It's no secret the thirteenth chapter of Paul's Letter to the Romans has been much abused. Those seeking support for oppressive regimes use it to bludgeon believers into a love affair with the ruling regime. For them, let's be clear the passage says "submit," not "support." The same passage has been read by many as describing the requirement of governments to ensure they are enforcing actual good. Frankly, this is not supported by the grammar. Twisting it around backwards to provide an excuse for active resistance to that same regime won't do. However, while I reject the most common understandings of this passage, I agree it's often taken out of context, at the very least.
The context begins with Genesis 8 and 9. Take a quick look, and you'll see where, after Noah emerges from the Ark, Jehovah promises there will be a predictable weather pattern. In other words, there will be a natural order. In return, He demands all humanity keep a civil order. The nature of His command calls for a government, and it must bear the sword, forcing those under its authority to obey under threat of death. Without this, we would see a return to the awful conditions which justified the Flood. Given there is nothing here of spiritual redemption, we rightly deduce this Covenant of Noah applies broadly to all humankind. As such, it's primary actors will be fallen beings. In case you aren't paying attention, this is about regulating the behavior of those who don't love the Lord.
Back to Romans. Verses 1-7 pretty much echoes this context of the Covenant of Noah. If you resist human government established under that covenant, the government can kill you. That's what governments do, in part because they are fallen. Paul is making a broad statement of principle applicable to all humanity, primarily those fallen -- sinners. Christians in Rome who knew their Old Testament, the Bible of that day, would recognize the reference.
Hidden in this is a sarcastic remark which would have made Romans chuckle. Then Emperor Nero liked to brag often he was the ruler "in whose hands the sword is idle." It was pure propaganda, and most folks realized it. Thus, "he does not bear the sword idly." Paul is mocking Nero.
In the process, he reminds the Romans they are forced to operate in this climate of violent oppression because there are so very many sinners in the world. Were it not for some harsh rulers bearing the sword, it might be well nigh impossible to get the Gospel message out. Were it not for Roman hegemony, Roman Citizen Paul might not have so easily voyaged all over the Mediterranean with the message of Christ. Rome was useful, if not pleasant. And surely Nero, soon after Paul's letter, became quite the persecutor of Christians. Still, they had no business interfering in the process God left in place for sinners dealing with sinners. Pay your taxes and try to stay out of the way, because in the broad general sense of things, civil law is good.
Of course, in the previous chapter, Paul made it clear we do no live by that fallen viewpoint on life. We have a totally different orientation. We are not of this world. We turn worldly instincts upside down, because we care little for what belongs here. That is, Christians view all things in this world with a sense of detachment. All God's creation is a tool for the revelation of Eternity. So when you are abused, take no vengeance; God has a plan for that. He has a fallen world government system which He uses.
After describing that system, starting in verse 8 Paul reminds his Romans brothers and sisters they don't belong to it. They are stuck in it, and must respond to it, but it doesn't own their souls. It can take their stuff, and even their lives, but those aren't that important to Christians. Indeed, by our focus on following and obeying Jesus, we are relieved of our responsibilities under the Covenant of Noah, as far as God is concerned. Indeed, even under the Covenant of Moses, it was a matter of dealing with the things of this world. However, we are under the Lord of all Creation (Matthew 28:18). His power is love, and "Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." That's a reference to both the Law of Moses and the Covenant of Noah.
If we keep our minds on obeying Jesus Christ, God does not hold us accountable to Him for whether we obey Noah or Moses. That's not to say consequences of bad law won't cause us distress, but we aren't required by God to please earthly masters when we have pleased Him. Take His viewpoint, and let go the part of you belonging to this world: "Make no provision for the flesh" (v. 14). We do what we must do to bring His presence to earth in our bodies. If that means breaking some man's law, we do so with the courage of His approval.
That does not mean we are not part of some resistance, nor do we slavishly obey civil law. We don't campaign for either side. For the most part, we are detached from such things. They aren't eternal, and what we see today is subject to change, unlike the things of the Kingdom of Heaven. Stay out of politics. Oh, sure, go ahead and vote, but don't ever act as if these things matter in the long run. By no means should Christians expect to accomplish much by governing. True believers will be too merciful, and invite chaos. On the other hand, anyone capable of effective ruling will have a very limited opportunity to promote the Gospel. You can engage one realm or the other, but not both.
Ed Hurst is Associate Editor of Open for Business. Ed operates a computer ministry in Oklahoma City. He loves computers, runs FreeBSD and GNU/Linux and reads all sorts of things. You can reach Ed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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