Romans 13:1 – Governing Authorities

The subject of discussion in this commentary is a minefield.  I’m well aware that pastors and theologians have differing views and ways of understanding what Paul says in Romans 13:1-2:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

From what I can tell, there are those who read these verses and determine that regardless of how the authorities govern – whether for good or evil – we are to obey them, keep our heads down, and suffer under them, even if they are wicked.  Conversely, I believe there are some who peruse this brief passage and determine – based on other admonitions we find in Scripture – that this isn’t necessarily a recipe to simply take what is dished out if those who rule are wicked.

I think that if we take what Paul says in isolation to the rest of the Bible, one could conclude that the first position stated above is correct.  It seems cut and dried: We’re under others; thus we must be subject to them by doing what they say and accepting every ruling that comes down from them.  Whether the results are good or evil, since God appointed the authorities, we’re to accept that fate.  If we disagree and act to counter whatever rulings of any kind, we face the judgmental consequences of God.

We could consult some proverbs about good versus wicked rulers, particularly Proverbs 29 which contains several declarations about this subject, but perhaps Psalm 101:2-5 may give us a fuller picture:

I will ponder the way that is blameless.

    Oh when will you come to me?

I will walk with integrity of heart

    within my house;

I will not set before my eyes

    anything that is worthless.

I hate the work of those who fall away;

    it shall not cling to me.

A perverse heart shall be far from me;

    I will know nothing of evil.

Whoever slanders his neighbor secretly

    I will destroy.

Whoever has a haughty look and an arrogant heart

    I will not endure.

Here the psalmist looks to a life that is blameless; that is, he desires to walk with God in a way that is without blemish.  The integrity in his house is of innocence, complete and upright.  By not viewing anything worthless, it means he’ll tolerate nothing that is wicked.  He will not join with any such work; it is like a disease to him and he wants nothing to do with it.  The psalmist wants nothing twisted and false in his life; he has no use for it in anything he does.  If there is one who is proud and speaks poorly of others, again the psalmist wants a clear separation from that person.

What if the governing authorities are indeed evil?  What if their hearts are black and integrity is a foreign concept to them?  What if the laws and regulations they make harm many people, even innocent children?  What if they lie continually about those issues over which they have jurisdiction?  What if throughout all they do, they conduct themselves as though they are a god and in arrogance rule with impunity over the peons, i.e. the lesser ones, in their realm?

If we consider such a reign through this lens of Psalm 101, then a righteous person must have no part in that governance and rightly reject it for the evil that it is.

Does this contradict what Paul says?  Not necessarily.  Paul tells us that all rulers are set in place by God to be His avenging sword.  Under a just ruler, if someone disobeys laws, he is and should be subject to whatever is the appropriate penalty.  But, here’s the thing: Paul doesn’t actually address the idea of a thoroughly wicked governing regime that left and right hands down decrees which violate God’s laws for society and individuals.  As such, I don’t think we can argue from silence that Paul would necessarily say that we’re to bow down without protest or action and accept everything imposed upon us when we’re in that societal situation.

There are enough other Scriptures that command us to abhor evil and do what is right.  That doesn’t have to mean taking up arms and in violence resisting the evil rulers.  It might, just as our Founding Fathers ultimately determined, but that should likely be a last resort.  Instead, as we can, our position in Christ should be to represent Him well by being salt and light, by reflecting the light of His goodness into the darkness.  By necessity, that means we are not simply obedient puppets, but actively working against the wickedness.  We are to occupy until Jesus comes.

In reflecting on this, I think the key is that, in all our efforts to push back against the lawless rulers, we are to do so in a manner whereby Christ is glorified.  If in what we do, we exalt ourselves, i.e. man above God, then we labor in vain.

Our current day and age provides us much opportunity to oppose wickedness and to proclaim the righteousness of God.  Unfortunately, it appears to me that many are putting their faith in a process to reclaim our nation, rather than the One who can truly make that happen.  Sadly, because of that, I’m not so sure that God will ultimately bless the efforts.

Our eyes must be on the Lord in all we do.  Our hearts must first be loyal to Him who gives us life and all good things.  Without Christ at the center, despite the evil surrounding us, we cannot overcome it.  Only through Him are we victors, because He alone has already won the war.

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