Today begins an Election Weekend series. Just two parts, the first of which you are about to read, and the second of which you will read tomorrow, the Lord willing.
What responsibilities do Christians have to governing bodies with whom they disagree?
Did your candidate lose Tuesday night? Do you have an obligation to follow a government for which you did not vote? Must you submit to the government even though your ethics are drastically different from theirs?
I think Romans 13 has some important words for us to consider. Remember that, when Paul penned these words, the great Roman Emperor, Nero, was in power. The government under which our first century brethren lived was a heathen government that promoted heathen values. In fact, the government not only promoted those values but attempted to strongly enforce those heathen values to the point of silencing Christians – through threats, imprisonments, beatings, and even death. And yet inspiration guided Paul to write Romans 13.
I strongly encourage you to read Romans 13:1-7 in light of our recent election. Below are a few observations I’ve noticed from reading and studying this great chapter. I see a natural division in these seven verses: first, the responsibilities of the government as commanded by God, and, second, the responsibilities of Christians to the government as commanded by God.
I. The Responsibilities of the Government as Commanded by God:
1. Governmental power is ordained by God (13:1). God has appointed these authorities for the purpose of accomplishing His will. The word translated “appointed” (NKJV) or “ordained” (KJV) was written in a Greek tense which indicates that these authorities were appointed and stand appointed by God. God allows for men and women in positions of governmental authority to possess that authority. As a result, leaders in our government should seek God’s Will first rather than the will of their constituents.
2. Governmental power is given by God (13:2). No power exists apart from God. Note this discourse between Jesus and Pilate during Jesus’ mockery of a trial:
Then Pilate said to Him, “Are You not speaking to me? Do You not know that I have power to crucify You, and power to release You?” Jesus answered, “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above. Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin” (John 19:10-11, emphasis added).
The government exists to fulfill the Will of God. That was the case under Pilate’s rule, and it is the case today. “The Most High rules in the kingdom of men” (Dan. 4:17)! During the time of the Israelite kings and, later, during the time of the captivity, God’s Almighty power was clearly exercised over the governmental authorities. In Daniel 4, Nebuchadnezzar learned this lesson the hard way.
And at the end of the time I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my understanding returned to me; and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever: For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, And His kingdom is from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven And among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand Or say to Him, “What have You done?” (Dan. 4:34-35)
The power is God’s. Political leaders on any level (federal, state, or even community leaders) are merely exercising God’s power as they govern (cf. Dan. 2:21; Psa. 75:7).
3. Governmental power is regulated by God (13:4). Note that Romans 13:4 states that the civil government is “God’s minister to you for good” (emphasis added). Governmental authority is appointed by God for the purpose of serving Him and His people. Governments must maintain order and discipline by reprimanding evildoers. Isn’t it interesting that, just a few verses back, Paul instructed Christians, saying, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Rom. 12:19)? Now, in 13:4, Paul specifies that the governmental leader is “God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.” There seems to be a natural connection between 12:19 and 13:4. One of the ways that God renders vengeance is through the authority that He gives to the government. Therefore, when our law enforcement groups exercise their authority on the evil, they are doing the Lord’s work. When our law makers sign bills into laws for our protection and wellbeing (so long as they are in accordance with the Will of God), they are doing the Lord’s work. This task should not be taken lightly – either by our elected officials or by those of us who are electing them to serve in our behalf.
II. The responsibilities of Christians to the government as commanded by God
1. Christians must submit to the government because of judicial wrath (13:5). Those who disobey the law of the land disobey God, with one exception (see point 5).
2. Christians must submit to the government in order to stand before God with a clean conscience (13:5). Gareth L. Reese points out in his commentary that the word translated conscience can have basically two meanings in New Testament usages. First, it can refer to the innate faculty within us that prompts us to do what we believe is right and that criticizes us when we do what we believe to be wrong. Second, the word can refer to an awareness of something to be true. The use of this word conscience in Romans 13:5 creates an incredible truth! As God’s people, we must submit to our governmental leaders because, first, we are aware that God commands it, and, second, our moral compass, trained by a study of God’s Word, demands that we do (cf. Rom. 14:23).
3. Christians must submit to the government to continue to enjoy protection and safety from evildoers (13:6). Our tax money helps to continue the work that the government is commanded by God to do.
4. Christians must submit to the government because they have a respect for those in authority (13:7). Paul says that we should render to all what is due to them. Compare these thoughts with Peter’s inspired writings: “Fear God. Honor the king” (1 Pet. 2:17).
5. Christians must submit to the government only inasmuch as the government’s laws do not contradict God’s law. If you have been reading the aforementioned points and thinking, “But America’s government is hardly like this!” then you have observed the corruption that exists in our governmental bodies. Paul’s purpose in this chapter is not to condemn governmental wickedness, but rather to encourage Christians to submit to civil authority. However, Paul implied that God’s power trumps the power of the government in what he already stated. He said that the government’s power comes from God. Therefore, God is Supreme. Peter and John put it this way: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Coming tomorrow: “Election Reflections”