Romans (Part 39) – Submitting to Government (12:17–13:14)
Beginning in verse 17 of Romans 12, Paul begins a subtle change to the attitude and action of the Christian to others. The first part of the chapter so far concentrated on the Christian family—people sharing the redemptive transformation of Christ’s atonement. In verse 17, Paul’s “anyone” and “everyone” seems to move beyond other Christians to the world at large. The attitude of anyone realizing fellowship in a close-knit group may become one ofusagainst them, especially when the themengages in persecution against the usas a group. And Paul, realizing this conflict, provides encouragement to live—not based on reaction to how others act—but rather in consistent image-bearing focus from the comprehending of God’s truth, goodness, and beauty (TGB), through its embrace in faith and hope, and then, importantly, in its communication in love. Therefore, Paul calls on us to live at peace, not only with other Christians, but also with everyone (13:18). It is often hard to do so, especially if others have been the cause of severe persecution and harm. But Paul cautions against vengeance, advising to leave the righting of sin’s wrongs to God while offering kindness in exchange for the ill treatment. On the basis of Proverbs 25, Paul suggests doing good—feeding your enemy when he or she is hungry, providing drink when that enemy is thirsty. By doing good, Paul says, you will be heaping fiery coals on their heads.
The heaping of coals is not as odd an activity of kindness as it may at first sound to 21stcentury Christians. Obviously people often carried things on their heads. “Keeping the home fires burning” was an important and necessary activity for any household of first century Palestine. Cooking, of course, as well as washing, bathing, and other activities required heat. You couldn’t simply turn on the gas or plug in the electric heater. You depended on a fire that was kept constantly burning. Starting a fire was no small task; therefore, families took precaution against letting a household’s fire go out. But at times the fire did go out. Instead of getting two sticks to rub together, people would borrow hot (fiery) coals from their neighbors to rekindle their own fires. You took your brazier to a neighbor’s, asking for some hot coals to rekindle your fire much like our more familiar cliched borrowing of a cup of sugar. You put the fiery coals in the brazier and then lifted it to your head to carry home. If your neighbor did you an extra kindness, it would be to add more coals to the brazier now situated on your head (to ensure that the coals would remain hot enough on the walk home to rekindle the fire). Thus, heaping fiery coals on the head is the perfect example of sacrificial giving to provide extra kindness to another. And Paul uses that example here of more intimate neighborly kindness even to the enemy who has done you wrong. In this way, Paul tells us, we are not overcome by the evil of others, but rather, based on our image-bearing communication of love, we overcome evil with good.
We can see Paul’s mind working as we move to chapter 13. Of course, Paul is not the one who inserted the chapter designations in this letter. But sometimes we prepare ourselves for an entirely new theme as we begin a new chapter, when to the writer’s mind, thoughts flow from one idea to the next. Paul had written of relationships within the Christian community and then broadened that focus to include non-Christians as he moved toward the end of chapter 12. In chapter 13, we cannot lose Paul’s same overriding about extending love and living in peace as Paul moves to an even broader inclusion of relationship with government.
We cannot take Romans 13:1–7 as simply a discussion of how we should interact with government. There is too much missing from that theme in those seven verses to think that that is Paul’s intent. Paul begins the passage explaining that everyone must submit to the governing authorities. Is Paul merely issuing a command of absolute requirement as if this is simply another in law to add to the others written in stone? Well, reading through the NT, we find that idea to be highly doubtful. From the Gospels through the letters even to Revelation we read of those in everlasting New Covenant of life urged to live on the basis of the loving communication of God’s TGB. That attitude certainly fulfills the Jeremiah 31-explained shift from a list of commandments to an attitude of life written on the heart. Therefore, we cannot approach Romans 13:1 with an unthinking desire for mere obedient conformity. There is logic, motivation, and purpose for Paul’s statement about government, intent on specific expression of love.
After all, we immediately know that Paul cannot mean this statement absolutely. If governing authorities commanded that we curse God, would we mindlessly obey since Paul did say here to “submit to the governing authorities”? Of course not. But as soon as we begin to recognize that exceptions do exist that force us not to accept the statement as absolute, it is our responsibility to dig more deeply to find out, then, exactly how Paul wants us to read this section and act on it. Bearing context in mind, we need to read into this urge toward submission to relate to the chapter 12 discussion.
