Sunday 27 April 2014 was Freedom Day in South Africa and we remembered our first democratic election 20 years ago. The question as to how the Christian community should respond to the civil authorities has always been a burning question. In South Africa, while an immense amount of good has been done, we hear a lot about corruption in government, wasteful spending and the unwise, even illegal, use of state resources. What should our attitude be towards the governing authorities? Many Christians make fun of the government on Facebook, post defamatory pictures of the State President and ridicule the cabinet ministers in typical conversation with others. Is this right?
Romans 13:1-7 is a very controversial passage as it says that Christians should be subject to the governing authorities. This very passage has been abused in our own country. In the 1980’s Michael Cassidy, a fine Christian man committed to racial integration, had a meeting with the then president of SA, PW Botha. Michael Cassidy was representing the National Initiative for Reconciliation. PW Botha began the meeting by reading this part of Romans – meaning to imply that any criticism of the government was unchristian and unbiblical.
During the 1930’s and 1940’s the Nazi Regime came to power in Germany and it was their official policy to oppress and kill Jewish people and other minority groups. What were Christians to do? Sadly, a large portion of the church did nothing. Yet a minority stood up against the Nazis and many were imprisoned and executed for their opposition. Where they right in opposing the government?
The Roman Empire
The Apostle Paul, who wrote the letter to the Romans, was not naïve about governing authorities. Paul lived in a country occupied by the conquering Romans. These same Roman occupiers had years earlier punished and executed Jesus of Nazareth on trumped-up charges. The Emperor at the time of Paul’s letter was most likely Nero who had killed many of his opponents, including his own mother. Nero would eventually blame the Christians for the great fire of Rome and to appease the masses he had Christians thrown to the lions in Rome’s arena. Paul was definitely not naïve about civil authorities. We might think that the Paul would advocate for the overthrow of hostile, anti-Christian governments– but he gives the opposite advice.
1. Christians ought to be subject to the governing authorities
V1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.
v5 Therefore one must be in subjection…
Paul does not say we should rebel against or ridicule the governing authorities but be subject to them. The word “be subject” is the word “submit” and it means to voluntarily place oneself under the authority of another. It means to respectfully support and to obey as far as it is possible. Jesus had said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s”. (Mark 12:17) Paul here says the same thing.
2. God has established all governing authorities
Why should we be subject? The little word “for” in v1 gives us the reason:
V1 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.
If God is sovereign (which he is), he is not just in control of some things, but in control of all things, including who governs a country or which party wins an election. God is in full control of the Kingdoms of the earth.
Isaiah 40: 23 says, “[It is God] who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.”
Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar came to realise, “The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.” (Daniel 4:17)
Jesus said to the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, during his interview: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:11) Jesus viewed the pagan Roman governor who committed a great evil by sentencing the Christ to death as being appointed by God.
The God of the Bible, the “Commander of the Armies of heaven”, is sovereign over all of life. There is no area or election that catches God by surprise. God is not the author of evil or sin, but uses even evil and sin to achieve his purposes. The execution of the Christ of God was a great evil, but God used that evil for good. Let us never doubt the power or goodness of God. And if God has sovereignly and providentially placed a governing authority over us, we should not only be subject to it, but also v2:
Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
We are to be subject to the government and not resist it because by resisting the government we are resisting God and liable for judgement by the government and God. There are some very important qualifications to this which we will get to, but let this truth sink in first.
Every time we ridicule the government on Facebook we are indirectly ridiculing God who placed the government there. By doing so we are saying to a non-Christian, watching world either that we do not believe God is in control or that we do not believe God is good. Every time we mock and make fun of the governing authorities we are saying that we do not trust in the sovereign providence of God. Of course, being subject to the authorities does not mean we can’t criticise, disagree with or disapprove of them. We as the Christians must stand up for truth and righteousness. We must use all means available to us to influence society for good, including persuasion, debate and elections. However, the tone we use is not of mocking, taunting or ridicule. The Roman Emperor at the time of Paul’s letter was a despicable, evil man; Paul himself would be executed by Rome; yet Paul calls for Christians to be subject. Why does Paul say this?
3. Governing authorities are God’s agents to reward good and punish wrong
God has chosen to rule over his world, to maintain order, and to restrain lawlessness and sin through appointing governing authorities.
3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, 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, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. 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.
Rewarding good and punishing wrong is the main purpose of civil authorities and we’ve seen what happens to countries where there is, for whatever reason, no governing authority.
Civil authorities are called God’s servant in v4. The word is diakonos, the same word for Christians who serve in the church and among God’s people.
