In the previous articles in this series we have looked at the subject of the disciple’s relationship to the State in the Old Testament, followed by the comments of the Lord Jesus Christ, and then the conduct of the apostles in Acts. This article reviews the teachings in the epistles of the apostles, particularly of Paul and Peter. The relevance of this series lies in the fact that the western democracies are changing quite rapidly and principles once firmly held are now discarded and evil practices widely accepted in their place. So the question is, where do we stand in all this world of change? Are we prepared to uphold our convictions, based on the Word of the living God, as a separate and holy people? Is the declension of the state affecting our own standards?

When the apostles took the gospel into the far-flung provinces of the Roman Empire the special nature of its message raised many old questions in a new environment. As we have seen, the nation of Israel was encouraged to be a separate and holy people, without real fraternity with their Gentile neighbours. It wasn’t that difficult because the Jews were living in the confines of the land of Israel and domestic problems with those of a different way of life hardly ever arose. The culture of the Law of Moses had general acceptance among them even if practised more in the breach than in truth.

It was a new thing indeed when in the ecclesias established by the apostles, for not only were there diverse nationalities within their membership, but the Roman government and atmosphere prevailed in their civil lives. Where did these ecclesias, and members, stand with the governors, authorities and laws of this dominant empire? True, the Jewish members had more experience of these issues because, in dispersion, they had for four or five centuries been living in ‘isolated recluse’ from their Gentile neighbours. They desperately held on to their Mosaic Law as the guide of their lives. Yet even in this there were dangers; isolation can lead to disinterest and self-satisfaction and, with time, a smug self-righteousness. This could be sensed by their society, especially when accompanied by a disregard for Roman laws and disrespect for authority. In a general way this was the Jewish mind in the first century as the apostle wrote, “they please not God, and are contrary to all men: forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway” (1 Thess 2:15–16). This background would have influenced early ecclesias. So where did they stand in relationship to Caesar and the present world? What was the will of their Lord? What kind of people were they to be?

The Epistle to the Romans

We have reviewed in a previous article in this series what the apostles did and how they steered a proper course in these matters. Now we wish to consider what they wrote about this whole subject.

It is appropriate that some of the clearest instruction is found in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, especially chapter 13. Yet it is in chapter 12 that we have the opening thoughts. We can see this in the expression of verse 17, “Recompense to no man evil for evil.” In verse 18 we have the phrase “live peaceably with all men”, and in verse 17 also we have reference to “all men”. So these comments concern our general behaviour among mankind. We are to avoid retaliation, which is a specific echo of the Lord’s command: “That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt 5:39). Paul enjoins that this grace be extended to all men, which again echoes the teaching of Christ, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you” (Matt 5:44). Likewise in our working or business lives we are to ensure that our behaviour is patently “honest in the sight of all men” (Rom 12:17). In fact the Roman believer, living amidst the dynamic atmosphere of the capital city, where material opportunities and corruption practices were rife, was instructed to “live peaceably with all men” (v18). The saint’s life and conduct must be above that of the world in which he lives. The Apostle Paul opened this chapter with similar thoughts: “be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (v2). Our behaviour is not to conform to the ethos of our present world. Caesar did not set the mark for Christ but, as the Lord’s encounter with Pilate showed, he lived by higher principles than the Roman governor had ever witnessed, provoking the thrice repeated statement, “I find in him no fault at all” (John 18:38; 19:4,6). From Romans 12 we learn that we are not to be aggressive, but quiet, and honest in our dealings, gendering peace among men and “overcoming evil with good” (v21). This is a higher way of life than the laws of any government; yet in chapter 13 the apostle stresses our obedience to the governing authorities of our nation.

We cannot miss the emphasis:

v 1 “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers”

v 1 “the powers that be are ordained of God”

v 2 “Whosoever … resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God”

v 4 “he is the minister of God to thee for good”

v 4 “he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil”

v 6 “for they are God’s ministers”.

It would seem that here Paul is answering the mind that was evident in the Jewish people of his age. We certainly know from chapter 14 that the Jewish mind was pressing aspects of the Mosaic Law upon the ecclesia. Their disrespect for civil authority could seriously harm the reputation of the gospel in Rome if it became the benchmark of Christian behaviour.

