Friday, December 30, 2005

Baptists and Religious Liberty (4)

The interpretation and application of Romans 13, or Religious Liberty and Obeying the Law

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour. - Romans 13:1-7

This text teaches and supports a view of obedience to civil authority.

[1]. The scope is not limited to Christians: Though the letter itself is written to Roman Christians, Paul states, "Let EVERY SOUL be subject unto the higher powers."
[2]. Government is authorized or appointed by God: "Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God." Government is ordained by God -- ordained in the sense "set in order", which is well within the meaning of the word, and accords with Genesis 9:5,6, et al.
[3]. This authority spoken of bears the sword: "he beareth not the sword in vain." Government, not the church, bears the sword.
[4]. This authority spoken of is an avenger or revenger: "...he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil." The little child of God is not an avenger, but waits on God to meet out justice: "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord." (Romans 12:19)
[5]. This authority spoken of receives tribute or taxes: "For for this cause pay ye tribute also..." This harmonizes with Jesus' instructions in Matthew 22:17-21. The church and its officers are not a taxing entity.

Other verses that speak to the subject include: Titus 3:1,2 [Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work, To speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, but gentle, shewing all meekness unto all men.] and I Peter 2:13-17 [Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation. Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.].

Human government is of divine institution; anarchy is a child of the sin nature of man. In Paul's message here, obedience hinges on two main things: the external consequences of disobedience and the internal conscience.

Paul does not say that the civil government is a minister of God IF it does good, but civil government is a creature of God ordained for the general good of people. This text DOES NOT support "unconditional and uncritical subjection to any and every demand of the state." The child of God must draw the line when the choice is either obey God or the government.


TRES CEE said...

i didn't want to resist the higher powerrs so when minister of music and wife of same, made it obviuos i didn't belonng in their church, i left amenn

R. L. Vaughn said...

Some church leaders seem to think they are the "higher powers", but I don't think that was what the Apostle had in mind!

amity said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
amity said...

Can we reconcile these texts with the role of Rome and the Sanhedrin in Christ's cruxifixion? Of course Christ submitted, but

"For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil."

does not relate to Christ's case! One can think of other regimes whose works are so clearly evil that some sort of activism seems in order on scriptural grounds. Are there any scriptures that would expand or modify those Robert has quoted here?

Terre S.

R. L. Vaughn said...

I have a few more thoughts along the line of obedience to laws.

First, the Romans 13 pericope shouldn't be taken to mean that everything a government does is "good" in what we might take as a moral sense. God ordained government for mankind's good. Christians should respond by obedience to this God-ordained power.

While Romans 13 is clear in teaching obeying authority, it is not the totality of the New Testament teaching on the subject - Peter for example, clearly states that "We ought to obey God rather than men." Sometimes we must make that choice. We as Christians are supposed to obey even "bad" laws unless they require us to violate our duty to God. For example, the Christian should violate a law forbidding the preaching of the gospel, but obey laws regarding speed limits, wearing seat belts, paying taxes, and thousands of others we could think of, regardless of whether we think of them as unjust or a violation of our rights. As a citizen, I do think about some of the above could be a violation of our "rights". As a Christian, I don't think that gives me the right to disobey them.

The historical context is thought-provoking for us Americans who are used to freedom. There were probably three different Roman emperors during the Apostle Paul's ministry - Caligula (or Gaius), Claudius and Nero - none of whom would meet modern American standards of "ministers of God for good". But we must understand Romans 13 in context, not with our American mindset. When Paul wrote Romans 13, the mad-man Nero was probably on the throne. And he still told the Romans to "be subject unto the higher powers." Interesting.

amity said...

So then I assume, If obedience to law is the criterion, that political activism against abortion would be acceptable if it was directed toward changing the laws, but not if it was directed at closing an abortion clinic through picketing, since what they are doing is legal? Our only political activism as Christians should be directed toward the legislature?

R. L. Vaughn said...

I think there you may be getting into two issues that start to diverge. I don't think all political activism that is not directed toward the legislature is illegal here is the US. I don't think all picketing of abortion clinics is illegal, if I understand the law. It's in the way it is carried out. So it could possibly be done and still keep Romans 13. But that leads to the next question. How much political activism has the Christian been called and commanded to do? The church of the New Testament appears to have kept well occupied with the business of preaching the gospel.

amity said...

Good answer, Robert. Thanks.