Respect human authority—but God is your true ruler

Posted Sep 17, 2021

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Daily Scripture

Romans 13:1-7

1 Every person should place themselves under the authority of the government. There isn’t any authority unless it comes from God, and the authorities that are there have been put in place by God. 2 So anyone who opposes the authority is standing against what God has established. People who take this kind of stand will get punished. 3 The authorities don’t frighten people who are doing the right thing. Rather, they frighten people who are doing wrong. Would you rather not be afraid of authority? Do what’s right, and you will receive its approval. 4 It is God’s servant given for your benefit. But if you do what’s wrong, be afraid because it doesn’t have weapons to enforce the law for nothing. It is God’s servant put in place to carry out his punishment on those who do what is wrong. 5 That is why it is necessary to place yourself under the government’s authority, not only to avoid God’s punishment but also for the sake of your conscience. 6 You should also pay taxes for the same reason, because the authorities are God’s assistants, concerned with this very thing. 7 So pay everyone what you owe them. Pay the taxes you owe, pay the duties you are charged, give respect to those you should respect, and honor those you should honor.

Reflection Questions

Another hard passage to understand alone. “This difficult text has received many interpretations and misinterpretations…. It isn’t a call for uncritical obedience to authority, government or otherwise, for challenging power that opposed God is part of the Biblical tradition.”* Slave masters or dictatorial rulers (even bosses or, now and again, pastors) too easily cite verse 2 by itself, although the Biblical prophets (and God himself—cf. Exodus 3:7-12) spoke against such abuses.

  • Romans 13 was not alone in calling Christ followers to be the best possible earthly citizens (cf. Matthew 22:15-21, 1 Peter 2:12-15). Yet God’s kingdom, not any earthly country or ruler, claims those followers’ ultimate loyalty (e.g. Hebrews 11:8-13). How hard is it for you to commit to living as a “stranger and immigrant” in this world, with your choices (even political ones) ultimately driven by “otherworldly” values? How highly do you value your citizenship in God’s kingdom?
  • Paul particularly focused (verses 6-7) on Roman taxes. “Precisely because [Paul] believes that Jesus is true Lord of the world, he doesn’t want his followers to pick unnecessary quarrels with the lesser lords… if they go for the normal type of violent revolution they will just be playing the empire back at its own game. They will almost certainly lose, and, much worse, the gospel itself will lose with them.”** Why did it matter that Christians, especially in Rome, be the best citizens possible?

Prayer

Lord Jesus, guide me to a clear sense of what my loyalty to you and your kingdom asks of me. Help me to respect earthly authorities, but never more highly than I respect your authority. Amen.


* Michael J. Gorman, study note on Romans 13:1-7 in The CEB Study Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013, p. 295-296NT.

** Wright, N.T., Paul for Everyone, Romans Part Two: Chapters 9-16 (The New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 85-86). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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Darren Lippe

Darren Lippe

Darren Lippe helps facilitate Journey 101 “Loving God” classes, guides a 7th-grade Sunday school class, is a member of a small group and a men’s group, and serves on the curriculum team.

Several years ago, I facilitated a class where we spent each week looking at the life of a Christian Hero, ranging from Johann Sebastian Bach to Sojourner Truth to John Wesley, to see how their lives might inspire our own faithwalk. One week we reviewed the life of the German Pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Let’s take a look:

Dietrich was born in 1906 in what is now Poland. His family was academically oriented & Bonhoeffer was quite the prodigy, playing Mozart sonatas at the age of 10. His family was startled when at the age of 14 he said he would be a pastor. His older brother said that the church was weak, silly, irrelevant & unworthy of his commitment. Bonhoeffer responded, “If the church really is what you say it is, then I shall have to reform it.”

Aside: A brilliant scholar falls on hard times & takes a job as a janitor. On his 1st day, he’s told to sweep the floor. He complains, “But I have a PhD.” The boss nods his head & takes the broom, saying, “I’m sorry. Let me show you how it works.”

Bonhoeffer earns his doctorate in theology at the age of 21. He travels to New York City for post-graduate studies. He is disappointed in the weak theology being taught in the seminary. He begins to worship in an African-American church in Harlem & becomes enthralled with their passion for the Good News. Dietrich develops many friendships as he teaches an adult Sunday School class in the church & takes a collection of African-American spirituals with him when he returns home.

