Governing Authorities

SYNOPSIS - The Cross of Christ is incompatible with any program or ideology that calls for revolution, violence, or regime changeRomans 13:1-8

Colosseum - Photo by Craig Zdanowicz on Unsplash
Writing to the house churches of Rome in the epicenter of the Roman Empire, the Apostle Paul presented clear principles for Christian conduct towards the State. This was written around A.D. 56 to 58 when
Nero was the absolute ruler of the Roman world (Nero Claudius Caesar Germanicus), considered by many historians as one of the most despotic and mentally unbalanced emperors. And in his last years, he became the first emperor to target Christians for persecution. And rather ironically, Paul himself may have been one of the many victims of the Neronian persecution. - [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 rangeth himself against the authority, against the arrangement of God opposeth himself, and they who oppose shall unto themselves a sentence of judgment receive. For they who bear rule are not a terror unto the good work but unto the evil. Wouldst thou not be afraid of the authority? That which is good be thou doing, and thou shall have praise of the same; For God’s minister is he unto thee for that which is good. But if that which is evil thou be doing, be afraid! For not in vain the sword he beareth; for God’s minister he is, —an avenger unto anger to him who practiseth 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 ye paying tribute also, — for God’s ministers of state they are, unto this very thing giving constant attendance. Render unto all their dues, — unto whom tribute, tribute, unto whom tax, tax, unto whom fear, fear, unto whom honour, honour. Nothing to any be owing — save to be loving one another; for he that loveth his neighbour hath given to law its fulfillment.” - (From the Emphasized Bible).
The Apostle exhorts believers to “subordinate themselves to governing powers” because the existing authorities “have been arranged by God.” “Arranged” translates the Greek verb tassō, meaning, to “order, arrange, set, to appoint.”

In principle, this teaching was not new. Quite possibly, Paul built his argument on Old Testament precedents, especially a theme from the book of Daniel. The prophet Daniel declared that God rules over the affairs of the nations - “He removes kings and sets up kings.” Later, an angelic figure declared to the absolute ruler of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar - The Most-High God rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever he pleases, and sets up over it even the lowliest of men” – A lesson that pagan king learned through a bitter lesson - (Daniel 2:21, 4:17).

Following this logic, Paul explained - Because God had arranged the existing authorities, including the Roman government, to “resist the authority” is tantamount to “resisting the arrangement of God.”

Some might argue that Paul did not oppose revolution to change a government that had become lawless and tyrannical. Did not God institute government to maintain order? However, by definition, to revolt against an existing regime is to resist it, and therefore, it is resistance against the arrangement of God and presumptuous in the extreme.
By its very nature, violent revolution breeds lawlessness and disorder. If God does give the kingdoms of this world to whomever He wills, to overturn a regime is to trespass on what is His prerogative alone.
Such arguments ignore the historical context of Paul and the Roman house churches.

First, Paul said nothing about any exceptions to the rule. Justifying resistance to a regime based on its repressive policies or corruption is a loophole read into the text.

Second, Paul wrote these instructions to Christians living under a pagan, authoritarian regime. The Roman Empire was anything but democratic, and certainly not just. Its emperor held absolute power. The imperial government was notoriously corrupt and quite brutal when subduing threats to the social and political order, whether real or perceived.

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 his mother. In a fit of rage, he kicked his pregnant wife to death. Needing a scapegoat for the fires that destroyed much of the city of Rome (A.D. 64), Nero fingered Christians and became the first emperor to persecute the church. Quite probably, Paul was executed in the so-called ‘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 the Kingdom of God, 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. Christ tasked his church to proclaim the gospel to ALL nations, not with social or political reformation.

The hope of humanity is found in the “Kingdom of God.” The only “revolution” that matters - The only one that can produce peace, hope, and life - is the implementation of this kingdom on the earth. That day is coming and will coincide with the arrival of Jesus at the “end” of the age - (1 Corinthians 15:20-28).

In the interim, Christians are summoned to witness to this very different political reality. Working for change in the fallen institutions of this age amounts to working for the “meat that perishes.” Since Calvary, the “forms of this age are in process of passing away” - (1 Corinthians 7:31).

Solitary Sunrise - Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash
Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

God reigns over the Cosmos. This includes the affairs of every nation and its government. Whatever authorities do exist do so because He wills it - They serve His purposes whether we understand them or not. Only He sees “
end from beginning.” When we advocate radical political change, we presume to know what only the Most-High can possibly know.

The exhortation to obey even a despotic state like Rome – A government that attempted to annihilate the Church, executed Jesus, and murdered Paul - ought to give us pause before immersing ourselves in the political process. Any call by voices in the Church to disobey or usurp unpopular governments should be rebuffed.

Paul was not naïve about the nature of the State or the faults of the Roman government. He did not have an idealistic view of Rome. Had he not experienced pressure, opposition, and arrest by Roman authorities?

We are NOT to disengage from the world, but instead, to engage it with the biblical means - Faith, Prayer, witness; and above all, by emulating the self-sacrificial example of Jesus. Yes, the State is very often unjust and brutal, which is precisely the point. Disciples of Jesus must not do evil to produce any alleged “greater good”:
  • (Romans 12:1-2) – “And be not configuring yourselves unto this age, but be transforming yourselves by the renewing of your mind, to the end, ye may be proving what is the thing willed by God—the good and acceptable and perfect.
The Cross of Christ is incompatible with any program or ideology that calls for revolution and violence. Followers of Jesus are called to something completely different.


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