Taken from unnamed facebook writer.
The overall scriptural narrative is anti-imperial. The “great” kings like Pharaoh and others are foils to show the true greatness of God. In 1 Samuel 8, the people ask for a human king, and god sees this as a disaster, as being opposed to his own kingship. At best, governments are a mere concession on God’s part to humans.
As John Howard Yoder points out, even in the temptations of Jesus (Matt. 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13) indicate a rejection of worldly power. The third temptation of Christ is “the kingdoms of the world and their splendor,” which Satan can give Jesus if he pays obeisance to Satan. Satan is considered “the Prince [ruler] of this world” and is quite sincere in his offer, and Jesus, who is the messiah, did not brush it off as impossible. But Jesus seems to understand that the kingdoms of this world do belong to Satan, and his followers should not think otherwise. Furthermore, the theme of Babylon as an evil state under the influence of Satan permeates the book of Revelation. In Revelation 18:4, for instance, God exhorts His church to “come out of her [Babylon], my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues.”
The differences between the kingdom of man and the Kingdom of God is fundamental to understand. Indeed, this is the biggest mistake made throughout history. Theologians like John Howard Yoder call this problem “Constantinianism” in which the legitimized church gets entangled with the state, or embraces a “Christendom” that ultimately falls into the pattern of the world rather than be molded by Christ. This is not to say that Jesus is not at all “political,” and only focused on the spiritual (not stuff of life and resources here on earth). Just the opposite. Jesus is a King bringing forth the kingdom of God. So, the kingdom of God was itself, and remained, a thoroughly political concept. Jesus’ death was a thoroughly political event, and the existence and growth of the early church was a matter of community-building, in conflict politically, often enough, with other communities.
But Jesus explicitly says that, “My kingdom is not from this world… my kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). The “rules of the kingdom” as explained in the Sermon on the Mount are unlike any sort of state laws that have ever existed. Furthermore, it is not the job of the Christian to use physical force to bring about his kingdom, but rather to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). The kingdoms of man are founded upon power and violence, but the Kingdom of God is founded upon humility (Matt. 18:4), service (Matt. 20:26), and love (John 13:35). While we cannot help being entangled with/in states in this world, we are reminded once again that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).
The difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world comes down to the kind of power they trust. The kingdoms of the world place their trust in whatever coercive power they can exercise over others. We can think of this kind of power as the power of the “sword” (and that is the language of Romans 13 as well). In contrast, the kingdom of God refuses to use coercive power over people, choosing instead to rely exclusively on whatever power it can exercise under people. This is the transforming power of humble, self-sacrificial, Christlike love. Exercising power under others is about impacting people’s lives by serving them, sacrificing for them, and even be sacrificed by them while refusing to retaliate, as Jesus did. We can think of this kind of power as the power of the cross, for the cross is the purest expression of humble servant-like, self-sacrificial love.
While the kingdom is in a sort of opposition to the nations, this doesn’t mean kingdom people are always to be law breakers. When laws conflict with the rule of God, of course, they must break them (Ac 5:39). But otherwise they are naturally to go along with them, for not doing so would unnecessarily get in the way of our call to build the kingdom. But we submit to laws not because they have ultimate “authority” over us, but primarily because we submit to God. This brings us to Romans 13 (and Titus 3:1-3, 1 Timothy 2:1-3, and 1 Peter 2:11-17).
Most importantly, Romans 13 must be read in conjunction with the verses that immediately precede it. In this case, Romans 12:17-21. There are no chapter markers in the original text, and it only makes sense as a single unit. Scholars (again see Yoder for details) see the parallel structure in the language itself as impossible to be coincidentalI. In these passages Paul tells kingdom people they are to love and serve their enemies and never exact vengeance on them. Rather, we are to leave all judgment to God. Then, beginning in Romans 13, Paul tells us one of the ways God exacts vengeance on people: he uses governments. So God uses governments, as he finds them, to do the very thing he has just forbidden kingdom people to do. The passage thus shows not that Christians have a responsibility to participate in government, but that we have an obligation not to participate when it does things we as kingdom people are forbidden to do (like using violence against wrongdoers).
Verse 1 of Romans 13 says that state authorities are instituted by God. Paul’s primary message for Christians, however, is not that states are specially instituted in the same way as the family and church, but rather that the state is not operating outside of the plans of God. In this sense, the state is divinely instituted in the same way that Satan is divinely instituted. God is not surprised when states act the way they do. As noted specifically in the Gospels, the state is understood throughout Scripture as being intimately tied to Satan and his kingdom, and patently opposed to the kingdom of God. The state’s status within God’s ultimate plan does not legitimize the evil the state commits.
