Sunday, July 30, 2006

Governments: established by God. Really?

In Romans chapter 13, Paul talks about governments. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Roman police practices: blame and arrest the victim, and flog him if you want to find out what's going on. Umm, and the victim in that case was Paul.

So what do you suppose Paul is going to say about governments here? Let's see:
The authorities that exist have been established by God ... 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. For he is God's servant to do you good.
from Romans 13.1-4
So what's going on here? It's not quite obvious, is it?

But is it obvious what I'm going to say next? To figure what's going on at the beginning of chapter 13, let's look at the end of chapter 12. (I remember hearing Ray Stedman teaching on some passage of scripture, and he reminded us that the chapter and verse markings were all additions made by some scribe hundreds of years after the fact. He also commented that "somebody put a great big '2' in the middle of this paragraph" iirc.)

So, ignoring the great big '13' that somebody put here, the flow of thought seems to be:
  • Bless those who persecute you....
  • Live in harmony with one another
  • Don't be proud
  • Don't be conceited
  • Don't repay evil for evil
  • If it's possible, live at peace with everyone
  • Do not take revenge...
  • On the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him, etc.
  • Don't be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
  • Everyone must submit to the authorities, which have been established by God
  • If you rebel against the authority, you rebel against God ...
(from Romans 12.14 - 13.2)

Twice he says to live in harmony (or "live at peace"). I believe therefore that these paragraphs about governments are part of the larger theme of living in harmony, doing what's right in others' eyes, blessing those who persecute you, etc. As such, he can say what the government is supposed to be doing (judging justly, commending those who do right, etc.)

Also, Paul may have seen the Roman system as mostly working for him. When he was about to get flogged by that commander in Acts 22, he was after all able to get the guy to listen. He also got his trial moved by appealing to Caesar. And if memory serves, he was exonerated at that time.

Finally, as far as what we're supposed to do or not do, consider that Paul is talking about rebelling:
The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted....
from Romans 13.1-2
so the main practical application is that we mustn't rebel against the authorities, but we should do what is right.

That seems to include paying taxes we don't agree with.

Well, as my friend Jim says, "that's why it's a command." What he means by that is that God wouldn't have to tell me to do something if it comes naturally to me anyway; a command is needed when it's something I wouldn't do on my own. And these things seem to be hard, too.

Nothing easy is worthwhile, is it?

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