How to be a Godly Rebel

Romans 13:1-7

December 8, 2006 | Ray Pritchard

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Winston Churchill once remarked that “democracy is the worst form of government until you consider the alternatives.” How true. Democracy is messy and difficult and maddeningly slow because it depends on the will of the people. But who among us would prefer to live under a dictatorship? The recent elections make it clear that democracy doesn’t always work the way we would like it to work. Sometimes the “wrong” candidates win and the “right” candidates lose. Sometimes good leaders lose an election only to be replaced by lesser men and women. The candidates I personally support don’t always win. What do you then? In the political arena, as in all of life, you generally learn more from defeat than you do from victory. Those who were disappointed in the results of the midterm elections now have two years to figure out how to make things come out better in 2008. And even in losing, and perhaps because of losing, Churchill’s statement proves true. Democracy, even a flawed democracy where the “wrong” people sometimes come to power, definitely beats the alternatives.

It has been often said that God only established three institutions–the home, the church, and the state. In so doing, he gave explicit instructions on how all three were to operate. Most Christians know a great deal about what God has to say about the home and church. We know much less about what God says about the state and how we should relate to it.

Our text addresses that question directly. In fact, Romans 13 is the central New Testament passage regarding how Christians should relate to human government. Before we jump into the passage, I want to tell you frankly that when I am finished, you will still have many questions. This passage answers some questions, and it raises many others in the process. For instance, what does it mean to be a Christian living under a pagan government? Is violent revolution ever justified? What about capital punishment? Is it wrong to pay taxes to an unjust government? What about picketing abortion clinics? Under what circumstances should Christians disobey the law? Should colonial Christians have supported the American Revolution? Is it wrong to refuse to pay taxes as a protest against abortion? What about the separation of church and state? Should Christians serve in the armed forces? How do you respond when those over you are corrupt? How far should we go to express our Christian concerns?

These are all important questions, and none of them admit of a simple answer. Rather than attempt to answer every possible question, I’m going to lay out the broad teaching of this passage and then leave you to fill in the blanks on your own.

I. The Source of Government

Paul begins by addressing the fundamental question, Where does human government come from? His answer is clear: It comes from God.

1. Human Government is Established by God. </font color></font size>

“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” (v. 1). The word “authority” is very broad. It’s the Greek word “exousia,” which means “right” or “privilege.” An authority is anyone who has the right to do something. If your job gives you the right to make certain decisions, then when you are on the job, you are an “authority.” Seen in another light, an authority is anyone who has the right to make decisions that directly affect your life. In the broadest sense, all of us live in two relationships at the same time. We have authority in certain areas and we are under authority in other areas. You may be a husband and thus the head of your home, but at work you are under the authority of your boss. You may be a teacher and thus the authority in your classroom but you are under the authority of your principal who is under the authority of the school board. You may work in an office where certain people report to you while at the same time you report to someone over you. You are thus “in authority” and “under authority” at the same time.

In this passage Paul is thinking about human government–rulers, kings and queens, emperors, magistrates, presidents, dictators and potentates of every variety. Please understand a crucial point: Paul is not thinking about any one particular form of human government, such as democracy, aristocracy, oligarchy, monarchy, or socialism, communism or dictatorship. Paul is not saying that only American democracy is ordained by God. He’s speaking in broad, general terms about all human government anywhere in the world. The institution of government comes from the hand of God.

Roman Candles

When Paul wrote these words, who was in power in Rome? A wicked ruler named Nero, who hated Christians, had them rounded up, dipped in tallow, tied to stakes and burned like candles in his garden. He ordered Rome set on fire and then blamed the Christians, setting off the first wave of official persecution. We’ve largely forgotten how wicked and pagan ancient Rome really was. Abortion flourished, homosexuality was accepted as normal, and the masses worshipped Caesar as Lord. Sorcery and black magic abounded. No government in America has ever been as pagan as the government of ancient Rome. Yet Paul said all authority comes from God.

