April 22, 2018
HOW DO WE RELATE TO GOVERNING AUTHORITIES?
(37 of 44 in a series through Romans)
We live in a country that likes to think about civil disobedience and even rebellion. On July 4th of each year, we have parties, shoot fireworks, and celebrate the fact that the American colonies succeeded in gaining independence from the British crown, declaring our independence and even taking up arms to secure it. We rightly acknowledge and celebrate the heroism of many who exercised peaceful, non-violent civil protests during the civil rights movement. And I think that many of us either found ourselves in difficult situations or at least faced mental struggles when the Obergefell decision came down from the Supreme Court, immediately legalizing same-sex marriage in every state in our nation. Teachers in our public schools, no doubt, live under the cloud of waiting for the day when they may well be commanded to teach that gender is a fluid reality or lose their jobs. And we could go on with examples that I think would highlight how easy we move to the category of disobedience or rebellion (or at best a begrudging obedience) when we contemplate our governing authorities.
And I wanted to spend this morning talking about what civil disobedience should probably look like in particular situations. My mind is naturally drawn through thinking through those issues—though I by no means claim to have all (or even many) of the answers. But I’m not going to spend my time going down that vein this morning—though it is a worthy topic of conversation and is something we need to continue to think through and teach on as a church, even as Aaron began the conversation for us a few semesters back, teaching in Sunday school on “The Gospel, Politics, and Culture.”
But the reason I decided not to go down that path with this sermon this morning is because our text, Romans 13:1-7, isn’t about resisting the governing authorities in our lives but submitting to them and obeying them. Now, it would seem that this reality would make the decision not to preach a sermon from this text on resisting government authorities a pretty easy one. Don’t preach a sermon which makes the exact opposite point of the biblical text you’re trying to preach, right? But what makes it complicated is that as we read this text, we can instantly think of evil government leaders doing evil things. This text reads as if we are thinking of governments acting in an ideal way, while we know there are exceptions. We can think of Peter’s words in Acts 5:29 as he noted, “We must obey God rather than men.” And one of the clear messages we saw from Revelation 13 as we worked our way through that book is that in our world there are always going to be oppressive states and social structures that Satan utilizes in opposition to God’s people. That’s what the image of the beast symbolizes.i So, you can see why it was very tempting for me to utilize a text concerning governing authorities to talk about Christians not obeying but actually resisting government.
However, as I’ve already noted, this text is not about resisting or rebelling against governing authorities but submitting to them and obeying them. Moreover, the Spirit inspired Paul to write these words not when he was living in some utopian society where governing authorities were perfect but when he was under the rule of the Roman Empire, whose emperor, Nero, was most likely responsible for Paul’s execution. In other words, Paul wrote these words in a time when he could quite easily say to us, “Look, my governing authorities are worse than yours,” and yet he wrote Romans 13:1-7, urging us as believers to submit to our government authorities. And I think the reason why Paul writes these words, even in the midst of a harsh and unfair government which he knew well, is because (if I may paraphrase John Piper) he understood that the greater threat to our souls is not being treated unjustly by our government but our having hearts that are prideful, haughty, and unwilling to submit to authorities.ii A man who is unwilling to submit to human authorities is showing himself to be a man who refuses to bow the need to the authority of Christ.
Therefore, though I want to acknowledge that there are times when disobeying the government is definitely permissible and even encouraged (e.g. on occasions when we’re commanded to disobey God), and I want to encourage anyone who is interested to utilize your ability to vote or to pursue office and bring about change in our current laws in any areas where we can become a more just society (or even just up the speed limit on four-lane roads in Jackson!), my focus this morning is going to be on submitting to and obeying governing authorities (as they presently exist), why we should do it, and what it specifically looks like.
Now, the reason Paul dives into this issue of governing authorities has thrown a lot of commentators off, with some suggesting that this was a section that Paul had written elsewhere and just unnaturally inserted at this point in the letter. But in my own mind, it seems natural. The last thing we saw from ch. 12 was Paul talking about interacting with unbelievers in the world, not retaliating against them, living at peace with them, and doing good toward them. And that seems doable, right? I mean, worst case, if your neighbor is terrible, you can try to ignore him.
