We’ve been spending the past 4 weeks wrestling through questions and thoughts related to Biblical Non-Violence. We’ve walked through the Old Testament looking at the Biblical concept of Shalom. Shalom being defined as peace, but also joy, wholeness, fullness, completeness, and well being. We said that Shalom can probably best be defined as the way that things should be.
We talked about the fact that God’s original intent and his intent all along has been shalom. A world filled with Shalom where people are at peace with God, with each other, with all of creation. And that how we threw a wrench into that dream, but that he is continuing with his shalom dream.
Last week we entered the New Testament looking at the words of Jesus and showing his radical, third way, non-violent activism.
Today we are going to tackle probably one of the top 4 questions that people who talk about Biblical Non-Violence get. The first being what do you do about the Old Testament, the second being is what we talked about last week, the third being about Revelation and the supposed violence in the book and the fourth being “What about the Government? Do you expect that the Government should become non-violent? Should the government turn the other cheek? Should the government live out God’s original intention of Shalom. And what do you do about Romans 13?”
So today we will look at Romans 13 and what it says about how Christians are to engage with the government and what it might say to us about governments and non-violence.
Romans 13:1-7 says, “Let everyone be subject 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, whoever 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 you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents 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 as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”
So often, especially in the evangelical world, people read these words as a defense of violence. Wayne Gruden, a theologian and scholar said, “The sword in the hand of a good government is God’s designated weapon to defeat evildoers.” But the question then becomes “Who decides what a good government is and what a bad government is? Is the United States the good guy or the bad guy? Depends a lot on your perspective. In fact Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin and other “Christian” dictators have celebrated this passage as a divine ticket to execute judgment and justice on their enemies. But is this what Paul was getting at when he wrote this passage in the midst of the Roman Empire? Was he talking about giving Rome (or our government today) the okay to go to war or is there more to it? And just so you know Romans 13 doesn’t authorize a nation to police the world, let alone wage preemptive strikes against nations it considers a threat.
To truly understand what Paul is getting at in Romans 13 we need to do a little bit of contextual work not only in relation to where and to whom Paul is writing to, but we also need to go back to chapter 12 as well, which verse 13:1 is the last of Paul’s litany of commands in Romans 12:9-21.
So Paul is writing Romans in the midst of the Roman Empire, an empire that was definitely not friendly to the church. And so what he is saying is super radical. That we are to submit to governing authorities, especially in a day and age in which many within jewish circles, especially the zealots were hoping to overthrow Rome using violence and the zealot dagger. Also super radical when you realize exactly who was in power when Paul wrote these words. The book of Romans was written around 57 AD and the ruler of the Roman Empire at that time was Nero. Nero known as one of the cruelest Caesars of all. Known for taking Christians, covering them in oil, and lighting them on fire so that they could have light at outdoor garden parties at night.
Even still, Paul writes: “submit to the authorities… as a matter of conscience” (13:5). This clearly is not a text that gives any governmental ruler a free pass, so to speak. In fact, by the time this was written, the emperor cult was growing at a rapid rate. The emperor was worshipped as a son of god throughout the Roman world. Paul reminds Christians of who God actually is and of who actually has all authority. The Apostle states in a subversive fashion: “…for there is no authority except that which God has established” (v. 1). This serves as a reminder that Jesus is the world’s true Lord and that Caesar will be subject to his judgment.
But to get more to the point about what Romans 13 means we also have to look at the context. When the Bible was written there weren’t chapters or verses so sometimes we have artificial breaks in thoughts that aren’t supposed to be there. Let’s look at Romans 12 and see how it directly applies to Romans 13. Romans 12:9-21 says, “ Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” So no doubt Paul in Romans 12 is making connections to the Sermon on the Mount. And so there is the connection between Jesus and Paul in relation to Non-violence. Paul is explicitly forbidding the church in Romans 12 from doing what the government is doing in Romans 13. The church is only commanded to submit to but not partake in the state’s practice. And what we read in Romans 12 and 13 could probably best be described as Submit to the sword but don’t carry one.
