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Prayer, Submission, and Our New President

by Greg Williamson (c) 2009

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 UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED, ALL SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS

ARE FROM THE New American Standard Bible.

 NOTE: HOVER POINTER OVER BIBLE REFERENCES FOR POP-UPS

 

 

 
INTRODUCTION

On Tuesday, January 20, 2009 Barack Hussein Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America. For his supporters it was an occasion soliciting much adulation. For Obama's critics, however, it was somewhat otherwise (to put it mildly). For everyone it marked the beginning of a time of much uncertainty.

 

In his comments on the apostle Paul's call for Christians to submit to the governing authorities (see below), J. Vernon McGee defends our form of government while indicting corrupt leaders who see it as little more than a custom made tool for pushing personal agendas and furthering political careers.

 
 

It is very difficult to say that we are to obey a corrupt government. I am not impressed by these men -- preacher or politician -- who are running up the American flag and singing the national anthem as promotion for themselves. And behind it is corruption. ... There is corruption in government from the top to the bottom, and it is not confined to one party. These unsaved, godless men who are in positions of government actually do not understand the American system. You see, the men who made our laws had a Bible background. ... However, in our day the government is corrupt. I go to the civic centers in our cities, and I see fine buildings, costing millions of dollars, which have been built by contractors who are friends of the politicians. Also I see poverty areas. While both parties talk about eliminating poverty, the poverty remains. Oh, corruption is there. Whatís wrong? Well, the thing wrong is the human heart.

 

What is the Christian to do? My business is to get out the Word of God, and my business is to obey the law. That is what Paul is saying [in Romans 13:1-7]. Christianity is not a movement to improve government or to help society clean up the town. It is to preach a gospel that is the power of God unto salvation which will bring into existence individuals like the men who signed the Declaration of Independence and gave us a government of laws.

 

My friend, nothing is wrong with our form of government; there is something wrong with the individuals who are in positions of power. A professor in the history department of the University of Michigan summed it up well when he said, "America is in the hands of those who do not understand the spiritual heritage that we have." [ref]

While the precise extent to which Christians should work to improve society is a matter of much debate, McGee's is a much-needed reminder that a Christian's full allegiance is to God alone and his/her top priority should be the Gospel. It may just be time for Christians (of every variety) living in America to face the hard truth that we have allowed ourselves to be seduced into relying on power, wealth, and political influence. [ref] Is it then any wonder that we are now facing a society-wide crisis involving our economy and the leaders of our government? Is it any wonder that we now have a President who is an ultraliberal supporter of abortion, gay wrongs, and a socialistic form of government? We must stop putting our trust in people, plans, and policies, and instead commit to the hard work of praying and sharing the Gospel. Our only real hope, and the only change we can really believe in, is for God to have mercy on America and turn our hearts toward him.

 

All that is not to say, however, that we should throw up our hands in despair and quit the American political process altogether -- as tempting as that may be at times. The main point is that we are never to put our ultimate hope and trust in human government or look to human leaders to create a utopian society. It is a balancing act, to be sure, but one made necessary by the fact that ours is a representative form of government dependent upon its citizenry for the promotion of truth, justice, and liberty. As one theologian has put it: "[W]e must be careful to avoid making a Messiah out of any ruler or state between now and the eschaton. ... We should be active as much as possible in political solutions, but we should always keep a certain emotional and ideological distance, knowing that the ultimate political solution to every human problem will be riding a white horse (Rev. 19:11), and he will not need the 'evangelical vote.'" [ref] Notice the Bible says that our Savior will be mounted on a white horse ("a symbol of Christís triumph over the forces of wickedness in the world" [ref]) -- not moving into the White House.

 
PRAY FOR ALL MEN
 

1 TIMOTHY 2:1-7

New American Standard Bible

New English Translation (NET)

New Living Translation

(1) First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, (1) First of all, then, I urge that requests, prayers, intercessions, and thanks be offered on behalf of all people, (1) I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. 
(2) for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. (2) even for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. (2) Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. .
(3) This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior,  (3) Such prayer for all is good and welcomed before God our Savior, (3) This is good and pleases God our Savior,
(4) who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (4) since he wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (4) who wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth.
(5) For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, (5) For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human, (5) For there is only one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity -- the man Christ Jesus.
(6) who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time. (6) who gave himself as a ransom for all, revealing Godís purpose at his appointed time.

