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.
Dear Paul the Apostle,
Paul, Paul, Paul… What are we to do with you?
There you were, sitting in Corinth with your friends Priscilla and Aquilla knowing that they had been forced out of their home city Rome through the machinations of the Emperor Claudius. In between making tents, you taught the church there in Corinth that their citizenship was not of this world, but of a new kingdom, the Kingdom of God, so much so that the followers of Jesus would rather die than renounce their faith in favor of worshipping the emperor. You are a man who has experienced the wrath of Roman governmental power, and you will very likely be arrested and die at the hands of the current Emperor Nero. So, how can you of all people come out of nowhere and suggest that all should submit to governing authorities?
You see, we have a problem. All of this sounds good on the surface – this teaching that folks have used as a call to citizenship throughout the years. Yet, when we continue on in the story of scripture, we discover that Romans 13 is countered by John’s vision of governmental power in Revelation 13, a vision in which that power is portrayed as a beast, an evil power that is at odds with the will of God. So who is right, you Paul, or that prophet on Patmos who will come and scare our pants off later in the story?
We have another problem as well. You see sitting here, a couple of thousand years after you wrote your letter to the church at Rome, we find ourselves pretty cynical of our governing authorities. Oh, we love our country and believe that this is a pretty great place to be . . . it’s the leaders and the structures that test our faith and cause us to question your call to submission. We’ve seen too many charismatic leaders come and go, people who looked good on the surface but who were broken and weak on the inside. Some writer not long ago suggested that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and we’ve found this to be absolutely true. The people behind the government aren’t bad . . . but they are human, and subject to all the effects of sin that we all deal with. Over time, as promises have been made and broken, again and again, we find ourselves pretty hopeless about the ability of government to accomplish anything.
So Paul, what are we to do with this teaching that tells us to submit to the governing authorities? What were you thinking when you wrote those words, and do they have any meaning for us today?
One of the problems we have in reading this teaching is that we fail to understand the situation you were addressing in Rome. You were, after all, trying to help a church rebuild after having been cast out of the city by Claudius because of riots in the streets between Jews and Christians. Even though Christianity had been a Jewish movement, in Rome Judaism was becoming more nationalistic and revolutionary, with Jewish zealots arguing for the overthrow of the government. These tensions were finding their way into the church as Gentiles and Jews argued over the proper way to think about the Roman Empire.
But as you said Paul in the previous chapter, Romans 12, the unity of the body of Christ was paramount, and love must be at the center of Christian life and practice. Yes the empire was oppressive and corrupt. But no matter how corrupt, your kingdom call to love and service reigns supreme. So you counseled the church at Rome to avoid these entanglements, choosing instead to submit to the authorities in the pursuit of love and unity.
Of course, as you always do, you offered a justification for this suggestion. As a good Jew and a man of your times, it was the appeal to order, recognizing that having NO authorities in society leads to anarchy. You were a man who believed in the proper order of things, and so it made sense that government as an institution had been ordained by God to provide order to our world. This ordering doesn’t speak to the justice or injustice of any governmental structure . . . for instance, you don’t talk about Nero’s policies or his corruption . . . rather it addresses a belief that all communities, be they the church or a city/state, require some sort of structure, some sort of governing authority, and that these authorities should be treated with respect as ordained by God.
Yet, even though authority must be respected and order maintained, it is clear from the rest of your letter that love is the guiding principle upon which our lives and relations must be built, and that organizations and authorities which harm and oppress others may be called to account. Your teaching presents an idealized view of authority and government, while we live in a world in which that ideal rarely reached due to the prevalence of sin and brokenness in the world. The fact is that governments are staffed by sinful people, in need of your grace, and that they often make bad judgments and faulty decisions through their weaknesses. We are a prideful people who often think that we know much better what to do than God does, so we strike off on our own, believing our own press clippings, and do things that harm others. And in some cases, governments are overwhelmed by persons who are oppressive and perpetuate evil in their sinful pursuit of control and cash. These situations are far removed from the ideal you describe.
This is the dilemma that the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced. Bonhoeffer was confronted with evil at its worst in the person of Adolf Hitler, and he struggled to make sense of the call to submit with the call to love, the call to humility with the confronting of evil. Eventually Bonhoeffer decided that the evil was too great and that Hitler must be killed, however he recognized that act as outside the ideal will of God and something that he would be responsible for throughout the rest of his life. Even in the face of evil, Bonhoeffer recognized that the ultimate goal of the follower of Jesus is the pursuit of love, justice, and righteousness.
Martin Luther King went through a similar dilemma in facing folks like Bull Conner in Memphis, but he chose another way. While he challenged the governmental structures, calling those in power to account for their injustice, he did so in a way that upheld the call to love, honor, and humility. His followers would stand up for their rights, experiencing the worst that hate would throw at them, and stand back up in love and dignity. In many ways, these saints took the path of Jesus himself, the one who never lashed out in the face of his impending death even as he was being led to the cross.
What we can’t forget is that love must be at the heart of everything we do. It was true in the time before Jesus, the time when the prophet Micah said that God requires us to seek justice, love mercy, and walk in humility with God. And it’s true today as we remember Jesus telling us that the center of the law, the core of our faith and practice is centered on loving God and loving our neighbor. To be a person of faith is to know that love is at the center of all, and our goal for life is the pursuit of loving deeply. We haven’t all gotten there yet, but to follow Jesus is to engage in a work of transformation which leads to love.
You didn’t mince words about this when (in the section just before the center of our conversation today) you called the Roman church to love:
“Love from the center of who you are;” you wrote, “don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.
“Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.
“Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.
“Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. "I’ll do the judging," says God. "I’ll take care of it."
“Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.”
It’s that call to love that guides us in our political dealings. Yes, we are cynical today, not quite trusting our political authorities due to years of see power misused . . . but we still love them and wish the best for them. Yes, we worry that some may bring harm to our place, but we pray for them and ask God to guide them into doing the right thing. To be a follower of Jesus is to know that love is at the core of all we do, and that love guides every action and every decision, from how we live our lives to the issues we support to the selection of our leaders.
Dearest Paul, you are an example of that for us. You sit today in Corinth but in a few short months you will be in a Roman jail cell for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. You will be tortured and eventually taken to Rome where tradition tells us you were killed by Nero for your faith. And yet, even in jail, you experienced the joy of life in Christ and prayed for those who imprisoned you. Your life was filled with love for these authorities, even when they did bad things to you, and you provided a model for us to emulate.
So, we sit here today, thousands of years after you wrote your letter to the Romans, writing a letter back to you. If you are hanging around in the heavenly realm with Jesus, let him know that we need his help, for your teaching is sometimes hard. Let him know that we sometimes fail in our love and that we rebel at submitting ourselves to others. Let him know that we need to be so filled with love that all the world, secular and religious, will know of his amazing grace.
Thanks for your words. May we live them into being.