In the midst of an era which has become filled with riots and open violence against Federal property and law enforcement, this comes as a timely pericope.
Internal Revenue Service. City Hall. County Seat. Federal Office. The Mayor. The Governor. The President. Your congressman/woman. Your Senator. Proper pronouns like these can stir up a beehive of feelings like frustration, disappointment, betrayal, distrust, and oppression. We see and feel all of this and then find it even more remarkable that Paul wrote this little paragraph about the ruling authorities. Many today take it for granted that rulers are not to be trusted. Is there any sense in which we can say our politicians are truth-speakers? Is there any corner of civic service where we would not find corruption? The preacher has his hands full with this pericope. Navigate carefully. Navigate faithfully. Stay close to the inspired Word of God.
Many Christians take it for granted that governments are corrupt and dehumanizing. Therefore, it is part of our marching orders as followers of King Jesus to offer serious criticism and opposition, even, if necessary, at a cost to our personal prospects. When we add to this the fact that Paul was writing during the first century of the Roman Empire, currently ruled by the notorious, arrogant, and despicably wicked Nero, some people find it incredible to think of Paul saying this. They wonder if maybe the paragraph was stuffed into Romans chapter 13 by someone else, a government agent no doubt! Other people think this may have been a topic Paul had not given much thought to at this stage, but by the time he wrote the prison epistles and experienced the hospitality of the Imperial Government, he had changed his mind about whether the Roman authority was all that and a bag of chips.
But thinking like that misses the point of what is going on. Of course, this paragraph has been used (and abused) by many people in power as a way of telling their subjects to keep their mouths shut and mute any resistance, even in the face of flagrant abuse. But when we put these verses back into their context, right here in the letter we start to see what Paul is getting at. He has just said, strongly and repeatedly, that private vengeance is absolutely forbidden for Christians. But this does not mean, on the one hand, God does not care about evil or, on the other, God wants society to collapse into chaos where the bullies and the powerbrokers do what they like and get away with it. In fact, even in countries where people hate the authorities and fear the police, when someone commits a murder or even a serious robbery, everyone affected by it wants good authorities and good police who will find the culprit and administer justice. That is a basic, and correct, human instinct. We do not want to live by the law of the jungle. We want to live as human beings in an ordered, properly functioning society.
This is almost all Paul is saying, making the point as he does so the Christians, who were regarded as the scum of the earth in Rome at the time, do not get an additional reputation as troublemakers. No good will come to the cause of the Gospel by followers of Jesus being regarded as crazy dissidents who will not cooperate with the most basic social mechanisms. Paul is anxious, precisely because he believes Jesus really is the true Lord of the world and His followers should not pick unnecessary quarrels with the lesser lords in His name, or in the name of His bride, the Church. If we are known as lawless rebels and malcontents concerning the authorities, then what will a watching world think of us with respect to obedience to Christ Himself? True, we are indeed a revolutionary community, but if we go for the normal type of violent and lawless revolution, then we will be playing the empire game on empire terms, which is always a losing proposition for the Gospel.
If we are known as lawless rebels and malcontents concerning the authorities, then what will a watching world think of us with respect to obedience to Christ Himself?
But, while making this point, Paul has one or two others of great interest as well. To begin with, he declares that the civic rulers and authorities have been put in place by God Himself. This would be news to Nero and the other emperors, who believed (or claimed to believe) in their own divinity, certainly that they held power in their own right rather than as a gift from the One Creator God, who was, in fact, their sovereign. They would have laughed at such a suggestion. The Christians are called to believe, though, that the civic authorities, great and small, are there because the one true Lord wants His world to be ordered, not chaotic. This does not validate particular actions or particular governments or even particular officials within particular governments. We retain the right to make bad decisions, vote for bad officials, and pass bad laws which we enforce badly. God is not at fault for our faults. Rather, it is merely to say some government is always necessary in a world where evil flourishes when unchecked.
Of course, Paul knew that quite often one might do the right thing and find the rulers doing the wrong thing. You only have to read the stories of his escapades in Acts to see this. But notice in those accounts how, precisely when the authorities are getting it all wrong and acting illegally or unjustly, Paul has no hesitation in telling them their proper business and insisting they should follow it. It is hardly the way to become popular, but completely consistent with what he says here.
His comments about taxes may well have a specific point in relation to the Roman situation at the time. Roman subjects living in the capital paid two types of tax, some direct and some indirect. The latter was so unpopular it led to riots and uprisings. At one point, Nero promised the people of Rome he would cancel all indirect taxation (of course, he did not keep that promise, but it gave him a bump in the polls). Those who believed Jesus was the one true Lord of the world might well use that belief to rationalize withholding taxes, which many of their pagan contemporaries, likewise, thought was unjust. Paul stands out against this. Christians were likely to get into quite enough trouble for far more serious things, as he knew well from his own experience, but they should be good citizens as far as they can for the sake of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God.
In saying this, Paul was standing within a particular Jewish tradition and developing it in light of the Gospel. The Old Testament had denounced pagan nations and their rulers, but some of the very prophets whose denunciations were fiercest also told Israel God was working through the pagan nations and their rulers for Israel’s long-term good. The centuries before the coming of Jesus saw many Jewish attempts to hold together the firm belief that their God, the only true and living Lord, was, in fact, sovereign over the nations. They also held the equally firm belief that the pagan nations, and often enough of their rulers, were wicked, idolatrous, immoral, and dangerous for Israel. It was precisely this tension which came to a head when, in John’s Gospel, Jesus stood before the Roman governor and declared that, even though he was about to execute Him, the power by which he did it had come from God in the first place.
The Two Kingdoms doctrine teaches us God is the ruler of the whole world, and He rules in two ways. According to the principle, God rules the worldly or left-hand kingdom through secular (and, though this point is often misunderstood, also churchly) government, utilizing law (like the sword or compulsion). In the heavenly or righthand kingdom (His spiritual kingdom, that is, Christians insofar as they are a new creation who spontaneously and voluntarily obey) He reigns through the Gospel or grace.
The Two Kingdoms doctrine is simply another form of the distinctive Lutheran teaching of Law and Gospel. The official book which defines Lutheranism, the “Book of Concord” compiled in 1580, references a sermon by Martin Luther on this from 1528 preached on the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity in Marburg about the Two Kingdoms or Two Kinds of Righteousness.
In that sermon, Luther states how the worldly (left hand) kingdom includes everything we can see and do in our bodies. It fully and especially includes whatever is done in the Church. This is taught so it is clear that in the heavenly (right hand) kingdom, the only thing included there is faith alone in Christ. “Christ alone” and “faith alone” are Lutheran slogans which are reflected in this way.
Luther used the phrase “two governments” rather than “two kingdoms.” His and Philip Melanchthon’s doctrine, which was later labeled “Two Kingdoms,” was that the Church should not exercise worldly government and princes should not rule the Church or have anything to do with the salvation of souls. The Catholic Church has a similar doctrine called the doctrine of the “Two Swords.” Hence, the Augsburg Confession XVI:
It is taught among us that all government in the world and all established rule and laws were instituted and ordained by God for the sake of good order, and that Christians may without sin occupy civil offices and serve as princes and judges, render decisions and pass sentence according to imperial and other existing laws, punish evildoers with the sword, engage in just wars, serve as soldiers, buy and sell, take required oaths, possess property, and be married.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you preaching Romans 13:1-10.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Romans 13:1-10.
Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!