(Please read Romans 13:1-7 in your favorite Bible. I studied the NIV to make these remarks.)
I read the following article at NEWSER.com –
“’If they were going to inconvenience me then I was going to inconvenience them,’ says Nick Stafford of employees at his local DMV, which received 298,745 unrolled pennies weighing 1,548 pounds on Wednesday. Stafford’s payment came after months of butting heads with DMV workers. The Cedar Bluff, Va., man says he attempted to call the Lebanon DMV in September with a ‘30-second question’—an inquiry about registering a new car—but reached a call center in Richmond and was put on hold for more than an hour. He then got a number for the Lebanon DMV through a Freedom of Information Act request, but was told it wasn’t for public use. Employees answered his question, but wouldn’t give up the numbers to nine other local DMVs, Stafford says—so he sued for them.
“The suits were dismissed Tuesday, but Stafford ended up getting those numbers, which he posted online. As a further protest, he paid $2,987.45 in sales tax for two cars with pennies—five wheelbarrows full of them. He bought the wheelbarrows for $400 and paid 11 people $10 per hour to break open rolls of pennies over four hours, meaning the scheme cost him $840.
“DMV workers spent 12 hours counting his pennies, which jammed a coin-counting machine. Considering such an enormous task, they were
surprisingly ‘respectful and accommodating,’
Stafford says on his website. Moral of the story, NEVER, ever, tell a slightly rebellious, yet knowledgeable and well informed tax paying citizen… he is not ‘allowed’ to call a phone number that HE is already paying for.”
<Retrieved from http://www.newser.com/story/236811/to-inconvenience-dmv-guy-pays-in-300kpennies.html?utm_source=8at8&utm_medium=email&utm_content=1636199079483677525&utm_campaign=20170113 on 01/13/17.>
Obviously, this man’s vengeful and possibly publicity-driven stunt is NOT the kind of relations we as Christians want to have with our government. And please, don’t make your tithe or offering in wheelbarrows full of pennies. Let’s talk first!
Rushing in where angels fear to tread – mixing politics and religion this morning – I felt this was the most appropriate moment all year to look at Romans 13:1-7. Consider that this week holds a celebration of the civil rights legacy and life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Sanctity of Human Life Day, and the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump. What other week in all of 2017 will evidence the entire spectrum of American political life than this? In what other week will we be so obviously challenged to be one nation, under God?
Christian, where do we fit in the body politic? Is there a place at the conference table for people of faith? I believe God is telling us to be good citizens, exercising our freedom in Christ in responsible, righteous and respectful ways.
- The Principle: Voluntary submission to authority.
Let’s set this passage in context. Paul was a Jew. He grew up under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. The empire and its officials held the power of life and death, could tax with prejudice, and there was no appeal for most of the decisions handed down. There were the “one percenters” as always, only 2-5% middle class, and the remaining 94+% of humanity were reduced to subsistence living at or near the level of slavery. Imagine what it cost Paul to pen these words in the world in which he lived.
The command is to SUBMIT. In the Greek language in which Romans was written, this word is hupotasso, which means to subject one’s self. It is a voluntary submission to authority that is typically motivated by a sense of devotion. This is what you want to do.
This is NOT the word hupakuo, which can also be translated as SUBMIT, but is a submission motivated by a sense of duty. It may not be what we want to do, but what we have to do. The distinction is important because motive is one of the key parts of determining the ethics of an action. Devotion is generally preferable.
There are six reasons to keep this command.
One, it is God who establishes AUTHORITY (1-2). When we studied the creation chapters in Genesis we learned that God is a God of order. Creativity is brining order out of chaos. From the Old Testament prophets we learn that even evil governments bring a kind of order and further that they are instruments in God’s hands.
Two, rebellion brings one under JUDGMENT (2). The warning is clear and the terms absolute: rebellion against AUTHORITY is rebellion against God. Rebels bring judgment on themselves. We will talk later about instances when rebellion may be the most moral choice.
Three, wrong-doing results in fear of authority (3). The only people who need to FEAR the authorities are persons doing evil. Think about yourself out driving. What happens when you see a police car? Are they merely part of the scenery, just another vehicle on the road? Or do you immediately check your speedometer, put on the safety belt you forgot before, or give thought to what you might be doing wrong? Worse, how do you feel when you see the flashing lights behind you?
Four, righteousness brings commendation (3). Don’t you wish this were true? Too often it feels like “No good deed goes unpunished.” Here’s a place we need to trust God rather than our experience and believe that sooner or later, in this life or the next, that our good works will be rewarded.
Fifth, to avoid punishment (4-5). Wanting to avoid punishment may not be the most unselfish motive in the world, but as it is sufficient to keep us from evil, it’s good enough. Paul uses very serious language here: Authorities BEAR THE SWORD. That sounds threatening. They have the power to punish evil doers. They are AGENTS OF WRATH. Whether they are good or evil, God is so powerful He routinely uses them to protect the innocent and punish the guilty.
Sixth, to keep a good CONSCIENCE (5). The Bible teaches that every person is created with a conscience. Like other parts of our humanity, the conscience needs development as we mature. Not everyone’s conscience develops well. The best way to develop and maintain a good CONSCIENCE is to do what is right.
