kingship of the Lord's Anointed. She rightly demanded theological purity of both its kings and its citizens. In the New Testament, this temporal type has been replaced by the eternal reality of the King of Kings. In Christ we have a heavenly citizenship, and neither Jerusalem nor any other earthly city is destined to be a city shining on a hill.
The first thing that Paul thinks about when he thinks about the governing authorities is where they come from-they are established by God. But the second thing he thinks about is what they do-they cause fear. "For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil."
The threatening nature of government is not accidental, but fundamental to Paul's conception of a healthy civic government. It is how God uses government as an instrument to minister good.
Admittedly, Paul's concern here is not to set out an exhaustive political philosophy. His claims are primarily theological, and explain in part his sweeping command to submit indiscriminately to governing authorities. He is telling the church what, after Israel, a civil government is good for, and how it relates to the universal Christian call to love one's neighbor.
The context tells us even more about this unique role of the government in the pursuit of a reasonably just and loving society. In the previous chapter Paul has transitioned from a discussion of how the saints ought to behave toward one another within the church (12:1-8) to a broader discussion of neighbor love: "Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good" (12:9). It is in this context that he picks up on the teaching of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and curse not."
The Sermon on the Mount is a radical departure from the Old Testament Israel's civil law of retaliation, or lex talionis, "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth" (Exod. 21:24, et al). But Christ's rejoinder itself is already found in Proverbs: "Do not say, 'I will repay evil'; Wait for the Lord, and He will save you" (Prov. 20:22, cf. 24:29). What's going on here?
In both the Old Testament and the New, the contrast is between the civil law as an instrument of wrath and the personal calling of the citizen. The difference is with the relation of the people of God to that civil entity. It was a part of the nation of Israel's holy calling to bear the sword of wrath. The church is commanded to set aside these civil responsibilities. When Paul commands believers to "leave room for the wrath of God" in 12:19, he's imploring them to let the unbelieving civil government do its job. The Lord's vengeance isn't just future, it is also present. This transition from Old Testament to New is in part behind Paul's discussion of the civil authorities in Romans 13. Paul wants the Roman Christians to have just as much confidence in Rome as Old Testament saints had in Israel with regard to restraining evil.
Why? The administration of God's wrath in the civil government-every civil government-allows us to navigate the contrast between good and evil that runs through 12:9-21. We are personally able to abhor evil and cling to good, resist returning evil for evil, and indeed overcome evil with good, precisely because God is working in the world here and now to curb evil through the governing authorities. Evil deeds still elicit God's wrath. But believers as believers are now to be instruments exclusively of good, not evil; forgiveness, not vengeance. Precisely because the Lord takes vengeance we are to refrain from doing so; our confidence that the wrath of God will render just deserts gives us leave to stop short of doing so. The end of civil Israel doesn't mean the rise of anarchy, for God will continue to exercise vengeance and wrath through secular authorities, whether Christians or non-Christians hold those offices.
Paul uses the metaphor of space to describe the relation of our response to evil and God's: "Leave room for the wrath of God." In doing so, he is distinguishing between two different spheres of activity. Loving and caring for our neighbor-friend or foe-is an activity necessary for all Christians. Dispensing just deserts-avenging evil with wrath via the sword-is the Lord's prerogative, and he accomplishes it, in part, through the governing authorities.
Judging from Romans 13, these two ministries must be kept distinct. Clearly, the believer's neighborly office of love doesn't allow him personally to take up the sword of wrath in vengeance. For the individual Christian, love and wrath are incompatible; the pursuit of the one requires the abandonment of the other. It would also seem to follow that the government's ministry of wrath isn't compatible with the New Testament ideal of love, for "it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil." Insofar as one sought to make the government an instrument of love, it would be destined to fall short of its primary, divinely appointed task. Indeed, Paul ties the paying of taxes directly to this ministry of fear, a connection that is easy to make in the modern world.
From the incompatibility of these two ministries, one could falsely conclude that Christians are forbidden from serving in the office of a governing authority. But Paul issues no such prohibition, and indeed encourages us all to support the activity of the civil government through the paying of taxes. Indeed, he clearly establishes the office of civil governor as a legitimate calling, an ordinance of creation whereby God keeps the peace. The ruler who preserves the peace is as crucial as the baker who provides the bread or the builder who constructs our shelter. Our heavenly citizenship in Christ does not cancel our earthly citizenship; both may place demands upon us. When the Christian serves in public office and wields the civil sword-or supports such activity by paying his taxes-he subjects himself to the civil office by acting in an official capacity.
Paul's point in Romans 13 is a theological one, not political. The people of God are no longer to have their own political order. God is content to use the civil government of the natural man to restrain evil. The Christian has no special expertise to rule.
It is tempting to ferret out specific policy prescriptions on the basis of this text. Clearly, a government that limited itself exclusively to executing God's wrath on evildoers would be far more circumscribed in its powers than any modern government. But Paul's goal here is clearly not positive and constructive. He does not pretend to give a laundry list of activities affirmed, proscribed, and indifferent. Instead, he explicitly affirms the legitimacy and divine origin of secular governments that have no biblical foundation whatsoever, obviating the need for such a scriptural list.
Nor should we read Romans 13 as a recipe for a passive quietism in the face of unjust regimes. The insistence on the paying of taxes, reminiscent of Christ's command to "render unto Caesar," suggests that believers are active participants in the divinely established civil order. Christian faith does not nullify the legitimate calling to public service in government. However, Paul strips us of whatever pretensions we may bring as Christians to this task. Speaking anachronistically, Paul establishes here a separation of church and state, and the Christian comes to this task as a mere citizen.
The church is always afflicted by those who believe that Christ's kingdom hasn't been sufficiently established until earthly powers are abolished and the yoke of human subjection is thrown off. In Paul's day, it was the Jewish zealots who were offended by the Messiah's failure to throw off the Roman yoke and establish the kingdom on earth. Likewise, the radical Anabaptists in the Reformation era rejected their civil rulers and sought to establish God's kingdom on earth by force. John Calvin rightly relates this text to Christian liberty and the nature of Christ's kingdom: "There are indeed always some tumultuous spirits who believe that the kingdom of Christ cannot be sufficiently elevated, unless all earthly powers be abolished, and that they cannot enjoy the liberty given by him, except they shake off every yoke of human subjection" (Commentary on Romans 13:1). The error in our own day, both on the religious left and right, likewise comes at the expense of Christian liberty. It denies that the present liberty of the Christian persists even in the height of human subjection, and insists that a "more Christian" civic order is necessary for the well-being of Christ's church.
Brian J. Lee works for a federal agency in Washington, D.C.
Issue: "In View Of God's Mercies" Nov./Dec. 2006 Vol. 15 No. 6 Page number(s): 16-19
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