Living under the power of God (Romans 13)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” says Paul. “Those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1). Knowing that the systems of Rome’s rule were not in line with God’s jus­tice, this counsel must have been hard for some in the Roman churches to hear. How could obeying the idolatrous, ruthless Roman emperor be a way of living in the Spirit? Paul’s answer is that God is sovereign over every earthly authority and that God will deal with the authorities at the right time. Even Rome, powerful though it might have been, was ultimately subject to the power of God.

In the workplace, it is often true that “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” (Rom. 13:3). Bosses often organize work effectively and create a fair environment for ironing out disputes. Courts regularly settle cases involving patents, land title, labor relations, and contracts equitably. Regulators often serve to protect the environment, prevent fraud, enforce workplace safety, and ensure equal access to housing op­portunities. Police generally apprehend criminals and assist the inno­cent. The fact that even nonbelieving authorities so often get things right is a mark of God’s grace in the world.

But authorities in business, government, and every workplace can get things devastatingly wrong and sometimes abuse power for self­ish ends. When this happens, it helps to distinguish between human-generated powers (even if they are significant) and the power of God that lies over, behind, and through all of creation. Often the human powers are so much closer to us that they can tend to block out our sense of God’s movement in our lives. This passage serves as an encouragement to discern where God is active and to join our lives to those activities of God that will foster true fullness of life for us and for all.

People who worked at Tyco International when Dennis Kozlowski was CEO must have wondered why he was allowed to get away with raiding the company’s coffers to pay for his outrageous personal life­style. We can imagine that those who tried to work with integrity may have felt afraid for their jobs. Some otherwise ethical people may have succumbed to the pressure to participate in Kozlowski’s schemes. But eventually Kozlowski was found out, charged, and convicted of grand larceny, conspiracy, and fraud.[1] Those who trusted that justice would eventually be restored ended up on the right side of the story.

Paul offers practical advice to the Roman Christians, who were liv­ing in the center of the most powerful human authorities the Western world had ever known. Obey the law, pay your taxes and commercial fees, give respect and honor to those in positions of authority (Rom. 12:7). Perhaps some had thought that, as Christians, they should rebel against Roman injustice. But Paul seems to see self-centeredness in their attitude, rather than God-centeredness. Self-serving rebelliousness will not prepare them for God’s “day” (Rom. 13:12) that is coming.

For example, in some countries tax evasion is so commonplace that needed services cannot be provided, bribery (to enable the evasion) corrupts officials at every level, and the tax burden is unfairly distrib­uted. The government loses legitimacy in the eyes of both the taxpayers and the tax evaders. Civil instability slows economic growth and human development. No doubt, much of the money that is collected is used for purposes inconsistent with Christian values, and many Christians may respond by evading taxes along with everyone else. But what would hap­pen if Christians committed, in an organized fashion, to pay their taxes and to monitor the government’s use of funds? It could take decades to reform government in this manner, but would it eventually work? Paul’s argument in Romans 12 suggests it would.

Many Christians live in democracies today, which gives the addi­tional responsibility to vote for wise laws that express God’s justice as best we can. Once the votes are counted, we have a responsibility to obey the laws and the authorities, even if we disagree with them. Paul’s words imply that we are to obey the legitimate authorities, even while we may be working to change unjust ones through democratic means.

In every sphere of life, we have an ongoing responsibility to resist and to transform all unjust systems, always putting the common good above self-interest. Even so, we are to show respect to the authorities, whether at work, school, church, government, or civic life. We believe that change will occur not because we express outrage, but because God is sovereign over all.

Paul completes chapter 13 noting that by loving other people, we ful­fill the commandments. Living in the Spirit inherently fulfills the Jewish law, even by those who don’t know it. He reiterates that this comes not by human striving, but by the power of Christ in us. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” he concludes (Rom. 13:14).

Michael J. De La Merced, “Released from Prison,” New York Times, De­cember 4, 2013, B6.