Submission to civil government, then, is always qualified. The command is to obey in general, but sometimes we will disobey public policy because of personal and Scriptural conviction. Christians are to obey most policy whenever directly requested to do so, but ensuring active compliance with every public policy is unnecessary. All submission is directed at being expedient and practical toward men and glorifying toward God.
Verses 2-4 indicate that if you irritate the state then you will face wrath, but if you behave in the way the state wants then they will be pleased. At many points, what the state defines as good and evil may be very much opposed to what God defines as good and evil. But what Paul is telling the believers in Rome is that if they do something that the Roman government defines as evil then they will likely be punished for it. We cannot overly abstract this verse from its cultural context and make it an absolute requirement on all cultures at all times. To do so would be to put Christians under a great bondage to bad public policy. There is no compelling reason to think that Paul was deliberately writing about any particular rulers other than those in the first century Roman Empire.
Paul knew full well the power of Nero and the potential harm he could cause to Christians in Rome via the common term of the times for such state power, “the sword.” He does not want believers to be persecuted for anything other than the name of Christ and what he stands for. Paul reminds the Roman Christians, though, that even the dreadful power of the state is not outside the power of God. His message to them is the same as Romans 8:28, that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Even the state or enemies can indeed be a means of sanctification for the Lord’s church.
Verses 5-7 expand upon the reasons for submitting and include practical ways the Roman Christians were to respond to Paul’s message. The reason we must submit to government is to avoid wrath or worrying about being harmed by the state authority. God does not want us to be entangled with the affairs of this world to the point where such involvement detracts from our primary mission. The believers were concerned that the Roman state would find a legal reason to persecute them. Paul also says to submit to paying taxes for the same reason: avoiding state wrath in order to live for God, and be seen as good by others.
The fact that Paul needs to stress the need for civil obedience itself tells fairly strongly, if paradoxically, in favor of this basic Christian Anarchist anti-power-over perspective. It implies that, without some such restraining counsel, some might have heard Paul’s teaching to imply that the church was to become a Christian version of the Jewish zealots, owing allegiance to no one except God and therefore under obligation to rebel violently against human rulers, and to refuse to pay taxes. The paragraph can therefore be seen, not as evidence that Paul would not have been saying anything subversive, but that he had been, and now needed to make clear what this did, and particularly what it did not mean. It did not mean for the church taking up “the sword” themselves.
For Paul to even say that the ruler is answerable to God is itself a Jewish point over against pagan ruler-cult. Caesar did not, normally, owe allegiance to anyone except himself, and perhaps, though at a surface level, the traditional Roman gods. Paul declares, with massive Jewish tradition behind him, that Caesar is in fact responsible to the true God, whether or not he knows it. This is an undermining of pagan totalitarianism, not a reinforcement of it.
Paul wants the Roman Christians to live appropriately in the tension between present and future. This does not mean, as Paul’s own example bears out, that one must be politically totally compliant or repressed until the final reappearing of Jesus. Preaching and living the gospel must always mean announcing and following Jesus, rather than Caesar, as the true Lord. But the eschatological balance must be kept. The church must live as a sign of the coming complete kingdom of Jesus Christ; but since that kingdom is characterized by peace, love and joy it cannot be inaugurated in the present by chaos, hatred and anger.
Romans 13 is not an abstract, blanket statement that requires submission to all state laws, in all places, for all circumstances, at all times. Nor is it a prescription for what particular form of government is sanctioned by God or for how states should act. The historical context and wording requires us to be careful when making pronouncements about what a Christian’s submission to the state looks like.
Any Christian obedience to government is for the purpose of expedient peaceful living and bringing no dishonor to the name of Christ. It is part of enemy love as is explicitly clear from Romans 12. But we are not obligated to follow every jot of public policy. Moreover, we are not supposed to follow any law that goes against the law of God. If we are to be persecuted, it should be for the name of Christ and what he stands for, not for refusing to follow some random law when directly threatened by state action. Romans 13 is part of a radical message of an alternative way of living, even among the world at odds with the ways of the church. It is not a ticket to fall into the historical disastrous anti-gospel attempts at Christendom within the Constantinian paradigm.