James A. Garfield, a Christian, considered being an elder a higher honor than being president of the United States. When he was elected the 20th president of the United States in 1881 he was serving as an elder of the Lord’s church in Hiram, Ohio. On the last Sunday that he was at services, before he boarded a train for Washington, D.C., he stood before the congregation and said, "I resign the highest office in the land to become President of the United States."
We live in a time and place in which we have a government that is as responsive to the rights and needs of individuals as any time in history (it’s not perfect, but it stands heads and shoulders above everything else). Regardless of how you feel about it, we still have a society that is the envy of most of the rest of the world.
It hasn’t always been that way. In fact, for most of the history of Christianity, Christians have had to endure persecution and worship in secrecy for fear of governmental retaliation. During the middle years of the first century a particularly cruel and vengeful Roman emperor named Nero adopted the Christians as his scapegoat for every evil the empire was experiencing. Listen to a quote from the Roman historian, Tacitus:
But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed. (Annals 15.44)
That is why it is all the more remarkable that Paul writes what he writes in Romans 13:1-10 - Everyone must submit himself 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, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 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 he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Paul isn’t alone in his attitude toward submission to government. The apostle Peter agrees: 1 Peter 2:13-17 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, 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 men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.
History tells us that Paul and Peter both died at the hands of Nero, and Christians suffered unspeakable atrocities and persecution. Evil and godlessness and injustice were pervasive throughout the empire and yet every NT writer tells Christians “submit yourselves to the governing authorities.” Not, if you voted for them – not, if you agree with them – not, if you think they are doing a good job. Without qualification or exception, “submit yourselves.”
Jesus himself recognized the authority of government and yielded to it when he was questioned about paying taxes and he said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s…” On the other hand, Jesus knew full well where a government’s authority came from. As he was standing on trial before Pilate, “‘Where do you come from?’ he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave no answer. ‘Do you refuse to speak to me?’ Pilate said. ‘Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?’ Jesus answered, ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.’”
Don’t misunderstand that as rebellion. One of the things that the Jewish leadership tried to accuse Jesus of was sedition and uprising, but Jesus never suggested it and never allowed that from his disciples – though to do so would have probably commanded a tremendous following –
John 6:14-15 “After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”
Or in the garden when Peter cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant with a sword defending Jesus – “‘No more of this!’ And he touched the man’s ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, ‘Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs?’” (Luke 22:51-52).
The early disciples faced time and again the hostility of government rulers who tried to silence their voices from proclaiming Christ. In Acts 4:18-20, “Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.’”
That’s not a blind, unthinking submission to governmental authority, but a recognition of a higher authority who demands absolute obedience and loyalty. And sometimes we are called to experience suffering and persecution because of our allegiance to that higher authority.
The principle of authority and submission in the Bible runs much deeper than simply who’s over whom. Authority is at the very heart of our relationship with God and translates into a number of other human relationships in which we are in an authority /submission relationship:
• Parents and children / Masters and slaves (or Employers and employees) / Husbands and wives / Elders and congregation.
• Remember that submission is never an admission of inferiority or weakness, but a sign of the greatest kind of strength. It is not a power issue, but a way in which God establishes order and a kind of functional harmony.
• In Romans 13, Paul focuses our attention on governmental authority. Why? This is a part of Paul’s discussion on the practical application of what Paul called a “living sacrifice.” He says, “don’t be conformed to this world,” “don’t be squeezed into its mold.”
But at the same time, there are some obligations and responsibilities we have in this world. Rather than exempting us from participation as citizens, being a Christian calls us to become the most exemplary of citizens. We should uphold and obey the laws of our land, we should vote for and encourage godly leaders.
• But that notwithstanding, we should support and honor every leader that governs by the vote of the people. If called to military service, we should defend our country. If called to jury duty, we should consider it a privilege to support the judicial system. We should pay our taxes honestly.
• And the rationale goes beyond a pragmatic fear of arrest and punishment if we don’t. In vs. 5, Paul writes “it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.”
• It’s not just the fear of external coercion or punishment, but our internal moral compass that guides our actions – Paul says “because of conscience.”