Then he gave an explicit directive. “Be subject to the governing authorities.” No ifs, ands or but. Nothing about whether or not Nero is a Christian or a pagan. Just the word “submit.” It’s a familiar word, used over fifty times in the New Testament. It means to voluntarily follow the direction of those in authority over you. Submission is not the same as obedience, though the two are related. Obedience relates to outward performance while submission touches the attitude of the heart toward those who are over you. This distinction is critical because you may not always be able to obey those who are over you, but you can always have a heart attitude of submission.

Let me a share a simple definition that may help you. Submission means believing that God is able to accomplish his will in my life through those he has placed in authority over me. That’s a crucial definition because it focuses the attention on God, not on the person over you. We all have to contend at times with unsaved husbands, mean-spirited parents, cranky bosses, and teachers who can’t wait for the end of the semester. Sometimes we’ll work for people we can’t stand. Or live with people who treat us cruelly. Or suffer under a government that consistently promotes evil.

What do you then? Actually, you have many options. You can rebel. You can fight back. You can suffer in silence. You can complain to others. You can get angry and try to get even. You can appeal to the authority over you asking for a redress of your grievances. You can take action to change your situation.

The most important thing is the attitude of your heart. You submit to the one in authority in the sense that you believe that God has put that person in your life for a purpose and that God’s will is somehow being done in your through that person even if you don’t see it and don’t understand it.

From George Washington to George Bush

God takes responsibility for raising up one leader and pulling down another. “No one or from the east or the west or from the desert can exalt a man. But it is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another” (Psalm 75:6-7 NIV). He stands behind the ballot box and behind the armies that march and the navies that sail. He is Unseen Hand at work in the nations of the world.

That means that George Washington came to power by the hand of God. So did Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt, and Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. God installed John Kennedy in the White House and later replaced him with Lyndon Johnson.That applies to Richard Nixon and to Gerald Ford and to Jimmy Carter and to Ronald Reagan and to George H. W. Bush and to Bill Clinton and to George W. Bush. As Christians, we have to believe that. Who knows? In 2008 it may apply to Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney or Barack Obama or Rudy Giuliani or John McCain.

In these politically charged times, it is good to remember that when Jesus comes back, he won’t be riding an elephant or a donkey. In our zeal for certain moral issues, we may leave the impression that God is a Republican or a Democrat. He’s neither. He’s the ultimate Independent, and he’s got the only vote that counts.

2. To Rebel Brings Punishment. </font color></font size>

“Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (v. 2). Paul draws a simple conclusion in verse 2: To rebel against authority is to bring judgment on yourself. It may mean judgment by God, it certainly means judgment by the authority. If you doubt that, just trying mouthing off the next time you are pulled over for speeding. If you argue too much, you may find yourself spending the night in the county jail.

II. The Ministry of Government

Paul next introduces us to the “ministry” of government. That word sounds odd to our ears because ,ost of us associate “ministry” with what happens on Sunday morning. Twice in verse 4 he says that rulers are “servants” of God. He doesn’t mean that they are necessarily saved, but that human authorities serve the purpose of God on earth. Think about that for a moment. The police officer who patrols your neighborhood is God’s servant. So is the IRS agent who audits your return. George Bush is God’s servant, and so is Vladimir Putin of Russia. For that matter, so is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. The same is true for every human leader, whether they know it or not.

This, by the way, is the basis for treating our leaders with respect. Christians ought to lead the way in showing honor to human authorities because we understand they are appointed by God. This touches all of us at a personal level when we see leaders making decisions that seem to be clearly evil. There are times when as a Christian, I must speak out in favor of what is right and against what is wrong. But no matter how stirred up I may be, even when I think life and death issues are at stake, when I am speaking to those in authority or when I am speaking about those in authority, I must treat them with respect–without regard to how I feel about their decisions–because they are God’s servants. Whom God has appointed, I must not treat lightly.

