"Saint Paul" by Jusepe de Ribera (1637)
In Romans 13:1-7 the apostle Paul writes: “[A ruler] is the minister
of God to thee for good” (v. 3); “Wherefore ye must needs be subject...”
(v. 5); “...pay ye tribute [taxes]” (v. 6).
St. Paul seems to be
saying that God ordains human governments and that Christians should
honor and obey the government under whose jurisdiction they live. Many
Christians conclude from these verses that Christians should accept
whatever government and laws their country has. Other Christians, while
accepting the need for government and lawful behavior, question whether
Romans 13 commands us to submit to human governments unconditionally.
They ask: Is rebellion ever justified? Reform movements? Civil
disobedience? Tax protests? Change?
Based on scriptural texts,
Paul appears to be a quintessential conservativenot in the contemporary
American sense of favoring a smaller government, but in the more
traditional political sense of not wanting to disrupt the established
order. Indeed, contemporary progressives reject Paul’s unwillingness to
challenge the social status quo. In his epistles, St. Paul tells
servants to treat their masters well and vice versa. There are no
appeals for “social justice,” equality of status, or redistribution of
wealth. In addition to the famous passage in Romans, Paul exhorts
Christians to pray for all in positions of authority (I Timothy 2:1-4).
These are not the writings of a political dissident.
categorizing Paul as a political conservative, let us consider another
possibility: Perhaps he was apolitical. Like his Lord and Savior, Jesus
Christ, Paul’s life was devoted to a spiritual missionthe advancement
of the heavenly kingdom that is not of this world. His objective was to
reform and reconstruct the architecture of the thought, soul, and heart,
not the superstructure of civil government. Paul was an evangelist for
God and His son, not a political philosopher or activist. He was too
busy being a spiritual radical to get involved in a political movement.
Paul had to take great care that the fire of the Holy Spirit that
burned in men’s hearts not be conflated with the flames of political
passions. Many Jews were still looking for a militant Messiah to lead
them in revolt against the hated Romans. Paul must have known that if
the followers of Jesus became a political movement challenging the
authority of Caesar, the Roman army would crush, if not annihilate, the
nascent Christian movement. Out of love for his Lord and his fellow man,
Paul would not lead his flock to certain slaughter. His apparent
cautiousness was not due to personal timidity or concern for his own
safety. This faithful apostle bravely endured repeated hardships in the
service of his Lord: “Five times received I forty stripes save one,
thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered
shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep ... In weariness
and painfulness ... in hunger and thirst ... in cold and nakedness” (2
Corinthians 11:24, 25, 27). Ultimately, this “great lion of God” (as the
novelist Taylor Caldwell characterized him) was martyred for his faith.
is significant that Paul’s statements about honoring government occur
in his letter to the Roman church. Certainly Rome, as home to Caesar and
capital of the Roman Empire, would be particularly diligent in
monitoring potential rebels. What if Roman authorities were to intercept
Paul’s letter? In that case, his statements about honoring government
would contradict any charge that Christians were somehow disloyal to the
emperor. At the same time, Romans 13 conveys messages that were opaque
to the pagans but transparent to Christians.
The chapter begins,
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers” (v. 1). While Roman
authorities might have assumed that Paul was writing about Caesar,
Christians knew that “the higher powers” were divine--that God is the
sovereign to whom one owes fidelity. And when Paul writes that a ruler
“is the minister of God to thee for good,” (v. 4) doesn’t this imply
that he is speaking of rulers who are just and goodthose who uphold
God’s rules protecting the sanctity of life, marriage, property,
reputation, etc.? Yes, we should pray for all who are in positions of
authority, for benign and just rulers, that they continue to be so, and
for corrupt or unjust rulers, that they mend their ways and govern
Here is a jarring thought: If Christians are never to
rebel against unjust government, then America’s Founding Fathers were
wrong to rebel against the English crown and parliament to establish a
republic where most people’s God-given rights were given greater
protections than anywhere else on earth.
This leads us back to
those controversial, fundamental questions about which Christians of
good conscience may strongly disagree: What is the proper scope of
government? To what extent should Christians “turn the other cheek” and
“suffer it to be so now” by accepting the status quo, and when is
challenging and changing laws and government justified? Is it possible
that Paul’s contributions to the scriptural canon were not essentially
conservative, but so profoundly revolutionary on a long-term basis,
leavening human thought until, centuries later, Christians’ hearts and
minds were filled with the unshakable conviction that it was a human
right to throw off unjust governments?
Here is one point on which
most Christians may agree: Governments often adopt policies that don’t
seem right, and we disagree on which policies those are. But all of us
can take heart from that glorious promise that St. Paul gave us in that
same letter to the Romans: “... all things work together for good to
them that love God ...” (Rom. 8:28). Amen.