Here is the second lesson in this series.
The first major text dealing with Christian’s relationship with the government under which they live is found in Romans 13:1-7.
To fully process this text we must first firmly root it in its original context. The target audience for this teaching was Christians—both Jew and Greek—living in first century Rome, the capital of the vast Roman Empire. An empire by definition is “an extensive group of states or countries under a single supreme authority, formerly especially an emperor or empress.” It is important to the text to grasp the type of government under which they lived. It was not a representative form of government in any way. Those who were citizens (like Paul) did have some rights and civil liberties (such as appealing directly to Caesar to ultimately arbitrate legal matters—Acts 22-28), but it was not democracy. So we first must try to hear and process Romans 13:1-7 through their ears, lives and experiences.
One contextual situation that no doubt formed—at least in part—the occasion for this teaching concerned the civil disobedience rampant among parts of the Jewish community. This 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. It also was the background for much of the Jew/Greek problem within the church in Rome that prompted Paul to write the letter). Knowing this and the damage it caused the Jews, Paul realized that this type of rebellion against established government would be counterproductive to spreading the gospel and to the reputation of Christians within that community. He did not want the church to get caught up in such civil unrest.
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. 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.
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.
- Rebelling against the God-ordained government equals rebelling against God and brings about a judgment.
- “Everyone” is to submit to the governmental powers and not be in rebellion against them. Considering their context this was wise advice because Rome could and did act swiftly to eradicate rebellious and subversive activity (as they did against the Jewish community in 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 previously mentioned 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 2:1-4). 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 often spread salacious 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 leaves 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? These are not easy questions to answer but ones we will consider/pursue/answer through this study.