Paul expresses a realistic but radical view of authority that follows the teaching of Jesus. Its “realistic” in the sense of being practical and reflects the universal human experience that life is easier and better when we SUBMIT to the authorities God has put in place over us. Its “radical” in the sense that he uses unconditional language and calls followers of Jesus to a standard that seems impractical in the world as we have experienced it.
I believe this passage elaborates the principle Paul set forth in the preceding verse: DO NOT BE OVERCOME BY EVIL, BUT OVERCOME EVIL WITH GOOD. (Romans 12:21) There is another thing we need to remember. Scripture must be combined with other Scripture to form beliefs that validate all of the parts. If this were the only passage that spoke to the believer’s relation to authority, then these unconditional statements would be more troubling. We’ll talk more on that later. We must also remember that Paul is not just talking about governmental authorities, but all persons who have an authoritative role in our lives. From parents to presidents, submitting to authority figures is part of our devotion to God.
- An application of the principle: taxes.
Taxes have always been a sore subject.
Paul offers 3 reasons a disciple must pay taxes.
First, AUTHORITIES ARE GOD’S SERVANTS (6). SERVANTS can also be translated as “ministers.” This means that like a priest, the governing authorities represent God in the world. They function in His role of bringing order to chaos. It may help us to think of God delegating some of His supreme authority to these people so their governing actions bring about His will in the world.
Second, GIVE THEIR FULL TIME TO GOVERNING (6). Not only do the AUTHORITIES deserve our cooperation, they deserve our support. One reason we pay taxes is the very practical reason that it enables those who govern to work FULL TIME at their governing. This is similar to what God commanded for the support of the priests in the Old Testament. They did not do any other work to support themselves and did not own land. The nation of Israel gave offerings to God and the offerings supported the priests.
Third, GIVE EVERYONE WHAT YOU OWE HIM (7). This is an expansion of the principle of taxes being given to support authorities. Paul is generalizing the principle, saying, “In the same way you should pay the taxes you owe to the government, you pay the worker what his labor is worth, not whatever you feel you can afford.”
This is about money, but it is also, as Paul makes clear, about all kinds of obligations. Note that along with TAXES and REVENUE, he also mentions RESPECT and HONOR. It makes sense that these emotional components would accompany submission that is based on devotion, not duty. So, for example, being in compliance with your TAXES and REVENUE is good, but that’s not the whole picture of submission to authorities. A true follower of Jesus will also show RESPECT and give HONOR to those who lead.
- The test of the principle: evil government.
It feels like Paul is only writing about an ideal situation, a government that is good. Remember what I said about the Roman government and life in his culture. Know that Paul personally suffered beatings and imprisonment at the hands of governmental authorities. This is personal, not philosophical or theological. If anyone had motive to resist the government, Paul did. But he taught just the opposite.
Remember the teaching of Jesus that supported this radical submission. For example, Roman soldiers could order civilians to carry their kits up to a mile. Those who refused could be killed on the spot. Commenting on this, Jesus said, “IF SOMEONE FORCES YOU TO GO ONE MILE, GO WITH HIM TWO.” (Matthew 5:41) He also affirmed the duty of citizens to pay their taxes and obey the authorities. On the other hand, He also confronted the hypocrisy of the religious leaders and the system that oppressed the poor (see Matthew 23:2-3 as an example).
Notice Paul wrote about governments not cultures nor any other kind of human system. Understand Paul’s teaching here is consistent with what he taught elsewhere (see 1 Timothy 2:1-4; Titus 3:1) and in agreement with Peter (1 Peter 2:13-17).
Reconcile this teaching with the actions of the apostles. When he was arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, Peter respectfully refused to obey their order to speak the name of Jesus no more. He said to those religious leaders, “WE MUST OBEY GOD RATHER THAN MEN.” (Acts 5:29) When we put all this together, the teaching is clear but maybe a bit more complicated: Our default attitude is to respectfully SUBMIT to the authorities in our life until they make demands that are contrary to the will of God. Like Peter, we must obey God first and lesser authorities second.
This is simple in theory but more complicated in practice because of our tendency toward self-deception and excuse-making. We need to be certain of our facts and our motives before we take on city hall or any other AUTHORITY God has put in the world.
Note the key word in the first point: VOLUNTARY. Though it is mandated by God’s law and man’s law, submission is still voluntary. Also in his reference to the conscience in verse 5, Paul reminds us that this whole subject is on an individual level.
Historically, this is an essential point for us as Baptists; every individual’s right and responsibility to weigh his own conscience against the demands of the governing authorities. While in the short term we may have to answer to human authorities, in the long term we will definitely have to answer to God as our Righteous Judge. For those of us who know that, we are more motivated to please our Heavenly Judge than any earthly one.
We have seen in the Bible that God is telling us to be good citizens, exercising our freedom in Christ in responsible, righteous and respectful ways.
As we conclude, may I remind you that this is not a philosophical discussion in all places in the world? We need to be in prayer for our brothers and sisters around the world who live under governments that sponsor or at least tolerate violent persecution of Christians.
I mention all this to give us a little perspective. While it is easy to let politics drive us apart, we need to remember that there are more important matters to bring us together. For example, equality of opportunity, justice, and affirmation of life are goals that all Americans should support in our common political life.