Being Christians calls us to be the very best citizens of whatever nation in which we might live – whether it is the U.S., or a third world dictatorship, or a communist ruled country. That is what is so remarkable about what Paul writes – he is not writing in the context of a free democratic government that treats all its citizens fairly and allows free religious expression – he is writing in the context of Nero’s tyrannical dictatorship in which he puts Christians to death, viciously and at whim. And still Paul writes, “everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities.”
Let’s notice some specific things about what Paul says here in Romans 13:
First, he commands a universal submission to the governing authorities – “everyone” – not just if you like the government and agree with its decisions. No one is exempted because they were treated unfairly or their candidate didn’t win the elections. Democrats were to submit to George Bush. Republicans are to submit to Barrack Obama. If you live in Garfield County you submit to our county commissioners; if you live in Glenwood Springs you submit to the town council. You respect police officers, you obey the laws of the state, you abide by the rulings of our courts.
We are blessed to live in a land where we have the freedom to speak out against the things we disagree with and doubly blessed to have the means by which to change things. We can vote, we can write our congressmen, we can distribute petitions. But even if we couldn’t, and even if things got worse, Paul would still command us to submit to governing authorities.
Second, Paul says all governing authorities have been established by God.
• Not sanctioning their forms – monarchy, democracy or communism.
• And not the individuals – neither George Bush or Barrack Obama, not Adolph Hitler or Saddam Hussein – some are godly, others ungodly.
• What is established is the authority granted to men to maintain order and safety so that anarchy and chaos don’t break out.
• Twice in vs. 4, Paul says the ruler is “God’s servant to do good and to punish wrongdoers.” That doesn’t always happen. It didn’t in Paul’s day, it doesn’t in our day. Nevertheless, Paul says they have been established by God.
• The Pharaoh of Egypt was explicitly called a servant of God in Moses’ day. Nebuchadnezzar, as ruthless and godless a ruler as ever lived – destroying Jerusalem and taking the Jews into exile – was specifically called a servant of God because he served God’s purpose in his day.
The prophet Daniel wrote, “Praise be to the name of God forever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them” (Dan. 2:20-21). God is active and involved in the affairs of men. He is in control. We may not understand everything that is going on, and there may be times when it looks like God is out of the picture. But never think that some leader has sidestepped and outsmarted God. He is where he is because God allows him to be there. And he rules at God’s pleasure.
The third thing Paul says is that rebellion against these authorities is rebellion against God. When we rebel against the governing authorities we put ourselves in a position of standing against what God has ordained. When we rebel against the governing authorities and violate the law, even thinking we are doing it for good and noble purposes, we negate our message of the gospel to the world. When we are in rebellion, our motives are suspect, our methods are tainted, and our results are often at a great cost to our relationship with God and our relationship with the people around us.
Back in Romans 12:18, Paul had written, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” How do you do that? Look at 13:7-8 “Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another.”
We need to keep our accounts current – we need to pay our taxes and debts, but we also need to pay respect and honor to those who lead us. There is one debt that we can never fully repay – should never bring to a final payment – that is the debt of love. Paul says all commandments are fulfilled in this one command, to love one another. When you act in love toward others, you’re not going to murder or commit adultery, you’re not going to covet their possessions or position. When you act in love toward your neighbor and serve them you will be the best citizen, someone that himself commands the respect and honor of his neighbors and community.
All authority is ultimately God’s authority. Paul wrote in Col. 1:16, “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.” God is sovereign, God is in control. The ultimate question is - is God in control of your life? Have you submitted your life to him? One day everyone will, from the most powerful king to the most destitute homeless person. Listen to what Paul wrote in Phil. 2:9-11 “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
I think it’s important to be reminded of these things, especially in an election year. Does this mean that it doesn’t matter who you vote for? Yes, it matters. I believe it’s important to put into office those men and women who believe in God and honor his word and follow his principles.
Does that mean God’s will can be thwarted if my candidate doesn’t win? No way. God is sovereign. God is able to work through and often in spite of both the best of leaders and worst of leaders throughout history. Because God is the one who both sets up kings and deposes them. The Psalmist says God will bring one nation down and exalt another (Ps 75:7). In 2 Chronicles 7, God promises, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
God is in control and we are to be submissive, both to him and to the authorities who rule as his servants.