Daily Office Readings – NT ( Romans 13:1-14 )
This passage today starts out with calling people to obey the authority of government, because God has ordained it; if people rebel against the ruling authority, then they can be found to be rebeling against God, since he has put into place those who are in power.
It’s a favorite passage of those who are in power, because they like to remind people that God has ordained their authority, and that any distrust of their activities means that people are resisting what God has ordained. In short, “Do as I say, because I’m God’s anointed.”
This passage was a favorite of the slave owners as they attempted to keep the slaves in line and away from outright rebellion. It was a favorite of those in Nazi Germany who approved of Hitler’s actions and were trying to thwart the Confessing Church. It was also a favorite of the South African government during Apartheid when trying to keep in line those under oppression. And, most recently, it made the news again when former Attorney General Jeff Sessions attempted to make the point that people should just accept the administration’s immigration stance.
It’s a great scripture to use when you are in power, because you can play on people’s religious beliefs to keep them in line with what you wish to accomplish.
But Paul was writing to fellow Christians under the power of others, specifically the Romans. They were being persecuted, and they were most clearly not the ones in power, so why would Paul have told them to obey the ruling authorities? Precisely for that reason. They were being persecuted and Paul was telling them to keep their heads down so that they would not draw attention to themselves and make themselves targets for persecution.
We also need to remember that even though Paul is pointing out that people should obey the ruling authorities, he consistently makes clear that the final word is not the current ruling authority, but rather that God is the final say, since it is God who has ordained or established those in power. This means that if the state were to enact a law that asked people to break God’s moral law, then the final say is that people would have to follow God and not the rules of men. We see this sort of behavior in the latter half of Acts 5, where the disciples were dragged into the Sanhedrin and told that they had violated the commandment not to preach about Christ. They replied that they must obey God and not men (5:29). They were then flogged and told not to do it again, but the very end of the chapter shows that they “never stopped preaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.”
While the passage in Acts refers to Peter and some of the other disciples, Paul must have been of the same mind. Paul begins to talk about the laws that every good Jewish believer would know, but then he says that the law is all summed up in the words “Love your neighbor as yourself,” because “love does no wrong to a neighbor.” In other words, obey the law as much as you must to comply, but if the law contradicts the law of God, then default to loving your neighbor.
Even in the midst of the persecution that the Christians in Rome were facing, Paul told them to comply with the law as much as they were able, and to default to loving their neighbor because love is the fulfillment of the law.
Ultimately, this passage should never be used to force people to obey the law of the land without question, especially if the laws of the land do not follow the way of love. This passage is used to remind Christians that even though they may be facing persecution at the hands of the government, they still need to obey as best they can, unless the laws of the land begin to trail away from the ultimate source of authority, God and his love.