I wonder how many of us muttered, ‘Thanks be to God’ through gritted teeth after this passage was read? Thanks be to God for politicians and taxes? You must be joking!
- Perhaps Paul didn’t know that modern opinion polls would show that of all professionals, politicians are the least trusted.
- Maybe he never anticipated the scandal exposed by the Panama Papers, which seem to suggest that the rich and powerful are engaging in tax evasion on an industrial scale.
- Does he not realise that ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.
Or is it just that things were completely different in the Rome of Paul’s day? Did politicians top the polls, and did the populace love paying taxes? Actually, no.
Paul knew that the Roman authorities were notoriously corrupt, and their taxes deeply unpopular. He held the provocative view that Jesus is Lord (and Caesar isn’t). He has already warned his readers not to be ‘conformed to the pattern of this world’ (Rom 12:2).
Despite all this, he urges submission to the civil authorities, not rebellion against them.
1. Their authority
Their authority comes from God. They may not acknowledge God. They may be deeply imperfect. V1 insists: ‘there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.’
A rich vein of OT teaching – Daniel insists that ‘The Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth.’ Prov 8:15f ‘By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just; by me princes govern and all nobles who rule on earth.’
Jesus’ to Pilate, Jn 19:11 – “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.”
Tertullian: ‘Caesar is more ours than yours, because our God appointed him.’
‘God’s servants’ = ‘deacons’, ‘ministers’, ‘priests’.
Godly ministry can be exercised not only in the church, but also in the Houses of Parliament, in the council chambers of local government, and in the magistrate’s court.
2. Their purpose
(a) They act on God’s behalf to punish wrongdoers, v4. How does this square with Paul’s instruction, Rom 12:19-21, not to seek revenge, but to overcome evil with good; and with Jesus’ command to love our enemies (Mt 5:44)?
Magdeline Makola was locked for ten days in the boot of a car. Her abductor was sentenced to 8 years behind bars. Magdeline said that she was ‘quite happy with the sentence’, but added ‘I don’t have hatred or anger. In our Daily Prayer we always say forgive those who trespass against us – so we should prove that we can practise it.’
She’s saying the state was right to punish the criminal, and that she was right to forgive him. Civil ethics is based on justice, tempered by love. Personal ethics is based on love, tempered by justice.
(b) They act on God’s behalf to do us good, v4. The state ensures health and safety at work (since HSAW Act fatal injuries to employees dropped from over 600 in 1974 to under 100 last year), safeguards children and vulnerable adults, ensures that the sick and injured receive treatment, promotes health, guarantees liberty, provides education and training, ensures that food is fit to eat, water is clean, sewage is disposed of safely, and so on. It provides a stable environment where children can be raised, friendships nurtured, employment pursued, leisure interests enjoyed, and scientific research can be conducted, where arts, music and literature can flourish, and where we can sit in the comfort of our own homes and enjoy a nice cup of tea and a chat.
All this costs money. Therefore, pay your taxes willingly and honestly.
3. Their limits
The situation in the Roman empire would get even worse, but at the end of his life Paul would still be urging: ‘Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities’ (Tit 3:10).
Does this passage command unquestioning obedience to the state? Michael Cassidy (founder of African Enterprise): ‘On 8 October 1985 he was granted an interview with President P. W. Botha in Pretoria. It was the time of the National Initiative for Reconciliation, and Michael had hoped for signs of repentance and for the assurance that apartheid would be dismantled. He was to be bitterly disappointed. He says: ‘I was immediately aware on entry to the room that this was not to be the sort of encounter for which I had prayed. The President began by standing to read me part of Romans 13!’ He evidently imagined that this passage was enough to justify unequivocal support of the Nationalist Government’s apartheid policy.’ (Stott)
There are limits to the state’s authority. This is:-
- suggested by the fact that its authority is delegated, rather than absolute. There is a higher throne.
- implied by the language Paul uses – not obedience, but submission. He’s not talking about following orders blindly, but rather about recognising the place God has given to government in the ordering of our world.
- confirmed by the wider biblical context. The Hebrew midwives defied pharaoh (Ex 1), Daniel defied king Darius (Dan 6), Peter and the apostles defied the Jewish ruling council, Acts 5:29 – “We must obey God rather than men!”.
We are to obey right up to the point where in order to obey what the state requires we would have to disobey what God requires (and vice-versa). Hiding Jews in WW2.
Christianity is rapidly losing its privileged position in our country. Public expressions of the gospel are increasingly likely to get you into hot water. To share, however gently, your Christian faith with a colleague at work may be regarded as bullying and harassment. To affirm the Bible’s teaching on gender differences and marriage will get you labeled as sexist. To simply stand your ground when someone in authority asks you to be dishonest may make life very difficult for you: ‘Tell him I’m out.’
One thing is sure: if we have a proven track record of saying ‘yes’ to Caesar’s legitimate demands, then we will be in a better position to say ‘no’ to his illegitimate demands.
No, it’s not a joke. Being loyal subjects and paying our taxes is part of our service to God. We do so because all human authority is derived from God.
We follow them willingly and respectfully, but not blindly or uncritically.
And so we will be found faithful to the words of our Master: ‘Give to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, and to God the things that belong to God.’