For those who cherish their political freedom, a small government that exists only to protect and not control them, that is not taxing them into a lower tax bracket, or telling them what they can and cannot buy, Paul’s instruction to submit to such authorities, is unappreciated. Some have, in error, considered Paul a proponent of slavery because he didn’t speak up against it. And if he could be that silent on such a miscarriage of human justice and ethics, what other principles might he propose that make God appear more distant and unloving.
Was Paul imagining a form of government more benevolent? God gave him a vision, [2 Corinthians 12:2-4]1 during those silent years in Arabia when he receive the message of a salvation by grace [Galatians 1:16-17].2 This was when God clarified to him and all of us, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” [2 Corinthians 12:9]. Somehow, tribulation would never be a big deal to him other than having the undeserved honor of sharing in our Savior’s sufferings [Philippians 3:10].3 A person of this mindset is most likely to discourage us from arming ourselves against a government we think is—somehow—hurtful.
On top of all this Paul saw himself as a citizen of heaven [Philippians 1:27 NLT]4 and just a stranger here [Hebrews 11:13].5 Was he shutting out reality? To him all governments are temporary [2 Corinthians 4:18]6 and, beside, he longed soon to be with His Lord? [2 Corinthians 5:18 NIV].7 He resigned himself to be God’s sacrificial servant [Romans 8:36]8 and, little doubt, this had to season his view of things, including tyrannical leaders. In Paul’s mind, the eternal God he served would bring judgment and he was going to leave the matter to Him [Romans 12:19 RSV].9
So Paul wrote in Romans 13:1-2:
- Let every one submit to the authorities [higher powers over them] because there is no authority other than God’s. And all existing authorities have been appointed by God.
- The result is this: whoever resists authority, opposes God’s ordinance; those who resist shall receive judgment.
Authorities, higher powers – Any level and every type of government is meant: democracy, constitutional republic, oligarchy, plutocracy, socialistic, communistic, an autocracy, ejusdem generis. Paul uses here the word authority and not power. Authority can be usurped; power cannot be. The word power speaks to one’s ability to do such and such. Authority does not; some authorities have been historically seen as incompetent.
Appointed – Scholars say that government is a divine institution because God made us social beings and every ruler is, in effect, given a divine dispensation.
Judgment – Is this what Jesus meant: “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” [Matthew 26:52]? Scholars say that God will avenge His institution. But if this is so, is He not possibly on the side of tyranny instead of the poor who are under the scourge of political bondage? Was the American revolution wrong!? Paul appeared to be admonishing the Christians of Rome to submit to the emperor (some of whom attempted Christian genocide) and whom many thought answered to the antichrist of the Revelation! But, goes the argument, submission is not worship!
Here is another perspective: Solomon wrote, “A man’s heart devises his way: but the Lord directs his steps.” [Proverbs 16:9}. In the year King Uzziah died [after reigning for 40 years in Judah and the nation was, consequently, in political turmoil] Isaiah had a vision: “I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne….” [Isaiah 6:1]. God never abdicated the throne, for if He ever did, He would be nullifying His first commandment that no one take His place in the heart and lives of His people—you and me [Exodus 20:3]. Uzziah was never over Israel; he only appeared so in a political sense. God was …and is …and will always be!! [1 Corinthians 15:28]
If any ruler were not under the oversight of God, how would God be—well—God. Our faith in Him rests on His Supremacy over all the circumstances of our lives. Thomas a Kempis wrote:
For the resolutions of the just depend rather on the grace of God than on their own wisdom; and in Him they always put their trust, whatever they take in hand. For man proposes, but God disposes; neither is the way of man in his own hands.10
Who is really in charge? Here is one of my favorite Scriptures. Can you see the relevance?
“You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You: because he trusts in You” [Isaiah 26:3].
2 to reveal his Son in me so that I could preach him among the Gentiles, I did not go to ask advice from any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before me, but right away I departed to Arabia, and then returned to Damascus
3 That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death;
4 Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ.
5 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.
6 While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.
7 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
8 As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
9 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
10 His celebrated ‘Of the Imitation of Christ’, is the second most widely read Christian text after the Bible itself.