Romans 13: 1 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. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
I have written often on this passage, and others which also speak to the relationship of the governed to the governor. I have written of it from the view that the common interpretation is incorrect – or at least incomplete.
For example, “governing authorities” does not mean simply those who occupy positions of monopoly authority: the state. There are many governing authorities – including the Church and the family, and others such as universities, guilds, trade organizations, customers, business associates, etc.
Further, we run into the stumbling block of the authority that demands of us to act against our conscience – against God, if you will. One cannot read these verses written by St. Paul and reconcile this simplistic understanding with the fact that he defied the authorities unto his death. (Which, if we are to extend this example, suggests that, ultimately, accepting the possibility of martyrdom is both necessary individually and beneficial as a means to grow the Kingdom.)
But this post won’t go through all of this ground – as if the only group St. Paul is writing to is the governed. Instead, let’s review what he is writing to those in authority….
3(a) For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.
This is the role of those in authority – to be a “terror” to (other translations use the phrase “strike fear in” or some version of this) those who act in bad conduct.
3(b) Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,
The ruler is to approve of good conduct – not punish it, not make it illegal, not cancel it. To approve it.
4(a) for he is God's servant for your good.
But if the one in authority is not God’s servant for good, then whose servant is he if he rewards evil?
4(b) 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.
I think about what many refer to as “the Old Testament God” (as if He changed). The “wrath” He poured out on the wrongdoers of Sodom and Gomorrah, the wrath He poured out in the book of Joshua. It was wrath poured out on those who act in bad conduct – those who practice evil, and even glory in it. That wrath was poured out even on those in authority….
5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
Those who “must be in subjection” also include those in authority, else they will receive God’s wrath. This is tough, a test of our patience and superficial sense of justice: God’s wrath when? Through whose hand? Unfortunately, you might say, this is where we, as Christians, are stuck. Time works differently for God than it does for us. How His wrath is shown may not always be to our immediate and worldly satisfaction.
6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.
Because of “what” do we pay taxes? The “what” is all of the things St. Paul has offered as required of those in authority: to reward good and punish evil; to be a terror to those of bad conduct, not good. But there is more on this subject of taxes, and for this I turn to the time when Israel demanded a king, and the warning God offered regarding their demand:
1 Samuel 8: 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants.
Suggesting that any authority that takes even one-tenth – ten percent – is violating God’s expectation of good authority. But it gets worse:
17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.
Once the ten percent threshold is reached (let alone crossed), you are, in fact, a slave. Hence, consider: the “governing authority” we are supposedly commanded to obey is violating both God’s command to reward good and punish evil and also God’s command of the appropriate level of taxation to pay for doing this good work.
One could consider that God understands that ten percent is sufficient for those in authority to conduct its proper role (let’s say, defend life and property and bring justice to those who violate life and property), and everything over ten percent will, inevitably and inherently, be used in ways contrary to its proper role (in other words, to become an agent that violates life and property).
So, we return to Romans 13:
7(a) Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed
To be clear, as modern governments – at all levels: federal, state, local – demand anywhere from thirty percent to eighty percent in taxes, what we are demanded to pay is in violation of God’s plan. I say nothing about how we are to deal with this (tax revolt, etc.). The point is, let’s not be fooled about the nature of our governing authorities, and let’s stop pretending that through this section of the book of Romans that the Apostle Paul is writing a one-sided admonishment.
7(b) revenue to whom revenue is owed
This can be read in more than one way. As taxes were already covered, I will assume it can be read as what I owe the grocer, or the gas station, or the restaurant…
7(c) respect to whom respect is owed
This is respect to all levels of authority – from government, to Church, to family, etc. For example, the king also owes respect to the authority of the Church, and to the authority held within the family.
But what does it mean to whom respect is “owed”? Do I owe respect to a governing authority that rewards evil and punishes good? Do I owe respect to a governing authority that takes more than ten percent? Certainly, I might comply for my sake and the sake of my family. But do I owe respect?
If the answer to that is yes, then I might as well quit writing. But, as evidenced by my posting this work, I haven’t quit writing….
7(d) honor to whom honor is owed.
I could write again everything I have written about owing respect. You get the idea.
How many times when we have had Romans 13 shoved down our throat are we also made to recognize the other side of this passage? We are convinced by many Christian leaders to ignore the log in the governor’s eye and only to examine the speck in our own.
We need not even debate in what manner or how this passage speaks to us as those under the authority of such governing powers. Nothing more need be done other than preach – regularly and often – about how those governing powers are violating what God has too often commanded throughout Scripture.
The Apostle Paul writes more along these lines, to Timothy: what do we “owe” to (or on behalf of) those in authority?
1 Timothy 2: 1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2(a) for kings and all who are in high positions
2(b) that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.
And this is what we pray for: that the kings in high positions act in accord with what God commands them.
Further, St. Paul was not alone in such thoughts.
1 Peter 2: 13 Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.
The governors sent by the emperor are to be sent to punish evil and to praise good.
Let’s focus on that….