“Let every person 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)
We’re in the midst of an extraordinarily polarizing election cycle. Emotions are running high. The rhetoric has vacillated between incendiary and infantile. Crowds have grown increasingly agitated, angry, and violent. And we have another eight months to go!
Already some people are wondering if they could support a Trump or Clinton Presidency. Those who “feel the Bern” or thought they were Cruz-ing to victory, may be disappointed.
When Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, Nero held power as Emperor. His violence and corruption (even against his own family) was well-known, yet Paul tells the Christians that they should submit to the governing authorities.
Is there a place for conscientious objection or civil (non-violent) disobedience against ruling authorities? If we read Romans 13:1, it would seem not. However, the rest of the passage is worth reading.
In verse 4, Paul declares that government “is a minister of God to you for good.” Later in the same verse he adds that government “is a minister of God to bring wrath on those who practice evil.” Finally, in verse 6, he concludes that government leaders “are servants of God, devoting themselves to [God].”
Government is certainly ordained by God. He ordains order. He grants authority to under-rulers in this world. Community matters. On the other hand, anarchy violates the very essence of God’s character. However, government has boundaries and obligations. It should serve God (and the values of the Kingdom of God), and serve the good of its people. It should protect people from evil, and submit itself to God’s sovereignty. While it lives within these boundaries, it deserves our respect, support, and obedience. Political preferences based on personality must never usurp this principle.
As Christians live within increasingly hostile political environments, they have no obligation to submit to evil, corruption, or utter godlessness.
John Woolman, the 18th century North American Quaker preacher and merchant, steadfastly refused to pay taxes to England because he knew that some of those monies would be diverted into the war against American Indians. His pacifist convictions drove him to conclude that he could not participate in that war, even indirectly. He, and others, signed a declaration stating their full understanding that this could lead to seizure of their property and social rejection. Their civil disobedience was carefully calculated, driven by principle, and costly.
Days are coming when the people of God, 250 years later, may be faced with similarly difficult choices on this same continent. May God grant us grace, wisdom, and courage.