But there is one segment of society that you can’t ignore, and that is government. They can make you give them money via taxes, threaten you with punishment and carry out that punishment if you disobey laws, and even command you to do things that might go against your conscience. We saw that, for instance, when Aaron preached through the book of Daniel, where one believer was thrown into a lion’s den and three others in to a fiery furnace. Therefore, it makes complete sense to me for Paul to move from dealing with unbelievers in general to dealing with governing authorities specifically.
And what we’ll see in our text is that Paul gives a general exhortation, a list of reasons why you should obey that general exhortation, and then some specific applications. So, let’s start with his general exhortation, which is this:
We should submit to and obey our governing authorities
Paul makes this command explicit, writing in verse 1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” Again, though there are exceptions, this is the rule: believers need to submit to and obey our governing authorities. That’s simple and straightforward enough. But why? Well, Paul gives many answers here.
Reasons why we should obey our governing authorities:
1. Because they have been appointed by God
Paul makes this clear in verses 1-2a, saying, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed.”
Now, this doesn’t mean that God gives moral approval to the tasks that every governing authority carries out. Just because God puts someone in a place of authority doesn’t mean that authority is functioning in a way that honors the Lord. But, Paul tells us, every governing authority that exists does indeed exist by the appointment of God.
And this is the consistent witness of the Scriptures. In Daniel 2:21, Daniel blesses the Lord saying that God “changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings.” And to Pilate, who would have the Lord Jesus crucified, Jesus said, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” Therefore, if you want to ask the question, “Why do we even have government?” the answer from the Bible is because God has appointed not only that we have governing authorities but appoints the very governing authorities that we have, even wicked men like Nebuchadnezzar and Pilate. And this is the first reason why we obey our governing authorities. A second reason is:
2. Because they (as God’s servants) carry out divine judgment
There is a certain logical consequence of the first reason Paul has given for why we obey our governing authorities. He’s told us that they’ve been appointed by God, and therefore we should obey and submit to them. And if we don’t, we will bear judgment from the government. We know that. But the logical consequence that Paul establishes for us is that when the governing authorities tell us to do something (that’s not in conflict with God’s commands), we don’t do it, and we incur judgment from the government, then the government is actually carrying out God’s judgment against us. Let me see if I can show you this.
First, Paul says in verse 2, “Therefore [i.e. because governments are appointed by God] whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed and those who resist will incur judgment.” Again, we know this is true. The governing authorities in our city say that you can’t exceed a certain speed limit on the bypass, you do, and there’s a good chance you may get pulled over by a governing authority and given a ticket. That is incurring judgment for violating the command of the governing authority. Again, we know this.
Paul says that if you don’t want to incur the judgment of the government, then just obey the law. Do good. He writes, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct [again, generally speaking] but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval” (v. 3). If you don’t want to live in fear of being pulled over when driving down the street, then obey the traffic laws. If you don’t want to live in fear of the police arresting you for stealing, then don’t steal—and on and on. Instead, do what is good, and your governing authorities should not come after you (again, ideally or generally speaking).
But it’s at this point where Paul draws the connection between the judgment of governing authorities and divine judgment. He writes in verse 4, “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” Thus, when your governing authority writes you that speeding ticket, you should see it as the discipline of God for not submitting to his appointed authorities over you. That’s his servant carrying out his wrath.
So, don’t try to see our obedience to laws in our city, state, and nation as something separate from our obedience to Christ. We obey Christ by obeying our governing authorities. And if we don’t, and we are judged by those authorities, we need to recognize their judgment as the disciplining hand of the Lord on us. This text leaves us no way around that truth. And this is the second reason why we should obey and submit to our governing authorities: because they (as God’s servants) carry out divine judgment.
But the motivations are not only to avoid judgment. Paul notes another reason we should obey governing authorities:
3. Because they’ve been appointed by God for our good
At this point, because we’ve been talking about governing authorities carrying out judgment, we could get the wrong picture that government is at best neutral toward us but at worst a threat to be avoided at every turn, if possible. But that’s not actually true. Paul writes at the beginning of verse 4, “For he is God’s servant for your good.”
