Romans 13 in Context, Part 1
Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God.
Even when we’re reading a passage of Scripture devotionally, we need to remember that it was not written directly to us. Yes, yes, I do believe it is God’s Word for us. But the biblical text was, first of all, for another people in another time. If we forget this, we run the risk of misinterpreting Scripture, even in our personal devotions. For example, we might end up sacrificing animals on an altar when we’re working through Leviticus, forgetting that the sacrifice of Jesus has made that unnecessary.
Paul’s writing in Romans 13 was not intended to be his theological dissertation on the nature of government. Rather, he was offering divinely-inspired counsel to Christians living in Rome somewhere around 55 A.D. It’s quite likely that some of these Christians believed that their freedom in Christ meant they didn’t have to submit to civil authorities. In particular, they may have reasoned that if Jesus was Lord, and not Caesar, then they didn’t need to pay taxes to Caesar. How convenient! Moreover, it’s likely that the Roman Christians had a history of getting in trouble with the government. The Roman historian Suetonius suggests that such a thing happened in 49 AD under the emperor Claudius (Life of Claudius, 25.4). This surely made it difficult for believers in Jesus to live out their faith in Rome with effectiveness and impact.
Thus, Paul is not intending to deal with major questions of the nature of government or the appropriateness of civil disobedience in certain cases. Rather, he’s trying to make sure that the Romans don’t get into unnecessary trouble with the government. To do so would be dishonoring to God and a nagging distraction from their evangelistic mission in Rome.
Today, Paul’s basic counsel continues to guide us in our discipleship. We have seen what happens when prominent Christians break the law. The reputation of all believers plummets and our mission is made much more difficult. Though there might be occasions when we need to oppose unjust governments, in general, submitting to civil authority allows us to focus on being God’s servants in the world.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: Have you ever witnessed the unfortunate results of Christian lawbreaking? When? Have you ever been tempted to break the law? What happened? How does Romans 13 speak to those of us who live in a participatory democracy?
PRAYER: Dear Lord, sometimes your Word speaks to me as if it were a personal letter dictated today. I thank you for the immediacy of your Word as it’s made alive by your Spirit.
But I also know that neglect of the historical context for Scripture can sometimes lead to trouble. So I pray for discernment as I read, reflect, and pray. I don’t want to turn my devotional times with you into some major Bible study project. But, at the same time, I don’t want to misconstrue your truth, or to misapprehend your word to me.
Moreover, Lord, since you have given me a role as a teacher for others, I pray that you’ll help me to “rightly divide the word of truth” in my speaking and writing, especially in my work on these Daily Reflections. May what I write here be honoring to you. May it build up your people, leading them into a deeper relationship with you. Amen.