Also in v4 civil authorities are called avengers who carry out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. The authorities are God’s agent in dispensing God’s justice in his world. Every time an Emperor, magistrate or governor punishes criminals, they stand in the place of God enacting his judgment on sin and evil.
In v6 the authorities are called “ministers of God” (v6). The word for “ministers” is same word for those who served at God’s temple in the Old Testament; the same word Paul uses when referring to himself as a minister of the gospel; and the same word for Christians who serve in gospel ministry. Just as Christians are called to be ministers of the gospel, the governing authorities are called to be ministers of God’s justice. Civil authorities are also in the ministry! We give to the church to support the ministers of God’s gospel and we pay our taxes to the government to support the ministers of God’s justice.
Of course, criminals are not all prosecuted, many offenders escape the law and the guilty sometimes go unpunished; but be assured that all sin will be dealt with by God eventually – ultimately on the great day of judgment. No one escapes God’s justice forever. This should be a scary thought as we too, each one, are sinners and have broken God’s law. The momentous news of the gospel is that God the Son bore God’s judgement in our place when he died on that hill outside Jerusalem. On that dreadful yet glorious day God’s justice was fully satisfied. Those that trust in Christ receive all the benefits of Christ’s death, including the forgiveness of sin and the assurance that there is no condemnation for those in Christ. Either Christ bears God’s justice for you or you face God’s justice one day. What is reassuring to know is that the each and every governing authority will also stand before God and will be held accountable for how they fulfilled their role as God’s servant, minister and agent.
4. Governing authorities may (sometimes must) be disobeyed
In South Africa, Hendrik Verwoerd was the Minister of Native Affairs from 1950 to 1957 and helped pass the Group Areas Act in 1950 and the Native Laws Amendment Bill in 1952. This legislation made it illegal for inter-racial contact in church, school, hospital, institutions or in any place of entertainment. The Archbishop of Cape Town was Geoffrey Clayton who decided to resist and disobey the legislation. He told the government he would refuse to obey and would refuse to counsel the people of the Anglican Church to obey. The morning after this assertion he died; many believing that the pain and strain of threatened civil disobedience killed him. Was he right to oppose the government?
The German church
The confessing church in Germany under the Nazis did the same by refusing to acknowledge the Führer as head of the church even though that was official government policy. Where they right to oppose the government? Of course they were. We as Christians we are called to submit to and obey God first before anyone else.
In the Bible we have examples of believers disobeying the civil authorities and being commended by God for it. In Exodus 1, Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill every male born – they disobeyed – and Moses survived among others. Today, the state may try to compel doctors to do abortions. Christian doctors we trust will obey God and not break the fifth commandment.
In Daniel 6, Nebuchadnezzar passed legislation that no-one could worship any gods except him for thirty days. Daniel, a faithful believer, goes straight home, opens his windows and prays to God. Today, teachers may be compelled to teach all religions as true. Christian teachers will have to think carefully about how to obey the first two commandments.
In Acts 4, the apostles of Jesus were beaten by the Jewish authorities and ordered not to tell the gospel to anyone. The apostles responded by saying, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” Today, in some Eastern countries evangelism is prohibited and punishable by death. Very soon in Western countries proclaiming the gospel and calling sin sin will be classed as hate speech. Who will we obey? The government or God?
John Stott wrote,
“If the state should command something that God forbids, or if the state forbids something that God commands, then our plain duty is to disobey the state in order to obey God. The biblical principle is absolutely plain. We are to submit to the authority of the state because it derives its authority from God. We are to submit to its authority right up to the point where obedience to the state would involve us in disobedience to God. At that point it is our plain Christian duty to disobey the state in order to obey God.”
Our general stance is to be subject to the authorities, but there may be specific instances when as Christians we may not and cannot obey – we must obey God and live with the consequences, like Jesus and the Apostles did. The Christian’s ultimate submission and obedience is to Almighty God – not to the state or anyone else.
5. Christians respect authorities and pay their taxes
v7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed.
Some Christians in the first century were thinking, “If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not Lord; if Caesar is not Lord I don’t have to pay my taxes!” Jesus is Lord and we obey him first, but the civil authorities are part of God’s purposes for the world to keep evil in check. As Christians, we submit to the authorities: we pay tax and import duties, we declare our income, and we pay VAT and obey the law because we see the government as God’s servant. We also honour and respect the civil authorities, not because they are necessarily honourable or respectable, but because of the function they fulfil in God’s providence.
The Apostle Peter wrote in his first letter, “Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:17) Remember, Nero was emperor at the time.
Today, in democracies, citizens vote for political parties and the winning party ends up in government. The Bible reminds us that, “The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.”