Romans 13:1-7 – Paul and Empire (Part 1)

The transformed life ought to effect one’s relationship with government.  This is based on common idea in the Hebrew Bible that God ordains the rulers and the nations.  Since Paul is speaking about the Roman empire, it must mean that the Christian ought to obey even an evil government. Paul uses the same verb here in Romans 13 as he did in 8:7, with reference to submitting to the will of God.  Paul therefore means that the transformed believer must obey the government because it is God’s appointed authority.  Perhaps by extension, when you obey the government, you obey God.

PowerBut most people immediately ask: if that government abuses its power and rules unjustly, is it then appropriate for a Christian to rebel to change that government?  Usually Christians will say they will obey the government insofar as the government commands that are not contrary to God’s commands.  I can hear many former students asking about life under an oppressive government that does not allow personal freedom or abuses citizens.  What if the government restricts my personal freedom?  What if the government wants to take my guns away?  What if the government permits same-sex marriage, abortion, or the use of marijuana?  What if the government were to be controlled by Islam and Sharia law is imposed on us?  Should we rebel and against the government then?

I think it is critically important to realize that in the first century, no member of Paul’s congregation would have ever asked this question.  No one would have plotted the fall of the Roman empire, nor would a Roman Guy Fawkes attempt to blow up the Senate.  Rome really did bring peace to the world and Rome did really provide services which raised the social and economic fortunes of everyone.  No one would have considered joining the Occupy Wall Street movement to protest the outrageous economic practices of the Roman Empire, nor (in the interest of being fair and balanced), would anyone dream of complaining about their taxes and joined the Tea Party.  Those categories simply do not exist in the first century, and if they did, Rome would have silenced them with extreme prejudice!  The young lady with the sign in this picture needs to realize that protesters did not burn Rome, Nero did!

Big-BrotherConsider what the Roman empire was like in the mid-first century.  They did oppress people, the enslaved millions, they promoted the worship of every god imaginable, and they imposed their religious laws on everyone.  Infanticide was practiced and homosexual relationships were permitted (although nothing like gay marriage really existed).  Paul does not add any sort of condition to the command to obey the established government, despite the fact that the Roman government was one of the most oppressive regimes in history!

I do not read anything in Romans 13 or in Paul’s relationship with Rome that sounds anything like a protest against the government.   Paul’s method for dealing with social ills was far more subtle than mass protests – and much more effective.  He told the church to fix the problems themselves by caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan.  There is nothing here in Romans 13 which would support the overthrow of Rome, either in the first century or the twenty-first.

16 thoughts on “Romans 13:1-7 – Paul and Empire (Part 1)

  1. Well said! A book (popular, but well-researched) that applies the same truths to our understanding of American history is this one by David Bercot, “In God We Don’t Trust.” Paul would have some strong words for those who confuse the American and heavenly kingdoms.

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  2. I could not count with my hands the number of times that I have encountered the issue between government and Christian rebellion. Particularly, this issue I believe is more prominent with the new generation. Although Christianity has experienced many elongated periods of rebellion towards what should be and what should not be, it is fair to say that it has never been greater than this generation. With a lot of current issues arising within the scope of Christianity (such as body art (tattoos), music stances, gay marriage, Islam and Sharia law, etc.) it has almost become second nature to rebel against such customs.
    Moreover, I do not believe the issue specifically rests upon the shoulders of the government, but upon the Christian people. There will be times the government might fail to recognize something that will help us improve our lives, however, this does not mean that everything they’re doing is necessarily bad. This is why the words of Polhill immensely resonate the very example we should be following: “Echoing Jesus’ teaching about loving’s one’s enemies, he quoted Proverbs 25:21-22 to establish the principle of non-retaliation as a possible means to winning one’s antagonist over (Polhill, 298).” As Dr. Long mentioned above, Paul’s methods with dealing with such issues focused more on the Church’s responsibility for the unfortunate circumstances. If they (we) truly wanted to find a remedy for such “social ills,” then it starts with the Church taking initiative in caring for others. In the end, I also agree it is substantially more effective to care than to quarrel.
    If we revolted and attacked our government, we would only be fighting God for Paul clearly states in Romans 13:2 that, “whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” So, when it comes to this issue I do not believe we have much to be argumentative about for Paul has given us the command to follow.

    But… let us not forget, “…We must obey God rather than human beings!”—Acts 5:29

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  3. Great post, Phil! I really appreciate it. I’m currently reading the book “Colossians Remixed” by Brian Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat. It has been a very enjoyable read. The subtitle is “Subverting the Empire” and much of the work is devoted to unveiling and examining the themes of Empire in the writings of Paul. You may have read this already, or it may not be valuable to you in the sense that it may not contribute much more to your understanding than other writings have, but for me, these authors have done an excellent job relating first century (and previous) understandings of Empire to our modern culture. I’ve really appreciated the lessons I gained from your classes and books like the one I mentioned because those themes are not fleshed out much these days; so much so that I might be considered an anti-fundamentalists for suggesting such ideas.

