13Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.
7Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
Three boys are in the schoolyard bragging about their fathers. The first one says, “My dad is so fast that he can shoot a bow and arrow and outrun the arrow to the target.”
The second boy said, “Oh yeah, my dad is a hunter and he can shoot a gun and outrun the bullet.”
The third boy, not wanting to be outdone, said, “Well my dad works for the government. He gets off work at 5:00, but he is so fast that he can get home each day by noon.”
We give government employees a hard time, everyone from the president on down the line is subject to our jokes and complaints. And just a reminder, my wife is a state employee, so you better believe I give her a hard time sometimes. But scripture teaches us that we are to submit to the governing authorities and give them the respect that they are due.
Today I want to look at Romans 13:1-7 to see that we are to respect the government when they are respectable and to submit to the authorities when they are not asking us to do something outside of our calling in Christ. And I hope to show you that there are times when we are called to resist the governing authorities because we belong first and foremost to another kingdom.
So I’ve been preaching through Romans over the last couple of weeks and I have a love/hate relationship with Romans. I love Romans because there is some of the most beautiful scripture in the Bible found in these chapters. I hate Romans because there is also some of the most challenging and confusing scripture in the Bible found in these chapters. Today’s scripture is one of the more challenging scriptures in Romans for me. And I knew when I started my series on Romans that I would one day come to Romans 13.
As I try to understand Romans 13 today, remember that I am presenting my opinion and my understanding of what the Scriptures are trying to tell us. You may very well disagree, and you probably will disagree with some of what I have to say. But I want to encourage you to not simply get upset, storm out of the church, and never come back again. If you disagree with me, let’s get together sometime for a cup of coffee and talk things through. And maybe we will both come to a better understanding of who God is calling us to be as followers of Jesus Christ.
Our scripture for today begins by saying, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” I fully agree that there is no authority except from God and I believe that because God is the ultimate authority. Therefore all authority on heaven and earth must submit to God. Then Paul says that all authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Furthermore, if you resist those authorities that have been appointed by God you will incur judgment. Judgment from whom? That is a question we will have to come back to.
I think we need to be careful how we read this scripture for a number of reasons. If Paul is really saying that all governing authorities were put in place by God and that if you don’t submit to them that you will incur judgment, then all Christians living in Nazi Germany in the 1940’s were under obligation by God himself to serve Hitler, kill innocent Jews, and invade various neighboring countries in an attempt to take over the world.
Is that okay? No, of course not! If we look at what Paul continues in his writing, he says, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good.” Rulers are not to stop you from doing good. In fact, they are there to be God’s servants for the good of the people. So do what is good and the authorities should approve of our practices. That simple.
So what is good? I think it is important that we read Romans 13 in its proper context. Our Bibles are divided into chapters, verses, and sections so that it is easier for us to read and apply to our lives. But sometimes these chapter divisions come at places that cause us a little trouble in understanding what was intended to be said. Chapter 12, beginning with verse 14 says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” So I believe that Paul is laying out some criteria and saying submit to the governing authorities, as long as they stay within these boundaries.
I think I have a pretty good example of this from my own life. One of the Ten Commandments is that we are to honor our father and our mother. Last Friday I had the opportunity to hear the heartbeat of my first child. In just over six months I will be a father. My wife is carrying our child, which we expect to meet on or around January 2nd. So we all know who will be playing the part of Mary in our Advent dramas.
I desire to raise my children in a way that will teach them to love the Lord with all of their heart, all of their mind, and all of their soul as well as loving their neighbor as their self. If I can instill those qualities in my children, I have been successful as a father.
I believe that a part of loving the Lord with all of their heart, mind, and soul would include keeping the Lord’s commandments, such as honor your father and mother. But I also recognize that I am a human being, a fallen one at that. I make mistakes daily; I fall short of perfection. And I recognize that I will not be a perfect parent, just as I am not a perfect Christian.
But my hope for my children is that if I ever ask them to do something that in any way inhibits them from loving the Lord with all of their heart, mind, and soul and loving their neighbor that they will defy my and do what they believe the Lord is calling them to do. Yes, I want them to honor me. But I do not want them to honor me to the point that it keeps them from fulfilling the things that they are called to do as followers of Jesus Christ.
Now please note, I am not saying that I want them to defy me because they just don’t want to do their chores, to wash the dishes, to go to school, or to do their homework. I do hope that they don’t inherit too much of my stubborn streak. But I do want them to stand up for what they believe in. And in doing so, I believe that they will be honoring their parents and their God.
So I believe that Paul isn’t telling us to mindlessly submit to those in authority. We first and foremost belong to another kingdom, the kingdom of God. And as long as these two kingdoms do not compete for our allegiance, we are to submit to the secular government. Paul did this in his day. He was living in a time when the Roman government had taken possession of a large part of the world as he would have known it. And Paul does not deny his citizenship to Rome, in fact he uses the benefits of being a Roman citizenship on a number of occasions to save his own hide. But yet Paul was killed for preaching a different kingdom with a different king. Paul made it well known that Jesus the Christ was his Lord, and that meant that Caesar was not.
