I’ll say it up front: I would be far happier if Romans 13 were not in the Scripture. All the other parts of Romans, all of the slightly hard to understand parts, all of the deep theological parts, all of those I am fine with. I enjoy wrestling with those, debating those, pondering those.
Romans 13, on the other hand, is not hard to understand. It’s not really “deep theology” either. There’s nothing here to wrestle with. This is straightforward, no nonsense, action-oriented writing.
And it is very, very difficult to take. Start with verse 1 and realize that this applies to any aspect of government that does not demand clear disobedience to God and God’s Word. Any. That traffic control sign? That excessive tax? That annoying body cavity search before flying?
All of it. Why? Because governing authorities are established by God, even ones that photograph every piece of mail in the system. And those authorities are there to keep order. This is why we go ahead and get building permits and don’t park in front of fire hydrants.
“Wait a minute! What about when the government is wrong?” Wrong how? Wrong biblically or wrong for your convenience? Are they making you drive slowly or taking more of your paycheck than you want, or demanding you pay to kill unborn children? See, when it’s the former, we need to come back here. When it’s the latter, then Acts 5:29.
Additionally, for those of you in the United States and other constitutional republics (we are NOT a democracy—never have been, see Nerd Note 1 at the end): are the branches of government the authority? Or is it the founding documents and constitution of your nation? This is relevant: the US, UK, and many other Western-style republics work like this: the ruling authority is not a person, it’s a codified system. For the US, it is primarily the US Constitution, as amended (also in Nerd Note 1), and the body of laws built out of that. Your responsibility is to the law, not the Congress or the President. Your loyalty is always to Christ Jesus.
Keep in mind, Paul writes this to the church at Rome. Not the church at Jerusalem or at Britannia or at Hispania, the churches at the edges of the Empire. He addresses those right smack in the middle of the power. No one would have been more aware of the issues of the government than the Romans. No one would have been more inclined to be involved in conniving to replace Caesar, either.
Paul’s point is that the Christian life is focused on following Christ, and that allowing squabbling with the government to get in the way of that is foolish. Pay the taxes you owe, fulfill your responsibilities, and then focus on loving your neighbor and living as children of light, even in the midst of the darkness.
Further, Paul’s closing verses are equally challenging. Put aside carousing, sensuality, strife, jealousy—and make NO provision for the flesh to follow these. Too often, we make little provisions for the flesh in these matters. We allow the flesh to be entertained by these things, we allow the soundtrack of our lives to glorify these things.
Then we wonder why our faith barely sustains us in the hard times and transmits to others with more difficulty than passing a Frisbee in a hurricane. We give allowance to the flesh and then the flesh takes it all. This is not to call us into a dead legalism, and it certainly is not about me being the Holy Spirit for you—but it is about each believer using their freedom to glorify God.
Really and truly, while Romans 10 is challenging about being deliberate to spread the Gospel, Romans 13 is jam-packed with practical commands from God through the Scriptures. And the real life implications of those commands are pretty stout:
- Honor all laws legally instituted that do not contradict God’s Law.
- Focus on showing love to the people around you.
- Behave properly, as one who expects their behavior seen and known.
All pertinent and troubling. That’s enough to keep me busy for a few years. How about you?
Nerd Note 1: The US is not and never has been a “democracy.” We have the freedom to vote on the representatives who will make the laws that we, in turn, agree to follow. This is for practical reasons—can you imagine needing to have 200 million people vote on every law? This is for reasonability reasons—look simply at Justin Bieber. Is a majority of Americans always sensible?
The end result, though, is that we elect people not because of what we think, but because we think they will do the right thing. It is actually not that a Representative or Senator is obligated to do 51% of the constituency wants. That person was elected to vote what that person thinks is the right thing to do. The accountability comes at the next election: if 51% disagree, then a new person is elected.
Further, this complicates both race and gender issues. There’s much nonsense about how male legislators vote on “women’s issues” and shouldn’t, since they are not women. Except that our system of government does not work that way. My wife is represented in the Arkansas Legislature and the US Congress by men. I do not know if she voted for them, nor will I ask. But insisting that a man not vote on a so-called women’s issue removes her representation in government.
Additionally, the Constitution is the “Supreme Law of the Land.” There are methods for amending the Constitution, and those amendments, while separately listed, technically become the text of the document. So, the Constitution has been corrected for bad decisions in its writing, like allowing slavery. With the exception of the 18th and 21st Amendments, every Amendment has been positive for the nation. Those two cancel each other out, so they are not anything.
But following the Constitution is following it as amended. Because that’s the document. And that is the ultimate rule of law in this nation. Which means that there are conditions and situations where one might openly rebel against Washington D.C. and not be in violation of Romans 13, even if the spark of that rebellion was not a call to disobey God. Our established authority is the Constitution and all legally authorized laws established through its means. If the Federal System or a state system exceeds those means, then they are not the authority.
Nerd Note 2: Look at the idea of paying what is owed, but then connect Romans 13:7 with Romans 13:8: pay what you owe, but owe nothing if possible. While perfectly relevant for your Dave Ramsey course, this extends even farther than that, just as the rest of the chapter is all-encompassing. Do not limit this to being just about money.