Romans 13:1-14

13 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority 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. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in revealing and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

FIRL members struggled with this scripture—and for good reason.  Several wished aloud that it was not part of scripture. The first seven verses of this scripture have been badly abused and are frequently taken out of context.  The next seven have an entirely different tone and content. It is hard to imagine they belong to the same chapter.

Romans 13 exposes a common dilemma when studying scripture.  Scripture is full of conflicts in content and message. How can we determine God’s will when there are sometimes contradictions in the same chapter?  Which do we follow? Some people avoid the dilemma by selectively using parts of the bible that they agree with. (Thomas Jefferson famously edited the bible to his taste when he created the ‘Jefferson Bible’— but we all are prone to similar cherry picking of scripture).  But selective editing is not the answer.

Even the Sermon on the mount points us in different directions regarding obedience.    Jesus said:  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”  Matt 5:17-19)  But then he promptly began to reinterpret the law in the rest of the chapter.  “ You have heard it said….but I say unto you…”  Jesus both challenges and submits.  He simultaneously advocated obedience and reform. Romans 13 presents a similar paradox.

The danger is that we humans take a paradox and turn it into an either/or—a right or wrong. In real life, our lives would be literally chaotic without traffic rules, police, taxation, government etc.  Our society depends upon cooperation and obedience in order to function. From this point of view, God wants us to live safe, ordered lives. The difficulty occurs when the passage is debated as the binary choice between obedience and dissent.  That framing oversimplifies the problem and creates adversarial relationships.

If we only take one side of a paradox and insist that we know the truth, we can end up in some very troubling places. On one hand we can argue that obeying a red light is a no brainer.  All of us are safer when we all obey. Yet what happens if you are rushing to the hospital with your child bleeding out in the back seat? What is an obvious general rule suddenly has the possibility of doing harm.  It might be risky to run the light but it might be riskier not to. Deciding is far more complicated than choosing a side and refusing to consider whether or it is actually loving.

Romans 13 has often been used to make the case that obedience and submission is the right thing to do. Period.  Earthly authority exists only at God’s behest and it is not up to us to question such authority. But such arguments were used to support slavery, the holocaust and most recently to support current immigration policy. Civil disobedience, resistance to authority was fiercely fought and even viewed as sinful.  People of every era have read scripture out of context and used it to validate their own point of view. In order to do so, however, they must ignore the larger context of the gospel and in this instance, the verses that immediately follow. Jesus was certainly obedient—even unto death but he was also regularly ‘speaking truth to the authorities’ and defying them.  

When it seems so clear in the first seven verses that disobedience is subject to and deserving of punishment, no mention is made of the following verses where Paul is explicit when he says  “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”  There is no mitigation in the first verses, all obedience to authority is viewed as its own end.  But Paul (and Jesus) said more than that. The primary expectation is that we love our neighbor as ourselves.    

There many examples—both biblically and secularly—where God is working his plan out as much in civil disobedience as he is in calling for submission to the authorities.  

1. In Exodus, the Hebrew midwives refused to carry out the Pharaoh’s order to murder newborn babies. Civil disobedience allowed Moses to survive.

2. Jael murdered Sisera by driving a tent peg through his skull to save Israel (Judges 5-6).  She is celebrated as a woman who helped bring 40 years of rest to Israel.

3. Jesus was regularly challenged about his failure to obey religious law–but he continued to heal on the Sabbath and associate with the unclean.

4. Both Peter and Paul refused to submit when told to stop preaching.  

5. America emerged out of upon civil disobedience and finally revolution.

6. Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided to attempt to assassinate Hitler—Bonhoeffer not only resisted the Third Reich, he struggled mightily as a Christian with the question, ‘Can a Christian kill a despot?”  

7. Civil Rights Sit ins– in defiance of Jim Crow laws—changed our legal landscape.

There is no question that authority should be both obeyed and questioned.  The issue becomes one of discernment—and discernment is always difficult and always requires humility.  Certainty is the enemy of faith. When the Rabbinic authorities were confronted by the uspstart Christians, Gamaliel counseled: “I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5: 38-39).  Ultimately we are answerable to God and in real life, our lives are too short to know the full consequences of our actions.  

In the context of the gospel, Romans 13 can not be reduced to the propriety of obedience to authority.  The choice between submission and resistance must meet a higher standard. In real time and in real life, we can only act based on our best discernment of what it means to love God and to love neighbor.  

Unfortunately, any decision made, no matter how well intended,  may not be in service to God. (I am reminded of the paired aphorisms “1.  You never have enough information to make an important decision and 2. You are still responsible for it.”)  The same arguments and convictions that enabled Christians to stand up against oppression are used by anti abortionists who favor killing doctors. They argue, with great conviction that there is no one to protect the unborn.  Someone must stand up and stop the killing. I am not inviting debate on abortion. I am pointing out how easy it is to use God to support a position without humility. If we are going to engage one another, we must do our best to discern in the full knowledge that we are always seeking God’s will but we cannot be certain of it.   There is a big difference between conviction and certainty.

Practically speaking, if Christians are to belong to a governing community, we are bound by values that secular advocates are not.  No matter what the topic, immigration, same sex marriage, climate change, the wall, etc.— our discourse is governed by our responsibility to love God and to love our neighbor.  We must claim our Christian values, even as we live in a secular world. At the very least we must remember:

  1. Humility is required at all times. We can be convicted but not certain.
  2. We must show regard for every child of God —and especially those who oppose us.
  3. Two wrongs never make a right.
  4. It is not ok to inflict hurt because you have been hurt.
  5. There is Nothing about us that can’t be criticized. Do not be surprised when people are unfair or think ill of you.  Only when we feel safe with God can we engage without defensiveness.
  6. Respect, not agreement is the measure of love.

Each of us must choose how we will serve God.  We may submit to authority or we may challenge authority.  But whatever we choose, we make our choice based upon our best discernment of what it means to serve God and to love neighbor.  Our choice may prove incorrect but we are called to follow him as best we can and leave the rest to God.

Grant us the wisdom to discern your will and the courage to love and serve you.  Let it be so.

Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.