Governing Authorities

The Cross of Christ is incompatible with any program or ideology that calls for revolution or violent regime change

Colosseum - Photo by Craig Zdanowicz on Unsplash
Writing to the house churches of Rome, the Apostle Paul laid down 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 was Caesar, the absolute ruler of the Roman world, and the same man who because the first emperor to persecute Christians. Yet, despite the nature of that regime, disciples were to accord it respect, submission, and honor - [Photo by Craig Zdanowicz on Unsplash].
  • (Romans 13:1-8) – “Let every soul unto protecting authorities be in subjection; for there is no authority save by God, and they that are in being have by God been arranged, so that, he who ranges himself against the authority, against the arrangement of God opposes himself, and they who oppose shall to themselves a sentence of judgment receive. For they who bear rule are not a terror to the good work but unto the evil. Would you not be afraid of the authority? That which is good be doing, and you shall have praise of the same; for God’s minister is he to you for that which is good. But if that which is evil you are doing, be afraid! For not in vain does he bear the sword, for he is God’s minister, an avenger for anger to him who practices what is evil. Wherefore, it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the anger, but also because of the conscience. For because of this, are you paying tribute also, for God’s ministers of state they are, for this very thing giving constant attendance. Render to all their dues; to whom tribute, tribute, to whom tax, tax, to whom fear, fear, to whom honor, honor. Nothing to any be owing, except to be loving one another; for he that loves his neighbor has given to law its fulfillment.
 “Arranged” translates the Greek verb tassō, which means to “order, arrange, set, appoint.” In other words, the present political order exists at the “arrangement” of God, whether we understand the rationale for it or not.

In principle, the teaching was not new. Paul built his argument on Old Testament precedents, including themes from the Book of Daniel. Near the start of the Babylonian Captivity, the prophet 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, including the Roman government, to “resist the authority” is to “resist the arrangement of God.” If God does give the kingdoms of the world to whomever He wills, to overturn a regime is to trespass on His prerogative.

Some voices argue that tyranny, corruption, or incompetence in a regime constitutes a necessary exception to Paul’s rule. In such circumstances, Christian support for political and even violent revolution is 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 to government based on its 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 to the ground (A.D. 64), Nero fingered Christians and 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 or her total allegiance to Jesus and his Kingdom, a political order that transcends all national, ethnic, social, cultural, economic, and linguistic boundaries - (Galatians 3:28, Revelation 5:9-12, 7:9-17).

By definition, a 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, Jesus tasked his church with proclaiming the gospel to ALL nations, not with social or political reformation, let alone revolution.
The only “revolution” that matters, and the only one that can produce peace, hope, and life, is the implementation of God’s kingdom on the earth. That day is coming and will coincide with the arrival of Jesus in glory - (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 are in 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 revolutionary activities. Any calls within the Church to disobey an unpopular government should 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 authorities, 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 to serve others. We are not called to live lives conformed to the ideologies and values of this age. Yes, the State is very often unjust and brutal, which is precisely the point. Disciples of Jesus ought not to do evil so that some greater “good may” - (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 operation. Followers of Jesus are summoned to emulate Jesus, and called to something far higher than the political systems of this age.




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