Jul 31 - Are There Limits To Obeying Earthly Authorities?

Are There Limits to Obeying Earthly Authorities?

July 31, 2016

Romans 13:1 -8



Romans 13:1-8

July 31st, 2016


I will tell you some jokes, but they will have biblical references, so if you don’t understand them, it’s likely because you’re not familiar with the biblical story they are referring to:


What kind of man was Boaz before he got married?                      Ruthless.

Who was the greatest comedian in the Bible?          Samson- he brought the house down (Judges 16:30).

Why was Goliath so surprised when David hit him with a rock from his slingshot?

The thought had never entered his head before.

What kind of car is mentioned in the Bible?  A Honda, because the early disciples were all in one Accord.

Who was the first drug addict in the Bible?

The Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar … he was on grass for seven years (also need to know that grass is another term for weed, pot).

Where was the first baseball game in the Bible?

In the big inning, Eve stole first, Adam stole second, Cain struck out Abel, and the Giants and Angels were rained out. 


Biblical illiteracy is a growing phenomena among Christians since many of them do not read the Bible any longer.  So that may be a problem, because the way Christians are to live their lives is to be predicated upon knowing at least what’s in the pages of the NT. 


But even those who know what is in the Bible may misinterpret and misapply what they read.  For example, the church father Origin applied Jesus’ comment, that some individuals make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of God (Matt 19:12) literally and castrated himself. 

Some of the most commonly verses misunderstood and misapplied, include:

Phil 4:13 – I can do all things through him who gives me strength

Jer 29:11 – for I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future (not speaking about money but about return to the land)

Prov 29:17 – where there is no vision the people perish, but happy is he who keeps the law (not speaking of a vision statement, but about a word of revelation from God).


Let every person obey the governing authorities.[1]  For there is no governing authority except those who come from God, all that exist have been instituted by God.[2]  Therefore, whoever resists the governing authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist them will be punished.


Only those whose conduct is evil have to fear the rulers, not those whose conduct is good.[3]  Therefore, if you want to live without fear of the one who is in authority then do what is right and you will receive his approval - he is a servant of God and demands right conduct.  However, if you do what is evil, be afraid! 


He does not carry the sword without reason.  He stands in service to God and carries out the punishment on the one who does wrong.  Therefore, it is necessary to be in subjection, not only to avoid being punished, but also in order to be true to one’s conscience. 


This is also the reason why you pay taxes, because those who collect them are acting as servants of God in this capacity.  Give to each what is their due, be it taxes, toll, respect or honour.  Do not owe anything to anyone, only realize that you will always owe each other love.  


Historically, this passage in Romans has been used to justify oppressive political systems on the one hand, as well as revolutions aimed at installing a new „God-appointed” government, on the other.


Just to give you one example, during the Middle Ages, peasants lived as serfs.  They not only had to harvest the landowner’s fields and do all other chores in and around the manor house without pay, but they also had to pay taxes and fees to their Lord when they harvested their own fields, when they got married, when they had to grind their grain, even when they died … a death tax which was meant to take what a serf may have saved up over their life-time, leaving their widows and orphans penniless. 


While peasants were NOT outright slaves, they and their families were bound for life to their Lord and were not allowed to leave the land.  The Lord was their judge, jury and executioner – being able to put them in stocks or whip them, for even minor offenses.  If you’re not familiar with it, the feudal system was unfair and oppressive in ways that we can’t even imagine it today. 


In the early 1500’s, along came Martin Luther who opposed the Pope and the so-called “Holy Roman Empire,” the two most significant authorities of that time, and disobeyed them both.  He also preached the priesthood of all believers, promoting an equality among Christians not previously encountered.  It is also significant that the nobles and princes were often related to the bishops and other ecclesiastical rulers that Luther opposed.  Further, Luther initially appeared to be sympathetic toward the peasants’ cause. 


