Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due.
Civil law affects every aspect of our daily lives: the height of our neighbour’s hedge, the Highway Code, tax obligations, knife-crime, domestic abuse… Civil law and punishments for infractions have been, and are, part of every society.
For the most part, we are probably glad of the civil order we have in the UK. Elsewhere, good people suffer the injustices of corrupt officials and discriminatory laws.
This passage from Romans does not occur in the three-year Sunday Lectionary cycle; nevertheless, throughout history, these verses have been abused to coerce people into obedience to unjust regimes. Ironically, in this letter, Paul was most likely writing about the Roman authorities, the very same by whose laws he was executed around 10 years later.
The Statement of the Nature, Faith and Order of the URC makes clear the distinction of government of Christ’s Church and the government of the state, and it goes on to say: “Civil authorities are called to serve God’s will of justice and peace for all humankind, and to respect the rights of conscience and belief.”
How can we respond to this? Jesus says to us: “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.” His call to us is to get involved!
Those involved in law and order are required to swear an oath upon enrolment. As a magistrate, our Judicial Oath includes these words: “I will do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will.”
What else can we do? We can pray. Pray for the police who bravely put themselves in harm’s way. Pray for the judicial office holders who sit in judgement: judges, magistrates, jurors and tribunals’ judiciary. Pray for probation and prison officers who work to rehabilitate and reform offenders. Pray for victim support workers.
Lord God, Your Word alone lights the paths of justice. We pray for all who administer justice… For all whose profession or expertise is the law… For the police and all who sustain order in our land… May they fulfil their duties to the good of all people. Grant them Your Spirit of discernment and of love. We hold before You the victims of crime and injustice.
O Lord, hear our prayer: and let our cry go unto You. Amen
Walt Johnson, Elder, Wilbraham St Ninian’s URC, Chorlton, Manchester.