Life in Society
How is the Christian to live his life as a believer? Paul has been addressing this question since the beginning of ch.12. He has already told us that a real experience of God's gracious salvation will produce changes in the way a person lives. A person cannot become a Christian and then go on as though nothing had happened. No, when a person becomes a Christian he becomes a new creature and has a new life to live.
In the opening verses of ch.12 Paul has written about the Christian in his relationship towards God. He then moved on to deal with his relationships with other Christians in the church community. Having done that Paul addressed the way in which the Christian is to relate to those who are outside the Christian community and in particular with those who may well be hostile towards him and his faith. We considered this aspect last week when we saw that Paul explained how the Christian was a private individual and as such was not to take the law into his own hands. Paul was not living in cloud-
But, someone might object, behaving like that would allow injustice to run rampant and surely that is not good.
Paul anticipates this and meets it with his explanation of life in society in Rom.13:1-
Now in coming to these verses I am aware that we are examining matters that have caused considerable disagreement over the years. It is not my desire to stir up further disagreement this morning. I don't want to talk about party politics and various political opinions. What I do want to do, with God's help, is to show you what the Bible has to say about how we are to live out our lives in society in general. God in his wisdom inspired Paul to write these words for our instruction and because he did so it is obvious that we need to understand this teaching.
We need this teaching because it is quite possible that our own attitudes have been formed, or at the very least heavily influenced, more by our culture than by our understanding of God's word.
We live in a day when authority is called into question at almost every turn and we don't like to be told what to do – "On whose authority?" or "Who gave you the right to tell me that?" "I don't have to do what you tell me."
Those are sentiments with which we are very familiar. So when we hear Paul say in Rom.13:1:
"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities."
I wouldn't be surprised if we don't all start looking for some wriggle room, for exceptions that will allow us to set this teaching to one side!
But let's take the time to see just what it is that Paul has to say before we do that.
Paul is, in fact, laying down some principles for us and before we can begin to consider exceptions we need to be clear as to what the general principles really are all about. We would be wrong to read these verses as though they were declaring absolute truth – that will become clear when we consider some of the Bible's other teachings on the matter – but what Paul is doing here is generalizing and what he says is true.
Paul introduces the subject by calling upon the Christian to develop a submissive pattern of behaviour. He should not need to be forced into submission by the governing authorities but should himself readily submit to them.
Paul goes to explain and to justify why this pattern of behaviour is appropriate for the Christian to adopt and something of what it involves.
Everyone knew that there were governing authorities but where did they get their authority from? Today men have their different theories but in the Bible there is just one. God reigns and rules sovereignly over all he has made and he delegates his authority to certain institutions. Here Paul tells us that all governing institutions derive their authority ultimately from God himself. This is of course in harmony with what the rest of Scripture teaches. Consider for example these words from the Book of Daniel:
Dan.4:17, 25, 32 "the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will… the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will… the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will."
This same truth Paul is at pains to underline for us in these verses:
v.1a "For there is no authority except from God,"
v.1b "and those that exist have been instituted by God."
v.2 "Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed,"
v.4a the ruler "is God’s servant"
v.4b the ruler "is the servant of God,"
v.6 "the authorities are ministers of God, "
Consequently the Christian is to view civil government as God's gift to those who are governed. Such government, originating as it does from God, is designed positively to promote the well-
The apostle Peter was of the same opinion as Paul and wrote in similar terms:
Civil government then in God's design has the primary responsibilities of protecting, defending and maintaining human life. A failure to do this exposes the nation to the judgment of God. Government ministers are not their own men they are God's servants. And God will hold them responsible for the manner in which they exercise that service – if they fail dismally and set themselves up against God they will have to give an account to the One who said vengeance is mine I will repay!
When civil government does fail we can and do describe the resulting chaos as "a breakdown in law and order". Now when that happens most citizens suffer in some way or another while the criminal element, the unrighteousness element, prospers. In just the last few days news has emerged of a vicious lynching in the Central African Republic "This situation is an illustration of the fact that the population, they have lost their references."
As governments carry out their responsibilities they have the right to levy taxes of various kinds and the Christian, recognising governing authority as being part of the divine gift, is to readily comply by the payment of the requisite taxes.
In normal circumstances then a Christian is to live his life as an exemplary citizen: obeying the laws of the land and honestly paying his taxes because in normal circumstances the government does not treat such a person as their enemy. If we do wrong we should not be surprised that sanctions are applied against us. However the Christian is to have a higher motive than merely that of avoiding fines, penalties and punishments that the state, acting as God's representative, will meter out. The Christian will be submissive because this is the right and proper way for him to conduct himself – conscience – it will not bring dishonour to the name of his Saviour.