Around the same time, another Reformer in Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli, taught that in order for the gospel to be successful, secular laws needed to be changed in order to agree with God’s laws and that civil disobedience was allowed if the authorities acted against the will of God.  He quoted the apostle Peter, "We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).


The result was that a number of leaders among the Peasantry wrote up a short list of demands … most of whom would seem eminently reasonable to us today, for example, that peasants would be treated as free individuals, that the number of hours of unpaid labour would be reduced instead of always increased, that all people have the right to hunt and collect wood, that the nobility could not take what is called the death tax, and so on.  They added that if any of their demands can be demonstrated to be unscriptural, that they would be null and void.


As you can see, the peasants wanted to live their lives according to the Scriptures.  And along came other pastors and reformers, like Thomas Müntzer (1489 – 1525), who argued that armed resistance to evil governments is scriptural, given what Jesus said about bringing a sword to the earth and about selling a cloak in order to buy a sword.[4]  Further, Christians are called to fear and serve God, not to fear and serve men; and that a struggle against the landowners was going to be the battle of Armageddon in which God would intervene on behalf of the peasants.  And so armed conflict erupted.


Luther and Müntzer had denounced each other for years, but when the latter’s preaching actually resulted in armed conflict, Martin Luther responded by writing a scathing open letter against the peasants in which he uses the passage in Romans 13 that we have just read as a proof text to argue that the nobility have the divine right and authority to kill the rebels since the nobles are divinely appointed and put into power by God.  Strangely enough, coming from someone who himself opposed and disobeyed the ecclesiastical authorities.[5]


As you may imagine, the war was relatively short, given the massive advantage the nobility had in weaponry and trained armed forces.  We are talking about wooden pitchforks, threshing implements and scythes going up against trained soldiers with swords and cannons.  Between 70 to 100,000 peasants were massacred when all was said and done.  Müntzer, who thought that God would intervene, was captured, tortured and executed.


Looking back, it appears that both Müntzer AND Luther were quite lose in the way they interpreted and applied Scripture.  We should learn from this and not make the same kind of error today.  So how can we keep from misapplying Scripture?


I. Understand the historical context (of the passage)


When reading, interpreting and applying Scripture, it is always important to ask oneself in what context was a passage written? … what was going on at the time, what situation is being addressed, who was the intended audience? 


In the case of our passage, thankfully those questions can be answered relatively easily.  The apostle Paul was writing to a congregation in the capital city of Rome, consisting of both Jewish and non-Jewish Christians sometime around AD 57. 


Just a few years earlier, the emperor Claudius (reigned AD 41-54) had been replaced by the then 17 year old Nero (reigned AD 54-68).  The young Nero, under the capable tutelages of Seneca (advisor to Nero from AD 54-62) and a man by the name of Burrus, was instituting changes to lessen political and bureaucratic corruption, to lessen the tax burden on the poor, and to protect former slaves from being enslaved again, all the while appeasing the senate. 


While always morally challenged, Nero had allowed Jews to return to the capital, had not as yet executed his mother or a host of political rivals, had not kicked his pregnant wife to death, and had not committed any atrocities against Christians.  In other words, at the time Paul penned his letter, Nero was a popular leader and supported by those who lived in Rome.


Paul had never visited this congregation before but hoped to visit them in the near future.  His purpose was to introduce himself and his teaching in order to be supported by them when he arrives.


He also addresses what appears to be a major tension between Jewish and non-Jewish Christians in the church.  In fact, throughout the theological section of his letter, spanning the first 11 chapter, he always finds a way to address the issue of how Jews and Gentiles both fit into God’s plan of salvation, and that neither group has the right to think of themselves better than the other. 


Paul then spends almost the rest of his letter, chapters 12 – 15, giving the believers in Rome some practical advice as to how they should live out their Christian faith in society and in the church.  Our passage fits into this practical section. So the first question that comes to my mind when reading this passage is:


Why does Paul admonish the Christians in Rome to obey the government and pay taxes?


