“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. … Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour. Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” (Rom 13:1-8)
So – what are we make of this? Paul’s admonition to be subject to the “higher powers” has been used for centuries to justify the support of Christians for the authority of civil governments. It has also been problematic when governments become tyrannical. We know that civil governments can and do commit acts of tyranny and injustice and the commentators usually have to add in some statement to the effect that Paul says nothing of what to do in that situation. Others have used these verses to justify absolute obedience in all cases to civil authority, paying taxes, and other such things. I think they are missing the point.
It’s a shame that in America today there seems to be an almost total lack of understanding of the purpose of civil government. It is even more amazing when you read the American Declaration of Independence and realize that it spells things out very clearly. “To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men,” wrote Jefferson. That is the only legitimate purpose of civil government and can be summed up simply as: to insure justice.
But, do you know what justice is? Justice is “the virtue which consists in giving to every one what is his due.” That definition from Webster’s dictionary is the definition that has been used since time immemorial. In fact, it is the definition Socrates used in Plato’s “Republic.” Compare that definition of justice with what Paul wrote in verses seven and eight and you will see that Paul is using the classic definition of justice here. “Render therefore to all their dues…Owe no man anything, but to love one another.” That verse, coming at the end of the passage really explains the whole passage. Government, to the extent it preserves justice is a benefit to mankind. If we understand that God demands justice, then it should not be a problem to agree with what Paul said.
By this point in the epistle Paul has expounded on the condition of mankind that necessitates a savior. Man is not everywhere and always just. Because of that injustice inherent in mankind’s fallen condition, government is “ordained by God” in order that some semblance of justice will be possible. That’s all there is to it. No big deal, really, and Paul says little more than what a good treatise on civil government will tell you. Or, if you wish, you can go read about the Roman system of laws and you will find that many of the principles of justice that we employ today were embedded into the Roman civil law.
Reading this passage over the years I have wondered why it is even here. After all, Paul only states what everyone should already know. He does add the Christian principle that to love one another is the perfect expression of justice. Yet, other than that, I don’t see why Paul would even bother to insert this text into the epistle. That gets me to pondering. The text itself doesn’t really explain why this admonition is here, so we have to try to infer the reason from the overall context. It’s good to remember that, after inspiration, the three most important things in Biblical hermeneutics are “context, context, and context.” If you will look at the historical and literary context of Romans I think you will find a very simple explanation for the inclusion of this passage.
Try, for a moment at least, to put on your toga and sandals and see the world from the perspective of a first century Roman citizen. For years prior to Paul’s letter, and for many years afterward, the Jewish people were struggling to break free from Roman rule and reestablish an independent Jewish kingdom. The leaders in these attempts at freedom would have been called “messiahs.” The idea of a messiah, at least in the minds of many Jewish people of that time, was to see him as a king or deliverer typified by David or the later Hasmonean kings such as Judas Maccabees. These constant rebellions are described in the writings of Josephus, so we know how the Romans dealt with them. When the Romans would capture these political revolutionaries they would crucify them as an example to others. Get the picture?
Along comes a new movement, springing from that hotbed of rebellion against Rome, and it is proclaiming that a crucified Jewish Messiah rose from the dead, was divine, will free all men from slavery, and is going to return from heaven to set up a perpetual kingdom on earth. Now -- what would a Roman citizen think of that? Most likely he would think that Christianity was yet another Jewish attack on Imperial Roman rule. In addition, these Christians were not honoring the gods of the Pagan society, and thus to the Romans could bring the wrath of the gods onto the people. Add to that the fact that Paul just spent twelve chapters explaining how those who follow Jesus are “not under Law” and you can see that Paul could very easily be misunderstood. Paul needs to make it clear that Christianity is not a political rebellion with the goal of destroying the Roman Empire. To me, that is the simplest and most likely explanation of why Paul inserted this passage into the epistle. And, I’m not alone in this thinking. The well respected Pulpit Commentary says about the same thing.
Given that as a premise, there is nothing here in Romans that can be used to justify or argue for one political ideology over another, absolute obedience to a particular civil authority, or encourage people to political activism of any kind. It is always important to remember that Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” Nevertheless, what are we to do in the case of a government gone wrong? The answer is simple, really, when you understand the condition of man in this world and the true source of tyranny.
“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Eph 6:12)
The principalities and powers that Paul refers to are spiritual powers. Our battle is not against the civil governments of this world. Our enemy is the accuser of God and man: Satan. That demonic power is the power that rules from behind the throne, exerting a spiritual influence on the leaders of governments. We are never to be subject to those spiritual powers no matter what form the civil government takes.
When that hidden power takes control, the government will no longer fulfill it’s obligations to insure justice. It will, instead, be used as an instrument to enslave, control and destroy. That type of power must be fought on a spiritual battlefield and not just a physical one. Thus, the most subversive thing you can do against any governmental tyranny is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That message sets men free. That message gives man the power to resist and overcome the spiritual powers of darkness. And those who have that spiritual authority can bind the forces of darkness that lead to destruction.
Ultimately, we are only subject to the “higher power” of Jesus Christ. We are His servants and seek only to do His will while on this earth. His commandment to us is to love one another. That carries with it the requirement to seek justice for all of mankind. To the extent that the civil government seeks the same end, there is no problem following the laws that organize society.