Disciples and the State

Paul instructed believers in the very heart of the Empire not to resist the government, for its existence had been “arranged” by God – Romans 13:1-8

Colosseum - Photo by Craig Zdanowicz on Unsplash

Writing to the house churches of Rome, Paul presented clear principles for Christian conduct towards the State. He exhorted believers to “
subordinate themselves to governing powers: for there is no authority except by God,” a statement written at the time Nero the absolute ruler of the Roman world, the man who because the first emperor to persecute Christians - [Colosseum - Photo by Craig Zdanowicz on Unsplash].

What is truly exceptional is Paul’s call for disciples to show due respect and submission to “governing authorities” to an imperial system that was anything but democratic and ruled by an emperor who held absolute power. And at the time, the empire was ruled by Nero, one of the most infamous of Rome’s emperors. Yet despite the nature of that regime, the Apostle summoned believers to accord it and its officials respect, submission, and honor – (Romans 13:1-8).

Paul stated that the existing powers had been “arranged” by God, which translates the Greek verb tassō, meaning to “order, arrange, set, appoint." In other words, the government exists at the “arrangement” of God, whether we understand His reasons for it or not.

In principle, his teaching was not new. Paul built his argument on Old Testament precedents, especially on passages from Daniel. Near the start of the Babylonian Captivity, Daniel declared that God rules over the affairs of the nations - “He removes kings and sets up kings He rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever he pleases, and sets up over it even the basest of men” - (Daniel 2:21, 4:17).

Following that logic, Paul explained - Because God had “arranged” the existing authorities, to “resist the authority” is to “resist the arrangement of God.” If He does give the kingdoms of the world to whomever He pleases, to resist or overturn a government is to presume and trespass upon His prerogative.

Over the centuries, some church leaders have argued that tyranny, corruption, and incompetence in a regime constitutes a necessary exception to Paul’s rule. In such circumstances, Christian support for political and even violent revolution becomes necessary, even justified. But that is an argument of expedience, not principle, a form of the “end justifies the means.” Moreover, it ignores the historical context of the Roman house churches.

First, Paul said nothing about exceptions to the rule. Justifying insurrection and resistance based on a government’s repressive policies or corruption is a loophole read into the text.
Second, Paul wrote to Christians living under a pagan, authoritarian regime. The Roman Empire was anything but democratic or just. Its emperor held absolute power. And the Roman government was notoriously corrupt and brutal.

Third, at the time Paul wrote, Nero was Caesar, a man so depraved that, even by Roman standards he was beyond the pale. Among other things, he murdered his half-brother and mother. In a fit of rage, he kicked his pregnant wife to death. Needing a scapegoat for the fires that burned much of the city of Rome (A.D. 64), Nero blamed the fires on Christians, and thereby, became the first emperor to persecute the church. Quite possibly, Paul himself was executed in the ‘Neronian Persecution,’ the same apostle who ordered Christians not to resist the autocratic Roman State.

Considering New Testament principles and its apocalyptic perspective, the teaching of Paul makes perfect sense. The disciple of Jesus is called to give his total allegiance to Jesus and to his Kingdom, a political requirement that transcends all national, ethnic, social, cultural, economic, and linguistic loyalties - (Galatians 3:28, Revelation 5:9-12, 7:9-17).

The follower of Jesus is a citizen of a realm that has no concept of “dual citizenship.” Loyalty to Jesus must supersede all other allegiances, regardless of the demands and expectations of family, employer, society, or the State. Moreover, he tasked his church with proclaiming the gospel to ALL nations, not with social or political reformation, let alone revolutionary action.

The only “revolution” that matters, and the only one that can produce peace, hope, and life, is the spread of God’s kingdom on the earth. The day is coming when his rule will replace ALL existing governments, the day that will coincide with the “arrival” of Jesus in glory. That biblical declaration alone tells us that no government in existence today will endure forever - (1 Corinthians 15:20-28).

In the interim, Christians are called to bear faithful witness to that political reality while living in a fallen world. To work for change in and through the fallen institutions of this age is to work for the “meat that perishes.” Since the Death and Resurrection of Christ, the institutions and “forms of this age have been in the process of passing away” - (1 Corinthians 7:31).

The exhortation to obey even a despotic state like Rome, one that attempted to annihilate the Church, executed Jesus and murdered Paul, ought to give us pause before immersing ourselves in the political process, let alone rebellion against existing political systems and leaders. Any calls for the Church to disobey an unpopular government or officeholder must be rebuffed.

Certainly, Paul was not naïve about the nature of the State, and he certainly did not have an idealistic view of Rome. He had experienced pressure, resistance, and persecution at the hands of Roman magistrates, among others.

Christians are not to disengage from the world, but instead, to engage it with the biblical means - faith, prayer, gospel witness, acts of mercy, and above all, by emulating the self-sacrificial service of Jesus for others, especially for the weak, the downtrodden, and the marginalized. We are not called to live lives conformed to the ideologies and values of this age. Yes, very often the State is unjust, even brutal, which is precisely the point. Disciples of Jesus ought not to do evil so some greater “good may come” - (Romans 12:1-2).

The Cross of Christ is incompatible with any program or ideology that calls for revolution, violence, or extra-legal regime change activities. His disciples are summoned to emulate him; they are called to something far higher than the political systems of this age, which are destined ultimately to disappear from the earth.



Language of the New Testament

Armageddon - Final Battle