(6) He gave his life to purchase freedom for everyone. This is the message God gave to the world at just the right time.

(7) For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying) as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.  (7) For this I was appointed a preacher and apostle -- I am telling the truth; I am not lying -- and a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

(7) And I have been chosen as a preacher and apostle to teach the Gentiles this message about faith and truth. Iím not exaggerating -- just telling the truth.

 

Beginning in the days and weeks leading up to Barack Obama's inauguration, prominent Christian leaders have been calling for the faithful to be in prayer for our new President, often times referencing the apostle Paul's exhortation to pray for "all who are in authority" (1 Timothy 2:2). Such calls have not come without dissent, however, due mainly to the fact that our new President's agenda -- both past and present -- is in many ways very much anti-Christian (see here and here).

 

The remainder of the verse noted above tells why we are to pray for our leaders: "so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity." The meaning is not that Christians are to live lazy, unproductive, self-centered lives. Rather, as the next few verses make clear, "the idea is this: freedom from disturbances, such as wars and persecutions, will facilitate the spread of the gospel of salvation in Christ to the glory of God," including allowing Christians to demonstrate the life-changing impact of the Gospel by living morally upright, respectable lives before their ever-watching neighbors. [ref] One source applies a slightly different, but appropriate, interpretation: "The text should read, 'That we may lead a quiet and peaceable life with the utmost reverence and respect.' This respect is for governmental authority. Respect can best be realized when rulers are competent and rightly discharging their duties. Otherwise, it is difficult to respect rulers when they are incompetent and unjust." [ref]

 

Another source notes some helpful historical detail regarding praying for those in authority:

 
  The Romans permitted subject peoples to worship their own gods, but they had to show their loyalty to Rome by also worshiping the goddess Roma and the spirit of the emperor. Because Jewish people worshiped one God to the exclusion of all others, Rome allowed them to pray and sacrifice for the emperorís health without praying and sacrificing to him. Prayers were offered for him regularly in the synagogues, showing the loyalty of these Jewish institutions to the Roman state. When the Zealots decided to throw off the Roman yoke "for God," however, they abolished the sacrifices in the temple. This act in A.D. 66 constituted a virtual declaration of war against Rome, several years after Paul wrote [1 Timothy]. [ref]

 

In 1 Timothy 2:4 we are told that God desires all men -- yes, even pagan rulers -- "to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth." And so as regards both President Obama and all our other government officials, we are to pray -- with prayers that are "specific, reverently brought to God, bold, and grateful" [ref] -- that they not be allowed to persecute or harass the Church, and that they come to a personal, saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. The other side of that coin, of course, is the sobering responsibility every Christian has to proclaim the Gospel in both word and deed. Lest we ever forget, the increasingly popular notion that there are many paths to God is patently false, as 1 Timothy 2:5 makes clear: "For there is only one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity -- the man Christ Jesus" (NLT).

 
THE GOVERNING AUTHORITIES

First Timothy 2:1-7 deals with public worship in the larger context of "the relation of the church to the state." [ref] What is said there must be weighed against what is taught elsewhere in Scripture regarding our Christian responsibility to submit to the governing authorities, as well as to challenge those same authorities if and when their laws contradict God's. Certainly we should avoid the let-us-rally-around-the-President-for-the-good-of-the-country approach advocated by some of President Obama's supporters (although, it might be added, not during President Bush's time in office). At the same time, we must not lose sight of the fact that God can, will, and does use even pagan rulers to bring about his good and perfect will.

 

"The key New Testament passage on the subject" of a Christian's responsibilities toward the governmental authorities is Romans 13:1-7. [ref] (Other passages include 1 Timothy 2:1-4; Titus 3:1; and 1 Peter 2:13-17.)

 

ROMANS 13:1-7

New American Standard Bible

New English Translation (NET)

New Living Translation

(1) Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. (1) Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by Godís appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. (1) Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God.
(2) Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. (2) So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment (2) So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished.
(3) For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; (3) (for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation, (3) For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you.
(4) for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.  (4) for it is Godís servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is Godís servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer. (4) The authorities are Godís servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are Godís servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong.
(5) Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience' sake. (5) Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience. (5) So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience.
(6) For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. (6) For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are Godís servants devoted to governing.