Government is God’s idea, and it is a grace to us in this cursed and fallen world. If there were no governing authorities and no laws then we know that the world would be chaos. If someone were more powerful than you and wanted your goods, they’d simply take them. If someone didn’t like you and were more powerful than you, they may well take your life. But there are laws against stealing and murder. More than that, if there were no governing authorities to enforce those laws, then we’d be in trouble, wouldn’t we? It does no good to cry that your neighbor is doing wrong by stealing your goods if there’s no one to come along, enforce the laws, and mete out punishment for violating those laws.
In other words, as much as it may be tempting to complain about government four a thousand reasons, it is a sign of the Lord’s grace toward us to have it. It’s the Lord’s kindness to raise up governing authorities who will impose laws and execute punishment for violating those laws in order that you and I may live at peace.
Now, again, we all know that there are numerous exceptions to this throughout history, but the very apostle who wrote this letter to the Romans—Paul—lived under the reign of one of the most devious emperors of the Romans empire. But Paul understands that (generally) governments want the societies over which they govern to be at peace. There must be order and discipline. Therefore, they imposed laws and mete out justice when those laws are violated. And, we thank God for that, don’t we? It helps us live in safety and at peace.
I wonder, as we try to live our lives to the glory of God, how many of us spend any time at all stopping and thanking God for the establishment of government—which may well be the only deterrent to someone taking your goods, your health, or even your life. Paul certainly shows us the Lord is to be praised for the presence of government.
And so, recognizing that the Lord has instituted government, as his servants, for my good and your good, we should obey the laws and commands of governing authorities. By obeying, we both honor the Lord and recognize that it is good that some government—as opposed to no government—exists. But Paul continues with reasons that we should obey, next telling us that we should obey governing authorities:
4. Because of our conscience before God
Paul has already mentioned that we obey government because they’re looking out for our good and will punish the one who does evil. Consequently, you could say that if you could avoid God’s wrath via his servants in government and bring about no harm with our actions (to ourselves or to others), then that would really lessen the need to obey government. In other words, do you illegally use your neighbor’s cable feed simply because you think, “No one is ever going to look into this. The police have enough to worry about. They’re not going to start inspecting stolen cable feeds. And no one is being harmed by this”?
Well, that logic might work if the only reason we obeyed our governing authorities was to avoid punishment or avoid harming someone, but the fact is, that’s just not the case. Paul writes in verse 5, “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath, but also for the sake of conscience.”
A number of years ago, I was on a motorcycle with my uncle who lives in a small town in Michigan where there is precisely one police officer who patrols the town. I got on the motorcycle, we left his house, and then we stopped at an intersection where the town police officer drove right by us, heading to our left. My uncle, then, said something to the effect of, “Since he’s gone, now there’s nothing that keeps us from seeing how fast this thing will go,” and he turned to the right and risked both of our lives with the speeds he was hitting.
But, if you’re a believer you can’t do that. If you are in that precise situation that I just described, and you say, like my uncle, “Now there’s nothing that keeps us from seeing how fast this thing will go,” let the teaching of Scripture here in Romans 13:1-7 whisper to your heart, “Yeah, nothing except the fact that you’re disobeying the Lord.” We obey government for our Lord’s sake, not just to avoid punishment.
Now, let’s list some specifics, and then I’ll give some concluding thoughts.
Specific examples of obedience in this area include paying taxes and showing honor
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that when Paul picks some specifics of what this looks like, he picks these two: paying taxes and showing honor. He writes in verse 6, “For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God attending to this very thing.” Then, he adds in verse 7, “Pay to all what is owed them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
He starts with taxes. We should pay taxes. Now, what makes this command even more painful is that there are two words to indicate different kinds of taxes. These words are translated “taxes” and “revenue” respectively, in verse 7. The first of these, translated “taxes” would have been paid by a subject nation in the Roman empire, and these would be paid directly, like property taxes or the like. Roman citizens were exempt from this tax. The latter, translated “revenue,” would be paid indirectly, if you will, in the form of things like sales tax or tolls. Roman citizens would pay this latter, indirect tax.iii
In other words, Paul is telling all who would read this letter to pay both of these taxes, when he himself—as a Roman citizen—was exempt from one of them. Therefore, Paul isn’t writing theis because he’s contemplating fairness in a society. The reason Paul writes this is because he’s merely communicating our Lord’s command. Paying our taxes is a command from the Lord. Paul is merely the Lord’s instrument used to bring this command to his people.
