When you hear the word ‘policeman’ what is your instant reaction? I grew up in small villages in west Cumbria, where we had a village bobby who lived in the local police house and was known to everyone. He could be stern when required, but you knew he was on your side, and was there to protect and look after people. But imagine what it must be like to live in a country where the police and authorities are not to be trusted, but feared or even hated.
Or what about words like ‘government’ or ‘the council’? In this country we have become a lot more cynical about our elected representatives in recent years. But we are fortunate that we live in a democracy and can hold our officials to account. What about those people who live in countries where the government is genuinely corrupt and dehumanizing, where human rights and freedoms are not respected or upheld.
How would you respond if someone said not only do we have to be obedient to these civil powers, but that they were established by God Himself? It seems an extraordinary claim to make, and yet this is exactly what Paul does in our reading from Romans.
‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.’ (Rom 13:1-2)
This passage has been subject to a lot of debate, and interpreted and understood, used and even abused in many different ways. For example these verses were used by the white South African government in the 1980s to justify their policy of apartheid, and to try and try and stifle opposition.
Therefore this passage does raise some very serious questions; is Paul honestly saying that the Herods and Neros of New Testament times, and the Hitlers, Stalins, Amins, Gdaffis, Saddams and al-Assads of our times were personally appointed by God, and that their authority is not to be resisted? If so, it raises huge moral and ethical challenges.
EXAMPLE OF BONHOEFFER
What would you have done if you were living in Nazi Germany during the 30s and 40s? Would the right thing be to oppose the regime, even take up arms against it, or to submit to the regime because whether you liked it or not, it was the governing authority?
For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this was a question he personally had to wrestle with. Bonhoeffer, was a German Lutheran Pastor and theologian who helped establish the Confessing Church in the 1930s, which arose in opposition to government-sponsored efforts to Nazify and control the German Protestant church.
Bonhoeffer was a determined opponent of the Nazi regime from its first days. In April 1933, four months after Hitler became German Chancellor, Bonhoeffer raised the first voice for church resistance to Hitler's persecution of Jews, declaring that the church must not simply "bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam the spoke in the wheel itself."
Bonhoeffer’s opposition to the regime ultimately resulted in him getting involved with the German resistance movement, where he had to wrestle with the question of whether it was ever right to justify murder. Bonhoeffer came to the conclusion that Christians have a duty to act in accordance to the will of God. And therefore when assaulted by evil, to ignore that evil, or do nothing to try and stop it, would be to simply condone the evil, and therefore be a greater wrong. Therefore Bonhoeffer believed the evil of the Nazi regime had to be tackled face on by direct action.
Bonhoeffer therefore played a part in Operation Valkryie, the failed plot to assassinate Hitler. Because of his involvement in the German resistance Bonhoeffer was arrested and executed on April 9 1945 at Flossenburg Concentration Camp, just two weeks before the camp was liberated by the Americans.
How does the decision that Bonhoeffer made to resist Hitler, sit with the instruction given in Romans chapter 13, which says that ‘whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted’? Is Paul in effect really saying that the right thing to have done would have been to support Hitler’s regime, rather than oppose it?
To answer this, let’s look in closer detail at what Paul writes.
EVERYTHING IS UNDER GOD’S RULE
The first point Paul makes is that ultimately all things are under God’s rule, because God is the Lord of history, and there is no power or authority higher than God. Therefore the government authorities that exist in the world do so by the authority granted them by the supreme authority, God Himself. All human authority is derived from God’s authority, that is why Jesus was able to say to Pilate, ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above’. (John 19:11)
But even though Paul says all authorities that exist have been established by God, that does not mean that what they do is always approved by God. In the book of Micah we read ‘what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah 6:8) This is true not just of us as individuals, but also the rulers and authorities that have been put over us. So whenever a government is guilty of injustice, oppression, persecution, discrimination or war mongering, this is something in direct contradiction to God’s will.
Think of it this way. God ordained marriage, but not every marriage is reflective of the character of God. In some marriages you find abuse, cruelty, injustice and divorce. That does not reflect the character of God, but none the less the institution of marriage is God-ordained. And the same is true of the authorities and powers that rule over us, they are ultimately God ordained institutions, even if they don’t always reflect God’s loving nature.
