Christians, Civil Responsibilities, and Politics

The following is a study of Romans 13:1-7 which I entitled “Living Out the Transformation.” It is a part of our Wednesday study at Levy of this wonderful book. I was asked to post it here. It is rather long for a blogpost. As always you are invited to offer your input and wisdom. Thanks for stopping by.- Danny

This section of the book is somewhat remarkable contextually and even when considered within the overall context of the New Testament. It certainly is the most complete and notable text addressing the civic responsibility of Christians (Matthew 22:21; 1 Timothy 2:1-3; 1 Peter 2:13-17 are others).

CONTEXT

In passing along this teaching to the Roman church, Paul was not asking them to consider anything he had not practiced himself. As a Roman citizen he would use the rights accorded him to operate within the Roman judiciary system to appeal to Caesar himself (Acts 22-28). He recognized that there were definite advantages to the spread of the gospel for conforming to and honoring the governing powers. This has to be- at least in part- a component of his message to the Romans.

Another contextual situation, no doubt, concerned the civil disobedience rampant among parts of the Jewish community that had earlier created the banishment of the Jewish population of Rome under Emperor Claudius in 49 A.D. (in which Apulia and Priscilla were caught up- Acts 18:1-2). Again, Paul realized that this type of rebellion against established government would be counterproductive to spreading the gospel and to the reputation of Christians within a community.

Finally from an immediate contextual perspective, this body of teaching seems to flow from the previous teaching in chapter twelve concerning blessing those who persecute, repaying good for evil, not seeking revenge,  and doing everything possible to live at peace with everyone. As previously noted, this divine advice mirrors the teaching of Christ- who did not embrace the radical agenda of the Jewish Zealots of his day, but chose rather to be obedient to the governing powers (even though they were unjust and killed him).

The ultimate goal Paul was seeking in this section of teaching was to urge the church in Rome not to engage in any type of civil disobedience that would bring undue attention to the church and hinder their ability to spread the gospel of Christ. Instead they were to submit to their civic governmental context and work within it as good citizens (as he himself was doing) to allow every opportunity for the gospel to be spread and influence their community.

TEXTUAL POINTS

From the text we learn:

  • Paul presents a positive picture of government. It is to be seen as established by God for the purposes of punishing wrongdoers and as such it serves God’s purposes.
  • “Everyone” is to submit to the governmental powers and not be in rebellion against them. Considering their context this was wise advise because Rome could and did act swiftly to eradicate rebellious and subversive activity (think Jerusalem in 70 A.D.) The Christian’s responsibility within their governmental context is to “do what is right” – not just for fear of punishment but because it is the right thing to do (“conscience”- vs. 5)
  • Doing what is right includes paying the various taxes required by government and paying your debts.

Coupled with the other NT texts mentioned earlier we see a consistent ethic put forth. Jesus agrees that taxes should be paid (Matthew 22:21). The Romans teaching agrees with Paul’s words to Timothy concerning living a quiet and respectful life within a community (1 Timothy 2:1-3). And Peter echoes the idea of respect and submission to the king and those in governmental authority- as well as emphasizing that in doing so it would best present the gospel message and silence critics (1 Peter 2:13-17).

To really grasp the impact of the Roman text (and the others) is to understand that Christianity was this fledgling movement operating among misunderstandings, suspicion, and opposition in the cities where it had taken root. On one hand it was opposed by most of the Jewish establishment (which spread rumors about the church) and was viewed by many Roman authorities as simply a splinter sect of the troublesome Jewish community- and therefore untrustworthy and suspicious. So, this teaching was crucial to establishing that Christians were not the threat to the empire so perceived. The call was to be good citizens, live at peace, and conform as completely as possible (sometimes- according to the demands of the ruling powers- complete conformity was impossible- Acts 5:29) to governmental powers so as to give the gospel every opportunity to take root and flourish. This indeed is one major way they could live out the transformation to which they were called (Romans 12:1-2). Such a lifestyle would differentiate Christians from others (especially the Jews who were constantly a problem for Rome).

LIVING OUT THE TEXT TODAY

Reading the text through 21st century filters leave us with many questions. What if a governmental system is not just? Should we live peacefully within a form of government that oppresses and promotes evil? If Christians fall under persecution what should be our response? Is it okay to participate in activities designed to overthrow evil governments? Can we participate in peaceful protest? Should we become involved in the governmental process?

To address this- we first must remember that the Roman texts (and others) were not written specifically to answer these questions. They were context specific. (In fact, it was only a few years after Paul wrote this that Roman Christians faced horrific persecution under Nero and persecution was at times and in places- harsh for Christians until Constantine).  So just what does this text have to say about the above questions?

Based upon all of the NT text here are some consistent principles to consider (some of which are quite challenging to us today):

  • Do our best- regardless of the type of government under which we live to submit to it and live at peace. Do not engage in any “taking up the sword” type of rebellion. The kingdom of God and our citizenship within it supersedes any earthly citizenship and living out that citizenship (transformed lives) is paramount.
  • As much as it may hurt- pay taxes and pay your debts. Do not give anyone an occasion to slander the name of Christ in this regard.
  • If forced- obey God rather than men, of course, but this still does not give permission to engage in the type of civil disobedience that leads to violence and anarchy. Consistent within the entire NT from Christ to Revelation is the call to stand firm in the face of persecution, but nowhere is any example of Christians engaged in anarchy. Historical records reveal that it was just the opposite. Christians killed in the Roman arena died not fighting but while singing praises to God. Martyrs like Polycarp of Smyrna did not resist but were “faithful unto death.”
  • We are called to “honor the king”- with no qualifications. So that means even if we do not like the king or his politics.
  • We must always remember that God has and most certainly continues to use governments as his servants. We likely will not understand how this necessarily works, but it is clear that he does. We honor our governments because we first honor God.
  • Christianity lived out in transformed lives can actually influence and transform governments. The first church in Acts living out and applying the teaching of Christ turned cities “upside down.” It was not done through a ballot box or through a political movement. That is one of the main points of the Roman text. Live as a transformed citizen of heaven within the context of your earthly citizenship and be God’s leaven to influence your surroundings. While Christ was not political per se, his message was quietly subversive and undermined the politics of his day- and still does in our day.
  • Christians can participate and use their rights of citizenship (like Paul did) to look for ways to spread the gospel- including participating in the governmental process. But Christians should not partner with politics in any unequal way (2 Corinthians 6:14) nor should they expect any government to be “about the Father’s business.”

God’s call is unchanged regardless of the type of governmental system in which we live. Live for him first. Be the best citizen possible in demonstrating what it means to be a citizen of heaven.

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4 Responses to Christians, Civil Responsibilities, and Politics

  1. TYROON says:

    Danny Titus chapter 3 also deals with this and really let’s us know that the only way to change anything in a way that glorifies God, is to change it from the inside out. Also Grace to You has an excellant resource that you can listen to for free at gty.org called “A Radical Alternative To Political Activism”. Thanks for your timely post Brother, Tyron

  2. Ken Laney says:

    Danny, very well stated, written and important message to citizens of heaven today. One question, how do you feel this and other text apply to a christians direct participation in government and politics? I am sure your are aware of David Lipscombs famous work “God and Government”. Governement and politics is such a “dirty business”.

  3. […] 1Christians, Civil Responsibilities, and Politics « Adventures in Preaching SUBMIT […]

  4. […] *(A while back I wrote another related blog post that might be of interest entitled Christians, Civil Responsibilities and Politics.) […]

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