The apostle Paul has much to say about how we ought to view and respond to our governing authorities. Paul likely had very good reasons for saying what he said here, because Paul soon would be going to Rome, to visit this church tucked inside the capital of the world.
And when Paul got to Rome, he would not be bringing with him any social agitation or violence or other forms of political unrest. This is not the way of this new king, Jesus. There’s nothing in the gospel message about the overthrow of governments – at least not yet.
Christians worshipped a king who was not Caesar, and this likely made them suspect. Law-abiding citizens do not appreciate those who would stir the pot and rile the masses. No, law-abiding citizens prefer peace and a quiet place to raise their families and equitable places to work their businesses.
And government, at its finest and most pristine, was created to do just that – to maintain peace and to give people space to flourish. In Paul’s world, anarchy was only a few steps away, and he could express gratitude and respect for the governing authorities.
And so Paul did not want his Christian brothers and sisters working in opposition to the government. Survival of this newly created worshipping community depended on careful compliance with the government – to offer no reason for harsh treatment.
And so Paul urged the church to respect its governing authorities, and to pay their taxes. Worship God, not Caesar – and then go quietly about your lives.
As I read this text, I could not help but think about our world today, with so much unrest in the United States relating to protests and pandemic. Some people protest and are praised. Others are vilified. Some turn to violence and looting and graffiti. Some governing officials allow this, and some do not. Some gather in violation of social distancing rules. Some governing officials allow this, and, again, some do not.
In the end, it is hard to know what to make of our governing authorities today. Is the government still in effect for our good? Does it still carry out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer?
In some ways, Paul’s writing almost seems like it is for another time and another place – where people desired more government, not less.
And yet, a fundamental truth is bound up within Romans 13. The judgment that the governing authorities can levy against wrongdoers is a picture for us of God’s coming judgment on the earth. Our King will return. And, “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:7).
The wrongs will be made right. Evildoers will be punished. And we will be judged by the blood of Christ.
In the meantime, we recognize the divine picture bound up within our governing authorities. They carry out judgment in the here and now. It prefigures what God will do at the return of Christ.
Yes, sometimes our governing authorities don’t act rightly today. Sometimes they press too hard in the wrong direction. And yes, sometimes we must disobey their orders.
But this is rare. Inside the very founding of government is the truth of God, the creator of peace and the one who sets things right.