Summary: How do we handle authority in our lives today? What happens when the authority over us is corrupt? What does God tell us?
Within a few years after Paul wrote these words he was beheaded by the very authorities that he here defends. In fact, by the time Paul wrote these words he had been in trouble with authorities in many places and had been jailed and beaten and otherwise abused. You would think by the experiences Paul had with governing authorities he would tell us never to trust them. If anyone had a reason to call for rebellion against corrupt governing authorities, Paul did. Yet, what does he tell us here? His words bring up many other questions.
How does one submit to an authority that is hostile to the cause of Christ? Did not the early apostles give us a different example in Acts 4:18-31?
Is this contrary to what Romans 13 says?
When I was younger I remember hearing stories from missionaries who went into countries where it was illegal to take the Bible and they would smuggle Bibles into the country. Some were caught. Others were traced and the people who received the Bibles were caught and punished. I remember getting excited about what an adventure that must be. Wouldn’t it be great to break the law to do God’s will! We praised those who succeeded in smuggling the Bibles in and prayed that more would make it past the boarder. Is that disobeying Romans 13?
Our very nation was established in rebellion to the authority of English rule. Jesus said, "Nation will rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom."
During the Holocaust, when Jews were being rounded up and killed in and all around Germany, many people went along with the government and many preachers used this verse as a text to justify going along with the government and persecuting the Jews. Were they right?
There were other men, like Deitrich Bonhoffer, a clergyman, stood up to the government and even planned an assassination of Hitler. He was caught by the Germans and was hanged. Many others risked their lives to save Jewish refugees going against the governing authorities. Corrie Ten Boone’s book, The Hiding Place, tells about one family’s experience of trying to save Jewish fugitives from this persecution. Others opposed their efforts. Who was interpreting Romans 13 correctly?
Oscar Cullmann in his book, The State in the New Testament says,
“Few sayings in the New Testament have suffered as much misuse as this one,” referring to Romans 13:2
What does this section of Romans mean today? How can we interpret it in light of what seem to be conflicting examples in scripture?
First of all it must be understood in light of its context. Paul just said that we should not take vengeance but leave room for God’s wrath. Now in this chapter he tells us about God’s agents to execute his wrath. In the governments that rule the earth, God’s word tells us that the authority they have has been given them by Him. Obviously, governments are often unfaithful to God in the way they use their authority. But that gives us no right to take matters into our own hands. Those who shoot Doctors at abortion clinics and who claim God’s authority for doing so are terribly mislead. Christians do not take up the sword in the name of Jesus.
There are many Christians who believe we should not serve in the government at all. But we seem to have conflicting examples in that case as well. Cornelius and the Jailor at Philippi and a lot of other men who became Christians were Roman government officials and soldiers but they never seem to have been told to leave their positions. It seems that the Christian faith expands into even these positions as well. Bible scholars disagree on this point. David Lipscomb, Harding, and other restoration leaders of the last two centuries stood squarely on pacifistic grounds. Others such as James Garfield and Alexander Campbell were actively involved in politics and governmental matters. I certainly would choose not to make that issue a matter of fellowship.
Anyway, what is the point of Romans 13:1-7? Christians are to be good citizens and demonstrate submission to our governing powers. This is to be our attitude toward governing authorities. They are in God’s service whether they know it our not. We need to pray for them. 1 Tim. 2:1-6.
Notice something else about this section. Which governing authority has God’s endorsement? To which flag does the Christian give his allegiance? What rulers are we taught to pray for? Is it not all of them.
Our citizenship is in heaven, says Paul. We are ambassadors for Christ and we can say with our Lord that our Kingdom is not of this world. In fact, our King is the king of this entire world’s kingdoms. He is Lord over this world’s lords. Jesus said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me..." He holds all the authority. All worldly authorities are his servants.