As a side note, we desperately need to hear this word in an Internet-driven age. How many of us have written an email in anger, only to regret it the second we hit the Send button? But there is no way to undo what you have just done. Once that message flies off into cyberspace, it takes on a life of its own. It can be copied and forwarded in seconds. It can be posted on a website for everyone to read. It’s easy to become frustrated about some foolish act by someone in authority and then write comments on a weblog that come back to haunt you later. The immediacy of modern technology makes it easy to write foolish, angry things in a moment of passion that you may have to apologize for later. And sometimes the consequences may cost you a friendship, a job, a marriage, a career, and in some cases, your thoughtless words could end up getting you sued or even thrown in jail.

Be careful what you say when you are angry.

Be careful what you write when you are upset.

Be careful what you IM when you feel cheated.

Be careful what you post on your weblog when you feel mistreated.

Take a deep breath. Think about it. If you are still angry, walk away from your computer. Delete the message. Don’t send an email when you are angry. It’s dumb, it gets you in trouble, and it can lead you into sin.

According to Romans 13, all human authorities exist to do two things:

A. To Punish the Wicked

“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” (v. 3).

This is why we have police officers and FBI agents and TSA agents that check our carry-on items at the airport. Now that I’m traveling a lot, I seem to spend half my life in airports. It’s always a pain to take off my belt, take off my watch, find my cell phone, put any liquids or gels in that little plastic zip bag, and it’s a real hassle to take my computer out of the bag, take off my jacket, and finally have to bend over and take off my shoes. I liked it a lot better in pre-9/11 days when you could walk into an airport, check your bags and go straight to the gate. But that day is gone forever. Even in Tupelo, we have to do the whole security routine. I say “even in Tupelo” because we’ve got a small airport with only one gate and you can only fly two places from Tupelo—Memphis or Atlanta. That’s it. But the security is the same here as in New York City. I’m thankful for that even though all the security stuff can be frustrating, especially if you are running late. I missed a flight in Modesto because I didn’t quite make the thirty minute cut-off for checking in. And I saw the same thing happen to someone else at the Tupelo airport a couple of weeks ago. Most people seem to take it graciously enough, but now and then someone loses his cool and says something stupid, which only makes matters worse and slows the rest of us down. I have a friend who works for the Customs Department. Occasionally he tells me about the people they catch trying bring a knife or a gun through security. And sometimes they catch a “big fish,” usually a drug dealer trying to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. I have told him on many occasions how glad I’m that he is on the job. “You’re there because the bad guys are out there.” He smiles and says, “You’re right about that.”

My friend is a servant of God. So are all those who work the security checkpoints, man the cameras, and so are the police officers who lay it on the line every day. A big part of their job is catching evildoers. Without such people, lawbreakers would have a field day and criminals would go scot-free.

B. To Reward the Righteous

“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” (v. 4).

Are you afraid of those who are over you? Don’t be. Do right and you will have nothing to fear. Admittedly, Paul is speaking of an ideal situation. Still, the principle holds true. Troublemakers get in trouble while those who play by the rules don’t. In a fallen world, things sometimes get turned upside down, but it’s still better to be a law-abiding citizen. Criminals do get caught eventually. If you doubt that, consider that our prison system is full to overflowing.

Did you notice that reference to the sword? The “sword” represents the punishing power of the state. In ancient Rome, the sword was used in warfare and in capital punishment. According to tradition, Paul himself experienced the cruelty of the Roman sword when Nero had him beheaded. This reference to the sword provides the Christian basis both for service in the armed forces (and for going to war in general) as well as the theological justification for capital punishment. God says that the state does have the right to take life–not capriciously or unjustly, but in certain cases it is clearly justified. “He does not bear the sword in vain.”

III. The Support of Government

This passage ends with a statement about the Christian’s duty to support the government. First, he gives us a two-fold reason why our support is important.<

1. Why We Support the Government </font color></font size>

“Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience” (v. 5).