Various NT scholars have different theories.  Possibly Paul is referring to the problem of over-taxation and the reluctance of the citizens to pay it.  As I have already indicated, before and during Nero’s early reign there was a popular outcry against taxation, with the result that Nero actually lowered taxes for the poor.[6]  So perhaps Paul is warning his readers not to join in with those who spoke out against excessive taxation.  


Others suggest that the Jewish Christians in the church at Rome may have disliked the Roman government because of the anti-Jewish policies by the previous emperor, Claudius (reigned AD 41-54), who, in AD 49 had expelled all Jews from Rome permanently, something that was reversed only when Claudius died, only 3 years before Paul penned his letter.[7] 


Reports may have also reached the Jewish Christians how friends and family were being oppressed in Palestine.  For 13 years (AD 44 onward) civil unrest had been and continued to strain Jewish and Roman relationships.  Paul may have been commenting that obedience to God’s instituted authorities has to be placed ahead of national sentiments.


This second option seems more plausible given Paul’s obvious concern for returning the church to greater unity, particularly between the Jewish believers and the non-Jewish believers.  If Jewish Christians voiced criticisms against the non-Jewish Roman government, it may drive a further wedge in this already fractured church. 


So in order to understand and properly apply a passage, it is important to know the historical background.  Secondly, it is also necessary to …


II. Understand what (exactly) is being conveyed


In our passage, Paul tells the believers in Rome that they are to submit to the governing authorities in Rome, which includes being respectful toward these as well as paying taxes.


The main point Paul makes is found in the very first sentence: 


Let every person obey the governing authorities.


This was to include doing what is good, refraining from doing evil, paying taxes and other fees, and respecting the various civil authorities.


If you want to live without fear of the one who is in authority then do what is right … .However, if you do what is evil, be afraid! 

Give to each what is their due, be it taxes, toll, respect or honour.


Paul then gives various reasons why the believers in Rome were to do this.  First of all, they are to obey the current government because …


… To oppose or resist even secular rulers is to oppose and resist God and his will


Whoever resists the governing authorities resists what God has appointed.


Because God is the one who ultimately appoints (actively puts in place or passively allows) even secular rulers


For there is no governing authority except those who come from God, all that exist have been instituted by God. 


The real difficult question really has to do with God’s activity in instituting the governing authorities.  Does he actively intervene in history in order to place any given ruler in place?  Or does he passively allow even the worst despots to come to power?


Note in this next sub-point to Paul’s argument that he actually describes the Nero and those under him as servants of God … and this he repeats three times.


Because even secular rulers actually serve God as they …


… enforce good conduct


(The ruler) is a servant of God and demands good conduct. 


(as they) … punish bad conduct


He (the ruler) stands in service to God and carries out the punishment on the one who does wrong.


(as they) … collect taxes


Those who collect taxes are acting as servants of God in this capacity. 


Secondly, the Christians in Rome were to submit to secular rulers because…


The Christian conscience will affirm such obedience as right


It is necessary to be in subjection, not only to avoid being punished, but also in order to be true to one’s conscience.


Let’s look at that breakdown in one slide:


Let every person obey the governing authorities (by doing what is good and refraining from doing what is evil, paying taxes and fees, showing respect).

Because to oppose or resist even secular rulers is to oppose and resist God and his will

Because God is the one who ultimately puts even secular rulers in power

Because even secular rulers actually serve God as they …

… enforce good conduct

… punish bad conduct

… collect taxes

Because the Christian conscience will affirm such obedience as right


So Christians in Rome were to be good citizens and fulfill their civic obligations because the Roman Emperor and Senate are instituted by God to serve God’s purposes. 


The Roman government was somehow put in place by God.  As already indicated, there is some controversy as to how God did this.  Some commentators argue that Paul thought this happened through God’s purposeful intervention in history, while other commentators argue that Paul was commenting on God’s permissive will … in other words, he only allowed the process of history to bring about the powers to be.   


III. The third major issue when interpreting and applying a biblical passage is to figure out how it applies in the modern context. 


