1 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. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 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. 4 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. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. Romans 13.1-5 (NIV)
One of the more difficult passages in the Bible for Christian anarchists, faithful radicals and other prophetic types is the beginning of Romans 13. This section of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome is almost (or is it?) ironic. The believers here are in the heart of the Roman Empire. Although they comprise a church that he did not raise up, he nevertheless writes to strengthen and encourage them. So the question is, was Paul being ironic in his mention of the authority of earthly government?
From the beginning of this passage, Paul makes it clear that God is the source of authority in the government and God establishes that authority. It is interesting to note that for that authority to exist is the result of God. Another point is that Paul states God establishes the authority but God does not bless it. Government carries out a specific purpose of keeping order in society. However, it does not do this in the name of God. To do so is to misunderstand the character of God and the purpose of government. He alone is just, righteous and true. God seeks to redeem the world, humanity and culture. Government seeks to keep the order of society by keeping the chaos of rebellion and wrongdoing at bay. This is done by the execution of judgment and sword by the government.
Those who have nothing to fear of such judgment are those who do right. As Paul writes this though, the irony of this passage begins to creep in. This is coming from the pen of one who has defied both religious and governmental authority. Likewise, other apostles have obeyed God rather than men. The gospel that Paul proclaims along with the other apostles and saints is of another kingdom. The Lordship of Jesus Christ is proclaimed as a present reality over against the power of Rome. This is why I think this passage is subversive rather than a call for blind support for what a given government does. I will share more thoughts on the implications of Paul’s subversion in the next post.