Imagine that you are someone who has always lived in a safe and prosperous country. You have a say in the running of your government because you’ve been given the right to vote or even seek office. Although your country’s legal system has flaws, you believe that you’d be treated fairly if you were ever the victim of a crime or if you were accused of one. Although it isn’t perfect, you trust that your government is trying to ensure the safety and well-being of its citizens.
How would you react to Romans 13:1–7 if this was your situation?
Now imagine that you are someone living in a country that is controlled by a power-hungry and unstable ruler. While there are laws, this ruler can and does overrule them on a whim. There are courts and judges who are supposed to act justly, but often don’t. The wealthy and influential get preferential treatment and the poor and disadvantaged are at their mercy. As a citizen, you are as likely to experience violence at the hands of the government as from those of a criminal. There is no recourse for those who experience injustice.
What would your reaction to our central passage be then?
This second scenario is closer to the reality of the Christians to whom Paul was writing. Yet the instructions are the same regardless of the government you live under: submit to your governing authorities. A human perspective might retort, “you only have to respect those who respect you first,” but that’s not God’s perspective.
Let’s look deeper into the context of Romans to understand why. In order to do that, we’re going to look at some excerpts from Romans 12.
12 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
To whom does a Christian give themselves?
How will a Christian know God’s will?
9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
13 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
Based on Romans 12:9–13, how would you describe how a Christian should treat others?
According to Romans 12:14–20, how should Christians treat those who mistreat them? How is verse 21 a good summary statement of the verses that come before?
Who establishes governing authorities?
From Genesis through to Revelation, the Bible depicts some very powerful rulers who thought they were in control. But ultimately, God is. Paul makes this point in Romans 13:1.
It didn’t matter that Pharaoh or Caesar thought of themselves as divine. It didn’t matter that the kings of Assyria or Babylon thought that their power and right to rule was unassailable. Whether they acknowledged it or not, Yahweh, the one true God, established their rule. And in each case, he ended their rule and eventually brought down their empires. God is supreme. He is the ultimate Sovereign over every human ruler in every nation at every time in history. As Christians, we acknowledge that, put all our faith in God, and live out God’s will here on earth.
What is his will? To love one another. To hate evil and cling to what is good. To honor and serve the Lord by honoring and serving others. To be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. To do what is right. These are the patterns of renewed minds. They are high callings that imitate the character of Christ.
Each command in Romans 12:9–21 shows us what Spirit-filled, kingdom citizens pursue, by whatever means they have at their disposal. From those who have influence and power, to those who don’t, Christians are called to live out Christ’s radical love, service, justice, and mercy. Christians should be search lights in a dark world, directing people to Jesus, while doing what they can to make life better for others now.
Paul urges the Roman believers to “overcome evil with good,” and “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). According to Paul, the desire for goodness, peace, and justice will lead to a respect for the governing authorities. Paul insists that the “authorities that exist have been established by God.” (13:1) By honoring the authorities placed over them, believers were ultimately honoring God.
Punishing the wrongdoer is a responsibility of the government. Christians are not to repay evil for evil. Personal vengeance is not allowed. Only the governing authorities are given the responsibility to wield the sword to achieve justice. As Christians, we want to support our government, including those who serve in its ranks. We also want to hold them accountable and insist on just treatment for all, because that is one way of overcoming evil with good. No matter what, we trust that God will see that justice is done. Even if the wicked seem to prosper in this life, Christians have faith that God will ultimately set all things right.
Paul did not know at the time he was writing Romans how severe Christian persecution would become under Nero. Nor could he have imagined all the various systems of government under which believers would live. Today Christians in different parts of the world are navigating life under governments that rule justly to varying degrees. Yet for all of us who are called to be “living sacrifices” to God and resist being molded to the pattern of the world, we must remember that our primary allegiance is not to earthly rulers, but to our divine King. Our eternal passports are issued by the Kingdom of God, not our current nation. And our King would have us demonstrate his righteousness in our role as citizens.
How does reading Romans 13:1 in the context of Romans 12:9–21 give you insight into God’s desire for his people, including their relationship to their government? How might living according to Romans 12:1 and 12:9–21 transform your political thoughts and actions?