Chapters 1-11 of Romans deal with theology, specifically soteriology (regarding our salvation). Then chapters 12-16 deal with “therefore”: since the Lord’s done so much for us, this should affect how we think and act, towards ourselves, towards other believers, and towards nonbelievers.
Today’s passage deals with a really thorny subject. At its best, Christianity has always had an uneasy relationship with the State (referring to the government). The State is not the Church, and the Church is not the State. The Church was established by the Lord Jesus, and her function in this world is to worship her Savior, witness to the lost, disciple believers, and provide charity to those in need (when the needy person’s family is unwilling/unable to help). The Church might work in conjunction with the State in (very) limited areas, but her relationship with the State throughout history has ranged from hostility (on the State’s part) to a very uneasy partnership.
According to today’s passage, the State also is an institution created by God, no less than the Church. But its purposes are very different, and there’s little overlap between the two.
The State’s purpose, as near I read from here, is to preserve basic order in society. Whenever order breaks down, the result is never pretty. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so do power and authority. If the legitimate state—for whatever reason—doesn’t perform this basic function, then someone else will step in to fill that power vacuum, and it’s usually whoever happens to have the most guns. Instead of rule by law, you have rule by thugs. Instead of the physically weak being protected by the law, you have the strong taking what they want from them. Look at what normally happens when soldiers loot an enemy city, and you see what I mean.
How does the State preserve order? Well the Lord has put something in its hand: A sword. A sword is not persuasion, unless you count “Do what I say or I’ll kill you!” to be persuasion in the normal sense of the world. A sword is lethal force, or at least the threat of lethal force. This is what Paul means that the State is there to terrorize bad people, not good people. If you do what the State says, you have no fear (or at least shouldn’t).
This is common sense. Even nonbelievers know enough to be afraid of a State holding its sword over their head. But there’s something that they don’t know, an extra motivation for us to obey.
God created the State. Paul very explicitly tells us here that “whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” This isn’t talking about judgment from the State. It’s talking judgment from the God who created the State
That means that, unless the State tells you to do something that conflicts with God’s word, then you need to obey it. Paul here goes so far as to call it God’s “servant.” So you need to obey it, “not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”
What does this mean in practical terms? Let me a make a few observations:
· We have even less of an excuse for disobedience in this matter of conscience than the original readers. The original readers were under a government in which they had little to no voice. Even if a few of them were Roman citizens (like Paul), they had nothing like a Constitution like we do. They had no enshrined freedom of speech, or press, or religion. The relationship of the Church to Rome ranged from ignorant apathy to open and violent hostility. We have a voice in our government. We vote for our leaders, and if we don’t like how they do their job, we can fire them. We have freedom of religion, speech, the press, etc. So how can we try to justify breaking its laws? If they didn’t like a law, they had no choice but to live with it. But we have a voice in our government. We can work to elect leaders in line with what we believe. We can express our support or opposition to a piece of legislation, and work to get it overturned either by the legislature or in the courts if we have a strong case. The one option I do not see here as a legitimate strategy is disobeying laws that you don’t personally like.
· Most law-breaking has nothing to do with conscience and everything to do with convenience. Why do I speed? Because I took much time getting ready and don’t want to be late. When I’m in trouble with the law, it’s usually because I did something wrong, not because I’m taking some sort of stand for Christ.
· We really overuse the term “persecution.” If you look hard enough, you can find Christians who are being harassed by local government officials for exercising their faith. For example, you might make a good case that it’s wrong or even unconstitutional for a school principal to tell a student he can’t read from the Bible during study hall. But to call that persecution? Oh, please. Tell you what, when they’re rounding up Christians for being Christians and putting them into camps, then you can talk to me about persecution. If someone tells you that you can’t read your Bible on school grounds, that doesn’t qualify.
· Disobeying the law without legitimate reason is a really poor witness. Have you ever been pulled over for a traffic violation and the officer finds out you’re a Christian? Do you feel embarrassed? Please don’t laugh it off. This is not a laughing matter. You’re being disobedient to a command from Scripture. And you’re hurting the cause of the Message of Jesus Christ.
Can I claim complete innocence in this matter? I wish I could. But by God’s grace, I’m making a sincere and consistent effort to actually be obedient in this matter. How about you?