Romans 13 has introduced two phrases to the world that seem to pull in different directions – at least in the way they are used.
On the one hand we have “the powers that be.” We commonly use this phrase to describe nameless authorities handing down impersonal judgements:
– “Apparently, in their infinite wisdom, the powers that be have decided to scrap the old policy…”
Faceless bureaucrats or untouchable rulers are “the powers that be.” They are undefined in number, but definitely more than one (it’s not “the power that is”!) We feel like they are answerable to no-one. They are the powers. And they seem, immovably, to be so. What is worse, Paul tells us to submit unquestioningly to them!
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same.” (Romans 13:1-3)
Here is proof that Paul sometimes uses “damnation” and “wrath” in temporal ways. Governments might sentence you to prison, or even to execution, but they cannot sentence you to hell. Nonetheless there is a temporal respect to be paid to temporal rulers who hold temporal powers of punishment over us. And such an arrangement is not outside of God’s sovereignty – “the powers that be are ordained of God!”
Oh dear – we might think – is Paul giving carte blanche to despots everywhere? Is he putting the seal of God’s authority onto every tyranny that asserts itself?
Well consider the other influence Romans 13 has had on our language. Paul continues…
“For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.” (Romans 13:4-7)
The true status of a ruler is “minister”, i.e. “servant”. In the West we are used to considering our politicians as “ministers” and our chief ruler as Prime Minister. But such thinking should not be taken for granted – it is a deeply Christian conviction. There’s nothing obvious about considering a ruler to be a servant and in non-Christian cultures the people have suffered for it.
And so Romans 13 actually provides a profound challenge to the powers that be. They are not ultimate powers at all. They are servants in the truest sense, and servants with a strictly limited scope – to execute temporal judgements on wrong-doers. There is an honour to be given them, but an honour in proportion to what is “due”.
Thus the citizen reading Romans 13 is challenged to look beyond temporal rulers to God and His sovereign ordination. They are to render what is due to rulers, and not because they agree with them. In all likelihood the ruler on the throne as Paul wrote this was Nero! Yet even with such a despot, Paul calls them to live peaceably. As he writes in 1 Timothy 2:
“I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and 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. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1-4)
The truly revolutionary work, at which Christians should labour, is prayer and evangelism (notice how closely the peaceable life is linked to God’s desire for salvation to spread). This is the work of the kingdom that outlasts all the powers that be. That should be our focus.
But for the rulers reading Romans 13 there is also great challenge. They are not to “lord it over” the people. They are to be servants. Because all rulers must take their cue from the King of kings:
“Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)