So, one way we obey the government—and consequently the Lord—is by paying our taxes, honestly and thoroughly. And I don’t say that as someone who particularly enjoys paying taxes. As I mentioned last week, this is one of those areas where I have strong opinions on how our society works best, and low taxes are something that just make sense to me. But you know what, that’s neither here nor there because (well, first, I might be wrong on what is best for society but also …) unless the laws are changed, my job is just to pay taxes. That’s what the text says. When we file taxes each year, we do it honestly. When we develop businesses that require us to pay sales tax, we pay sales tax, and on and on. And we do this because that’s what the Bible commands us to do.
And if you think that’s a punch to the gut, Paul also says that we pay honor and respect to those to whom honor and respect are due. This means that we pay honor and respect to those over us in society. It doesn’t mean that we acknowledge there are morally superior. In many cases, their immorality may be obvious to all. Nero’s certainly would have been. It doesn’t mean that they’re good governing authorities. In many cases they may not be. Again, Nero certainly wasn’t. But we need to recognize them as the Lord’s appointees, ordained for our good, and give them the honor and respect their authoritative positions call for.
Now, let me pause and ask the question, among all the specific examples Paul could have mentioned, why did he mention paying taxes and paying honor? I mean, he could have mentioned a hundred other things, I’m sure. Why these two? And, honestly, I don’t know. But I can tell you what these two have in common. I think they’re two of the hardest things to do with a sincere heart unto the Lord.
It is easy not to steal from or harm your neighbor. It is easy not to vandalize public property or even to pay your debts. But paying taxes—especially those that feel unjust—and paying honor to someone in an authoritative position when that person can be undeserving of honor as a person is probably something that grates on us a bit, doesn’t it? And this may be the very reason Paul mentions these two. He may be saying, “Look, obey even in these most difficult areas.”
It’s perhaps likely that many in authority in the Roman empire would have been exposed to Paul’s teaching in this letter. And what they should gather from this is that Christians are going to be some of the best citizens imaginable. Unless you tell them to do something that would be disobedient to their Lord, they’re going to submit to and obey governing authorities, paying taxes and showing honor along the way. That should be part of our witness in the world.
Now, let’s think about this as parents. I think when we hear someone say that they want their children just to grow up to be good citizens, we rightly want to point out that there is much more we want for our children. I want them to recognize Jesus as the Lord who lived, died, and was raised for them. I want them to commit their lives to loving this crucified and risen Lord more than anything. I want them to be willing to lose their lives for the sake of Christ. I want them to be much more than great citizens. But, as this text reminds us, obeying Christ and being great citizens are not in contrast. In fact, the very Christ whom we confess has absolute authority in our lives in the one who calls us to be subject to and obey governing authorities. Therefore, as we come to the table today, visibly proclaiming our obedient faith in our Lord, let us confess our desire to obey this call to obey our governing authorities, as unto the Lord. Amen.
i For my sermon on Revelation 13, go to: http://cccjackson.org/index.php/church-resources/sortable-messages/message/two-beasts-the-dragon-and-a-call-for-endurance.
ii John Piper has written, “Paul risked being misunderstood on the side of submission [knowing that there were exceptions to this general rule] because he saw pride as a greater danger to Christians than government injustice. I cannot imagine Paul writing this way if Paul thought that the ultimate thing was being treated fairly by the government. But I can imagine him writing this way if faith and humility and self-denial and readiness to suffer for Christ is the main thing.” From “Subjection to God and Subjection to the State, Part 2,” available at: https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/subjection-to-god-and-subjection-to-the-state-part-2.
iii Tom Schreiner’s forthcoming (updated) Romans commentary, BECNT.