Have there ever been laws you disagreed with or were tempted to disobey? Have you ever disagreed with decisions your government made? The 1960s and 1970s were years of political upheaval in the United States of America. An enormous number of Americans were opposed to the Vietnam War. Many returning soldiers didn’t receive a hero’s welcome as they had in previous wars. Draft dodgers were prevalent; many going to Canada to escape the draft.
Paul’s instructions lead to questions for reflection. Is it ever permissible to disobey government authorities? Is it permissible to protest what we feel is wrong? Should we carry signs in front of abortion clinics? Should we kill abortion doctors? Is it permissible to protest at GI funerals because we don’t believe in involvement in the particular war or military action? Do the means always justify the ends?
Our Responsibility to Obey the Government (vv. 1-7)
Paul maintains believers are responsible for obeying the government. He does not deal with any exceptions here, but there are other examples that remind us our obedience to God must take precedence over our obedience to the government when the two are at odds. When Peter and the apostles were arrested for preaching about Jesus and commanded not to do so again, they replied that they must obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29).
There are three popular interpretations of how we obey Paul’s command. One is that government is so corrupt Christians should have as little interaction with it as possible. This doesn’t mean we should not be good citizens but working for the government, voting, and serving in the military should be avoided.
A second position is that God has given government authority in certain areas and the church authority in others, and they should not be confused. This may apply to our philosophy and law regarding separation of church and state. Our responsibility is to obey both. Church and government do not work together but rather complement each other.
In considering this position, we would do well to investigate the background of separation of church and state in the history of the United States of America. Regardless of what some interpreters of history maintain, most of the founding fathers were religious individuals. It was never in their mind that the government should have no involvement in religion or be opposed to it. The background was set against the church in England or anywhere else where citizens were taxed to support the state church whether they were associated with it or not. Our founders wanted freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. We have confused the two.
A final position maintains believers should work to improve the government. Instead of a hands-off policy, we need to be very involved. We can run for office or stump for those who hold Christian beliefs. We can also take Jesus’ words to be salt and light and apply them here. None of the views advocate rebellion against government authorities unless laws require us to disobey God’s laws.
The reason for our obedience is because God has established government. Does this mean God established governments of such dictators like Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin? If we believe God is in total control, we would at least have to maintain he could have prevented their rise to power if he so chose. The why of why he allowed it is no different than the age-old question of why God doesn’t prevent sin and its evils if he could. And there is really no adequate answer in all respects. In some way—a way we don’t fully understand—evil serves the overall purpose of God.
Rather than saying God establishes particular governments—because many are and have been very corrupt—we might say he established the institution of government. This relieves God of actually authoring governments that kill, maim, and reflect standards that are the opposite of his. That he could prevent them if he desired keeps us in line with God’s control over all matters. Paul says all governments have been placed in power by God. So to disobey the government is to disobey God unless the laws of the first conflict with the second.
In a nutshell, government is designed by God to reward those who live righteously and punish those who commit evil. Of course, it is also God’s plan that governments make laws that reflect his standards. This is why we have justification to disobey when they don’t. God is our highest authority and the one we are ultimately responsible to.
It is certainly a believer’s responsibility to be involved to some degree in government. Voting is our obligation and a significant means by which we can be involved in having officials elected who represent God’s ideals. Government also comforts us. When they reflect God’s purpose, they protect those who are obeying and punish those who aren’t. Instead of chaos, we have law enforcement to uphold the laws of the government which protect us in the process. Courts pass sentence on those who disregard the laws of the land. Fines are paid as a deterrent as well as jail time served.
When governments uphold just standards, it places fear in people who think of disobeying. Having laws doesn’t prevent crime, but it does deter it from being as bad as it would be if there were no laws. It is similar to the fear instilled in children when their parents have house rules that if disobeyed will result in some form of discipline. The rules serve as a deterrent. Letting people do whatever they choose leads to anarchy and chaos because of the sinful nature we possess from birth. Sinful natures lead humans to steal, lie, cheat, murder, lust, and covet.
Even if everyone in the world was a Christian, we would still need governments because none of us is perfect in our attitudes, thoughts, or actions. Perfect government will only be found in heaven, but peaceful coexistence comes when people obey government authorities who have based their laws on God’s standards.
Paul gives two reasons to obey the government: to avoid punishment and to keep a clear conscience. Punishment has already been discussed, but how does obedience lead to a clear conscience? We have the satisfaction of knowing we are obeying God.
Paying taxes is a part of this obedience. Few people think taxes are fair and even fewer enjoy paying them. We often complain there are too many and they are too high. But it is through the tax process that government can exist and provide the services we enjoy and benefit from. Things like fire protection, rescue services, law enforcement, courts services, road services, and schools. They also make possible relief services for those in poverty. Additionally, we should honor and respect government officials because they represent and oversee something God has established.
We Are Responsible for Paying the Debt of Love (vv. 8-10)
All debts must be paid except the debt of love. We can never repay God for his love toward us in Christ. Since we serve Christ by serving others, loving others becomes a continual debt we work toward paying off—but realize we never will. God never stops loving us, and we must never stop loving others.
Paul maintains every commandment of God can be obeyed when we love our neighbors as ourselves. Loving our neighbor takes the focus from us and puts it on others. When others become our concern, we won’t do things God forbids. Paul gives examples. We will not murder, lie, steal, covet, or commit adultery against someone we truly love.
But there is another important point in the command. We love others as we love ourselves. Self-love is not forbidden, but must simply be conceived correctly. We can love ourselves because God loves us and has created us in his image. But it is not selfish love. We love ourselves and God so we can adequately know how to love others. Even the person with low self-esteem will usually eat, clothe themselves, exercise, ensure they have a place to stay, avoid being cheated and lied to, and avoid injury. When we love others, we will work to see they have the same needs met, and we will avoid harming them. Love always goes the extra mile.
From here Paul begins to discuss the lateness of the hour and the importance of right living. The Home Alone movies were some of my favorites. I think they accurately portray what a young boy would do if his parents left him home alone, whether on purpose or accidentally. In the first two movies, the family is about to embark on a family vacation when they oversleep. When they finally wake up and realize they only have a short time to get to the airport, the scenes are amusing. Everyone is running around. Confusion reigns. But they make it on time.
There have been a few occasions when I’ve overslept because the clock didn’t alarm. I would suddenly awake, look at the time with a confusing stare, make sure in my mind this was really a day I was supposed to go to work, and then jump up and feel as if I was behind the remainder of the day. For others, being late is more of a habit than an occasional occurrence. Sometimes we miss important things by being late. Like the door prize we had to be present to win, but we showed up late after our name had been announced.
Don’t shirk your responsibilities.