(6) Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons. For government workers need to be paid. They are serving God in what they do.

(7) Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.

(7) Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

(7) Give to everyone what you owe them: Pay your taxes and government fees to those who collect them, and give respect and honor to those who are in authority.

 

A Vital Issue

Submission to the governing authorities is an issue of perennial concern. Bible commentator of yesteryear Albert Barnes (1798-1870) suggested several practical reasons it was such a pressing issue for the early Church -- reasons that remain relevant for today's Christian: [ref]

  • In a very real sense, the Gospel amounts to establishing a (spiritual/heavenly) kingdom within a (material/earthly) kingdom, which necessarily involves conflict and questions of ultimate allegiance.

  • Worldly kingdoms or governments are typically pagan in both origin and orientation. To what extent should Christians acknowledge and abide by their laws?

  • Because of their anti-Roman mindset, "there was danger that the 'Jewish' converts might prove to be disorderly and rebellious citizens of the empire." [ref] This was a very real concern. About ten years before Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans, all Jews were (temporarily) expelled from Rome "due to unrest within the Jewish community about Christianity." [ref] And about ten years after Paul's letter, there was the Jewish revolt that led to the eventual destruction of Jerusalem. "Revolutionary movements were a Jewish response to the injustice of Israelís oppressors, particularly the Roman Empire. The first century was one of the most violent epochs of Jewish history, with the cauldron of unrest reaching its apex in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70." [ref]

  • "[N]or was the case much different with the 'Gentile' converts. They would naturally look with abhorrence on the system of idolatry which they had just forsaken. They would regard all as opposed to God. They would denounce the 'religion' of the pagans as abomination; and as that religion was interwoven with the civil institutions, there was danger also that they might denounce the government altogether, and be regarded as opposed to the laws of the land." [ref] Today the last two points apply particularly within communist, Muslim, and other countries with a government openly hostile toward the Christian faith.

  • At times it is right and necessary for Christians to resist the government. When, for example, the civil "laws interfered with the rights of conscience; when they commanded the worship of idols, or any moral wrong, then it was [the Christians'] duty to refuse submission." [ref]

  • Human governments change over time, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. What part should Christians play in a given form of government? Should they seek political office and work from within the system to change it? Should they peacefully demonstrate against certain laws and policies? Should they ever in any way encourage an overthrow of the government?

A General Principle

"Paul is not arguing for the divine right of kings or for any special form of government, but for government and order. Nor does he oppose here revolution for a change of government, but he does oppose all lawlessness and disorder." [ref] Paul presents a general principle of submission to authority. The "subjection" of which he speaks "denotes that kind of submission which soldiers render to their officers. It implies 'subordination;' a willingness to occupy our proper place, to yield to the authority of those over us. The word used here does not designate the 'extent' of the submission, but merely enjoins it in general." [ref] Paul has in mind not so much specific rulers as the authority of human government -- the right to rule -- which is established or ordained by God.

 

"'Submission' is the recognition of the sovereignty of God over all the affairs of this world and over our own individual involvement in it." [ref] There seems to be a subtle but important point made in Paul's choice of "submit" (/"be subject"/"be in subjection") rather than "obey" (Romans 13:1, 5),** which is a stronger term, in that "the believer may find it impossible to comply with every demand of the government. A circumstance may arise in which he must choose between obeying God and obeying men (Acts 5:29). But even then he must be submissive to the extent that, if his Christian convictions do not permit his compliance, he will accept the consequences of his refusal." [ref] Hence "Paulís demand that Christians submit to government means simply that they recognize governmentís rightful place within the hierarchy of relationships established by God, a hierarchy at whose pinnacle is God. When, therefore, government usurps its place, and commands us to do something contrary to our ultimate Lord, we are free -- indeed obliged -- to disobey." [ref] This idea fits well with the New Testament's command to submit in the context of other relationships: slavery, in which the slave was to submit to his/her master (with employment often cited as a modern equivalent); marriage, in which the wife is to submit to her husband;  and the local church, in which members are to submit to their church leaders. In all these situations, submission has more to do with self-giving love than power and status. [ref] {** HCSB, NIV, NLT = "submit"; ESV, ISV, KJV & NKJV, NASB, NET, RSV & NRSV = "be subject"/"be in subjection"}

 

