As I write this, our government has restricted our freedoms for a second time in a year to try to stop the exponential rise in Covid-19 infections in the community. Some of it feels pretty draconian with heavy fines and the possibility of troops being deployed (which sounds worse than what the plan is – where soldiers will take over non policing roles like guarding embassies to allow police to “police”!). This passage challenges our attitude to governement whatever our political beliefs.
The context to Paul writing sometime between Autumn 53 and early 55 is increasing unrest as a result of the tax system. There were two forms of taxation that needed to be paid. The first was the tributum, which was a form of direct tax. The second was the vectigalia, which was indirect taxation; for example tax on rent, the sale of slaves, customs duty and death duties. And round about AD53, there began a social unrest at these taxes that grew and grew over the coming years until in AD58, the tax system in Rome was reformed. In a moment Paul will argue that they should pay their taxes even if the tax system is bad. Peter similarly writes Honour the King 1 Peter 2:17 at a time when Nero was the Emperor – who was as evil and oppressing Christians as Hitler or Stalin. Paul is speaking to a time and culture, but there are principles to grab hold of – his time and culture involved a bad, evil government and yet…
Be subject to the governing authorities – the word he uses for “be subject” is a very strong one: it goes beyond the idea of “be responsive to…” and has more to do with the idea of “be subordinate to…” It’s a strong and clear idea, and in absolute accordance with the rest of Scripture, where believers are encouraged to understand their social status and live out that status accordingly whether that be husband and wife, child, slave or master, church leader or secular leader.
Government rulers are appointed by God – even the bad ones like Nebuchadnezzar, Assad, Hitler, Stalin, Putin and… As Ray Stedman puts it “The biblical picture is that God not only sends us good men sometimes, by his grace, to lead us and heal us, but also he sends us bad men at times, to punish us. And we deserve them. Therefore, when Hitlers, Stalins, and other ruthless individuals come to the throne of power, God has put them there because that is what that people needed at that particular time in history. This is the biblical position with regard to government, and it is rather startling. And yet, it is the clear statement of this passage.” – what do you think of that?
We are not called to be anarchists, overthrowing the government. But it is perfectly reasonable, even our duty, to speak out on single-issue protests. That was the example of Jesus, of course: in the one breath, he could say “Render to Caesar what is Caesar” and, in the next breath say, “I have come to bring good news to the poor, proclaim liberty to the captives, to set free the oppressed…”
Paul is teaching government have certain rights and duties and can expect is love under authority, lest we get in trouble legally and before the Lord.
If you do wrong, be afraid (v4). When we are driving down a road, if you don’t want to keep looking in the mirror for police cars, stick to the speed limit. If you are under the limit, the police officer is not going to pull you over to commend you on your excellent driving skills – he’ll only stop you if you are disobeying the law.
We need to be careful how much we infer from this passage. As another writer put it…
What Paul is not saying here is that we must accept all political decision-making and activity as a reflection of the will of God. It would be impossible to claim divine pleasure for the cruelty of President Assad, for example, or any other oppressive dictator. That is not what Paul is saying: his is a far more nuanced argument.
Paul expands very helpfully on this a bit when he goes on to say: “and those who resist shall receive judgement on themselves”. Grammatically, the word ‘resist’ is a Perfect Participle, which suggests a determined and consistent course of action. So it seems that Paul is suggesting that we should not seek the overthrow of Government in some sort of anarchic fashion, through sustained and aggressive action – but that it is OK to protest on single issues.
Discuss the rights and wrongs of how the government is handling the current pandemic by all means, but obey the laws and pay your taxes.
Marinate on that