On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted to approve a resolution that the “United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown,…” (1) Now, in case you thought I misspoke, I did say July 2. In fact, John Adams, who was on the Committee of Five which drafted the final Declaration, thought our country would celebrate our independence on July 2nd. But it took Congress two days to approve the edits that were demanded, and thus, the final document has the date of July 4, 1776, and was signed by most of the signatories on that date.
John Adams was right that the celebration of the independence of America would be celebrated for generations to come, even if he was wrong about the date. But the celebrations now came with specific risk then. That risk was due to the fact that the people who opposed the tyranny of the king (and England in general) were committing treason. Such an act was punishable by death. But the act of those individuals we now call patriots leads to an interesting question. How can we reconcile Paul’s words in Romans 13 against their decision to declare independence and commit treason against the ruling government?
Read Romans 13.1-7.
This passage provides a challenge to those who want to live according to a biblical standard. Notice that Paul begins with the words “every person.” The Greek says, “every soul.” Thus, we cannot get around the fact that Paul is not just talking to a certain group of people. We cannot try to manipulate the text to say that Paul didn’t mean this group or that group. In fact, by using the phrase “every soul,” Paul is not even limiting this idea to Christians. Remember, Romans 1.7 said the letter was written to all the “saints” in Rome, but here it is all the people (of Rome and beyond).
So, we have to wrestle with this. Of course, we could just dismiss these seven verses. People are notorious for picking and choosing which parts of the Bible to follow, so why not us? After all, if I don’t like who’s in charge, or what they are doing, then I have every right to do my own thing, right?
Wrong! At least that thinking is wrong if you are a Christian. See, Paul is writing on God’s behalf and what he wrote is that “every person” is to submit to the governing authorities. Now, bear with me for a few minutes, because I do believe a caveat exists, but that caveat may not be as freeing as some would like.
The reason Paul calls for submission is because those who govern do so because God has put them there. Notice verse 1: any authority the government has (and those in it have) is because God instituted it. That is an amazing word, instituted. Do you know what else God instituted? He instituted the family and the church. He instituted three items – the family, the government, and the church – in that order. Of course, we may complain about people in our families or certain aspects of church, but generally we like those two ideas. But the government? Well…? But it was God’s idea, not mankind’s.
To better understand this idea, we must understand the idea of submission. It is not blind obedience. It is not forced obedience. In fact, the Greek has a middle voice for verbs, and that is what is used here. That means, Paul is calling for a voluntary submission. Really, it is about submitting to the government because ultimately that is submitting to God. Remember, even Jesus submitted to Pilate after clearly stating that Pilate’s authority came from God (John 19.11).
That is really the point Paul is making here. God instituted the government, so to be in constant rebuke of the government is to be constantly rebuking what God has put in place. And that likely leads to rebuking God directly. Again, that is Paul’s aim here. He is trying to help the people of Rome – and particularly the church of Rome – to avoid setting themselves up in rebellion of the government, and therefore rebellion against God. (I believe Paul has a few specific reasons for writing these verses, which I will cover in the daily videos on Monday and Tuesday this week.)
Paul reminds the reader that the government authority includes the right to punish. However, a government has no reason to punish those who are good (v3), because those in authority are God’s servants and are in place to do good themselves. (I hear the objection, but hold on – I am only quoting Paul here). On the other hand, someone who does what is wrong is subject to punishment, as Paul alludes by the mention of the sword.
Now, the objection is that not all governments are good. And even in a good government, not all of the officials are good. Therefore, can we claim that Paul is mistaken? No. Let me provide two reasons.
First, we must realize that the one who is in authority defines what is good and what is bad. But someone can be in authority and not really be the one who has ultimate authority. What I mean is this. Paul has stipulated that God is the designer of government. Therefore, God is the one who is ultimately in authority. Thus, what He says is good is all that truly matters.
However, a government official might not acknowledge God (or might not think of God as good). Therefore, this official (or a group of officials) can pass a law/statute that they think is good. Thus, they may punish people for not submitting to their “good” law because to the person the law is bad.
This scenario is why many Roman Christians would later be killed. The Roman law required people to pay homage to the emperor, who was also considered a deity. That was the Roman law and Rome thought it was good. Anyone who did not practice this “good” law was executed. Well, Christians would not bow to Caesar, and so they were bad (according to Roman law) and were subsequently punished. But the Christians followed the better law – God’s law, and for that, there is not shame.
Second, we must understand that Paul is not writing to cover all instances of all governments for all time. The principles in Romans 13.1-7 are principles that are true and have carried forward throughout history until today. They will continue to be guiding principles until Jesus returns. However, not all governments (or officials) are good. Our primary allegiance is to God, not the government. The Christian is to focus more on God’s Kingdom, than his/her country. Sure, we can be patriotic, we can fight on behalf of our nation. But the Christian’s Supreme Commander is Jesus. Remember Romans 10.9 – it is about saying (and meaning) Jesus is Lord. And thus, when we get a command (or a law) that is counter to what Jesus commands, we are to follow Jesus, not man.
In fact, those are almost the exact words of Peter when he and others stood on trial before the Sanhedrin in Acts 5. Peter and John had already been arrested and beaten, then released in Acts 3 and 4. Then, Peter and the other apostles are on trial again in Acts 5. Having been ordered to stop proclaiming the name of Jesus again, they responded, “We must obey God rather than men.”