"God established human government because man is a sinner and must have some kind of authority over him." [ref] While this is true, it is important to note that the very first instance of government came prior to the fall of Adam and Eve. Governing authority is God's providential provision for humankind, as first seen in God's sharing of his authority via his mandate for humanity to govern God's good earth (Genesis 1:28). Fundamental to God's commission is the fact that humanity is created in his image. As one theologian has noted: "As the image of God, man is divinely authorized to serve as his representative (not representation) and charged to function as his deputy (cf. Gen 1:26-28; Psalm 8). According to Genesis 1 and 2, man was endowed with the needed qualities to govern creation on God's behalf as he would were he personally and physically present." [ref]

 

The next example of governance comes after the flood, when God re-commissions humanity (in the form of Noah and his family) to rule over the earth (Genesis 9:1-7). This time around capital punishment is added in recognition of the fact that humanity is created in the image of God: "If anyone takes a human life, that personís life will also be taken by human hands. For God made human beings in his own image" (Genesis 9:6, NLT). This is often cited as the first example of human government. For example: "In essence, then, this covenant [with Noah] was established to ensure the stability of nature. It helped guarantee the order of the world. People would also learn that human law was necessary for the stability of life and that wickedness should not go unchecked as it had before. So human government was brought in." [ref]

 

Specific examples of God's people submitting to and/or supporting the existing government include the following.

  • Moses was adopted by the pharaohs' daughter and raised as a member of the royal Egyptian family.

  • David chose to endure tremendous personal hardship rather than take the life of King Saul.

  • Hadassah/Esther "was raised up as an instrument in the hand of God to avert the destruction of the Jewish people, and to afford them protection and forward their wealth and peace in their captivity." [ref]

  • The exiled Israelites were told to pray for the welfare of the city where God had sent them, because "in its welfare you will have welfare" (Jeremiah 29:7).

  • King Darius commanded that the Jews be allowed to "offer acceptable sacrifices to the God of heaven and pray for the life of the king and his sons" (Ezra 6:10).

  • Daniel and other Jewish men were made officials within the very government that had taken them captive (Daniel 1:1-7).

  • Both Jesus and his apostles commanded submission to pagan governing authorities (Mark 12:17; Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17).

  • And of course such has also been the historic position of the Christian Church. 

That said, we should also recall that both the Bible and Church history are replete with examples of believers who disobeyed the civil authorities in order to obey God -- and sometimes paid a very high price for doing so. 

 

Albert Barnes offers a comment that seems especially poignant in light of our current political situation:

 
  Doubtless, [Paul] here [in Romans 13:1] intends also to repress the vain curiosity and agitation with which men are prone to inquire into the 'titles' of their rulers; to guard them from the agitation and conflicts of party, and of contentions to establish a favorite on the throne. It might be that those in power had not a proper title to their office; that they had secured it, not according to justice, but by oppression; but into that question Christians were not to enter. The government was established, and they were not to seek to overturn it. [ref]

 

While America's system of government does not include a king and a throne, there certainly is everything else: a national leader; parties and party politics; and election results that many see as the unjust result of deceit and manipulation. None of that, however, changes the fact that, as a general rule or principle, Christians are to submit to the governing authorities, and not seek to overturn them through violence or other illegal means.

 

We might pause here to note that the peaceful replacement of government officials via lawful practices such as elections, impeachment, etc., does not represent a violation of the Bible's command to submit to the governing authorities. While "Christians are never under subjection to injustice or a government of wickedness," [ref] our weapons for fighting against such are the Gospel, prayer, the legislative process and, if need be, peaceful protest. As one source puts it: "At the very least, under circumstances involving a collapse of justice, the Christian community is obliged to voice its criticism of the state's failure, pointing out the deviation from the divinely ordained pattern. Subjection to the state is not to be confused with unthinking, blind, docile conformity." [ref]

 

Are we to submit to laws that are contrary to God's will as revealed in his inspired, authoritative Word, the Bible? Absolutely not. In fact, the answer to that question is so obvious that Paul does not even address it here in Romans 13:1-7. Rather, Paul here lays out a general principle of submission in order to counter a general attitude of rebellion. We need only recall that Paul is writing to Christians in Rome -- the seat of the imperial Roman government somewhat analogous to our Washington D.C. -- where emperors often came to power through dishonest means.

