Submit to Authority
Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. (Rom. 13:1-2 NLT)
This passage has created a lot of heartburn over the centuries. First of all, it seems out of place in its setting in Romans. In chapter 12 Paul is talking about how love enables us to overcome evil with good. Then in 13:8 he goes back to love, saying that we fulfill the requirements of the Torah when we love our neighbors.
The second thing is that the passage has been used by governments across the centuries to justify oppression. Evil people, like the Nazis, have demanded that Christians do whatever the government says because their God commands them to.
But third, it doesn’t seem that Paul himself obeyed it. Reliable tradition tells us that Paul was killed by the Roman authorities because he refused to submit to them when they required him to say that Caesar was God.
So what’s going on? Better scholars than I have puzzled over this, but let me make a suggestion. Paul’s emphasis on free forgiveness through faith in Christ that issues in love has an implicit danger. That danger is this: “Oh, I am free to do what I want as long as I can say that it is really the loving thing.” Do you see where this can lead? Who defines what the loving thing is? Me? The problem with that is that our capacity for self-deception in the service of our own ends is almost limitless.
So Paul, I believe, pulls in a very practical check on that kind of anarchy. We need to learn submission. Our desires, and our ways, have to be brought under the control of something outside ourselves. Of course, that is first of all to God, and then to his Word. But even there the power of the self to justify what it wants to do is frightening. So Paul brings in something very concrete. I learn submission by submitting to earthly authority, which is a proxy for God’s authority. Christianity does not make me a worse citizen, but a better one. However, there is a caveat that Paul, in the interest of making his point, does not bring up. When government, instead of exercising God-given authority, usurps that authority, then God must be obeyed.
Can we criticize the government? Yes. Might there be a time when we must defy the government? Yes. But in the meantime, let’s learn submission by obeying authority, as represented by the government.