    Also, I find it very hard to follow the instructions Paul gives personally. I’ve never been a fan of Christian involvement in Politics (mostly because of my focus on the negative impact of doing do), yet despite that I am politically engaged. I have strong beliefs in a certain political persuasion, and those beliefs are not dependent on my faith and beliefs (though nobody can separate those from their platform). Yet, I am not allowed to vocalize many opinions publicly because of my role as pastor. Nor do I think it too appropriate as a Christian. But in my heart and the way I live my life, I often wonder how much I let my dissatisfaction with the government distract me from my faith. How much do I worry and think about the decline of this nation, when the authoritative text of Scripture says nothing about the “Greatest Nation on Earth”?

    The point is, I am too often concerned with my small government agenda, that I forget about living out the reason I support small government. My desire is that the government would step back so that the church must step up. But, if I am waiting for the right guy to get in office before I help the widows, the orphans, and the poor, I have missed the mark! It is time for the Church (and it’s individual members) to start practicing a true ministry of reconciliation! If we spend our time trying to bring down the government, we will run out of time to bring up the lost, the hurt, the broken, the suffering, the weary, the beat down, and the oppressed.

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  4. In a world that idolizes the rebel who employs violence in his pursuit of justice, it is little wonder that so many struggle with this passage of scripture that forbids insurgency as a part of the Christian life. I’ve had this conversation with more than a few teenagers to be sure. Their sense of justice leads them to be instanced at the inequities of the world around them and the “greatest” role models in this area aren’t exactly Biblical. Our very nation was built on the presupposition that citizens can and should rise up as a part of a moral responsibility to bring about change through violent means if Governments become corrupt. That same Government spends the next two centuries attempting to make it impossible for citizens to do it again if they feel the need for change. This inspires many to act in the only way they know how to bring about change: violence or protest. Instead, as Christians we are called to do things differently. If Governments are corrupt, if they refuse to take care of the poor, if they abuse their citizens, we are not to over-through them, but rather pick up the slack. If our orphans are neglected we are to take care of them. If an ethnicity is oppressed we are to support them. If homosexuals are abused, we are to show them love. After all, rebellion only creates a new form of oppression when given enough time. What God commands is really the only way to affect a more permanent change; treating the disease rather than the symptoms as it were.

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  5. I think Christians have such a hard time fully submitting to the government because at times, it does appear to be evil or set against God. Polhill says, “The real purpose of government is to preserve the good and to punish wrong” (Pohill 298). When looking at this, many people will think “well that’s not what I see happening!”. I am a little confused, however, because even though the people in government are placed there by God, if they are doing things that are most definitely against what God has commanded us to do, then shouldn’t we not follow the governments lead in that? For example, the government seems to be very okay with abortion, but God tells us to not murder! So why would we follow the government in that? That being said, I do not think we should preach and protest our beliefs and how everyone else is wrong, to the world and anyone who will listen. I really like the point you made about Paul saying that we should fix the problems ourselves by caring for the poor, widowed, and orphaned. Instead of just complaining and being angry at the government and other people, we should just do what we can as servants to change things. People will be more willing to follow in your service than they will if you just yell at them and tell them they’re wrong.

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  6. Obviously our government today is very much different than it was in first century Rome. And I agree fully that Paul i don’t think would have even dreamed of what is/is becoming legal in our government today. The things is, we as Christians should be submissive to authority when it comes to our human rights. We have the right to feed the poor, we have the right to do our part in keeping a healthy environment, we have the right to save the whales or whatever the heck we want to do! These things are not things that Christ would frown upon in any way. But, just because the government allows abortion to take place, or may make gay marriage or marijuana use legal, that absolutely does NOT mean that we have to submit to those specific American “rights”. In fact, we have the freedom of speech, so why not use it to our advantage and protest against these unmoral legalities? God has given us that right.

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  7. There is something to be said about wholeheartedly trusting God in all of life’s situations. If we truly believe he is sovereign and controls the universe, then yes, whatever government or life situation that we are in was appointed and allowed by God, and that truth should have a healthy respect. I would however see a problem with blindly following orders from the government to do things contrary to our Christian beliefs. I think to the story of Daniel who was thrown into the lion’s den for continuing to pray to God even though it was outlawed, or the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who refused to bow and worship anybody but God despite what they were told by the government. They did not plot an overthrow, but the did refuse to follow orders given that would compromise their belief and faith in God. Anyways, whatever Government that we are under has been appointed by God and God will do with that system whatever he wishes. Our goal is not use our time and energy to plot Government overthrow, but to use our time and energy to bring justice to the world, to bring the gospel to others, and to do what we can to clothe the poor, help the oppressed, and support the widows and orphans.