 
  At the time in which [Paul] wrote this Epistle, the Roman Empire was agitated with civil dissensions. One emperor followed another in rapid succession. The throne was often seized, not by right, but by crime. Different claimants would rise, and their claims would excite controversy. The object of the apostle was to prevent Christians from entering into those disputes, and from taking an active part in a political controversy. Besides, the throne had been 'usurped' by the reigning emperors, and there was a prevalent disposition to rebel against a tyrannical government. Claudius had been put to death by poison; Caligula in a violent manner; Nero was a tyrant; and amidst these agitations, and crimes, and revolutions, the apostle wished to guard Christians from taking an active part in political affairs. [ref]

 

Our system of self-governance via elected officials is certainly not perfect. As witnessed by the recent election results, charismatic politicians promising the moon and stars actually stand a good chance of getting elected, particularly when the voting public is more concerned with its bank account than with the moral and spiritual freefall in which our country finds itself. That said, however, it remains a system that is basically fair: it is still one citizen, one vote. If we strongly disagree with the current majority party's policies, we are free to vote those party officials out of office during the next election cycle. What's more, we remain free to voice our dissent to our elected officials in hopes of preventing, or at least lessening the impact of, particular pieces of legislation.

 

A Minister of God

Paul refers to the civil government as:

  • "established by God" (v. 1) -- Greek tasso: "'to place in order, arrange,' signifies 'ďto appoint.'" [ref]

  • "the ordinance  of God" (v. 2) -- Greek diatage: "order, a disposition, ordinance, appointment." [ref]

  • "a minister of God to you for good ... a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath" (v. 4) -- Greek diakonos: "a person who renders service -- 'servant.'" [ref] This is also the source for our word "deacon."

  • "servants of God" (v. 6) -- Greek leitourgos: "denoted among the Greeks, firstly, 'one who discharged a public office at his own expense,' then, in general, 'a public servant, minister.'" [ref]

Civil government has been established by God, and hence government leaders are "ministers" or servants of God "[i]n the administration of public justice, the determining of quarrels, the protecting of the innocent, the righting of the wronged, the punishing of offenders, and the preserving of national peace and order, that every man may not do what is right in his own eyes." [ref] But the fact that civil government is God's servant also means it is not God -- that is to say, it is not infallible. [ref] We cannot blame God for bad rulers or bad decisions; God is no more the cause of bad leadership than the modern automobile is the cause of death when a drunken driven is at the wheel. And of course God's using sinful human government to accomplish his righteous purposes is no more unusual than his choosing us very imperfect human-beings to accomplish his perfect will.

 

Despite repeated biblical injunctions to seek God and his will above all else, in many ways and on many levels we in America have turned away from God and his inspired, authoritative Word, the Bible. In its place we have substituted secular humanism, atheism, paganism, and a host of false religions and failed philosophies. In one respect we really cannot blame our political leaders, as they are simply thermometers that register the national temperature: if they are anti-Christian, it is because to a large extent America has become anti-Christian. When we experience repentance and revival all across our country, a positive change in the makeup of our national political leadership will be but one of the positive results.

 

That is not to let corrupt leadership off the hook, as it were. As servants of God, our elected leaders have a profound responsibility to promote good and punish evil -- as God alone defines those concepts. And while voters may choose not to hold politicians accountable for failing to do so -- and indeed may reward them for doing the very opposite -- we can rest assured that one day the Lord God Almighty will settle all accounts. As regards the citizenry, we are responsible to abide by the civil laws -- unless and until they direct us to do what is contrary to the clear teaching of God's Word. What's more, unlike the Roman citizenry of Paul's day, the U.S. citizenry has a profound responsibility to participate in the law-making process: we are to elect leaders; we are to monitor their efforts in creating and enforcing laws; and we are to call them to task if and when they fail to promote good and punish evil. This is what it means to be a self-governing society. While we do not put our ultimate trust in any human institution, nonetheless Christians are to take their civic duties very seriously.

