What Should We Do With Romans 13?
Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God.
When I was sixteen years old, I received my first driver’s license. That precipitated a moral crisis for me. I noticed that most of the cars on Southern California freeways exceeded the speed limit by a few miles. But I knew that Romans 13 instructed me to obey the law as a part of my Christian discipleship. Did this mean I always had to drive the speed limit, even if it was unsafe? Could I ever justify going even a few miles over the posted limit? Such were the earth-shaking quandaries of a sixteen-year-old Christian (who did, by the way, get a speeding ticket in the first couple months of driving).
Then I went to college, where I encountered much more troubling conversations about Romans 13. Many Christians, who were solidly committed to biblical authority, were concerned about statements that seemed contrary to common sense. Paul writes, “For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong” (v. 3). Yet we were only too aware of how the South African government, a supposedly Christian government, implemented the unjust system of apartheid. Were Christians in South Africa simply to submit to their rulers? Was it ever moral for Christians to exercise civil disobedience? Would revolution ever be appropriate? Was it right for the American colonists to revolt against England, for that matter? What about the Declaration of Independence? Questions like these challenged us in our effort to understand who we were as Christians and how we were to relate to Scripture.
I won’t be able to address such questions in my Daily Reflections, other than to offer some general observations. But I do want to say something up front about what we should do when, in our devotional reading, we come across biblical passages that trouble us. First, we should pay attention to our unsettledness, rather than pretend it isn’t there because we always have to be “fine” with what’s in the Bible. Often our discomfort with a passage of Scripture is leading us to a deeper encounter with God and his truth. Second, we should take our concerns to the Lord. If you don’t like something that you read in the Bible, tell God, and tell him why. Third, ask for his help. Ask for understanding and for openness to whatever God wants to say to you. After all, it may be that your unhappiness with Romans 13 stems from larger theological concerns. But it may be that you’re trying to avoid the instruction to pay your taxes. Or maybe you’re a sixteen-year-old who wants to drive way too fast!
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: How do you respond to Romans 13:1-7 when you first read it? Do you have theological concerns? Could God be saying something to you about your response to the government?
PRAYER: Dear Lord, you know that this passage has troubled me for years. Honestly—and what other way should I speak with you, besides honestly—I still haven’t come to peace with the meaning and application of this passage, though I’ve learned plenty over the years.
So I ask you, first of all, to help me understand this passage truly. I expect that part of my unsettledness with this text reflects my failure to interpret it correctly. But I also ask that you help me to know what you’re saying to me through this passage. It would be so easy for me to get caught up in all sorts of theological intrigues and therefore to miss ways in which I need to relate to the government. I wonder how often I let my intellectual puzzles get in the way of hearing your voice. What a convenient excuse to miss what you want to say to me.
So help me, Lord, to understand your Word so that I might hear your word for me and do it. Amen.