Romans 13: Temporary Authorities, Temporary Lives
The thirteenth chapter of Romans can be a tricky one. Many people want to pretend it doesn’t exist or mean what it says. And then on the other hand, many individuals, groups, or institutions hold it inside a clenched fist and use it to abuse and exploit the people they’re responsible for governing.
I will get right to the point: we don’t get to ignore or degrade the institution of governmental authority simply because it is often abused. We can all readily say that there has never been a guiltless human government. You only have to turn on the political news or look at the “trending” section of social media to see some of the extents to which government is capable of abusing its authority. That’s the thing, though. The problem has never actually been the institution of government, in and of itself. Problems occur when its God-ordained authority is used for sin rather than for good.
We should not mimic our culture in how it disdains and abandons the institutions God creates simply because they are used wrongly by many people. Marriage is an excellent example of this. I can’t tell you how many people, especially in my own generation, who have wholesale abandoned any thought of marriage because they have seen it wielded for destruction. This is also true for parenting, as many parents have used their authority to manipulate and abuse their children. Yet, these are institutions God has ordained for good purposes. They are worthy of respect. Why should government be any different?
I don’t think it’s an accident that Paul wrote the first half of Romans 13 immediately after this passage from Romans 12: “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God. . . To the contrary, ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’” (Romans 12:17-21).
The very next command from Paul is very blunt: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed” (Romans 13:1-2). This verse has often been twisted and misinterpreted, particularly where it says that “there is no authority except from God.” This isn’t saying that God is the only authority we are to be subject to, though He is our ultimate authority. Quite the opposite: in his next breath, essentially, Paul says explicitly that the authorities that exist have been instituted by God.
Of course it must be noted that this isn’t a command to abort your child because your government says you have too many. It isn’t a command to celebrate homosexuality because your government declares same sex marriages to be legal. It isn’t a command to bow down to an emperor or any other false god because your government demands you do so. What it does mean is that we ought to submit to the governing authorities as long as they aren’t demanding we do what God has forbidden or forbidding us from doing what God commands.
Government can bring great security and prosperity; they can also bring great harm. Again, what is often missed in the arguments of those who despise institutionalized government is that their real problem is with the abuse of authority. Hatred for government does not solve the problem of bad government, because the removal of institutionalized government isn’t a removal of authority. Authority will then be placed in the hands of other people - whether they be Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Communists, Socialists, Capitalists, Monarchists, you name it - who are just as fallible, depraved, and capable of abuse as the people they took the authority from. Basic world history as a whole testifies to this.
So, how do we bear it? How do we survive and flourish in circumstances that are exceptionally less than ideal? We persevere in this just as we do in regards to all the other facets of human life in a fallen world. Paul finishes the chapter: “The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:12-14).
The key to flourishing in a fallen world under fallen institutions is to recognize that the God who knows the intended design and purpose of all things is still redeeming the world in Christ. Our human lives are like withering grass - comparable to the delicate flowers that spring up in early March and are gone again in the heat of July.
Psalm 39 demonstrates a wonderful mentality in regards to this. It says, “O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Surely a man goes about as a shadow! Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather!” (Psalm 39:4-6).
I used to think this passage was bleak and discouraging, especially in light of the pain, sin, and oppression we can experience in this life at the hands of others. Yet we should, precisely because of this, remember verse 7 all the more - “And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you.”
About the Author
Jessica Hageman is a native to the Appalachian mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, although she now resides in northern Virginia with her husband. She has been a lover of reading since elementary school and a lover of Christ since high school. She is a full time English major, in hopes that her studies will help her more effectively minister to other through written words. Her favorite things in the world are British tea, old books, autumn leaves, dry humor, and rainy weather. Her goal as a writer is to demonstrate how the Gospel, objective truth, and sound theology are not only applicable, but essential, to all aspects of life as a woman, especially in a world that celebrates sin, false doctrine, and self-sufficiency.