Paul says that ‘whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.’ (13:2) This raises the question is it ever right to disobey the government? Granted that the authority of rulers is derived from God, but what happens if they abuse it, if they reverse their God given duty, commending those who do evil and punishing those who do good? What is the right thing to do in those situations?
The answer is that we should obey the authorities in all that is moral and right, but obedience to God, always comes before obedience to the state.
If the state commanded us to do something that God forbids, or forbids what God commands, then our Christian duty is to resist, not to submit, to disobey the state in order to obey God. Our moral duty is always to put God’s will first, and so whenever laws are enacted that contradicts God’s law, civil disobedience becomes a Christian duty.
We see a number of examples of this in scripture. When Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill the newborn boys, they refused to obey. ‘The midwives… feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do, they let the boys’ lives.’ (Ex 1:17)
When King Nebuchadnezzar issued an edict that all his subjects must fall down and worship his golden image, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to obey (Dn 3).
When King Darius made a decree that for thirty days nobody should pray ‘to any god or man’ except himself, Daniel refused to obey (Dn 6). And when the Sanhedrin banned preaching in the name of Jesus, the apostles refused to obey saying ‘We must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29) This is the strict meaning of civil disobedience, disobeying a particular human law because it is contrary to God’s law.
Today there are Christians who face imprisonment and persecution in many different countries around the world, because the civil laws of the country where they live are in conflict with the laws of God. For example Bonhoeffer, who in defiance to the Nazi Government, helped smuggle Jews out of Germany and into safety.
In situations like this, there is often great personal risk involved, but the primary concern of the people involved is to demonstrate their submissiveness to God, not their defiance of the government.
OUR DUTY TO THE GOVERNMENT
At the time Paul wrote this letter, Nero was Emperor in Rome, and the reputation of Christians at the time was poor. No good could come to the cause of the gospel if Christians therefore developed an additional reputation as trouble makers.
Instead Paul says that as Christians we have a duty to be obedient to the government that we find ourselves under, and that we should also pray for those who rule over us.
Writing to Timothy he says ‘I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.’ (Timothy 2:1-2)
And in his letter to Titus Paul says ‘Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good’ (3:1)
And the Apostle Peter urges ‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor.’ (1 Peter 2:13-17)
As Christians we are to be noted for our civil obedience. We have a duty to obey the government in everything that is moral and good. To pay our taxes, and to obey the laws of the land. We are to live a righteous and peaceable life so that the light of the gospel shines clearly through us. Paul writes ‘For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.’ (13:3)
So for example if we don’t break the law, if we obey the civil authorities, we won’t have to suffer the fear and worry of getting caught and punished. If however, you choose not to obey civil authorities, if you choose to break their laws, we need to recognise that God has given them the power to enact judgment on evil and disobedience. That is what is meant by 'bearing the sword'. They have the power and authority to inflict punishment on us.
The simple message is that we have a responsibility before God and all humanity to obey our civil authorities and pay our taxes because they are servants of God for our good, and they are in a position that deserves our fear, respect and honour.
OUR GOVERNMENTS DUTY TO US
As well as our duty towards the ruling authorities, Paul makes it clear that the state carries a responsibility to care for its people.
Paul writes ‘For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.... They are God’s servants.’ (Romans 13:4)
This is why we are to submit to authority in all that is lawful and right, because God has designed the government to be society’s protectors and enforcers of civil law and order.
Twice Paul uses the word diakonoi/servant to describe the role and function of the state. John Stott in his commentary on Romans 13 writes “those who serve the state as legislators, civil servants, magistrates, police, social workers, or tax collectors, are just as much ‘ministers of God’ as those who serve the church as pastors teachers, evangelists or administrators.’ This is why it is so important that we pray for those in authority, and recognise that what we do in our daily lives, is as much part of our Christian ministry and calling, as anything we may do within church.
Paul makes it clear that the state’s function is to promote and reward good and to restrain and punish the evil, and to bring order and stability to the world.
President Kennedy’s famously said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” But we need to ask both questions. Those over us clearly have a duty towards us, but we also have a responsibility to be good citizens, to effect change, to hold those who are in positions of responsibility and power accountable. And also to submit in everything lawful and just, to the authority of those above us, to honour its representatives, pay its taxes and pray for its welfare, so that we can encourage the state to fulfil its God appointed role and, together work to build a more just and fair world for all God’s people.