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Scripture on Submission: Romans Chapter 13

I am no preacher. I have more questions than answers. But I am grateful beyond expressing to God, for all He has given me. Many of those gifts are simply things to delight in. The morning sunlight, or the life-restoring rain. The taste of food. The beauty of flowers. The companionship of those I love.

But food is in a sense a tool as well. It keeps us here, and strong. Could that be for a reason? So many of His gifts look to me like tools. Our hands, our brains. The way to express gratitude for a tool, it seems to me, is to keep it safe, keep it clean and sharp, and to use it well. If not to see them used, why would He give us tools?

Curiosity is a tool. He must want us to learn. So I keep trying.

Today is not only Sunday, the day of the week that most Christians dedicate to worship, but the Fourth of July. A special day to me, for a number of reasons. The freedom we exercise today to travel, to gather, to worship, to speak freely, all those are gifts of God, but gifts that for many centuries in many countries have been stolen, and locked away from God’s People (all people!) by other people who wanted power over their fellows…we might call them, “wicked rulers”. This day, the Fourth of July, commemorates not only a political act, but a statement of eternal principles, about the freedom that is the gift of God to all men.

More specifically, this is the day we commemorate the signing of our Declaration of Independence, in which 56 brave men, on behalf of a congress of the People of the 13 British colonies in America, pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor……… to the rejection of their lawful King and Government, a government which had been in existence for over thousand years, and which was the most powerful in the world at the time, as well as probably the freest and most prosperous.

It is clear from their other writings that most if not all of these men were Christians. In the closing of their document they explicitly appealed to the Supreme Judge of the Universe for the rectitude of their intentions.

But there appears to be a problem. In the Bible that we venerate as we assume they did, the apostle Paul tells us in his epistle to the Romans, in Chapter 13,

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:

For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.

For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.

Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

In Paul’s letter to Titus, 3:1
Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men.

Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, 13:17
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.

First letter of Peter, 2:13
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.

Acts, 23:5
And Paul said, “I was not aware, brethren, that he was high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’

Even the Old Testament seems to contain similar instruction, as ‘way back in Deuteronomy, 17/12

And the man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest that standeth to minister there before the LORD thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die: and thou shalt put away the evil from Israel

Well! It looks pretty bad for those uppity colonists, doesn’t it? Certainly many people of good will today quietly submit to whatever government does, they refrain from expressing or even forming opinions about it. Many do not even vote.

Of course, I do not think it is amiss to take a look at the historical context of these passages. All except the one from Deuteronomy were written under the pagan Roman Empire. They were written to Christians who were hated as much by many of their Jewish neighbors as by their Roman overlords.

All of us are familiar with Paul’s letter to Timothy, 3:16,

16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:

What we may not have noticed is that it does not say that all scripture is literally true. Very true and useful things can be written in many different ways: Jesus used parables, instructive tales whose literal truth or lack thereof is irrelevant. Sometimes there are layers of meaning. Sometimes the truth is best pointed out by saying something obviously untrue, which you know your listener will recognize as untrue.

So I think that the historical context of those New Testament passages is important to consider. If we had reason to fear this little church being invaded in the middle of the service by officers, ready to accuse and arrest us for planning resistance to or overthrow of the government, we could say, “Oh, no, that is not what we believe!

But would it not be even better if we could crack our Bibles and show them that 13th chapter of Paul’s letter to us? “Look, look! We are good little boys and girls, our own precious holy Book commands us to submit to you!”

Whew!! The cops are gone now…Now we can take time to look closely at what Paul actually said. Do you think he might have been wise enough to use the same words, both to protect us from people who hate us, and for our private edification?

He writes, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

Pretty obvious that the highest human power in that day was Caesar, but nobody even then would have placed Caesar above God. Is Paul even talking exclusively about human powers?

And who holds the highest human power in our American governmental order today, is answered by the first words of our Constitution, “We the People…do ordain..” In our country, We the People are in actual legal fact the highest power.

