If you were a looking for Biblical proof that civil government enjoys the sanction of divine authority, Romans 13: 1-7 provides such an endorsement. Paul urges everyone to be subject to the governing authorities, calls everyone to live in obedience to the rulers of the state. He maintains that everyone in civil authority has been placed in their position by God, and they have been so positioned as to enable them to create an atmosphere of civility, harmony and justice for the community – and good people should not fear the civil authorities. Give respect and obedience to those in civil authority, because they have been placed in their position by divine intent; therefore, good people do not need to fear the government, only bad people. Because civil government has been divinely sanctioned, when you break the law, you rightly come under judgment, for God has given civil government that power. Indeed, give respect and obedience to those in civil authority, for they have been given the divinely-intended role of creating conditions that result in the overall benefit of society. And we are to pay taxes to the government, too, because just as the church deserves a portion of our financial resources, so, does the government under which we live. Pay taxes to whom taxes are due, pay duties where duties are due, give respect where respect is due and honor where honor is due. If you are looking for a Biblical prooftext for the attitude, “My country right or wrong,” Romans 13: 1-7 is as close as you are going to come.
The truth is, for much of his ministry, Paul regarded Roman rule as a great boon to his missionary work. The Roman government provided stability, the Roman judiciary provided protection for him in key moments, and the Roman roads provided transportation conducive to his spread of the Gospel. Paul’s Roman citizenship proved a handy tool for securing fair treatment in strange places. A few years after writing this letter, Rome’s military and legal system would be all that stood between Paul and a public execution by stoning in Jerusalem. When he wrote these words. Paul, on the whole, regarded the Roman government as a blessing to his ministry. Nevertheless, Paul was not blind to the darker side of the Roman Empire, which blasphemously arrogated to itself the status of ultimate concern, and whose emperors often claimed the status of deity. Paul was well aware of the Roman government’s oppressive cruelty toward his own Jewish people, and he recognized that Christians, with their insistence that “Christus is Kyrios,” “Christ alone is Lord,” were beginning to draw opposition from Roman authorities who opined that “Caesar is Kyrios.” Hoping to minimize this incipient friction between Christianity and Rome, Paul advised the Christian church to give the Roman government no reason to regard it as a threat. Indeed, Paul’s advice in Romans 13 about dealing with the Roman government actually begins in Romans 12, v. 14: “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them. Repay no one evil . . . so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all . . . If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink . . . Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”
Paul knew that the Roman Christians were entering a particularly difficult time. Jews were growing restive under Roman rule; Zealots were causing mini-revolts throughout Palestine, assassinating Roman officials and Jewish leaders thought to be collaborators with Rome. Israel and Rome were scarcely a decade away from waging a brutal war that would end in the mass suicide of the remnant of the Jewish army at Masada. Meanwhile, even in Rome, Jewish disturbances had caused Caesar to expel all Jews from the city, a ban that had only been recently rescinded. Since many Romans viewed Christianity as a mere offshoot of Judaism, Paul thought it wise to remind Roman Christians to do careful fence-mending with civil authorities. He offered them practical advice about giving the government no reason to doubt their loyalty: keep a low profile, pay your taxes, be good citizens, and make a good name for yourselves among the populace. He hoped that when war came between Jerusalem and Rome, Christians would not be drawn into the conflict and thereby diverted from their true mission of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ.
I will surmise that had Paul offered his advice to the Roman Christians ten years later as to what should be their attitude toward the Roman government, his advice would have been radically different. Even so, there are some universal principles that we can draw from Paul’s counsel that remain vitally important. We can learn from Paul’s counsel that we are called to give respect and honor to those in civil authority. We are called to give respect and honor to our political leaders, to our local government officials, and to our policemen. We are called to respect and honor the civil office, even when we disagree with the actions of the officer. Paul certainly did not always agree with the decisions of Roman officials, but he believed it was important to respect the office even when he disagreed with the officer’s actions. Moreover, he believed that it was important to pray for those in positions of civil authority, even when he disagreed with their performance of their duties. Paul thought it was important not to be infected with cynicism with regard to one’s political leaders, even when that cynicism sometimes seemed justified. Give respect and tolerance to those in civil authority, Paul counseled, and when they err, mark it down to misjudgment, rather than impute to them villainous intent. We celebrate on this Independence Day weekend our freedom to dissent from those in civil authority. But we do well to hear Paul’s reminder that those in civil authority are worthy of our honor. Does that mean that we have to follow them slavishly when they pursue a policy that we regard as wrong, perhaps even inhumane and immoral? No, it does not. But we are called to give respect and honor to high-ranking politicians, to local civic leaders and to our local policemen. And when those politicians and civic leaders and policemen fall short of the high ideals of their office and calling, we are also obligated to call them to account.
There is another profound theological principle informing Paul’s thought on this issue. Paul believed that because Christ gave himself for us, we live under a debt to every person in our society, not just our fellow believers. We have a civic duty to work to improve the lives of everyone. We are called by Christ to work for civility, harmony and health, not only in the sacred arena, but also in the secular. We are called by Christ to be involved in serving on a school board or working in the PTA, or giving blood at the Red Cross, or participating in an environmental group, or even a political action committee. Bringing our sacred values to bear upon the secular world is a part of our civic duty. Honoring Christ means accepting honoring our neighbor by doing whatever contributes to a stable world. We don’t just live for other believers. We live to improve the lives of everyone. That is part of our debt to God for redeeming us from sin and death. We honor and respect those in civil authority, and we participate in the civic community to promote stability and health – these responsibilities are part of what it means to be a Christian.