We support human government first because of “wrath”–meaning we fear punishment if we don’t. That’s why you slow down when you suddenly see a police car parked by the side of the road. Lawbreakers will be brought to justice. Second, we support government “because of conscience”–that is, because we know that God stands behind every human government working out his will for the human race.

That means that anarchy is never an option for the Christian. We may disagree, we may vote against a certain person or a particular ballot initiative, we may picket or write letters. But we must never join the ranks of the anarchists who say, “Down with all government.” Such a view is thoroughly pagan. Even bad government is better than no government at all.

To be more specific, Christians ought to be known as law-abiding citizens. In our day, some people have taken to shooting abortionists in a futile attempt to save the unborn. When will we learn that insurrection, lawlessness and murder do not advance the cause of Christ?

If we believe what Paul said, it will make us better Christians and ultimately better citizens. We may disagree–even strongly and passionately–but we won’t resort to violence.

2. How We Support the Government

“For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 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” (vv. 6-7).

These verses are so clear that they need little comment. Paul calls human rulers “ministers of God.” As such, they deserve four things from us: Taxes, revenue, respect, and honor. We may think we are heavily taxed (and we are), but hardly more so than in the first century. Rome had an income tax, a head tax, a poll tax, a road tax, a wagon tax, a crop tax, an import tax, an export tax, a harbor tax, and a bridge tax–to name only a few. The Caesars like to live in style and it cost a lot of money to maintain that huge empire, so they taxed their people heavily in order to pay for everything.

Paying taxes is a Christian duty. Tax evasion is not only a crime; it’s also a sin. Ray Stedman tells how in his early years he found himself frustrated because he paid so much in taxes to a government that in his opinion wasted most of the money. So one year he wrote a check to the “Infernal Revenue Service.” It made him feel better, until they cashed the check. Then he changed it to the “Eternal Revenue Service” but they still took his money. Finally, he said “I repented of all my sins and now hope to pay my taxes cheerfully.” Most of us may never get that far. It’s hard to be cheerful about sending that much money to Washington. But at least we can have the satisfaction of knowing that when we pay our taxes, we’re doing exactly what Jesus and Paul told us to do.

IV. Four Crucial Questions

Let me wrap up this message by looking at some very practical questions raised by this passage.

1. How far can a Christian go in expressing opposition to an unjust government? </font color></font size>

On one level, the answer is clear. You can go as far as the law allows you to go. You can picket, you can collect petitions, you can write letters to the editor, you can call a talk-show and sound off, you can write to your heart’s content on your own website, you can make a video and post it on YouTube, you can vote and encourage others to vote with you, you can visit your congresswoman or your senator, you can sit in the coffee shop and argue with your friends. You can take out an ad in the paper if you like. You can join with others to work for change. You can run for office. Submission doesn’t require you to keep your mouth shut about injustice and corruption.

However, the issue of the heart is very important. It’s better to keep quiet than to speak out in burning anger. If you believe that God can work his will even through a corrupt leader, that will temper your comments, cool your emotions, and keep you from doing or saying something you may regret later.

2. What should Christians do if the government orders them to do something that conflicts with their faith?

Peter and John gave us the answer in Acts 5:29 when they said, “We must obey God rather than man.” The highest authority is God himself. Like the Hebrew children who refused to bow down before the golden image of King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3), we must take our stand for our faith. And then we must be willing to suffer the consequences.

Pastor Kent Hughes shares some helpful insights about the circumstances in which disobedience is not only permitted but demanded of the Christian:

Our conclusion is this: A Christian must disobey his government when it asks him to 1) violate a commandment of God, 2) commit an immoral or unethical act, or 3) go against his Christian conscience (a conscience which is informed by Scripture and is in submission to the Spirit of God). (Romans, p. 242)

John Stott summarizes the issue in this succinct statement:

The principle is clear: We are to submit right up to the point where obedience to the state would entail disobedience to God. But if the state commands what God forbids, or forbids what God commands, then our plain Christian duty is to resist, not to submit, to disobey the state in order to obey God. (Romans, p. 342)

Again, the attitude of the heart is so important. If you read Daniel 3, you discover that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego spoke respectfully to the king even though they disobeyed his direct orders. In other words, they disobeyed with a submissive heart. That’s why God blessed them in spite of their disobedience.