Back in chapter 12, Paul had argued against cutting off and ignoring others based on our devotion to God and the image-bearing qualities we learn and undertake for him. We would understand the us-against-them mentality of Christians banding together to treat each other well and the world with contempt. Paul had said not to do that. Now as we turn attention to the government, Paul appears to have this same message: don’t disregard the government just because your citizenship is in heaven. In other words, Paul has been trumpeting the gospel throughout this letter, and the gospel is that contrary to Caesar’s claim, Caesar is not lord; Jesus is Lord! The new Christians in this generation immediately after Christ’s atonement may have taken the message that Jesus is Lord to mean they no longer need to pay attention to the world’s governing authorities. They could proclaim, “We belong to Christ! We owe allegiance only to God. We need not support government with their taxes, honor their officials, or live according to their law.”
But as those thoughts begin galloping on, Paul pulls back on the reins. He does so, not by issuing more commands, but rather he explains that the idea of civil government is a good one. The world is still a sinful, corrupt environment. God did establish governments for the purpose of holding evil in check. When Paul argues in verse 3 that rulers are not a terror to good conduct, he is not putting his head in the sand and ignoring the Hitlers, Stalins, Saddams, and Neros who indeed were terrors even to those of good conduct. His point is not giving his impression of a survey of actual leaders; his point is about the general principle of the institution of government. It was indeed established by God for the protection of the good against the anarchical terror of evil. Yes, there are evil rulers, and God will judge those rulers just as we can read about in Isaiah. But here Paul is not interested in recounting government evils and how government has performed throughout history. Rather, Paul is stating the general principle that his establishment of government is to provide order for the corrupt world. And since that is God’s purpose with government, Christians have no right to simply ignore government on the basis that their citizenship is in heaven and they have no duty or allegiance to government. If we recognize this purpose in Paul’s discussion, we won’t be carried off to misapplied legalistic emphasis, finding everything from participation in the American Revolution to driving 47 in a 45-mile-per-hour speed zone as mounting sins against God. The ethical challenges of those other subjects may be worthy of discussion, but they should not be defended based on Romans 13 since this particular passage is purposed in a different direction.
As Paul concludes the government discussion in verse 8, we see that he is indeed drawing his conclusion based on his subject introduced back in chapter 12 verse 9: the Christian’s activity in love.
And love, Paul argues, has actually always been at the forefront of God’s commands. Israel’s OT laws were established because the world was corrupt. For protection against harm and for impetus toward TGB, God established all those laws which were summed in the Ten Commandments. And even those ten summary commands were gathered by Jesus into two: love God (commands 1–4) and love others (commands 5–10) (Mt 22:37–40). All along Paul had been arguing that the law did not give the Jews everlasting covenant relationship with God. But Paul all along as well insisted that the law was good (Ro 3:31; 7:7, 12). And here Paul confirms that love is the fulfillment of the law (Ro 13:10b).
Paul sums up his discussion of the last two chapters at the end of chapter 13. His point all along is to live as proper image-bearers of God. Here he urges that idea by calling on his readers to wake up, in other words, realize redemption is accomplished and our salvation is near. Of course, the modern American Christian may wonder about Paul’s expression. Weren’t we saved at the time we placed our faith in Christ? What then does Paul mean that our salvation is drawing nearer? The answer is not merely that salvation from sin is finally realized at the Great White Throne, although that does have something to do with it. We need to understand Paul’s perspective that salvation is a putting away of sin and God setting all things right. Paul doesn’t perceive of salvation (as many of us do) as just being saved from an eternal death apart from God. Rather salvation for Paul is salvation from sin—from evil. It is the Romans 8 cry of creation, echoing our own groans to be free from the fleshly influence of sin. (It is not the Gnostic cry to be rid of the flesh but rather from sinful flesh.) And so Paul urges us to give up our flesh-dominating life to live a spirit-dominating life.
Paul lists three pairs of sinful influence resulting in sinful activity. He says not to be influenced by drunkenness to act in carousing, not to be influenced by lust and promiscuity to act in sexual impurity, and not to be influenced by arrogant jealousy to act in quarreling. Those three influences resulting in sinful activity are the three influences that have plagued humankind since the Garden. The lust of the flesh goes after goodness apart from God (Eve “saw that the tree was good for food”); the lust of the eyes goes after beauty apart from God (Eve “saw that the tree was . . . delightful to look at”); and the pride of life goes after truth apart from God (Eve “saw that the tree was . . . desirable for obtaining wisdom”). And it was because of these influences that “she took some of its fruit and ate it” (Ge 3:6).
Paul urges us to leave off these works of darkness and to put on Christ. The putting on of Christ is the considering of our own corrupt, evil-influencing bodies of flesh as dead (Ro 6:11) and putting on (clothing ourselves with) the new, resurrected, sin-freed body of Christ.