Daily Readings: Numbers 4-5, Psalm 38, Romans 13
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.
Oh boy. Truth be told, I really wanted to skip blogging about this passage…
This is one of those passages in the Bible that brings me a great deal of frustration, because it is a section that can become a stumbling block for many people. This is true for young Christians as well as Christians mature in their faith.
What about Hitler? What about Stalin? What about the whole host of world leaders today that run tyrannical regimes bent on genocide and extinguishing from the face of the earth certain ethnic groups or political rivals? Did God set those leaders up? Did he establish those authorities? Paul can’t really mean this, can he?
There have been many, MANY words written on this topic. I am going to keep my opinion brief, but would encourage anyone who wrestles with this passage to dig deeper as well!
You must remember context. This was a letter written back to a new collection of early Christians in a time of great persecution of the church. This past Sunday, at the church I attend, we had the privilege of hearing from an amazing woman who has been planting a church in a restricted area of the world. Her story is powerful and there is currently an amazing church developing in this region that was previously unreached. As this began happening the local authorities were not too excited about this and forced her to leave. The church continues in this region and is growing and thriving to this day thanks to the Holy Spirit doing some amazing work!
This is the type of church Paul was writing to. If that church in the restricted area today came to me with 100 members and talked about rebelling against the government, I would caution against it. I would tell them, for the time being, they should respect the authorities that are there and quietly continue their mission. Anything else would most likely lead to exile, imprisonment, or massacre.
If Paul had recommended that Christians stand up to their Roman rulers and revolt, it would not have gone particularly well! We also don’t know the exact challenges or collection of personalities that Paul was writing to. He is writing with particularly strong language in this passage, but he very well may have been addressing a leader or collection of leaders within the church that were on the verge of doing something rash and Paul may have been trying to talk them off the ledge. We cannot know the exact context. Just because every word of the Bible is God’s truth does not mean that every single passage becomes true in every single circumstance. We need to have a mature perspective when it comes to discerning the will of God and dive into what God’s word teaches throughout the whole Bible, and not simply isolate small sections and use them to guide our entire theology on a topic.
This brings us to the second point.
Sometimes speakers use hyperbole to make a point
There are times in the Bible, whether it is Jesus speaking to a crowd, or Paul writing a letter to a church, where the speaker makes a particularly strong statement to make a point. Speakers do this all the time. That does not necessarily mean they need to be taken literally in these moments. Again, we need to compare this passages to what we see in other parts of the Bible before drawing sweeping conclusions.
As an example, I can promise you that there is no pastor in the world that believes we need to follow every single word of Jesus exactly as it was spoken. Jesus didn’t even believe that. You know how I know? I have still not met a Christian man, pastor or otherwise, that has gouged out his eyes because he looked lustfully at a woman once. In fact, there is no evidence that any of the disciples following Jesus heard that portion of the Sermon on the Mount and went to find the nearest object that could effectively be used to remove their eyes after Jesus said, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”
Clearly when speaking here, Jesus was speaking with incredibly strong language to make a point. Jesus wants us to take the sin issues in our lives extremely seriously. He also was making the point that he wants us to focus on what is happening in our minds and in our hearts just as much as we focus on our actual actions. That is the purpose of this passage. There was not a massive movement to gouge out eyes on that day. God wants us to take on our struggle with lust head on. He wants us to attack this struggle with tenacity. That is Biblical truth that there is no denying. But Jesus did not go to Peter, Matthew, or John after a moment of weakness and say, “Alright guys, now the left eye has to come out too.”
When writing to the church in Rome, it is quite possible that Paul didn’t think it would be a strong enough statement from him to simply say, “It isn’t a great idea to rebel against the Roman Empire. Keep focused on spreading the good news. Keep loving each other, supporting each other, and building God’s Kingdom. It is all going to work out. For now, you need to jeopardize the greater mission by rebelling against authority.” He may have thought a more impassioned plea was needed.
We simply don’t know.
However, what we do see throughout the Old Testament is God overthrowing tyrannical regimes. We see God constantly overthrow nations that are committing atrocities against their people. There is a great deal of evidence throughout the entire Bible that not every head of state was put there by God and has divine authority to rule. Taking these seven verses from Paul and comparing it to the entire history of Israel throughout the Old Testament, there is quite a bit more evidence that suggests there are circumstances that arise from time to time where it is important to stand up to authority figures.
Once again, it is incredibly important to read the entire Bible and see what it has to say about complex topics like this one and not simply read seven verses. God wants us to study his word deeply and in it’s entirety. The key is not being afraid to wrestle with these topics, have robust conversations with others who have spent time studying and contemplating the issues, and always seek to understand the whole picture on a deeper level.
Thought to ponder
What other verses in the Bible have been a challenge for me in the past? Have I spent time digging into those, understanding the context, turning to folks with a great deal of Biblical knowledge, and approaching the topic with intellectual curiosity?