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.
“Few if any passages in the Pauline corpus [Paul’s letters] have been more subject to abuse than vv. 1-7.” Those are the words of Craig Hill, writer of a commentary on Romans.
Broadly, the passage addresses authority, rule of law and taxation. No country is perfect. In the UK, as in all democratic countries, there is a range of views as to how well the incumbent government is working.
The reader’s context is so important when approaching this passage.
I am writing this devotion in the days before HM King Charles III’s coronation; the ceremony is deeply rooted in Christian tradition. We may be law-abiding citizens, want criminals brought to justice, and our taxes be used for public services. In this context, we may be untroubled by this passage.
But that is not everyone’s experience. In many countries – and even for some in the UK – injustice and oppression are daily realities.
Paul lived in the Roman Empire. Scholars date most of his letters 53-67CE, while Nero was Emperor. Roman historians considered Nero to be a bad, even cruel emperor. He expelled Jews from Rome, and he later blamed the Great Fire of Rome on the Christians!
After Paul was arrested, when as a Roman citizen he appealed to the Emperor, he was appealing to Nero!
In the preceding verses to this passage, Paul encourages us to live peaceable lives. Maybe his words in vv.1-7 are encouraging us to see the difference between the functions of government and the people who may carry them out poorly.
Paul could have encouraged the Roman Christians to rise up against Nero. There is wisdom in discerning how we challenge injustice.
The Statement of the Nature, Faith and Order of the URC guides us: “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.”
Loving God, We thank you thank you that we live peaceable lives, We thank you for our many systems which support us, We thank you for those who work to keep us safe. We pray for those who suffer injustice, We pray for challenge and for change, We ask for our part in bringing Your Kingdom, Here on earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.
The Rev’d Walt Johnson is an NSM minister serving in the Bolton & Salford Missional Partnership in the North-Western Synod.