An historical twist

An interesting reflection from history is that this section of Romans has been frequently employed by rulers to justify cruel and unjust treatment of the common people. They insisted that use of the sword (the symbol of temporal power) was justified because God had appointed them. Napoleon Bonaparte imparted this understanding to the subjects of his empire: it suited his purposes. He dominated all aspects of government, even writing a catechism for children of the State church which specifically accentuated the divine authority by which he ruled over France and Europe! The catechism put up the questions and the children had to learn and recite the answers to their Sunday School teachers. This passage in Romans 13 is specifically quoted in the catechism. Thus subservience to the emperor was bred into the children of the Revolution! Even worse was the fact that the Roman Catholic Church frequently endorsed the kings and emperors of the Holy Roman Empire by the use of these words of the apostle. The aristocracy were in league with the Church and did her bidding in politics and wars; so the Papacy returned the compliment by causing the people to believe that the emperor was right in the use of the sword because the Apostle Paul had so written. There was one Pope, Innocent III, who went as far as to declare that the Pope had two swords, the one spiritual and the other temporal (that is, of this present world) and that the spiritual had superiority over the temporal. Thus he claimed supreme power over all men of all nations. All this followed from the misuse of Romans 13.

What was the apostle teaching in this section from Romans 13? He was not justifying the temporal power of the apostasy. The Lord Jesus taught that “all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matt 26:52), and “he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword” (Rev 13:10). A faithful man in Christ would observe the teaching of the Lord and refuse conscientiously to take up weapons of war. But the Papacy has had no such restraint and has frequently employed the armies of the world to bring about the political ends that suit its interests; often this meant persecution of ‘heretics’ who would not take up the sword! Such then has been the abuse of this passage in Romans 13.

How do we understand Romans 13?

Verses 7–8 present the practical applications: “Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.” Without government there would be no civilisation, no order or security, no protection of livelihood, no safety in passage and transport. “The powers that be are ordained [or arranged] of God”, just as the Roman power of Paul’s day was so obviously the determination of God as spoken by Daniel the prophet (v1–2; Dan 2,7). Would the follower of Christ therefore militate against such power or seek to avoid custom or tribute? Government has need of money to function and provide services. For the most part the power of law abets the life of the man of God: “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil … do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same” (v3). Therefore obedience to government not only avoids the judgment of disobedience but is the answer of the disciple’s conscience before God, by Whom the government was installed (v5).

The Apostle Peter’s confirmation

Peter wrote his first epistle in the time of Emperor Nero’s decline just before the destruction of the Jewish State, when Rome was burning and Christians were being blamed for his folly and irresponsible ways. Hence there is much in this epistle relevant to our subject. The “fiery trial” was coming upon believers and the injustice of it could well generate disrespect for Roman law and agitation against it. As AD70 came closer, that is exactly what happened among Jewish communities. Yet Peter’s beautiful advice is entirely free of revenge or reproach or disrespect. In fact all the same points that we have discovered in Romans 13 are in 1 Peter 2:13–17:

  • “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (v13)
  • “… unto governors … sent by (God) for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of them that do well” (v14)
  • “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” (v16–17).

This is so similar to Paul’s instructions in Romans, both in content and theme, reflecting the mind of the Lord Jesus (Matt 17:24–27; 26:52; Rev 13:8–10).

Then what is our personal picture?

The disciple is not antagonistic to the governmental power of his country. He seeks to live peaceably and honestly in this present society with respect to the laws of the land, in accordance with his conscience toward God. He is separate from the world and the government because his calling is higher, being that of the King of a new world order, to whom his loyalty is absolute. Hence he refuses violence or vengeance but is respectful of his king and country. The Apostle Paul goes to the extent of exhorting that “prayers … giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Tim 2:1–2). He assures us that this practice is “good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour” (v3).

If the government turns against us then we accept that but preserve our convictions. We will not take the sword, we will not cease to preach the Truth, we will not seek to redress our stand caused by the pressures of an ungodly world (Rom 12:1). “If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters. Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf” (1 Pet 4:14–16).

The pressure is on?

Many sense that in our western democracies the loss of Bible knowledge and the militant advance of agnosticism are bringing dangerous pressures upon our position such as we have not known since the revival of the Truth. There is growing evidence that this is so. The pressure comes not only from the fact that gross forms of immorality are legalised but also from intolerance towards those who uphold biblical morality. In Lot’s day they ‘banged on his door’ to break it in. Today legislation is passed inimical to the conscience of God’s people. And the clouds of Armageddon are gathering!

We know we are not to be deliberately in conflict with government. Apostolic writings are clear on this. Yet we must not conform to the morality of Satan’s kingdom.

So we pray for our Master’s arrival and that we may find deliverance at his hand and the salvation of our children.

“Even so, come, Lord Jesus”.