Yet the sentiments expressed by Paul in Romans 13 are not the only counsel the Bible offers regarding the Christian’s attitude toward the civil government. Romans 13 must be balanced and juxtaposed against Revelation 13: “I saw a beast rising out of the sea with ten horns and seven heads with ten diadems upon its horns and a blasphemous name upon its heads. . . .” Paul saw the Roman government primarily as a blessing. Forty years later, the Christian church saw the Roman government as a beast, a beast that must be opposed.
Let me share a story about an acquaintance of mine named Robert Evans, who was a well-known ethicist, famed as an advocate for human rights. He was invited to address a conference in Africa, where his lecture inevitably reflected disparagingly on the human rights record of the host country and its dictatorial leader, who had a well-deserved reputation for brutality. When Bob tried to exit the country, a customs official said that there were “irregularities” in his visa that needed to be “researched.” In the meantime, he would need to stay in “protective custody.” Since the country was Uganda in the late 1970’s, under the reign of the notorious Idi Amin, “protective custody” was a dangerous state in which to find one’s self. Suddenly, another voice spoke at the airport: “If you detain this man, you’ll have to detain me, too, because I’m not leaving this country without him.” The government official immediately let Bob go, because he didn’t want to deal with the South African Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, an eventual winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace. Desmond Tutu spent his life challenging governments and government authorities whose actions violated the principles of Christ and the virtues of the Kingdom of God.
What had happened between the writing of Romans and the writing of Revelation? During Paul’s ministry the Roman government had been mostly neutral in its regard of Christianity, and Roman stability had allowed Paul the freedom to spread Christ’s Word. But in the intervening forty years the Roman government had formed an altogether different position toward Christianity and was violently suppressing it, and was persecuting Christians in the most horrific and barbaric manner. Paul may have seen the Roman government as a blessing, but forty years later the Christian community rightly regarded Rome as a beast, a beast streaked with the blood of Christian martyrs. This beast had to be opposed by the community of Christ. The Christians living late in the first century of the Christian era had learned what Bishop Tutu had learned in South Africa, what Martin Luther King had learned in Alabama and Georgia, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer had learned in Nazi Germany and what Alexander Solzhenitsyn had discovered in Stalinist Russia: there are times when governments cease to act as representatives and instruments of God but serve instead as demonic instruments inimical to the virtues of Christ’s Kingdom. In such situations Christians must arise in courageous protest against such governments and their representatives.
There is a reason why the early Baptists in colonial Virginia wouldn’t pay state taxes to support the Episcopal Church, the official state religion. There is a reason the backwoods colonial Baptist preachers in North Carolina refused to procure preaching licenses from the state before they could fill a pulpit. (Most of them couldn’t have read the license, if they had bought one!) There is a reason Dietrich Bonhoeffer participated in a plot to bring down Adolph Hitler’s government. There is a reason the Biblical Daniel refused to yield to a Babylonian law, and a reason the magi broke their promise to King Herod. The Bible and church history are littered with examples when people of faith had to choose between obedience to civil law or obedience to divine authority, and they chose the latter, though it brought them into conflict with state officials. Does Revelation 13 annul Paul’s teaching in Romans 13? No! But Revelation 13 does erect a dialectical pole over against Romans 13. Romans 13 expresses a Yes to government; Revelation 13 asserts an emphatic No. Within these two dialectical poles we as Christians must carve out the delicate and nuanced balance regarding our relationship vis a vis our faith and the state. On the one hand we respect civil government and work as responsible citizens to improve society. Yet when government pursues policies that are inhumane and immoral, we have a sacred duty to oppose that government and demand justice and righteousness. On the one hand we are called to be supportive citizens in the effort to build a just society. But when government embarks on activities incompatible with our commitment to Christ, we have a responsibility to work and speak and militate against that government. When government violates the principles of the Kingdom of God, we are to be revolutionaries. It is precisely out of this theological dialectic that the American Experiment was born in 1776.
I suspect many of you have seen the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. You know then that in order to marry a Greek you must be baptized into the Green Orthodox Church. This rule led to one of the most famous compromises in Christian history. In the fifteenth century, Russia’s Ivan the Great wanted to marry the beautiful daughter of the King of Greece, and when he was told he then must be baptized into the Greek Church, he prepared like any other candidate. He went through catechism classes and even instructed his chief advisors and generals to do the same. But Ivan the Great hadn’t read the fine print. On the day of his baptism Ivan learned that the Greek Orthodox Church at that time would not baptize a professional soldier. So Ivan the Great struck a compromise with the bishop. He and his generals entered the baptismal waters, but in so doing they carried their swords high in out-stretched arms, so though their bodies were baptized, the arm with the sword was not baptized, and they could retain their role as warriors.
Christians cannot accept Ivan’s compromise. We cannot baptize most of ourselves into Christ, but reserve part of ourselves for the state. We are baptized totally into the Kingdom of God. We are to live as good citizens of the government in which we live, and are to work for its welfare; but our ultimate allegiance belongs to a Kingdom that is not of this world. We recognize that every government, under the sovereign creativity of God, will ultimately make a contribution, positively or negatively, toward advancing the ultimate divine purpose. Was Rome ultimately a blessing or a beast with regard to Christianity? Well, initially, the Roman government was mostly neutral with regard to Christianity, and allowed the Gospel to be spread throughout its empire. So, in that sense it was a blessing. Then the Roman government became a violent, bloody suppresser of the Christian church, so over time it became a beast. Then, ultimately, the Roman government recognized Christianity as its official state religion and legitimized Christianity in the eyes of the world. So, was the Roman government a blessing or a beast toward Christianity? The answer is “Yes – both!” And civil governments will always vacillate in status between those two dialectical poles. We as Christians must fashion a faith that navigates between both poles of the dialectic, creating a faith that is as complex, nuanced and flexible as is the world in which we live.