And we find other examples of this in the Bible as well. For instance, when we read the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, we find that they were living during the time of the Babylonian exile under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar had erected an idol that stood about 90 feet high and all people were commanded to bow down before this idol at the appointed time. And what did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego do? They refused to do what they knew was against their religion. They refused to bow down before any engraved image. And they were punished by the authorities for it. They were thrown into a fiery furnace. They were judged by those in positions of authority to be trouble makers, and a punishment was placed upon them.
Should they have submitted to the governing authorities? No, the Bible uses them as an example of how we should stand up against authority if those in authority ask us to do something against our faith. The same thing is true with the Hebrew midwives that were to through the Hebrew babies into the river. The Bible teaches us to submit to the political authorities when the authorities are inline with God’s will. Otherwise we are to stand up for what we believe in.
So what does this look like today? Probably the best and one of the more controversial example of living within the empires of this world while first being a part of a kingdom not of this world would be that of conscientious objectors during times of war, especially during a war where there is a draft.
I believe that it is wrong for a Christian to take the life of another person, whether that be in fistfight in an alley, on the battle field, in an abortion clinic, or even allowing a person to die of a treatable illness or hunger. I call this a consistent ethic of human life. God is the giver of life and we have no right to take it away or to turn our backs as it happens to our fellow human beings. I see the pro-life bumper stickers that read “Choose Life” all over town and I say to that, “I am choosing life. And life does not end after birth.”
Now I realize that when people hear me saying that I don’t believe that a Christian can engage in war that those that have served in the military or have family members that have served in the military may take offense. But I want to make sure that you are all very aware of this. I am not against the military. I am against killing. I am especially against killing so that we might prosper at someone else’s expense. I am against killing so that we might secure our economic and political ideologies at the expense of those already suffering in other countries.
My maternal grandfather served in the army during WWII. He was in a non-combatant role, serving as a cook stationed in Newfoundland. Just a little side story that has no relevance to this message at all, my parents bought a billiards table for us for Christmas when I was in high school because my brothers and I liked to play pool. After we had it set up we invited Grandpa to come down into the basement so that we could show him our skills. I believe my older brother played Grandpa in the first game and Grandpa whipped up on him. I don’t think my brother ever got a ball in.
All three of us boys and my father stood there with our mouths wide open because we never even knew that Grandpa had even played pool before. He told us, “Yeah, that’s all we did in the Army was play pool.”
So when I say that a Christian should never take another’s life, please don’t hear me saying that I am against the military. I am against killing; specifically I am against putting what your country tells you to do before what your God tells you to do. I recognize that the military does a lot of good things, distributing food and goods during times of need, doing relief work during natural disasters, building sandbag levies and dams during floods.
I personally believe that I cannot join the armed forces for various reasons. My Grandfather and I would disagree on how a Christian might be able to be involved in the military, and I bet that you and I might disagree as well. And that is okay, it is alright to disagree on things. I just want to make sure that we all arrive at our positions based on our Christian convictions, stemming from the Bible and our theological perspectives and not from what we are told we should think.
For instance, a lot of Christians that are not pacifists would say that they adhere to the Just War Theory, which lays out very specific criteria for when it is okay for a Christian to go to war. The criteria for a Just War, as defined by the Catholic Catechism, includes four points:
- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
- there must be serious prospects of success;
- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
So for a war to be just, the bad guy has to be inflicting damage that was not on accident, was serious, and has the possibility of continuing for some time. You must try every other option to reconcile before going to war. You must have a good chance of winning the war and not just going in and sacrificing lives. And the weaponry used must not cause more damage than is necessary to eliminate the evil at hand, i.e. you can’t drop a nuclear bomb on a country because someone stole a loaf of bread.
While I don’t believe that war is ever justified, I do believe that the Just War Theory is a step in the right direction. Can you imagine how many wars and deaths could have been avoided if the countries involved would just look seriously into step number two and consider all other options to going to war? So while I am not a Just War proponent, I do sympathize with those who are and can see their end of the argument. And if you would be more in the Just War camp, I understand completely. And I encourage you to encourage our government to keep war just.
We could spend all day asking questions like, “Would you have killed Hitler if you had the chance and you knew that it would save thousands of lives?” or “What if someone was trying to harm your wife or your family?” Those are tough questions. And if you would pull the trigger with Hitler in the sights or if someone was trying to harm your family, I wouldn’t fault you for that. What it all comes down to for me is following the ways of Jesus who said by his actions, “I would never take a life to save my own, but I would gladly lay down my life to save another.”
So I come back to this baby growing in my wife’s belly and I have to be honest, I am pretty excited about being a father. I am looking forward to the new life that God has entrusted us with. But I know that I will not be a perfect father, because I am not a perfect person. And while my child should honor his or her parents, I don’t want them to blindly follow my instructions if I am ever leading them away from their primary allegiance to God. Nor do I want them to submit to the governing authorities if they ever do anything to lead them away from God. God has put governing officials in place for the benefit of the people. I truly believe that. But what benefit does it serve if the government is leading us away from our commitment to Christ?
The Bible teaches us that kingdoms of this world will rise and fall, but the kingdom of God will stand forever. I invite you to join me in reciting “A Christian pledge of allegiance” as we recognize that we are first and foremost citizens of a kingdom unlike the kingdoms of this world.
A Christian pledge of allegiance
I pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ,
And to God’s kingdom for which he died—
One Spirit-led people the world over, indivisible,
With love and justice for all.
By June Alliman Yoder and J. Nelson Kraybill