Aside: Like the cowboy singing as he was trying to lasso a Shetland pony: “Swing low, sweet lariat.”

Back in Germany, Dietrich teaches a confirmation class of 50 rowdy boys in the slums of Berlin. On his 1st day the boys yell at him & pelt him with garbage. Dietrich waits until they finally grow tired, then he quietly tells them that Christ loves everyone – even those in extreme poverty. No one, no matter his or her bleak circumstances, is ever forsaken by God. Dietrich moves into the boys’ neighborhood & lives amongst them until the completion of the course.

Aside: After a long day of indoor recesses, fire drills, & spills, a Kindergarten teacher sees a small boy playing with her paycheck envelope on her desk. As she takes the envelope from him, she explains it is her paycheck. The boy, suddenly full of interest, asks, “Oh really? Where do you work?”

In 1933, Hitler comes to power. Bonhoeffer is immediately at odds with the Nazi regime, attacking Hitler in a radio address 2 days after Hitler’s installation. Dietrich is furious with the Christian leaders in Germany who were tacitly supporting the new regime to avoid conflict. Two factions began to arise within the church. The national church, which considered the Fuehrer as their leader, & the “confessing” church, which “confessed” that Christ was their only leader. Dietrich’s theological thinking was rooted in an un-negotiable loyalty to Christ. All other loyalties, be it national, racial, etc. took a back seat to Jesus.

Germany’s faith community continues to align itself with the government. Dietrich fights the German Christians for including an “Aryan” paragraph that prevented non-Aryans from becoming a pastor or teacher, he argues against other factions who wanted the Old Testament removed from the Bible, & he called for a boycott of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Bonhoeffer begins an underground mobile seminary secretly traveling from town to town for 2 years. They illegally ordain their pastors & refuse to teach the syllabus authorized by the Nazi regime. Many graduates would be arrested & sent to labor camps. Eventually, the Gestapo prohibits Dietrich from preaching & even bans him from Berlin.

To avoid being drafted into Hitler’s army, Bonhoeffer readily accepts an invitation to teach in the U.S. However, after 26 days in America, he realizes “I will have no peace in New York.” He returns to Germany. He believes he must suffer as the German people suffer to be part of the rebuilding after the Nazi’s are inevitably defeated.

Dietrich is ultimately imprisoned for helping a group of Jews escape to Switzerland. While imprisoned, an attempt to assassinate Hitler (Operation Valkyrie) fails. Bonhoeffer was actively involved in the plot & his role becomes known to the authorities. One of his fellow prisoners wrote the following: “Bonhoeffer was different, just quite calm & normal, seemingly perfectly at ease…his soul really shone in the dark desperation of our prison. He was one of the very few men I have ever met to whom God was real & ever close to him.”

So, what might Dietrich’s life mean for us 80 years later as we consider today’s passage?

  • Governing authorities are not automatically at odds with the Christian faith. Paul encourages cooperation between Christians & government to maximize the good functions of a civil society that will be beneficial to all people. Thus, for example, we should obey traffic laws, pay our taxes, & be fully engaged in our communities.
  • However, in a fallen world, civil authorities can also use their authority in ways that are harmful to its citizens & contrary to the Kingdom of God. Christians cannot turn a blind eye & unthinkingly follow all edicts of the authorities & pretend that this is doing God’s will. Paul’s discussion does not give approval to the defense, “I was only following orders.” Thus, for example, we may be required to participate in acts of civil disobedience, illegally distribute Bibles, or reject governmental intrusions into churchly functions.
  • Finally, the Christian community should diligently avoid entangling relationships with governmental authorities. Bonhoeffer was adamant that the church’s purpose was to share the redemptive love of Christ. Aligning with regimes would inevitably water-down & perhaps lead to conflicts with the church’s primary calling. Governments will happily use churches to achieve the authority’s objectives, but will rarely assist the church to achieve God’s goals.

PS: Dietrich was executed by hanging at the Flossenburg concentration camp April 9, 1945. Dietrich, in his final message to a friend, wrote, “This is the end; for me the beginning of life.” The allies freed the camp 14 days later.

PSS: Bonhoeffer would not have viewed his life as a tragedy. As he wrote, “Yes, there is sadness, but to serve God with everything you have unto death is the greatest joy in life.”

*Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Eric Metaxas, 2011.

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