The Thirty-Second in a Series of Sermons on Paul's Epistle to the Romans
In Romans 12, Paul exhorts Christians in the church of Rome to be renewed in their thinking, and to avoid being conformed to the pattern of this world. Thinking like a Christian is the outworking in everyday life of that righteous status we have been given through faith in Jesus Christ. Because Christians are not to think like pagans, Paul tells the Romans that they are to regard others more highly than themselves. They are to live in peace with those outside the church, even in the face of increasing persecution from the Roman authorities. And it is this latter exhortation from Paul which raises the question, “how are Christians to relate to civil government?” especially a government which is centered in the worship of its emperor.
Thus in Romans 13, Paul turns his attention to this very important topic. For obvious reasons, these seven verses have exercised a tremendous influence upon Christian political theory throughout the ages. As is the case with many of these profound discourses in Paul’s letters, this section of Romans is the subject of a great deal of scholarly debate. Some of the debate centers on the question as to how this particular section of Romans relates to the preceding, especially given Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12:19 that Christians are to refrain from taking revenge upon our enemies. Does Paul introduce the discussion of the state at this point because he views the state as the divinely-appointed avenger of the oppressed and downtrodden? Or, does this discussion continue Paul’s line of thinking as to how non-Christians are to relate to those outside the church, but who are now persecuting the church?
Another reason debate arises about this section of Romans is due to the Old Testament background as to how the people of Israel were to relate to the pagan kings around them. Jews viewed all Gentile nations in light of Israel’s divinely appointed mission–Israel was God’s chosen nation and the object of God’s care and affection. And then we must also consider the political situation in Rome when Paul writes this letter, because we cannot understand Paul’s comments without some knowledge of those circumstances that the Christians in Rome were actually facing.
As for the Old Testament background to Paul’s discussion of the Christian’s relationship to the state, there are two points we need to consider. The first is that as God’s chosen covenant community, the nation of Israel was not to submit to any pagan king. In Deuteronomy 17:15, we read “be sure to appoint over you the king the LORD your God chooses. He must be from among your own brothers. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not a brother Israelite.” Israel’s king must be a Jew. Thus it would be very difficult for Jewish converts to Christianity to adopt a Christian view of state, especially now that Israel’s role as God’s divinely chosen nation had come to an end with the dawn of the messianic age. Israel’s national purposes were now fulfilled, even if God’s purposes for the Jews as a people are not. There is no more role for Israel as a nation during the future course of redemptive history. This would be a difficult thing for Jews to accept.
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