Paul writes, “ For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil” Is that uniformly true in the experience of any in this room? Does scripture anywhere else say something that everyone’s common sense denies? Could that be a hint to us to ponder what it is to truly be a “ruler”? Could Paul be defining what qualities define a true ruler, rather than speaking of those who are considered to be rulers?

I like best the last verse of the passage, “Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.”

It does NOT say, “give to each what he demands”, but what is due. Is a tax DUE to a collector who lies, fear to a bully, honor to the dishonorable?

As God gave us intelligence, I think it is our obligation to use it, to look closely, not just superficially, at His Word, and to use everything else He has allowed us to learn about the world, and about His and our natures, to understand it.

Our reasoning can lead us astray, despite good intentions.

Many wise people have said that Scripture interprets itself. Is there more in the Bible that will help us understand this issue? I think there is!

The first example of course is in the first chapters of the Bible, the story of Adam and Eve. Of course we know that this story is about our disobedience, and its terrible consequences. But even those consequences were not altogether terrible. Without the Fall, there would have been no redemption, nor the intimacy Christians now can feel with God-Who-was-also-Man. And God the all-knowing and all-powerful, knew all the consequences of the freedom He gave us, and gave it nonetheless.

Of course this story is also about disobedience to God directly, not to human authority. So it is not perfectly relevant to the question we are exploring today.

So is the story of Cain, the first murderer, whose life was explicitly saved, with sevenfold vengeance against any that should kill him, in spite of his crime.

The first story I find which is directly about human disobedience to government, takes place during Israel’s captivity in Egypt, in the first chapter of the Book of Exodus. Pharaoh fears the growth of the Hebrew population, and orders the midwives to kill male Hebrew children.

Verse 17, “But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive.“ Did God punish this clear disobedience to the absolute ruler? NO. He rewarded the midwives with houses, which I suppose means households.

Verse 22, “And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive.

In Exodus 2:2, “ And the woman conceived, and bare a son: and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months.

After the child could no longer be hidden, it was arranged by deceit for him to be fostered by Pharaoh’s own daughter.

That child was Moses. We would have had no Moses, if people of God had not defied the command of the most powerful ruler of the day.

Moses himself was a law-breaker, or at least a man who put God’s law above the words of human rulers, Ex 2:11

And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brethren.

That would be, most likely, a lawful master disciplining a lawful slave.

12 And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.

13 And when he went out the second day, behold, two men of the Hebrews strove together: and he said to him that did the wrong, Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow?

14 And he said, Who made thee a prince and a judge over us? intendest thou to kill me, as thou killedst the Egyptian? And Moses feared, and said, Surely this thing is known.

15 Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, 

Fleeing criminal prosecution is hardly submission to authority, even if you can make excuses for interfering (with murder!) between a master and a slave.

And we have not even reached the long story of Moses’s repeated demands of Pharaoh, the supreme head of the government of the land where the Israelites had lived for generations and were now slaves, to let his People (Pharaoh’s property) go.

In Numbers chapters 22 -24. we read that, as the children of Israel were slowly occupying the land God had promised them, Balak the king of the Moabites ordered one of his subjects, by name Balaam, to curse Israel. Balaam consulted with God about that order of his king…..and defied it, repeatedly. He chose God’s will, and God’s people, over the demand of his government.

In the second chapter of the book of Joshua, when Israel sent spies into Jericho, Rahab, a woman of Jericho, directly disobeyed a command from her king to produce the spies . Instead, she hid them, lied to her government for them, and let them down with a rope over the city wall, so they could escape. Despite having disobeyed the command of her government, she was spared from the city’s destruction when Joshua and the Israelites destroyed it.

I Samuel contains an important story that is not about disobedience to government, but tell us about how God views kings and the choice to be ruled by them.

The elders of Israel came to Samuel

And said unto him, Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.

But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the Lord.

And the Lord said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.

According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day, wherewith they have forsaken me, and served other gods, so do they also unto thee.

Now therefore hearken unto their voice: howbeit yet protest solemnly unto them, and shew them the manner of the king that shall reign over them.