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  8. Paul’s “subtle and Effective” approach is possibly the best model of political reform I’ve come across, in a long time, In America today those of us in the Church need to take this to heart, yes we may be able to change the nation with our vote but isn’t it more important for us in the church to change the lives of the people who really need change. Hope and Change didn’t someone win an election on that recently? The church needs to be that hope and change, and maybe our website will work. Paul’s approach is quite elegant in it’s simplicity, let the government govern and let the church serve the needs of the people and actually change things. Now the action of that is something that to an extent is being acted out however the church has many people that spent time occupying Wall-street and plenty of people in the Tea Party go to church on Sunday, and even the people here in America who wield derogatory signs also carry the moniker of the Church. Now protesting for Change is a part of the American way, yet those of us who follow The Way should not wait for Government we should be the Change.

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  9. This is a topic that is could be very controversial in our culture today. This is because so many people, especially the youth of today, want to counter any thing the government is doing that they do not believe in. Some people would say that we as Christians should go against what the government is saying if it goes against what we believe as Christians. However, others would say that although we might not agree with it, we should not openly protest it or go against our governing authorities. Polhill states, “Paul took a conservative stance. He pointed out that secular rulers are established by God and that to oppose them is thus to oppose God (vv. 1-2)” (Polhill, 298). It is a difficult topic to come to a conclusion on, because although we know what God’s word says, we see it portrayed so differently in our culture.

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  10. In a culture that adores the government, in some cases, almost to the point of idolatry, and on the other hand protests daily, and passionately, the things that don’t mesh with our beliefs; it’s very hard to swallow the fact that Paul doesn’t really give room to argue with the idea of obeying the government. I like that you point out the corruption, oppression, and absolute lack of morality present in the Roman government to contrast the things christians find wrong with our current government. I think it is significant, as christians to realize that God put rulers where they are for a reason and there’s nothing we can do about it. More than that, i think christians need to realize that our real citizenship isn’t on earth, this body isn’t our true body, and as such we should do our best to improve the culture in a peaceful, yet Jesus-y way. We should be doing our best to help the poor, and the widows, and try to spread the truth of salvation to anyone we can, but also we should respect the fact that we do live in a country ruled by completely human and temporal-minded people, and obey the laws set in place by those people. After all, if God did not have their rule in HIs plan, do you think He would have let them get into office?

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  11. My immediate reaction to this is that it’s outrageous to think that Paul wouldn’t want us to fight for our “rights” or “beliefs,” but the way that you present this had changed my mind about this concept. Truthfully, Paul wouldn’t have sought violence or struggle at all for getting the government on his side. That wasn’t the point he was trying to make, but rather that the government was placed there in God’s plan and that we should follow it without protests. Not to say that we should disobey God in the process, on the contrary, even Daniel stood up for his beliefs without violence or struggle. When King Darius was tricked into taking away the right to pray, Daniel still chose to pray because of his love for God, not the governments. God’s commandments should reign supreme over the government, but our fight against or for certain rights should come in the form of love. It is our striving for power in the struggle that will turn others away from the gospel and away from hearing what we have to say. But like you have said, it is the love for the orphans and widows that will really start to change people’s hearts. It comes down to whether or not we are willing to see others for who they are and love them regardless of their faults, because we all have faults and are tainted by sin. We should be reaching out instead of lashing out when we don’t get something the way we wanted it.

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  12. Polhill states that governments are established by God and if you oppose the government it is to oppose God (298). Polhill goes on to argue that Paul did not want Christians to seem rebellious against the government (298). I appreciated reading in this post that Paul did not deal with the problems or evilness of the Roman government by telling Christians they should not obey Roman law, instead he reminds the Church of their responsibility as citizens of Heaven to care for the widows, the poor, the neglected who may be suffering under an oppressive government. It seems to be a call to Christians that instead of stewing in our discontent with the way the government is handling things, we as Christians should keep busy by doing what we can to live out Jesus’ name here on earth. Instead of dwelling on what needs to be changed, we need to begin by helping our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ as well as other who are in need.

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  13. The one thing that jumped out at me was that Paul asked the church was to take care of the poor, the widow, and the orphan rather than protest the government. It is true even in today’s world we can protest against the government all we want, but it wouldn’t change anything. Paul is telling us to take care of the things we can control. We can control who we talk to, and what we do. We can’t control what the government does; we can’t control the people who make the decisions on Capitol Hill, but what we can control is spreading God’s words to others. Also show others what God wants from us in this world, and sometimes it isn’t what the government is doing. Polhill states, “In concrete terms, this means Christians should render respect to officials and pay their taxes and all civil obligations” (Polhill 298). So even though we may not like the people on Capitol Hill, we need to respect them, even if they do vote against what we believe.

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  14. I agree completely that the Church should obey the government whether it be good or bad. God appointed good and bad rulers throughout the Old Testament depending on how His people were treating Him or even each other. Bad rulers were put in place to point them back to God. If we love God, then we will honor and respect those that He has put in charge. I think that it is no different of treating our government as we would treat elders in the church. We should treat them with respect and reverence with where God has put there and where God has appointed that person or those people to be. I think that the only time we should stand up to the government is if we were put in the same situation that Shadarach, Mishach, and Abendago were put in. If we are trying to be forced to worship someone other than God, or being forced to pray to someone other than God, then we may rebel in the same way that they did.

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