When it comes to our passage, we first need to clarify one of two possibilities.  On the one hand, it could be argued that Paul was giving the church in Rome a universal manifesto on how Christians are to conduct themselves toward the governing authorities in each and any given situation throughout church history.  In other words, Paul is setting out a dogmatic theory of government and state that is binding on all Christians regardless of time or place?


On the other hand, Paul may be basing his advice on a rather glowing assessment of the Roman government of that day and age.  In other words, his advice to the Christians in Rome is predicated to a large extent by the current historical circumstances.


One fact to keep in mind when trying to discern which it is, is that in the letter to the Romans, as in his other letters, Paul’s end-time view is apparent:


1. Paul thought that Jesus was returning soon


Do this (including obeying the government) because you understand the present time.  The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.  The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.                                                                                              Romans 13:11-12


Paul likely thought that Jesus would return in his own lifetime.  For example, in 1 Thessalonians (4:15-17) Paul includes himself in the group of those who would be alive at Jesus’ return.  In other words, he did not anticipate that the Roman government would be continuing on for any length of time.  The hope that the Roman Empire would pass away in the near future, makes the idea of complete obedience to it in the few intervening years palatable.


So part of Paul’s advice regarding submission to the governing authorities was likely based on his conviction that the very rulers instituted by God would be removed by him in the very near future.


2,000 years onward, Christians are no longer dominated by a sense of the nearness of Christ's return to the extent that Paul was.  They now know that an oppressive government, like Hitler’s reign in Germany, Stalin’s in Russia, Mao’s in China, and the now 3rd generation rule of the Kim dynasty in North Korea, can last over years or decades.  Were these really the representatives of God, purposefully put in place by God’s will, as was argued in the Middle Ages?[8]


Should Christians during Hitler’s rule not have protected and sheltered Jews based on Romans 13?  Should Martin Luther King not have broken laws that enforced segregation in the US, even though today we would consider those very laws as evil?


To this day, unequal treatment based on gender and race continues to persist in many places.  Oppressive, violent and downright evil leaders and dynasties can and have persisted over a long time.  Who knows just how long organizations like Boku Haram, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas and many others will be a scourge on the world. 


The other thing to keep in mind, as already mentioned, is that the kind of horrors against Christians that were committed by Roman emperors, like Nero, and Domitian still lay in the future.  While Nero was a relative benevolent ruler when Paul penned the letter to the Romans, everything changed 8 – 9 years later when Nero was accused of setting the city on fire (AD 64) in order to make room for his grandiose building projects.  The Roman historian Tacitus describes what Nero (reigned AD 54 – 68) did to the Christian community in Rome in order to deflect blame:


Nero falsely charged the persons commonly called Christians with guilt, and punished them with the most fearful tortures … .  Accordingly, first those were arrested who personally confessed that they were Christians.  Next, on the information extracted from them, a vast multitude was convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city as of “hating the human race.”


 … Some were covered with the hides of wild beasts and worried to death by dogs; others were nailed to crosses; others again were set on fire.


As evening approached many were burned (alive) to serve for the evening lighting.  Nero opened his own gardens for the spectacle.


Tacitus adds that the suffering of the dying Christians was such that the Roman people felt compassion for them.


It is assumed that both the apostle Peter and the apostle Paul were caught up in this murderous rampage, Paul was likely beheaded since he was a Roman citizen, and Peter crucified, because he wasn’t – tradition says upside down. 


But at the time that Paul penned the letter these actions were not anticipated, by Paul or anyone else.  It is debatable if Paul would have written what he did had the deadly persecution against Christians already broken out.[9] 


Nor could Paul foresee that decades later the emperor Domitian (reigned AD 81-96) would proclaim himself as the Lord God, try to force Christians and Jews to worship him, and institute a law that Christians had to renounce their faith or be executed.  


