Romans 13:1–7 (ESV)✞: Submission to the Authorities
This is a short enough passage that I’ll just quote it and then give thoughts below.
1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
I think this passage is quite easy t0 understand – so much so that when we have issues with it, it’s because we don’t want to believe it’s this simple. (Though I’ll add a caveat to that statement later.) The problem is not with Paul’s words or ideas it’s that we can barely finish reading them before we’re already asking the “but what about” questions.
The more I write about this the more you’ll see that I think a big problem [North American] [white] Christians have is coming to this passage in bad faith.
All Authority is from God
I think a lot of people have an immediate reaction when reading this: “But what about governments that aren’t ‘from God’?” we ask. Except that Paul doesn’t give any room for that question; he says that all governments are from God, which means even the ones we don’t like. It’s not like Paul was unaware of governments of the past, like Assyria and Babylon – or the current Roman government, under which his fellow Jews were subjugated!
Don’t think of this in the sense that “this government is Godly” or “this government is righteous;” think of it in terms of “God put this government in place for a reason” – because He is in control of everything. And let’s not forget: regardless of how bad you think your government might be, there have been worse ones; but there were reasons fascist and authoritarian governments have been in place in the past (and are being reintroduced around the world). I’m not claiming to know what those reasons are.
However, as I say, that doesn’t mean all governments are good. Read the prophets in the Old Testament and see their bewilderment and befuddlement when wicked nations were sent to punish God’s people; why would Assyria, of all nations, be God’s instrument of judgement on Israel? Or Babylon on Judah? God makes it quite clear in the Old Testament that He is sending those nations to punish Israel/Judah – and He also makes it clear that these are wicked nations, who themselves will suffer His wrath after they’ve served His purposes.
So when Paul says that “there is no authority except from God,” he doesn’t mean that all authority is good, or that God is pleased with all that they do. But He did put them in place.
It’s sort of a sub-point of Paul’s larger point about obeying the government, but… he’s pretty clear here that we should be paying our taxes. If you’re politically conservative and feel your government requires too much in the way of tax it’s a legitimate point of discussion, and one that you can—legally—work toward redressing. Vote for politicians who agree with that stance, and maybe taxes will be adjusted. In the meantime, pay them. It’s your legal and moral obligation, according to Paul.
There definitely could be programs you disagree with, and don’t want your money spent on; many of us are sad that so many of our tax dollars go toward the military, and there are programs we might consider wasteful (though, when you really dig into it, not as many as you might think); these are all valid points of contention for conservative and liberal politicians to wrangle over, and in recent history people were able to make compromises and work within the system to try and make things better, bit by bit, law by law.
In the meantime, we are to pay all taxes that we owe, because we owe them.
“Good” People Should Not Fear Their Rulers
Here is where I’m guessing most of the “but what about” arguments will come from. Paul is making the point that governments enforce good conduct, and are “a terror” to those who conduct bad conduct.
But what ab– Wait! Stop! Before you get into an example of where you believe Paul is wrong, really examine the example you have in your mind, where you think the government has it “wrong.” Do you really have an example of a government that is rewarding bad behaviour (or punishing good behaviour), or do you have an example of a difference of opinion you have with your government on, say, how money should be spent? And I bring this up because, at time of writing (2023), a lot of the things people were criticising the government for were differences of opinion on how money should be collected and spent being couched in terms of “bad” government.
Am I saying there are no areas where governments do evil? No. But if you’re on social media (especially if you’re white) the vast majority of instances where you believe your government is doing—or is in danger of doing—evil really boils down to conservative vs. liberal politics.
Good People Should Not Have to Fear Their Rulers
If I have any readers I’m sure some of them are feeling ignored and abandoned once again, because there are time when governments do evil! I think we can easily see that Paul’s comment that “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” has exceptions. My point above is to get us to come to terms with the fact that most things [white] Christians worry about, when it comes to government, don’t fall into the class of exception, they’re just disagreements about fiscal and other policies – but there are exceptions.
I think any Black parents in North America probably struggle with that phrase about the government not being “a terror” to good conduct because the government—especially, but not limited to, the police—really do bring terror to Black families! Black parents regularly have to teach their children a “healthy” fear of the police, because the police have so regularly terrorised the Black community that they simply can’t be trusted. History has shown that Black children have to be very careful when interacting with the police because it’s all too common for Black children to end up dead at the end of those encounters. And when I say “interacting with the police” I don’t mean “you have to be polite to the police when you’re caught robbing a bank,” I mean you have to be careful when you’re walking down the street, minding your own business, and you get carded. Or when you’re driving your car through a predominantly white neighbourhood and get pulled over for looking “suspicious.” In those cases, the government is not “God’s servant for your good.”
And I say “Black” because they’re often the ones who suffer the most, but they’re far from the only ones; for example, here in Canada we’ve gone out of our way to be sinfully cruel to the Indigenous peoples who live here.
So what do we do with these circumstances? All of us—all of us—should be actively working to change this. All of us—all of us—should be working to take care of communities that have been abused by the authorities and and trying to change the system. It should break a white Christian’s heart to hear about what their non-white siblings endure at the hands of the state, but it’s been a consistent pattern for the white Church to ignore the problems of anyone who’s not white (or to actively exacerbate the problem).
If you’re a Christian parent, you should not be fighting to prevent your children from learning the history of their own country – including, and especially, the ways the country has abused, mistreated, killed, and held down non-white people. How else is the Church going to push the government to do the right thing? Because, regardless of the fact that that government was put in place by God, many of us have governments that can be changed by the will of the people. And let’s face it: if the Christian Church wanted the government to stop abusing its non-white population—really wanted it—it would happen. If we were loving and taking care of our fellow citizens when they were being mistreated by the government it would show that we were really serious about addressing the problem – so are we doing it?