3. What about civil disobedience?

This term covers a wide range of activities, but it usually refers to breaking a law in order to protest injustice. Sometimes that happened in the Old Testament, such as the Hebrew midwives refusing to kill the babies (Exodus 1) or Rahab the harlot hiding the Israeli spies in Jericho (Joshua 2). Today we use the term to refer to what happened during the civil rights movement of the sixties or some of the protests that take place outside or inside an abortion clinic.

Again, consider these words of John Stott: “Whenever laws are enacted which contradict God’s law, civil disobedience becomes a Christian duty” (Romans, p. 342). The problem lies in discerning whether a given law clearly and absolutely “contradicts” God’s law. Obviously, we all agree that if the government forced women to have abortions, that law should be resisted. But most conflicts are not as clear-cut as that. What about a law that restricts protest at abortion clinics but does not forbid it altogether? Is civil disobedience a “Christian duty” in that case?

It’s difficult to set down hard and fast rules covering every situation because one person’s Christian conscience may lead him in one direction while another person may choose to do something else or not to participate at all. But if you choose the course of civil disobedience, it seems to me that it must be over an issue of clear biblical teaching, it must be done publicly so that others can draw the right lesson, it ought to be done in concert with other believers, it must be accompanied by prayer and repentance, and finally, if you do break a law as a form of protest, you must then face the fact that you may be punished for your actions.

Believers who choose disobedience cannot also claim some special protection from God when they break the law of man. Again, the attitude of heart is crucial. You may not always be able to obey, but you can always have a submissive spirit because you believe in God.

4. What does it mean to be a good Christian and a good citizen?

Very simply, it means that we have dual citizenship–on earth and in heaven. As citizens God calls us to submit ourselves to those who are in authority over us, to obey the laws, to do what is right, to pay our taxes, and to show honor and respect to everyone who is over us. As Christians God calls us to take our rightful place as the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16). Salt preserves and it flavors. Light dispels the darkness.

There is a sense in which all of us are called to be godly rebels. It happens because we have dual citizenship. As believers we are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20). As members of the human race, we have citizenship in America or in some other country. The conflict is inevitable because the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man are sometimes at war with each other. Many times our Christian faith will force us to stand against the status quo and take positions that are unpopular and politically incorrect.

It seems likely that we will increasingly be put in that position in the years ahead as our culture becomes increasingly secular.

As a Christian, I see much around me that deeply disturbs me. As an American, I pray for leaders that will obey Micah 6:8 and act justly, love mercy and walk humbly before Almighty God. For the most part, that prayer has not yet been answered.

“The Only Times We Are Given” </font color></font size>

Richard Neuhaus was on his way to a speaking engagement in Pennsylvania. When he arrived at the airport, his host spent over an hour detailing everything that was wrong with our country, our society, our culture, our families, and our schools. When his host had finished his dreary litany of national ills, Pastor Neuhaus replied, “These may be bad times, but they are the only times we are given. And we must remember that despair is a mortal sin.”

How true. These are indeed the only times we are given. Despair is never an option for the Christian. Let us reaffirm our belief that our God reigns over all the nations of the earth. He is the Lord God Almighty. To him all the nations are but a drop in the bucket. The One enthroned in the heavens laughs at those who rage against him. No matter who controls the House or the Senate or the White House, God is still on the throne. If we forget that, we’re in big trouble no matter how we voted in the last election or who wins in 2008. Keep that in mind in the days to come. God is in control. He knows what he is doing, and he is doing it. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?