Summary: What are the limits of obedience owed to the state when state and church are in conflict?
“Whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.”
The Book of Judges concludes on a gloomy note. The last verse of the book reads, “In those days there was no king in Israel.” Then, this dark assessment is appended “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” [JUDGES 21:25]. Tragically, the verse describes anarchy in high dudgeon. The author describes an ungoverned, and what is worse still, an ungovernable, society. Paul, in our text, is teaching us that the state is God’s provision for avoiding anarchy; and thus, it is good.
The FIRST VERSE of ROMANS 13 instructs us that we who are Christians are responsible to obey the governing authorities; the following two verses provide reasons why we should obey, while at the same time defining the role of government. If we fail to be subject to the governing authorities, we are disobedient to God, and He will punish us [VERSE TWO]. However, the Apostle also cautions us that disobedience to government will lead to punishment meted out by the government itself.
In the message for this day, I am focused on the SECOND VERSE of this chapter, “Whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.” This particular statement raises significant questions for those of us who think deeply concerning our role in the particular society wherein God has placed us. Thoughtful believers are compelled to ask whether there exist conditions which would negate this command. In other words, is this teaching absolute? Can we imagine conditions which would make rebellion against the existing authorities justified? What if a government is tyrannical? Suppose the state violates human rights? Where are the limits of obedience for us as Christians? Must Caesar always be obeyed?
JESUS ADDRESSES GOVERNMENTAL AUTHORITY — Jesus addressed the issue of the authority of the state on at least two occasions. One of those occasions was examined in a previous message. Jesus had been brought before Pilate, the Roman procurator of Judea. Pilate appeared agitated by the fact that the Master neither grovelled before him nor attempted to mount a vigorous defence for Himself. The procurator asked Jesus whether He was aware of the authority over the life of individuals that was held by the state. The Master appears to have startled Pilate with His reply, “You would have no authority over Me at all unless it had been given you from above” [JOHN 19:11].
Jesus, showing respect for the position Pilate occupied and showing respect even for the government represented, nevertheless held Pilate accountable for sin. The Master acknowledged that Pilate did indeed possess authority; but we saw that it was a delegated authority. Since governmental authority Pilate wielded was given by God, Pilate was responsible to God for how he used that authority. With these words, Jesus lays the groundwork for the limits of the authority wielded by the state. The authority of the state is delegated authority, and representatives of government must ultimately answer to God.
Another incident demonstrates Jesus’ view of state-church relationship. Various groups were testing Him, seeking any flaw in either His teaching or His character. The Pharisees were the first to attempt to trick Jesus into stumbling over his words. Note how the account begins. “The Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle Him in His talk. And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians” [MATTHEW 22:15, 16a].
The Pharisees and the Herodians were bitter enemies. The Pharisees were Jewish patriots; they detested the secularisation of society which resulted from Greek rule in the previous centuries, just as they resented the current Roman rule. The Herodians were pragmatists. They sought to adopt not only the social trappings of the Greeks and Romans, but they also endeavoured to introduce Greek political and cultural thought to the whole of Judean society. Mutual hatred of Jesus united the two disparate groups in a singular vile plot. Since they could not trip Him up with a theological question, they would manoeuvre Him into making a political misstep.
“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not” [MATTHEW 22:17]? They thought the question foolproof; surely they could trap Jesus either into approving the Roman occupation or into advocating secession. If He approved of paying taxes, they could discredit Him as a collaborator. If He disapproved of paying taxes, they could denounce Him to Roman authorities as subversive. It seemed to them that Jesus was firmly impaled on the horns of a dilemma.
Jesus asked for a coin, “and they brought Him a denarius” [MATTHEW 22:19b]. Likely holding the coin so they could easily see it, Jesus asked whose portrait and whose inscription was on the coin. The obvious answer was quickly forthcoming, “Caesar’s” [MATTHEW 22:21a]. To this expected response, Jesus responded with what has become one of His best-known statements of responsibility to the state. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” [MATTHEW 22:21]. In saying this, Jesus lays the foundation for the precise teaching Paul provides in ROMANS 13:7. “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed.”