As it was, when Paul wrote his letter, the Roman rule afforded a modem of peace and safety of travel.  The Roman army had built durable and solid roads that connected the empire and made travel so much easier.  Even if brutal when it sought to suppress any challenge to its rule, the Roman authorities did bring some form of law and justice to its realm, a sense of order and stability also known as the Pax Romana.  In fact, Paul himself was not shy in using the Roman legal system to avoid being flogged when he was in arrested in Jerusalem.


So in order to apply the passage properly, we have to take into account that …


2. Paul assumed that rulers fulfilled their God-given duties


Paul’s command to obey the state carried with it the assumption that even non-Christian rulers, broadly speaking, are fulfilling the task that God has given them to preserve life and protect its citizens from abuse and terror.


Thirdly, we need to keep in mind those passages where Christians in fact disobeyed earthly or even spiritual rulers because those rulers demanded actions that go against God’s will. 


3. Christians in Paul’s day practiced civil disobedience


For example, after the apostle Peter had healed a man born lame (Acts 3:1-9), Peter and John were arrested and put in jail for preaching about Jesus. They had to face the highest Jewish court, called the Sanhedrin, which decreed that they were not permitted to speak or teach in the name of Jesus (4:1-18). 


This is how Peter and John answered them:


Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you have to decide for yourselves.  But it is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.                                                                                      Acts 4:19-20


Some time later, all of the apostles were arrested and imprisoned and brought before the Sanhedrin.  When reminded of the previous trial, Peter responded:


We must obey God rather than men.                                                   Acts 5:29


And then he proceeded to tell them that Jesus is the risen Saviour exalted at the right hand of God.   While the Sanhedrin at first wanted to have the apostles executed, on the advice of Gamaliel, they only had the apostles flogged and then released them with the explicit order not to speak again in the name of Jesus – which of course, was ignored again.  The call to obeying God’s will did not hinge on that society’s sympathy or permission.


However, never has any writer of the NT justified violence as a means to bring about a change in society or rule.  Almost all Christians would agree that to kill abortion providers as a means to opposing permissive abortion laws is in itself evil and monstrous.  


So now we need to bring Paul’s words to the Romans into 2016 and a variety of options are available to us. 


Approaches to application


Write off the passage as applicable only to the congregation in Rome


We could argue that because Paul’s concern was specifically aimed at the Jewish Christians in Rome, his teaching has no direct implications for believers today. However, most Christians would agree that the letters of Paul are more than just occasional documents; they are the Word of God, and as such do have implications for us today.  The principle of submitting to the government is still one that needs to be taken seriously.


Obey every ruling regime in every regard, no matter how evil or corrupt it may be


We could argue that Christians have to submit fully to any regime in every way, no matter how despicable, evil, violent and anti-Christian that regime may be because each one is instituted by God himself … it is God’s will that even oppressive regimes flourish. 


This viewpoint is difficult to maintain as well.  For example, because communist and Muslim governments often outlaw Christianity to one degree or another, full obedience may mean that Christians have to abandon their faith, never get together, or never share their faith with others.  Like Peter, Christians are called to obey God more than they are called to obey political rulers.  Therefore, no Christian can meekly submit to the proposition that man-made laws are sacred and inviolable.


Obey the government unless it demands something that is clearly opposed to God’s will


We could argue that God certainly does want Christians to obey the ruling authorities, but just because he allows morally corrupt and oppressive regimes to be in power over a prolonged period of time, does not mean that these embody or represent the will or rule of God on earth.


In fact, when any governing authority tries to impose laws, restrictions or duties on its citizens which are obviously in contradiction to God’s will, then it is no longer the Christian’s duty to submit and obey the governing authorities when it comes to those areas.  Obedience to the state cannot be used as an excuse for sinful or corrupt behaviour on the part of Christians.


By the way, even if we decide that this is likely the best way to apply Paul’s admonition to the Romans, that may not end our difficulty when applying it.  Let me explain what I mean by that. 


