Updated: Dec 18, 2020
[Commentary on Romans 13:1-14] Christians are to have respect for authority. Even when we disagree with the way they address COVID or anything else. We are not given an option here. But there are big differences between respect and blind obedience.
The authorities that exist are instituted by God. Romans 13:1
Even Tougher Work Week This Week
[Editor's Note: We were preparing to re-open our church after a few weeks closed due to COVID, but everything was new, and there were a lot of different opinions on how we should do everything.] So, in addition to learning how to stream, we are also having all of the meetings with all of people who will be helping us make sure that our return to campus is as safe as possible. All of those things just take time. A lot of time. Based on the passage content, however, I doubt we will want for good discussion! Let's just make sure that we are submitting ourselves to what Paul says and not just talking out of our own heads. But first: Peanuts.
Getting Warmed Up
Lifeway puts these outlines together years in advance, and I'm always amazed at how well they can lend themselves to something happening right at that moment. Of course it's because the truth of the Bible is always more applicable than we might think, but I still marvel at just how timely the Word of God always is.
In our passage this week, we learn about the importance of Christians to submit to their government, setting a good example of earthly citizenship and not disparaging the name of Christ. But as we are experiencing right now, sometimes that can be hard. Following our governing guidelines has caused us to not meet as a congregation and not immediately open our nursery when we do get together. We have a maze of recommendations, some of which are contradictory. And at what point do we say that the government has gone too far? (Hint: not yet.) Let's let these words of Paul give us the right perspective for the choices we are making.
Our Context in Romans
We have made it to the final main section of Romans. Paul has covered:
Part 1: What is the gospel? Salvation through justification by faith (chap 1-4)
Part 2: What does the gospel bring? Peace and freedom and life (chap 5-8)
Part 3: An aside on a very important question: where does Israel fit? (chap 9-11)
Part 4: How should the gospel affect us? Transformed lives in the power of the Spirit (chap 12-15)
In the Roman Empire, citizenship was everything. If you portrayed yourself as anything but a loyal citizen, you could be imprisoned and even executed. That would be a quick end to the Christian movement! But what do Roman Christians do with the command that they must acknowledge Caesar as god? That's a tough one, and something Paul felt he must address in this letter.
To make a long story short, it's understanding the difference between "submit" and "obey".
Submit - Romans 13:1-7
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.
Paul has a reason for submitting to the government that you might not expect: the government only exists because God allows it to. (This sounds an awful lot like something Jesus said to Pilate.) Our reaction might be: what if that government does terrible things to its people? I have been learning about North Korea and the truly awful things it has done to its lower-class people. In fact, the North Koreans who obeyed the government during the famine of the 90s all died; only those people who broke the rules to obtain necessary food for their families survived. What would Paul have to say about that?
Again, let's remember Paul's context. The fledgling Christian movement was in no place to start a revolution, and as we learn elsewhere in Jesus' non-violent solutions, Christians are not to start any kind of violent revolution. Our work is to be otherhow. Like, for instance, changing the government through the hearts of the people.
I can think of two consequences to this, with respect to my North Korean illustration. First, Paul is saying that God will hold accountable every government leader - in eternity. Let God do that judging. Second, Paul is not saying never to disobey the government. He is saying that when you do, you should expect punishment. Sometimes, as in the case of famine, that might be the right outcome.
This is important to understand: governing authority is derived from God's authority. God is always the higher authority. Therefore, if our human authority ever commands us to do something against God's authority, we do not. We always follow God's ultimate authority. However, because God has allowed human governments to have earthly authority, we respect that and submit to our governments.
The vast majority of the time, our governments are interested in keeping the peace, maintaining a positive economy, and building a society. We want to be a part of that. It is only in the very rare occasions, like where it would be illegal to worship Jesus, that we obey the higher authority: God Almighty.
Love - Romans 13:8-10
Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
And here's the simplest way to evaluate our relationship with the government: does said law enable us to love one another? In the case of the COVID restrictions, they are helping us love one another by restricting the transmission of disease. That's no different than when we choose to stay home from church when we are sick. It's when a law prevents us from demonstrating love to a neighbor that it becomes a problem. As you might guess, people often disagree on what this means. For example: some might say that laws allowing abortions show love to the women who desire them. I counter that the baby who's life has been ended also deserves love. (And frankly, I think it is showing love to the mother, but this discussion can take us off track very quickly!)
When the earthly government is doing its job properly, it is enabling its citizens to live lives of love toward one another. It is then the responsibility of those citizens to actually do so.
Anticipate - Romans 13:11-14
Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.
Now here's the real key to this passage, and I'm going to hold off on saying anything about them - I want you to join us on Sunday morning for Sunday School.
But I do have some things for us to think about as we get ready for Sunday. Our culture is increasingly based on encouraging self-indulgence, debauchery, and gluttony. That's not good. Sometimes being a good citizen might draw us into the patterns of life that run contrary to the pattern of Jesus. That's exactly what Paul feared for the Roman Christians, in which participating in "good social life" meant joining in various festivals and activities that led to idolatry, adultery, and gluttony. That's not acceptable. And so we find that this chapter is incredibly nuanced.
In what way do you worry that your public engagement might take you further away from Jesus? What can you do about that?