I recently taught on Romans 13 and it gave me a fresh perspective on the passage.
Romans 13 certainly teaches us about how we ought to honor and respect those who govern us and that, in fact, their authority comes from God. I don’t believe, however, that it says everything about our relationship to the civil sphere and it could even lead one to some erroneous conclusions.
For instance, it does not permit us to simply do everything the governing authorities tell us to do. We are not permitted to disobey God in the obedience to government and civil government is to be honored “where it is due” – that is to say that it has no authority beyond the sphere it has been given authority by God. In some cases, then, we would be permitted to resist or disobey civil authority if their actions are un-Lawful – that is to say that they commanded us to do something that God’s Law forbids. On this point, even the light of nature reveals this to man and everybody intuitively understands that “…I was just obeying orders…” was not an appropriate defense by the Germans or the Japanese following WWII.
If you notice, however, in Romans 13 Paul focuses on something that many of us need to take notice of. In fact, given the attitude that many here exhibit regarding the civil authorities they would do well to pay attention to what Paul is teaching.
Fundamentally, the issue is that Christians are to seek to be at peace with all men and, by extension, aren’t to be seditious as a general rule. That doesn’t mean they just put up with anything but some men have the wicked idea that no man, ever, will ever tell them what to do. They are rebellious and seditious to the core. Christians ought not to be so.
It is telling that the Romans 13 passage focuses on the fact that authority derives from the Almighty and even more telling that the “rubber meets the road” when Paul teaches the Romans about taxes. It’s fascinating, in fact, that the Pharisees tried to trap Christ by asking whether they should have to pay taxes. Some commentators believe that Paul might be addressing many of the Jewish believers at Romans who have this same sort of spirit concerning the authorities that rule over them – “They’re not my leaders.” The Jews couldn’t stomach that these Romans ruled them.
Paul reminds them, however, that rebellious attitude toward authority is indicative of rebellion against God in general. Part of the Christian “transformation” (Romans 12:2) is a renewal of our minds concerning authority. Christians submit to authority because they know God stands behind it. They honor authority because God is behind it. Paul also reminds them that “…if you’re a knucklehead and are seditious then you’ll get exactly what you deserve…” because, as a general rule, people who do evil get punished for doing evil. We’re not permitted to violate the speed limit just because we’re citizens of heaven any more than I’m permitted to drive as fast as in America because I’m an American in Japan.
In fact, it is very revealing that many despise the institutions that God has given to bless them. What some Christians wear as a badge that they are so inclined to speak of their rulers and institutions with disdain, is a form of the ingratitude that Paul speaks about in Romans 1 as being a mark of depravity. As Durham rightly noted, the command to honor your father and mother is a general command to render honor to due authority. Those who are never trained to honor father and mother never learn how to honor other authority and, in fact, their biggest problem is that the folly in their heart causes them to despise Authority in general. It is no mistake that disrespect to parents is listed among the sins of a depraved society. If I don’t train my child to respect authority then I’m setting him up to disrespect God in the long run.
I also believe that pacifism is a form of a denial of the faith. It not only selfishly lets the pagan do all the protection and “ministerial work” in a society to make life tolerable but it turns around and calls the very thing God has ordained for our general good an evil thing. I have no patience for such men. They may believe they are honoring God in their convictions but they are not honoring the God of the Bible by calling His very authority a wicked thing and something they are forbidden to participate in. I’m not a blind patriot but I thank God for police officers and soldiers who, when they perform it honorably, are God’s ministers for good in judging evil and keeping the sinful heart from bringing anarchy to a society.
Thus, I believe the general principle is to be those who try to live at peace and, as much as is in us, to be agreeable and obedient to our rulers. Disobedience to their rule ought to be the exception when we are forced to do so because they have decreed something God forbid but it doesn’t automatically give us a badge to badmouth or despise the authority. Daniel and his friends were willing to die for their convictions and would not obey the laws that would have caused them to disobey God but, when released, they continued to serve the same men with submission obeying the rules that did not. They didn’t sinfully say: “Not my leader” in the seditious way that Christians believe they are warranted in saying: “Not my President”.
That’s because Daniel was Godly enough to know Who had vested that authority in the Kings and by denying their authority he would have been saying: “You’re not my God.” It’s a reminder that Daniel was unlike the world while many “Christians” are very much like the world with their rebellious spirit. We would do well to wonder how much we’re like the world when it comes to our attitude toward authority as well.