John Child, GWC lecturer, Christian Doctrine; Ethics; Pastoral Studies
BA (Rhodes), Dip Th (BISA), BD Hons (London), MTh (UNISA).
Paul began speaking about love in Romans 12:9: Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. In the paragraphs that follow he shows us how to live in love. He then turns to our relation to the governing authorities before another paragraph on love (Romans 13:8-10). In other words, he sandwiches the teaching about the state in between love. As Christopher Ash noted, ‘This suggests that submission to authorities is – in some way – an expression of Christian love’.
It’s really quite simple. God governs the world, at least in part, through human governments, good and bad, that he has established through human means, whether democratically through a vote, a coup or monarchical succession. That doesn’t mean that God approves all that governments do. That’s quite clear from Deuteronomy, the prophets, Revelation 13 and Jesus’ own judgment of Israel’s rulers. God is a God of justice who upholds a measure of public order through human governments.
The God-given purpose of governments is to rule justly, punishing evildoers and rewarding those who do good:
For 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 you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. (Romans 13:3-4)
Since God has instituted governments for our good, we are to submit to the authorities, pay taxes, respect all and honour those to whom honour is due (Romans 13:5-7). As Christians we must uphold justice, law and order in our societies. We are to be good citizens.
Two caveats are in order. One, all human governments are fallen to a greater or lesser extent. At times they are unjust, cruel, greedy and incompetent. Hence the prophetic critique of Israel’s kings and the nations. The Sanhedrin unjustly condemned innocent Jesus to death. The rulers, elders and teachers of the law forbade Peter and John to teach in Jesus’ name (Acts 4:18). ‘But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard”’ (Acts 4:19-20). As Christians we do obey all the authorities over us but there is a limit. God is the supreme ruler, above all human rulers. As Christians, Christ is our Lord. Like Peter and John there will be times when we must obey Christ, not unjust men. We may have to pay the price but that is the cost of discipleship.
Two, our submission to authorities, whether governments, boards of companies, or church elders, does not mean that the laws and rules they make are always right and just. After all, they are fallen and fallible humans. That means we may challenge unjust laws and work for justice. Paul called those who wrongly beat him to account, as he was a Roman citizen (Acts 16:35-39), and appealed to Caesar to avoid an unjust trial in Jerusalem (Acts 25:1-12). William Wilberforce worked 20 years to abolish the British slave trade and another 27 years to abolish slavery in the British Empire. William Carey, the great missionary pioneer to India, campaigned against many social evils, including sati (widow burning) and infanticide and succeeded in their abolition. Today, many Christians are fighting against the great evils of our day, human trafficking and abortion, while others are working to eliminate poverty and discrimination against women.
Paul now turns back to love. He says we have a ‘continuing debt to love one another’ and then the prize: ‘whoever loves others has fulfilled the law’! Wow! That may not grab you but to a Pharisee who has tried his whole life to obey the law and failed that is some promise, some reward. Paul says, ‘The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself”’ (Romans 13:9). Here Paul follows Jesus who also related love to the law (Matthew 22:37-40).
What this means is that love and law are not opposed. Love is the big idea, law is the details, the specifics. To love your neighbour is not a feeling of attraction or even liking your neighbour. Negatively, it means don’t harm your neighbour, don’t sleep with your neighbour’s wife/husband, don’t steal from them, don’t bear false witness against your neighbour and don’t covet what they have. Positively, it means do good to your neighbour, protect her, provide for him if needs be, babysit their children so husband and wife can spend quality time together, share your tools and lawnmower with him, help them when they’re destitute, encourage her, speak well of him and uphold his good name in the community. All this and more is loving your neighbour as oneself. While this applies to the next door neighbour it especially applies ‘to those who belong to the family of believers’ (Galatians 6:10), particularly those nearest us.
We do all this because the Day is drawing near, ‘the hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light’ (Romans 13:11-12).