“Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” (Romans 13:1, NASB95)
I was doing some background reading today for a midweek study in Romans, where next week we will be looking at Romans 13:1-7. In one of the commentaries I was reading on this passage I read the following statement, “As far as Romans 13:1 is concerned, it would be difficult, probably impossible, for anyone to write a more all-encompassing, absolute, or utterly unqualified statement than the one Paul has given” (Romans, Boice, J.M., 1995, p. 1639.). The next nearly thirty pages were spent considering these seven verses and our biblical response. In his analysis he pointed to numerous questions that Paul does not answer such as, “when is a government a legitimate government, and when isn’t it? When is it right to rebel against an unjust or tyrannical government, or isn’t it permitted at all? What about our own American War on Independence? If we had been living then, what side should we have been on…?” He went on to list other types of questions, which again have challenged biblical scholars and people seeking to live rightly before God and man for centuries. Through his ongoing discussion He brought this continuing issue of the sovereignty of government under the bigger hand of the sovereignty of God.
Clearly recognizing that our God is sovereign then we must acknowledge that no government can exist apart from His sovereign consent. We also must acknowledge that the best of governments and the worst of governments each pale in comparison to the perfect rule of our Lord of lords and our King of kings. God can and does use both good and evil to prove His own good purposes and ends. As such, part of our submitting to His sovereign rule in our lives is also submitting to how He sovereignly chooses to establish and even dis-establish rulers.
Paul instructs us that as an act of obedience to God we are to live in subjection to governing authorities, and in the verses that follow he will develop this further. And as we walk through them we will also consider some of the challenges.
But let’s consider the alternative—anarchy. Anarchy is a condition in which everyone does what is right in his own eyes, a condition where there is no authoritative leadership or a positive response to any kind or rule among the people. In the period following the patriarchal leaders, following the people living under the strong hand of Pharaohs, following the people living under the guidance of Moses and then Joshua, and before the time of the kings the people were left with but God as the One they committed to follow.
At the end of his life Joshua challenged the people with following God after his death and their need to do it fully. The people swore that they would do this, and do so with all of their hearts. But once those who were the leaders in the land with Joshua died, the people quickly turned away from God, and God dealt with their rebellion. The book of Judges is a record of this cycle of rebellion and periodic and partial restoration. The people saw no one as their leader and that’s how they lived. “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25, NASB95)
Man left to his own ends is self-centered. Government, as we will consider further, brings structure and rules for how we interact. This also includes the power to enforce those rules for the benefit of those who obey, to punish those who rebel, and it demands our submission. But more than that our Sovereign God commands that we live in submission to Him and to those He establishes.
As I type this last sentence House Speaker John Boehner is introducing the President of the United States for his annual State of the Union address. This will be a difficult speech for many who strongly disagree with many of the policies furthered or even enacted under his leadership. It also will be a time of challenge as we consider how to walk rightly as followers of Christ in a nation whose rules resemble less and less those which are consistent with the word of God.
I am thankful that none of this has caught God by surprise, that I can still cry out to Him and depend of Him, and that He still has me living in a place where my respectful voice has a place in the fabric of this land knowing that there may even be a time in the future when my subjection to the power of government may even come face to face with my submission to God. At that time I pray that I will stand strong for God and be strengthened for the response of others.