Relating to the Powers-That-Be

My Bible study from a couple of days ago wanted me to write out what I have learned about submission from a series of verses. This was the second one on the list.

bq. ^5^Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.
Romans 13:5

There wasn’t much to go on there. The ‘therefore’ indicated that there was an entire discussion prior to this verse and that this phrase was simply the conclusion. Additionally, because I read the verse alone, ‘because of conscience’ left me wondering exactly what Paul was talking about. Context is always critical in the exposition of Scripture, so I backed up a few verses to the beginning of this thought.

bq. ^1^Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. ^2^Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. ^3^For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. ^4^For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. ^5^Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.
Romans 13:1-5

Now, this passage clearly indicates that all authorities in all governments the world over are put into place by God Himself. There is no leader that has his position that God has not willed to have that place of prominence. Therefore, rebellion against these authorities is also direct rebellion against God. In rebelling against our leaders, we are, in essence, shaking our collective fists at God and saying that His choice of a leader for us was bad.

What I find interesting about this passage is the statement that doing what is right will reap a commendation from the one in authority, where doing wrong will reap only terror. Now, granted, this is not always the case. Sometimes doing the right thing will, in fact, earn us an undesirable result, but I do know of stories where someone did the right thing, even under a merciless dictator, and was rewarded for doing so. The principle applies – doing the right thing will usually earn the respect of those in charge.

I do think that this passage supports the notion that we get the leaders we deserve. I think of a country like Iraq, burdened for so long under the cruel government of a murdering dictator. Or Iran, with their continual problems with harsh leaders. This begs the question – would an entire nation that serves a god other than Jehovah naturally find themselves governed by ruthless leaders? Is that why Iran continues to have problems with bloodthirsty authorities? Another question then – would we, as a nation, then be wrong or unjust to interfere with what God has established by removing these leaders from power? Or would that, too, be in God’s will, either by providing a new, hopefully better leadership (i.e. democratic government) or by instituting an equally ruthless dictator (i.e. putting Saddam in power)? Either way it goes, I believe that it still works out in God’s will. He still provides the leadership that the people deserve, for however long that may be.

Ultimately, the admonition is clear and still relevant to today – we submit to God’s appointed authorities, whether they be political, religious, or social, so that we might avoid His judgment but also because it is the only right thing to do. He placed them where they are for our benefit, and as such we are to obey them.

2 thoughts on “Relating to the Powers-That-Be”

  1. And yet there’s so much in the New Testament that’s critical of the powers and principalities – of empires and tyrants. Particularly in Revelation.

    I think it’s overly simplistic to make a quietistic Christian political theology based entirely on that one passage. It’s true, yes, but there are other passages which are in tension with it, and complicate our understanding.

  2. For starters, the passage that immediately comes to mind with reference to powers and principalities is actually referring to the spiritual battle against Satan and his minions, against their deception and power to tempt us to sin.

    And I don’t believe that Paul is saying we should be quiet when our leaders are obviously in the wrong. I believe that the context here indicates that when we are under the wise, judicious leadership of authorities who are clearly within God’s will and not given over to sin, then we are wrong to shake the boat. I do think we are within our Christian obligation to speak up and speak out when our leaders are engaging in sinful, destructive behaviors (though the defining line between what is destructive is sometimes fuzzy, as in the case of our President taking us to war in Iraq).

Have anything to add to the conversation?