Ladies and gentlemen, that is our call as well, but…that does not provide an excuse for not honoring our government and officials. We may not like some (or many) of them, or we may not like the ideas and policies, but the command to love our neighbor includes politicians and government officials as much as it does the person down the street or the person closest to you right now.
And that is why, Paul concludes this section with a quick set of imperatives. We are to pay taxes (because that is how the government – again, instituted by God – functions). We are to pay revenue to those who are to be paid. (The idea here is a different type of tax like a customs tax, whereas the initial tax is like a land or property tax). And we are to pay honor and respect to the officials because of their capacity.
Let’s face it. Honoring and respecting others can be difficult. Honoring and respecting government officials who have some level of authority to create laws that prevent or restrict certain activities, and especially freedoms, is often more difficult. But Paul states that this is something that we owe.
And to return to the beginning of the passage, that owing is due to the fact that ultimately any leader that is in place is there because God has allowed, or perhaps even caused, them to be there. Therefore, we honor and respect the person because we are to honor and respect the position.
But as we move toward a conclusion of this message, we must ask what happens when a leader, a group of leaders, or an entire government takes advantage of the situation, or does not follow God at all. First, I would challenge us to ensure that we are not reading more into a situation than we ought to see. Many times people are offended and take action because of personal feelings, not truly reflecting upon what God really desires.
Second, peaceful protests are valid. Humanity has a God-given right to speak about God’s desires. Countries and governments may oppose that right, but again, ultimately, they are subject to God’s authority. As Romans 12.19 reminds us, God will exact vengeance, if necessary, in His time. In this country, we have a right to for our voices to be heard on political matters as well. This idea would have been very difficult for Paul and others in the 1st Century to fathom. They could not vote out a leader. The emperor was in charge until he died…and then another replaced him (and, it was almost always a him at the helm). I will say more about peaceful resistance in Wednesday’s daily video.
So, what about the group of people at the forefront of leading the colonies to declare independence? Well, if you remember from school, the issue was taxation without representation. It really ramped up with The Stamp Act in 1765, which was a direct taxation on the colonies. Approximately, five years later, during a not-so-peaceful riot, a British soldier fired a weapon, killing an 11-year-old boy and setting off further incidents that lead to the deaths of another five Americans, in what is known as The Boston Massacre. Three years after that, with the tensions still very high, the colonists rebelled against again in Boston (again due to taxation), this time over the tax on tea. The result was the Boston Tea Party. And after three incidents over an 8-year-period, the seeds were planted for the Revolution.
Were the Founders correct? By the books, it was unlawful for them to declare independence. It was treason, and they knew it. If the colonies had lost the war, many hangings would have taken place, and we would likely not remember the names of people like John Hancock, John Adams, or even Thomas Jefferson, let alone so many others.
But the oppression was real. And it occurred over many years, despite the repeated pleadings of various colonial leaders. On the other hand, Britain had bills to pay that were, in part, because of the mother country protecting the colonies during the French-Indian War and similar issues.
Frankly, as I think about the American Revolution, I am torn. I am thankful for the freedoms we gained. I do not know that we could have gained them any other way. But when I consider Romans 13, I wonder where the line really is. People will say that God blessed our nation – and they are right. But having read the biographies of most every significant leader of that era, I am not convinced that many of them were “as Christian” as most would like to believe.
But regardless of those events, God has blessed this country for more than two centuries. America has plenty of faults – it always has, and it always will. But God has blessed this country because of the sacrifice of so many men and women over 400+ years now. And, even as we remember those people – people we may know by name, many of which were leaders in some way, we must remember that it is God that is our true leader on this and every day.
Therefore, even as we celebrate our independence as a nation, let us remember to be in dependence on God because of what He has done for us. As Paul has reminded the reader throughout Romans, God made a way when we could not. A ruler far greater than Nero, far greater than Rome, far greater than King George and Great Britain, in fact, far greater than any human king or emperor took control and had dominion. That ruler was, and is, sin. As a ruler, sin is oppressive and once it is done with us, we are handed over to its partner – death (see Romans 5.18-21).
But just as God has authority over the governments of this world, He also has complete authority over all Creation. Thus, even as sin dominated mankind, God had a plan to overcome. God sent Himself, as the God-man Jesus to win a battle that we could not win on our own. Jesus fought the fight and gained our independence from sin, and in turn, He desires that we become dependent on Him.
But Jesus’ reign is not condemning and restrictive. It is live-giving and freeing. Sure, God has given us commands that many claim are limiting, but the commands we have make for a better life, not a worse one. Murdering others, lying to others, stealing from others, etc. are ways we not only hurt others but keep us on the lookout, lest we get caught. To not lie, or steal, or murder, etc., are thus ways to live freely without the concern of being found guilty. Likewise, we show our dependence on God by worshipping Him, by serving Him, by focusing on Him, instead of pursuing the world and what it has to offer.
So, again, on this Independence Day for the United States of America in 2021, let us remember the sacrifice so many have paid so we could gather together, celebrate together, and worship freely. But let us remember on this day to be in dependence on the One who has truly set us free – not just for today, and not just for this life, but for all of eternity!
What’s Next?: Our What’s Next for this week revolved around celebrating the Lord’s Supper.