Romans 13 Again?

This past Sunday I had the privilege of preaching at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Fresh Meadows in Queens, NY.  I had the opportunity to see with my own eyes the fruit of Pastor Brad Hertzog’s labors.  It was a beautiful thing to gather with the saints in that school auditorium and worship our great and loving triune God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  What I was especially impressed with was the fact that in this congregation of the Lord were saints from several tribes, and tongues, and peoples.  It is a microcosm of the church worldwide.  It was good to be with the Lord’s people in his house on his day.

I had the opportunity to preach from Romans 13:1-7 which is, to put it mildly, a hard saying of the apostle Paul.  As we study God’s Word we discover that the so-called “hard sayings” are hard because they are either (1) hard to understand and so it takes much prayer-bathed mental effort to figure the meaning of the saying or (2) it is altogether clear what the meaning is but it is hard to implement or obey.  I believe this passage on the relationship of Christians to government falls under the second category.

I unpacked the passage under four headings:  Paul’s exhortation, the rationale for Paul’s exhortation, the limits of Paul’s exhortation, and the power to obey Paul’s exhortation.  I summarized the sermon this way:  Romans 13:1-7 is a hard saying.  God speaking through the apostle Paul tells us to be subject to government officials because they are divinely appointed.  And we are called to this whether or not these officials are just.  We learned that God established government to encourage good behavior and to punish bad.  We also learned that Paul’s exhortation is not absolute in that governments have been known to forbid what God commands and to command what God forbids and when we face such circumstances we must respectfully disobey these unjust demands.  In the end, we discovered that God not only commands this but also enables his children to do this by the Spirit working with his word conforming us to the Son and following the example of Jesus himself.

Following the morning service we had a spirited adult Sunday School class where we looked at Westminster Confession of Faith 23 on the civil magistrate.  The subject matter was intentionally chosen to allow us to discuss what was preached in the sermon.  The class was wonderfully interactive.  It is clear from personal conversations, from articles and web posts, that this is a hot button issue.  It should be noted that Paul’s exhortation does not prevent Christians in America from participating in the political process.  It does, however, constrain us to put forth our arguments in a loving and respectful manner when we enter the marketplace of ideas.

Preaching on Romans 13:1-7 in New York City has got me thinking.  How does something like Romans 13:1-7 sit with, for instance,  the American revolution?  It would seem to suggest that the American Revolution was against God’s preceptive or revealed will.  And that may in fact be the case.  However, it is a complex question.  And it hits home for me.  My sixth-great grandfather was Robert Morris, superintendent of finance during the American Revolution and signer of the Declaration of Independence, so this is no mere academic question.  I would have to give this further thought.  It seems to me that a case could be made for the legitimacy of the revolution based upon the relationship of lower to higher magistrates.  Did the colonies have de facto self-rule before the revolution?  I think so.  But there is room for much further research and thought given to this matter.  It is similar to the question that arose in this country with the Civil War.  Gardner Spring presented a resolution in 1861 calling for all PCUSA officers to take an oath of allegiance to the federal government and Abraham Lincoln.  The passing of the resolution led to the north-south split in the PCUSA.  Not all northerners favored this resolution.  Charles Hodge, for one, argued that it was inappropriate for the church to demand that church officers take an oath of allegiance to a specific political leader.  Romans 13 calls for Christians to submit to magistrates because God himself has established them and they are his ministers for our good, but in the case of a factional dispute or in the case of a dispute between magistrates in a federated form of government, who is the  magistrate to whom we owe obedience? It is not at all obvious.

All of this is to say that Romans 13:1-7 is clear.  Christians must be subject to those in authority.  How Christians obey Paul’s exhortation, however, may take different forms depending upon the form of government under which a Christian finds himself.  In this country Christians can peacefully and meaningfully participate in the political process as conscience dictates.  In other countries this may not be the case.  In both cases the Christian is called to be obedient to magistrates.  May God give us the wisdom to apply this passage rightly and courage to obey when we would rather do otherwise.

3 Responses

  1. Pingback : Tweets that mention Romans 13 Again? - Feeding on Christ -- Topsy.com

  2. Scott A. Treloar

    Well said, Jeff. I am finding in my own reading that the Bible is clear. However, our application of those truths in our sinful lives really muddies the waters.
    I wonder how much of our thoughts on these matters is governed by our understanding of covenant, God’s sovereignty, His decrees, eschatology, and other theological perspectives. Perhaps much of our confusion is a result of an inconsistent exegesis of Scripture and lack of clarity in our thinking through these matters. It seems to me that being a confessional church can help with some of the questions but even in Reformed circles there is still much debate.

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