 

Taxes

Paul unequivocally states that taxes ("tribute" in the KJV) are to be paid (Romans 13:6-7). Note the historical context:

 
  "Tribute" properly denotes the "tax," or annual compensation, which was paid by one province or nation to a superior, as the price of protection, or as an acknowledgment of subjection. The Romans made all conquered provinces pay this "tribute;" and it would become a question whether it was "right" to acknowledge this claim, and submit to it. Especially would this question be agitated by the Jews and by Jewish Christians. But on the principle which the apostle had laid down (Romans 13:1-2), it was right to do it, and was demanded by the very purposes of government. In a larger sense, the word "tribute" means any tax paid on land or personal estate for the support of the government. [ref]

 

Paul actually refers to two types of taxes in place at the time. "Taxes," "tax" (Greek phoros, Romans 13:6-7) was "a payment made by the people of one nation to another," symbolizing "submission and dependence." [ref] This tax was "imposed upon persons and their property annually." [ref] "Custom" (Greek telos, Romans 13:7) was "usually levied on merchandise and travelers," [ref] and was collected on the local level by notoriously corrupt tax collectors or "publicans."

 

Many people considered the tax collection business of Paul's day nothing short of evil.

 
 

A Jew entering the customs service cut himself off from decent society. He was disqualified from being a judge or even a witness in court, and excommunicated from the synagogue. The members of his family were considered to be equally tarnished (Sanhedrin 25b). Because of their exactions and extortions, customs officials were in the same legal category as murderers and robbers (Baba Kamma 113a) ... Money handled by tax collectors was tainted and could not be used, even for charity (Baba Kamma 10:1), for to touch the wealth of a man who obtains it unlawfully is to share his guilt.

 

The prevailing method of tax collection afforded collectors many opportunities to exercise greed and unfairness. For centuries force and fraud had been constantly associated with the revenue system of Palestine (Nedarim 3:4). Hence [tax collectors] were hated and despised as a class. Strict Jews were further offended by the fact that the tax collector was rendered unclean through continual contact with Gentiles, and because his work involved breaking the sabbath. Contemporary public opinion is accurately reflected in the disagreeable associations expressed in the NT: [tax collectors] are linked with sinners (Matt. 9:10), heathen Gentiles (Matt. 18:17), harlots (Matt. 21:31), and extortioners, imposters, and adulterers (Lk. 18:11). [ref]

 

Nefarious tax collection agents notwithstanding, Paul says -- indeed, commands -- that Christians are to pay their taxes. Why? Because "the ruler (Greek leitourgos, Romans 13:6) like the priest, discharges a divinely ordained service." [ref] Put simply, government workers deserve to be paid, and their pay is drawn from tax revenue. "Paul saw in the state an instrument in the hand of God, preserving the world from chaos. Those who administered the state were playing their part in that great task. Whether they knew it or not they were doing God's work, and it was the Christian's duty to help and not to hinder." [ref]

 

"God has established three institutions: the home (Gen. 2:18Ė25), government (Gen. 9:1Ė17), and the church (Acts 2)." [ref] Human government has three basic functions: (1) protect its citizens, (2) punish criminals; and (3) promote the general welfare. [ref] "The man in authority may be unworthy, but the institution is not, since God wills it. Without financial undergirding, government cannot function." [ref] Like Jesus, Paul saw taxes as our way of not simply giving but, more importantly, "giving back" what is owed (see Mark 12:14, 17). [ref] [ref] Hence Paul's admonition to: "Render to all what is due them" (Romans 13:7, NASB); "Pay everyone what is owed" (Romans 13:7, NET); "Give to everyone what you owe them" (Romans 13:7, NLT).

 

As with our tax system today, the Roman tax system was a mixture of good and bad: "Taxes were used to finance roads and run the government but also to support Roman armies and temples devoted to the worship of the emperor." [ref] For Paul one overriding advantage of the Roman government was its making possible the spread of the Gospel throughout the empire. "In the back of Paulís mind is his appreciation of Romeís legal and commercial system of roads, sea-lanes, citizenship, and common Greek language that promote the spread of Christianity and are ingredients in this right moment in history ('when the time had fully come' [Gal. 4:4])." [ref] And America's government still affords similar privileges for today's Christians. Ironically, it is the bad aspects of government that testifies to the need for the Gospel which the good aspects of government enables to be carried forward.

