Did Christians Get This One Wrong?
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. 5 Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor. (Romans 13:1-7, NKJV)
We are having an election in Ontario, and I am torn up about it. You see I’ve always been a Progressive Conservative and have voted that way for years, but this year the Progressive Conservative Party elected a man I can’t get behind. Everyone is telling me to vote for the party anyway because the PC party is the closest thing to respecting “Christian values.” To vote in any other party would be akin to being “anti-Christian.” I have had people begging me to pray about it, which is odd because of course, I am praying about it, I'm just not getting the same answer they are. So, I'm told I must not be listening to God or hearing from Him correctly. To vote anything other than PC is not something a Christian should do in Ontario (apparently). FYI - there are no parties that are Christian or have Christian values. None. They are all corrupt.
But because the verse above has been quoted at me on numerous occasions in the last few weeks, I decided to dig a little deeper into my Bible about this verse, looking at the cultural setting and history as well as the context surrounding it. I also wanted to know where it says in the Bible that Christians should vote Conservative or if you are in the States, Republican. Not surprisingly, neither party is mentioned by name in the Bible except for this verse which I found hilarious:
A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right, but a fool's heart to the left (Ecclesiastes 10:2).
However, I did find myself in a bit of an “aha” moment, so I have to share it. You know the ones – you’ve been reading the same verse for years and seeing the same thing each time. You believe one way about it and then suddenly from on high the Lord opens your eyes and the scales fall off.
If you are a Christian Conservative/Republican, you are not going to like what I discovered. I was incredibly surprised that I never saw it until now. God gave me answers that have puzzled me for years about this verse. For example, I have heard Christians say for years (because of this verse) that God is ultimately the one who places Kings, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Dictators, etc. in their positions of authority. This has always made me feel uneasy because I can't see God purposely choosing Hitler to run a country. But now my eyes are open, and I know that when it comes to voting - God takes His hands away and lets the votes fall where they may. Like the rebellious children of Israel, who demanded a leader like the pagan nations around them (1 Samuel 8:7) God steps back and gives us what we want, much to our dismay.
Now before you start yelling at me and calling me a blasphemer let's look at this verse together so you can see what I discovered. First, a little history of how the Jewish people were governed at the time Paul wrote this letter to the Romans. In every city across Judea during that time if there were 120 men as heads of families in a city or town, then they had a local court called the Sanhedrin. These men were the elders of the tribes of Israel. The people would come to them with their disputes, which were judged according to the Laws of Moses (Torah). (Numbers 11:16; Deuteronomy 16:18).
In Jerusalem was the Great Sanhedrin (think of it as the Supreme Court for the Jews) so we have little courts in each city/town meting out justice and the big court in Jerusalem. For the most part, the Romans let the Jews govern themselves in this way, but they still had to submit to Roman law, and death penalty cases were brought before the Roman Governor (which was why Jesus was brought before the Governor Pontius Pilate).
Now, when Paul wrote to the church in Rome the words above, his audience was both Jewish and Gentile. But when Paul spoke, he spoke using the authority of the Scriptures he held so dear. It is believed Romans was written before the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem. So the Jews were heavily taxed by Rome and by the Sanhedrin who also collected a Temple tax. Worse, when they made their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival, the Temple charged them exorbitant prices for their offerings, which was why Jesus drove the money changers out of the Temple.
So we have the governing authority of Rome which had its laws, and the Temple authority. If we look at the verse above with the Temple authority in mind, it takes on a whole new light and the verses that made you pause and wonder what Paul meant, suddenly become clear. So let's look at it verse by verse.
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.
There is no authority except from God leads many to believe that God has placed good and evil rulers throughout history to govern over us. If we go with that line of reasoning, we have to accept that Hitler was placed there by God. Nero, who burned Christians as torches was put there by God and every other evil ruler since time began was put there by God. If that is true, then why in the world would anyone trust in God? But, if the governing authorities were the members of the Sanhedrin, it begins to make more sense, because the Scriptures confirm that they are placed there by God. It is also easier to accept that God appoints these “authorities” because it was their job to ensure the people obeyed the Law. But, even Jesus knew they were corrupt and said in Matthew 23:1-3, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.”
Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.
Some Christians believe this verse is about resisting laws that are corrupt, that go against God's laws as laid out in the Bible. They see it as justification to stand up for their beliefs. Some believe this verse is about obeying the laws of the land, so you don’t get in trouble with the cops or the government. And it is a perfect verse to follow so you don’t err on the wrong side of the law. But, what if the “authority” in this case was the Sanhedrin? Is it possible that Paul was referring to religious authorities in this verse all along? Let’s not forget how corrupt they had become. There was a reason Paul was talking to the Roman Christians about obeying the authorities. Jesus drove the money changers out of the Temple (Matthew 21:12). He often called their leaders names and pointed out their hypocrisy (Matthew 23:1-36). That’s why the people loved him so much. He took on the religious establishment, aka rulers, and held them accountable for their corruption. Paul wasn’t giving a pep talk on obeying Roman rulers, he was reminding his people that God’s laws governed them and it was God who placed those rulers (no matter how corrupt) in positions of authority.
Look closely - it says whoever resists them (the authorities) resists the ordinance of God and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. The word “ordinance” in Greek is translated as law or command. If the people were starting to rebel in regards to the corruption in the Temple, it follows that they would begin their rebellion at the level where it would hit the rulers the most – money. But Paul is saying that this type of behaviour is wrong and is a rebellion against God. In other words, it doesn’t matter how corrupt a government (or in this case the Sanhedrin) is, God still requires you to obey and respect it, or you will feel His wrath.
For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.
The NIV phrases this verse in a way that is easier to understand, “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.” Yes, this verse can be applied to respecting the laws of the land, but when taken in context with the surrounding verses, it is more about appreciating the elders of God who handled disputes about the Laws of God.
For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.
Again, if we take this out of context, it gets confusing. Most Christians today believe that this verse says that those in power over us are God’s ministers for good. The verse goes on to say that those “ministers” are avengers of God, executing God’s wrath on those who practice evil. Somehow I can’t see Hitler as being a minister of God. So let’s look at this with the temple priests and the Sanhedrin in mind. Their whole purpose was to be ministers of God, to make sure that God’s laws were followed and to carry out God’s judgments based on those laws. They were literally avengers to execute the wrath of God as laid down by His Law.
Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake.
Taken out of context this verse could be about Roman rule. In fact, it is a perfect verse to apply to both religious and secular law. But Paul was reminding these Roman Christians that they must submit to the authorities in charge (the Sanhedrin) not only because of wrath (God’s) but to also keep their conscience clear.
For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing.
A Temple tax was required of every Jew. These taxes helped with the upkeep of the Temple and as payment for their services in hearing the cases brought before the Sanhedrin. God’s ministers (the Sanhedrin – not Herod or Pilate - or in modern terms, the President or Prime Minister) attended continually to the service of God in the Temple and its upkeep. But as Jesus repeatedly said and demonstrated when he walked among us, the Temple priests (the Pharisees and Sadducees) were corrupt. Do what they say, but don’t do what they do! Follow the law, but don’t follow their example.
Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
This last verse gets very specific – pay your taxes, pay any tolls or customs fees. Respect (fear) those who have the power to bring fear, and honour those who deserve honour.
We can take this verse and apply it to the government and those in authority if we like, but if we do that we must place the blame at God's feet for knowingly putting evil men (like Hitler) in positions of authority. This is not something I can accept. Our God is a loving God and His actions from the beginning of time have consistently been those of a loving Father trying to guide His children to be holy and follow Him. It is much more likely that this verse is about the religious authorities of the day. However, knowing this, we can still apply it to ourselves today in regards to obeying the law and respecting those in positions of power. But when it comes to voting - God takes His hands away and lets the vote’s fall where they may.
Ultimately, we bring about our own destruction.
6/1/2018 05:03:45 pm
Really great article Laura. It's great to see some sense applied to this verse.
I've studied this issue, too, prompted by a new pastor at my church who strongly believes in predestination, that everything that happens is because God caused it to happen. He, too, talks about God predestining all leaders (and our eternal destinies, and Adam and Eve's fall, and childhood abuse, etc. All for God's glory and our good, he says.)
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