10 And Samuel told all the words of the Lord unto the people that asked of him a king.

11 And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots.

12 And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots.

13 And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.

14 And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants.

15 And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants.

16 And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work.

17 He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants.

18 And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day.

So here is God telling us about the nature and tendencies of human government, mentioning many obviously unrighteous things, that it inevitably does.

A very brief mention of righteous disobedience to government is found in 1 Kings 18. which describes a man named Obadiah who “feared the Lord greatly.” When the queen Jezebel was killing God’s prophets, Obadiah took a hundred of them and hid them from her, so they could live. Defiance of the Queen.

The Book of Esther tells the somewhat long and involved story of Esther and Mordecai, and the great king Ahasuerus. I will greatly compress it here, but with God’s help I will not distort the message which concerns us today.

Like many human kings, Ahasuerus loved expressions of worship from his subjects. Mordecai, a Jew, of course is under God’s command to worship none but God, so Mordecai fails to make the obeisance required by law. This brings to the kings attention that a whole segment of his subjects, those Jews, are breaking this law, choosing instead to observe the Law of God. So, he allows his chief minister, Haman, to order them all killed.

This king’s beloved wife Esther happens to be a Jewess, in fact Mordecai’s foster daughter. There is another law, that noone may enter the king’s presence without being summoned, yet Esther breaks this law to plead for the lives of her People. Not only is she not killed for her crime, but her act saves the rest of her People, and Haman is killed instead.

The book of Daniel contains another story of righteous defiance of the government. Daniel and several fellow Jews have been brought from their defeated homeland, and not only fostered by the king but eventually given posts of honor in the actual government of Babylon. The king commands worship of an idol, which as observant Jews, they refuse to do. We all remember of course they are thrown into a furnace as punishment. But not only does God preserve their lives, but their defiance and the miracle that followed it, caused the king to establish punishment for anyone who would speak against the true God.

Much later, under a new king, Darius, a law was made forbidding any prayers or petitions made to anyone but that king. Good old Daniel ignored that one, also, continuing instead to pray to God. He was duly punished for this by being cast into the den of lions, but God preserved him. Once again, righteous disobedience to government brought forth a miracle, and Darius also, made a decree affirming the power of God.

The text we started with is in the New Testament, and so far we have found many instances of righteous disobedience to government in the Old. Must we conclude that the point of view of the eternal and unchanging God has changed? I do not think so.

Even in the Nativity story, we find in Matthew 2:8, the wise men defying Herod’s demand that they tell him where they found the Child.

In Matthew 2:16, Herod demands that all children under two years old be killed. Joseph was willing to bring his family to Bethlehem to be taxed. But now he took Mary and Jesus, neither submitted to government nor passively waited for God to save Jesus if that were His will, but exercised the courage and initiative of a father and fled to Egypt. Not exactly the submissive citizen.

In Matthew Chapter 12, Jesus and his disciples plucked corn to eat on the Sabbath, a clear violation of the Law. He performed a miraculous healing, also on the Sabbath, another clear violation. His teaching on this lawbreaking does mention His unique identity, but ends by justifying those violations of law by simple compassionate human necessity.

The story from which we get the phrase, “Render unto Caesar”, is worth looking at . (Mark 12:13-17):

13 And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, to catch him in his words.

14 And when they were come, they say unto him, Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?

15 Shall we give, or shall we not give? But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why tempt ye me? Bring me a penny, that I may see it.

16 And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s.

17 And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled at him.

We are used to understanding this story to mean that there are areas of life that belong to God, and areas that belong to the government.

But I ask you to focus on, what information did Jesus ask for, before he pronounced His decision? He asked whose image was on the penny: Caesar’s. The piece of money itself of course is manufactured by the government, now as then. But what does the money represent? How do you acquire it? If you are an honest person, you trade your labor for it, the hours of your life. If we are to apply His wisdom to answering the question, “whom we must follow and obey”, we must ask, “Who gave us our hours of life?” God did! So just as the original hours belong to us only as the gift of God, so does the money we trade them for.

And more deeply, how does Jesus directly teach us to discern who something belongs to? By the image in which it is made. The coin is made in Caesar’s image, but in whose image are we made? To Whom, then do we, and all our productions, belong?