 

As documented in David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize winning biography of John Adams, America's first national tax came in 1798 and was used to raise a standing army against the very real threat of war with France. [ref] National defense is, of course, one of the basic functions of government. Unfortunately, while there remain a host of positive aspects, in a number of ways the system we have today is far removed from its original intent. In particular, greed, corruption, and the immoral use of our tax dollars rightly rankles many Christians. It is especially irksome to know that a large -- and growing -- percentage of our tax dollar is being used to fund programs some of which do much more harm than good. Far from ceasing, this trend is set to mushroom in the face of the federal government's efforts to "stimulate" a badly depressed economy. Sadly -- but not surprisingly -- some political leaders see the current economic crisis as a golden opportunity to simultaneously expand government and curry favor with ill-informed voters. One basic problem is the lack of accountability, as many politicians work to promote a liberal agenda that both runs counter to the clear teachings of Scripture and is badly out of step with the values of most Americans.

 

What, if anything, can be done? First of all, we should remind ourselves that withholding taxes or cheating on our tax returns is not an option. Scripture commands us to pay all we owe. Equally clear, however, is our responsibility to hold both ourselves and our elected leaders to the highest possible standards. While this will be far from easy in light of our government's propensity for outrageous spending practices, we cannot afford to lose heart or quit the fight. We need to stay informed and stay involved. Practically speaking, most people do not have the time or resources to closely monitor our elected officials (undoubtedly a fact those officials count on). That is where Christian groups such as the Family Research Council come in. FRC is a full-time advocate for policies that are in keeping with our Judeo-Christian heritage of faith, family, and freedom. They interact with and influence our elected officials, and they sound the alarm when there is an effort to pass immoral or irresponsible legislation. (Click here to subscribe to free FRC e-mail updates.)

 

CONCLUSION

Eugene Peterson's modern-language paraphrase of Romans 13:1-7 is worth noting:

 

  (1) Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it's God's order. So live responsibly as a citizen. (2) If you're irresponsible to the state, then you're irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible. (3) Duly constituted authorities are only a threat if you're trying to get by with something. Decent citizens should have nothing to fear. Do you want to be on good terms with the government? Be a responsible citizen and you'll get on just fine, (4) the government working to your advantage. But if you're breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren't there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it. (5) That's why you must live responsibly -- not just to avoid punishment but also because it's the right way to live. (6) That's also why you pay taxes -- so that an orderly way of life can be maintained. (7) Fulfill your obligations as a citizen. Pay your taxes, pay your bills, respect your leaders. (The Message)

 

And we end with a few insightful quotes: [ref]

 

 

A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.

-- Gerald Ford (1913- )

 

Although church and state stand separate, the political order cannot be renewed without theological virtues working upon it. ... It is from the church that we receive our fundamental postulates of order, justice, and freedom, applying them to our civil society.

-- Russell Kirk (1918- )


Christianity introduced no new forms of government, but a new spirit which totally transformed the old ones.

-- Lord Acton (1834-1902)

 

Government originated as an ordinance of God. It is, in one sense, Godís response to the nature of the people themselves. While it cannot redeem the world or be used as a tool to establish the kingdom of God, civil government does set the boundaries for human behavior. The state is not a remedy for sin, but a means to restrain it.

-- Charles Colson (1931- )

 

It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.

-- George Washington (1732-1799)

 

One of the greatest delusions in the world is the hope that the evils in this world are to be cured by legislation.

-- Thomas Brackett Reed (1839-1902), Speech in the House of Representatives, 1886

 

The penalty that good men pay for not being interested in politics is to be governed by men worse than themselves.
-- Plato (c. 428-348 B.C.)

 

There can be no good government without law and order; nor that without authority; nor that without justice; nor that without God.

-- Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)

 


SOURCES

(Click on the title for more information.)

Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible

Baker's New Testament Commentary

The Baptist Faith and Message (2000) plus commentary

The Bible Exposition Commentary

The Bible Knowledge Commentary

The Complete Word Study Dictionary

The Daily Study Bible Series

Dictionary of New Testament Background

Draper's Book of Quotations for the Christian World

Evangelical Commentary on the Bible

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains

Holy Bible, New American Standard

Holy Bible, New English Translation (NET)

Holy Bible, New Living Translation (2nd ed)

Holy Bible , The Message

Illustrated Bible Dictionary

The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament

John Adams

KJV Bible Commentary

The King James (Version) Study Bible

The MacArthur Study Bible

Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible

New Bible Commentary

New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology

New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology

Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?

A Theology for the Church

Thru the Bible

Vincent's Word Studies

Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words

The Word in Life Study Bible

Word Pictures in the New Testament


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