In Romans 13, Paul tells the Roman Christians to be submissive to the Roman ruling authorities, who he refers to as God’s servants (see v4). The Roman ruling authorities are God’s servants. Paul has OT history on his side in this statement. Think back in the OT when God used Assyria to bring judgment on Israel, and later Babylonia to bring judgment on Judah and Jerusalem. If you go back and read the book of Jeremiah, for example, you’ll see that Jeremiah preached submission to the invading army of Nebuchadnezzar back in 597 BC. Both the Assyrians before him and the Babylonians were God’s servants to do his will on earth – to pass judgment on Israel and send the people into exile. Nothing takes place on the earth without God’s knowledge and awareness, and in these specific OT instances, the Lord was actually overseeing pagan, ungodly rulers and authorities who conquered and took captive his own people.
Now, I’m sure that in the back of many of our minds is the question: Do we have to submit and obey a cruel, unmerciful, ungodly murderous ruler? What about terrible people like Hitler in Nazi Germany… Mussolini in Italy … the persecution of Jews by the czars of Russia… the ethnic cleansing by Idi Amin in Uganda… the Tutsi Rwandan genocide by the Hutu majority government… Pol Pot and the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia… Are we to understand that God established these people in power and that Christians were to submit to their authority? What about state and local Jim Crow laws that were around for 75 years in America? Are we to consider Rosa Parks and the non-violent protest movement of the 60’s as being unsubmissive and rebellious to God’s established authority? I believe there’s a big difference between taking to the streets and raise your voice in non-violent protest… or posting on social media to draw attention to injustice and corruption… or working to change injustice… there’s a big difference between those things and blowing up a federal building, torching an abortion clinic, or shooting a policeman. Just because you disagree with an authority doesn’t give you license to subversion and revenge.
We need to put all of this in the context of preaching the Gospel. Our first priority as believers according to Acts 1:8 is to be witnesses in our Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth. We are Christ’s ambassadors Paul says in 2nd Corinthians 5:20. We should remain faithful to our calling as witnesses and ambassadors and not jeopardize our opportunity to do so. That is our first priority. Of course, we should also remain faithful to the truth of scripture, especially since God’s Word constantly challenges the established structures of society. No established authority is perfect. Every established authority is sinful and corrupt because there are sinful people who run it – some more sinful & corrupt than others. And that can vary from age to age. And that can even be within a denomination. We must set God’s authority, justice and the Gospel above established authorities. In Acts 5 Peter and several other apostles were arrested by the Jewish rulers in Jerusalem for preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus. They were put in the public jail, but during the night an angel of the Lord set them free. Later, they were brought before the full Sanhedrin – the Jewish ruling authority – and accused of being disobedient to their authority. That is when Peter and the other disciples replied, “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29)
Paul is more focused on addressing any believer who might be tempted to become involved in organizing a rebellion and overthrowing the Emperor, or at least overthrowing some local Roman governor or magistrate (magistrate is another word for authority). The bottom line question is: how does my response to a ruling authority help or hinder the Gospel? If you could ask yourself this question before entering into the fray of national or local issues, I think that would guide you in your response. The bottom line for me – as a follower of Jesus – is whether my response (for or against) helps or hinders the Gospel.
Paul told them to submit despite evil, corrupt and unjust practices! Believers are not to subvert or rebel or be involved in anarchy or violence or even withhold paying taxes. They had a much higher calling to preach the Gospel. And I believe in Paul’s mind, the best way to accomplish that was to share the Gospel within the context of the established social structures… and let the power of the Gospel transform the heart! Pastor Randy