Acts 4 I will again compress. Peter and John were preaching and healing in the name of Jesus. The priests and scribes and rulers questioned them, and they boldly answered that they did so “in the name of Jesus Whom you crucified”.

Verse 18 “And they called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus”
Verse 19
But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge;

The message becomes even more explicitly relevant to our question in verses 26-29

26 The kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, and against his Christ.

27 For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together,

28 For to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done.

29 And now, Lord, behold their threatenings: and grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word,

In  Acts 5, the apostles are healing and teaching, making the official priesthood look bad, so they are put in jail. God lets them out, and they go back to teaching. They are arrested again and brought into court, where the High Priest says,

28 Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.

29 Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.

In Acts 17, some of the apostles are preaching in Greece, as verse 7 says, “contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus”

James 4, verse 17 says,

So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin

It does not say, “unless the government tells him otherwise”

The last bit of Scripture I will touch on is the Book of Revelation, and it is hard to understand, so I will not lean on it very hard. Many interpret it to foretell a global government that will make demands that we must refuse, if we are not to receive the punishment for rejecting God.

So, I think our brief survey has found a clear consensus across the entire sweep of Scripture, that at least certain demands of government must be resisted.

So let us now go back to that famous text in the book of Romans, and see what interpretation of it might be consistent with the rest of Scripture. Can we say that God requires of us blind submission to any claim of human power?

Surely not! The message that I see as the core of Scripture, playing out over and over through every book, is the paramount importance of each of us diligently exercising the free will and the consciences that God gave us, to choose what is right in the sight of God; to choose God, regardless of circumstances.

Our forefathers in 1776 changed the world by asserting for all time that government is not an inherently respectable, pre-existing entity, but that its sole justifying purpose is to serve God’s children, that is We the People, by securing that right to discern and choose righteousness, and all other righteous exercises of the freedom God gave us.

Today, we see human power, whether the economic power of the large corporations or the coercive power of governments, consistently both restricting our freedom, and supporting and urging all sorts of wickedness. Today we must use all the wit God gave us, to question everything we are told or commanded. We must use all the insight we have to discern the will of God. And we must use all of our courage, to follow it.

Romans 13 is a good gift, maybe to make the cops leave us alone, but more importantly to make us ponder what is due to whom. But it is not a reliable stand-alone instruction, if read superficially, for our relations with human power.

Do we know the value of freedom, as well as the Signers did? We should know it better, since we have seen two centuries of its fruit, and the flowering of its seeds that our Declaration scattered all over the world. But if we are to preserve it, we must remember that our government is merely a human tool, a machine to secure the rights and gifts God gave us. It is a machine that We the People built, but it has run amok because we have left the driver’s seat, and have allowed Satan to climb in.  Are we okay with that?  Are we content to merely mutter and whine about it?  By allowing Satan to operate OUR machine, are we not choosing Satan over God?

From the Garden of Eden, through Egypt, to Rome, and now the New World, God has shown that He does not want us to be slaves. When will we decide to exercise that free will that He gave us, to do His on Earth, as it is done in Heaven?

So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin

2 responses to “Scripture on Submission: Romans Chapter 13”

  1. Great essay, John. From reading the sermons reprinted in the book The Pulpit of the American Revolution, by John Wingate Thornton, 1860, I found the simplest exposition of Romans 13 in the following: The minister of God is appointed by God to thwart the evil, and reward the good. But the converse is not ordained of God: When the minister does the opposite—thwart the good, and reward the evil—that minister is no longer acting according to God’s intent, but can be opposed as a thug on the street. And this judgement on the magistrate’s performance is not from a few, but the collective of society. He may be removed, and replaced with a man that will follow God’s prescription.

    This is from the sermon Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers by Jonathan Mayhew preached Jan 1749 Boston. Also, and excellent sermon by Samuel West, May 1776 in Boston elucidated the Christian’s duty to resist tyranny. Between these two sermons, all of the Biblical instructions for civil government and men’s duties under them are covered. One reference book I highly recommend. Thanks for bringing this subject up.

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