Paul in his letter to the Romans dealt with the broad fundamental principles and did not enter into any kind of detail about exceptional situations which might call for a different kind of behaviour – he left that to other authors in the Bible. We can't leave things where Paul did however and must move on to consider some of that wider teaching. In doing so I must however underline that submission and respect for authority must remain the default position for every Christian who wants to live his life in a God-
The reason why we must go on to consider some of the limits to Paul's general statements concerning submission to the authorities is that although every authority derives its authority for rule from the authority of God himself sadly men are very capable of abusing this authority. While rulers are appointed in order that they might, as God's servant, promote the well-
The question then presents itself to us: At what point does the abuse of God-
This is far from being easy to establish but there are a number of things that can help us.
1. Remember the times and circumstances that were prevailing when Paul wrote.
Paul was writing to Christians in the capital city of a huge and heavily oppressive imperial power. The Rome of Paul's day was in a number of ways a brutal empire that ruled over many of its peoples as the result of military conquest. Its subject peoples often endured Rome's power and had certainly never voted in favour of it!
This was an empire which had nevertheless established a certain degree of law and order – the peace that Rome had imposed, the pax romanica, enabled the gospel to spread quickly and efficiently through many parts of the then known world. It was an empire which gave a certain protection to its citizens too – Paul benefited from this legal structure when he appealed to Caesar.
And yet it was an empire that would increasingly prove hostile towards the Christian faith and the Christian community. Paul himself may well have died in Rome as the apostle Peter probably did as well.
Why am I pointing this out? Well, it is because the Christian can live as a good citizen under all kinds of harsh and domineering regimes (of whatever political flavour they might be) without necessarily compromising his faith. We have the privilege of living in a democracy in which we can participate and in which in general the rule of law is upheld. We might not approve of all of the laws that our government passes but still law rules and don't fear imprisonment or some other sort of punishment if we do what the law requires.
2. There are times however when the Christian must withhold his submission to the governing authorities. There a number of instances in the Bible when we find this refusal to submit being commended:
The example of the Hebrew midwives. They were ordered to murder new-
Daniel and his friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego also were faced with stark choices. Would they do what God required of them or what the rulers under whom they served? All chose in fact to obey God though it meant the fiery furnace for three of them while Daniel was thrown into the lions' den because of his determination to put God first. See Dan.chs.3+6.
Jesus himself recognised that both God and the governing authorities had legitimate claims upon the submission and obedience of men. When he was brought before Pilate for a hearing which would eventually lead to his execution Jesus nevertheless testified to his confidence that God lay behind even malfunctioning authority structures:
You will remember that Jesus had spoken earlier in another hostile environment in response to a question designed to get him into hot water:
Mk.12:17 "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s."
Jesus didn't elaborate at that time on just what should be done if those two loyalties came into conflict with each other. His apostles were however in no doubt as they ministered in his name. Jesus had commissioned them to go and preach the good news so when the authorities told them not to do this very thing the issue of submission was brought starkly into the open. You know how they famously responded:
Acts 5:29 "But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than men."
When we read through the pages of the Bible we are not confronted by men who were fired with the thought of violently overturning the structures of their day. We do not find an endless succession of people desperately seeking opportunities to oppose the governing powers of their day even though such opportunities would have abounded. Instead we find godly people dedicated to serving Christ while respecting and working within the framework in which they found themselves.
Yet it was this very way of living that succeeded in "turning the world upside down". They preached a message of reconciliation with God through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and as they did so they sowed seeds of transformation in the heart of many of their hearers. These seeds were watered with prayer but it was God who approvingly gave the increase.
Do you want to live your life in a way that pleases God and expresses your thankfulness to him for saving you from the degradation and lostness into which your sin had plunged you? Then you must live the life of a good citizen, living within the laws of the land, putting up with what you must as long as this does not conflict with your immediate obedience to God.
But submission does not necessarily imply approval of all that a government may require of you – your submission to them is because of your belonging to God and your desire to honour him. For this reason too you will pray for those in authority exactly as Paul taught elsewhere in the NT. It is no easy task to be part of the governing authorities and Christians have an extremely important role to play in praying for their leaders.
Let us close with those words which Paul wrote to the young man Timothy, and may God help us by our lives in society to adorn the doctrine of our God and Saviour!