The word that we find in Romans 13:1 in the NIV is subject but it could be submit to or subordinate. It doesn’t say obey governing authorities, it says submit or be subject to. Submission sometimes involves obedience and obedience sometimes involved submission. The word there that Paul uses is intentionally and deliberately the word for submit and not obey. So we are to submit to the government, as far as the government doesn’t conflict with the Kingdom of God. The New Testament is clear. We are to honor, submit to, and pray for our governing authorities. Paul Jewett says, “Submission to governmental authority is therefore an expression of response not for the authority themselves but for the crucified deity who stands behind them.” And so, as Christians (especially in the midst of the empire) you consider yourself under their order. This word in Romans 13 is not about patriotism, pledging allegiance, or any affection for the powers that be. Paul isn’t trying to convince unpatriotic Christians to pledge better allegiance. Rather, Paul’s problem is the opposite, he must convince Christians who are not conforming to the pattern of this world, seeking to live out Romans 12 to not overthrow a violent government by using the same violence.
In Romans 13 we see that God establishes all authorities. But this doesn’t mean that God approves of everything that these authorities do. The point of this is that God is to be considered greater than, not equal to, all the powers of this world. And that even the best government still goes by the rules and ways of the Kingdom of the World, and is not the Kingdom of God. The United States as great as it is, and I’m blessed to live here, is still not the Kingdom of God and it still plays by the rules of the Kingdom of this world But those of us who are seeking to follow King Jesus, and live under his rule and reign need to put first the Kingdom of God. And so we really shouldn’t expect governments and people who don’t live under the rule and reign of King Jesus, who live under a different King, to live out Kingdom of God ethics like what Paul is saying in Romans 12. It doesn’t make sense for those who aren’t followers of Jesus to honor others before yourself, to bless those who persecute you, to not curse them, to not repay evil with evil, to live at peace as much as it depends on you, and not to seek revenge. And then in reverse it doesn’t make sense for those of us who live under the rule and reign of King Jesus, who seek to live out the Kingdom of God, to live like we are under the Kingdom of the world. To fight violence with violence. To instead of picking up the cross, to pick up a sword. To repay evil with evil. No, Jesus is calling us to live out his upside down Kingdom, spelled out in many places including Romans 12 (and 13 by not calling the believers in Rome to revolt, to pick up swords and fight the powers of the empire with the powers of the empire but to fight the powers that be with the powers of the Kingdom of God- that of love)
A lot of times this text as a whole (while not reading it in the larger context of Romans 12 and 13) has been used to defend going to war, at least in the just war tradition. But this text has nothing to do with war. In fact when we read verse 4, we read these words, “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason.” When we look at the word sword we find the greek word machiara. This greek word is used to refer not to war but to the symbol of local policing. The sword which would be carried by Roman officers while accompanying tax collectors. We must remember that Roman soldiers served as modern-day equivalents of both the local police and the national military. And so we see that verse 4 about bearing the sword relates to police action within governmental jurisdiction but not warfare. So to read this text as a means of approving of just war, is taking the writings of Paul out of context.
So based on this reading of Romans 13 in dialogue and in context with Romans 12 it is clear, at least to me, that we as followers of Jesus, are called to separate from the violent roles within the state and to avoid putting one’s self in compromising positions where violence could be employed. That our role in relation to the state is clear. Submit to them, pray for them, pay taxes, respect and honor the authorities that God has ordained. But we are never to live out the values of the Kingdom of the world. We aren’t to plot violent overthrow of the government. We need to leave rulers answerable to God. We should take personal vengeance. And that we are to give ultimate allegiance to another King and another ruler, one who says love your enemy, don’t kill them. Pray for your persecutor. Don’t repay evil with evil. Fight not with violence but with love. And live out another Kingdom and rule right under the nose of the empire in which you live.
So what does this all mean to you and I today? What does in mean to live out Romans 13 in proper context (including Romans 12)? How do we submit to our authorities but giving true allegiance to King Jesus? How does this affect our daily existence? Let’s unpack this together in our discussion time.
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions, applications, etc.. do you have regarding the Scripture and/or the message?
2. What dos it look like for us to live out Romans 13 in proper context (including Romans 12)? How do we submit to our authorities but give true allegiance to King Jesus? How does this text affect our daily lives?
3. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?