Paul on the State

Paul instructs believers in the center of the Empire not to resist the government - its existence has been arranged by God – Romans 13:1-8. 

Writing to the churches of Rome, Paul presents principles for Christian conduct towards the State. Believers must “subordinate themselves to governing powers, for there is no authority except by God.” His statement was written when Nero ruled the Roman Empire, the same man who became the first Roman emperor to persecute the church.

What is exceptional is Paul’s call for disciples to show due respect and submission to “governing authorities” in an imperial system that was anything but democratic, one ruled by men who held absolute power.

Roman Arch - Photo by Jace & Afsoon on Unsplash
[Photo by Jace & Afsoon on Unsplash]

And Nero was one of the most infamous of Rome’s emperors, even by the corrupt standards of the day. But despite the despotic nature of his regime, Paul summons believers to accord it and its officers respect and honor.

ARRANGED BY GOD


According to Paul, the existing powers have been “arranged” by God. This translates the Greek verb tassō which means to “order, arrange, set, appoint” (Strong’s - #G5021).

In other words, governing authorities exist at the “arrangement” of God, whether we understand His reasons for the present order or not – (Romans 13:1-2).

  • Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers, for there is no power but of God, and the powers that be are arranged of God. Therefore he that resists the power withstands the arrangement of God, and they that withstand shall receive to themselves judgment.

In principle, this teaching is not new. Paul builds his argument on Old Testament precedents, especially on passages from the book of Daniel. Near the start of the Babylonian Captivity, Daniel declared that God rules over the affairs of 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).

Because He has “arranged” the existing authorities, to “resist” them is tantamount to opposing the “arrangement of God.” And if He does give political authority to whomever He pleases, to resist it means trespassing upon His sovereignty.

EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE??


Over the centuries, many church leaders have argued often that tyranny, corruption, and incompetence in government constitute exceptions 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 Christians to whom the Apostle gave these very instructions.

First, Paul says nothing about exceptions to the rule. Justifying insurrection and resistance based on the government’s repressive policies or corruption is a loophole imposed on the passage.

Second, Paul wrote to Christians living under a pagan, authoritarian regime. The empire of Rome was anything but democratic or just. The emperor held absolute power, and Rome 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.

Nero murdered his half-brother, mother, and pregnant wife. Needing a scapegoat for the fires that burned the city in A.D. 64, he blamed it on Christians and became the first emperor to persecute believers. And possibly, Paul himself was executed in the Neronian Persecution.

BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE


Considering New Testament principles and its apocalyptic perspective, the teaching of Paul makes perfect sense. Christ’s disciple is called to give his total allegiance to Jesus and 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).

His disciple 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 of family, employer, society, or the State. Moreover, he has tasked his church with proclaiming the gospel of the “kingdom of God” to ALL nations, summoning all men to enter his domain and render absolute allegiance to him alone.

The only “revolution” that can produce peace, hope, and life in this world is the kingdom of God. The day is coming when His rule will replace ALL existing governments and regimes, and that day will coincide with the “arrival” of Jesus in glory. That biblical declaration alone tells us that no existing government will endure forever - (1 Corinthians 15:20-28).

In the interim, Christians are called to bear witness to that political reality while living in a fallen world under imperfect governments.

Half Dome Panorama - Photo by George Sparks on Unsplash
[Photo by George Sparks on Unsplash]

To work for change in the corrupt institutions of this age is to work for the “
meat that perishes.” Since the death and resurrection of Jesus, the institutions and “forms of this age are in the process of passing away.” In the end, only the Kingdom of God will stand - the stone cut from the mountain without hands” - (Daniel 2:44, John 6:27, 1 Corinthians 7:31).

The exhortation to obey even despotic governments, including one that attempted to annihilate the Church, executed Jesus, and murdered his Apostle, ought to give us pause before immersing ourselves in the political process, let alone advocating rebellion against existing authorities.

Any calls for disciples of Jesus to disobey an unpopular government or officeholder must be rebuffed, if for no other reason than because Scripture requires them to do so.

Certainly, Paul was not naïve about the nature of the State, and he certainly did not have an idealistic view of Rome. Disciples are not called to disengage from the world, but to engage it using biblical means – by faith, prayer, gospel witness, acts of mercy, and self-sacrificial service for others.

We are NOT called to live lives conformed to the ideologies and values of this age. Yes, very often the State is unjust, 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 activities against the State. His disciples are summoned to emulate him and to something far higher than the political systems of this age, all of which are destined to disappear from the earth.



Comments

POPULAR POSTS

Language of the New Testament

Two "Little Horns"?