If certain Christians are convinced that pacifism is what Jesus taught, and they live in any of the countries indicated in red, where mandatory conscription is enforced, it would be necessary for them to refuse service outright, or to insist being placed into a non-combative role.  In some countries this may end in a lengthy prison term or even in execution (North Korea).


On the other hand, in some very corrupt countries, often Christians go along with the bribing of officials and the police, even though they know that this doesn’t lie within God’s perfect will – it is wrong.  One Christian I spoke to, called such bribes “special offering.”  In his estimation, it is the price of getting anything done. 


What about in our Canadian context?  Since our government is not actively opposed to religious convictions, and we do not have a military draft, it seems to me there is little reason for Christians to practice civil disobedience.  Our default position as Christians is to bend over backward to be model citizens.  But this may change in the future.


What would happen when secularism is enforced in Canada to a degree where religious freedoms are curtailed?  In my personal estimation, given the way that the courts are interpreting the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, this will likely happen in the relative near future.  

It could also come to the point where faith-based networks can no longer be involved in refugee resettlement. 

A time may come where Christians will go to jail because they refuse to affirm certain tenets of secular law and morality. 

God forbid, but it could happen, particular if Christians have no representation to try to influence the courts with regard to constitutional decisions.


For now, though, acts of civil disobedience should be few.   


However, even Christians can avoid the biblical call to submit to the various levels of government to varying degrees … lying on our tax returns, for instance.  Nor do I don’t know many Christians who drive the speed limit – and if they do, they have to incur the wrath of those driving behind them.  I’ve also been told by some Christians, that when it comes to being called for jury duty, they outright lie in order to avoid it. 


In 1 Thessalonians, the apostle Paul tells the Christians in that city how they should conduct themselves in the secular society, even as they anticipate Jesus’ return.


Excel more and more in love, strive to live a quiet life, mind your own business, and make an honest living, as we already instructed you.  In this way you will behave properly toward those outside the church and not be dependent on anyone.                                                                                1 Thessalonians 4:10-12


Christians are called to being model citizens in do many passages in the Bible, that this has to be their primary focus.  Yes, in certain circumstances civil disobedience becomes necessary, but not in many.







[1] “Obey” = hypotasso (to place under; to submit to a higher authority – can be voluntary or coerced).

“Governing authorities” = exousiais hyperechousasisor exousiais

[2] “Instituted” = tasso (to appoint, to order, to ordain, or to determine)

[3] “Rulers” = archontes

[4] Matt 10:34 (I did not come to bring peace but a sword to the earth); Luke 22:35-38 (Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one).

[5] I have read somewhere that Luther did allow for non-violent disobedience if government should seek to coerce people from their faith, but am not sure if that’s true.

[6] Nero reigned from AD 54 – 68, and in his early reign tried to bring about many reforms that limited government corruption, graft and overtaxation.  Looking back on past events, the Roman historians Suetonius (c. AD 70 – 130) and Tacitus (c. AD 56 – 118), mentioned that there was a popular outcry against taxation under Nero’s reign. 

[7] The exact date of the expulsion is not clear.  It may have been anywhere between AD 41 and AD 53, but most likely around AD 49-50).  In Acts 18, Paul met a Jewish couple in Corinth during his second missionary journey.  They had to leave Rome because of Claudius’ order. This took place during the reign of the proconsul Gallio (reigned c. AD 50-54).  The Jews were not able to return to Rome until Claudius died and Nero took over.

[8] See “The Scots textbooks of the divine right of kings” (1597-98) penned by James VI of Scotland.

[9] Very similar admonitions are found in Titus 3:1-2 and 1 Peter 2:13-15.  Both letters could be dated relatively shortly before the burning of Rome if they were penned by the scribes of Paul and Peter (Silvanus).  1 Peter 5:9 mentions that Christians all over the empire were experiences some form of persecution, likely much like Paul himself endured suffering at the hands of local governments for inciting riots.  Should those letters be pseudepigraphal, then later dates could be assumed and my argument would break down.