Twentieth Sunday of Pentecost 2009,

Series on Romans:



Scripture reading: Romans 13:1-7.

Sermon text: Romans 13:8-14.

I spent some time studying Roman history to prepare of this sermon. Here’s a short synopsis that will help you better understand St. Paul’s instructions in this chapter.

Christianity began in A.D. 33 on the day of Pentecost. The emperor of the time, Tiberius, had succeeded Octavian (Caesar Augustus) in A.D. 14 following Octavian’s death. Tiberius spent much of his reign fighting depression while living in seclusion on the island of Capri. In his absence, Octavian’s governmental machinery kept the Empire on an even keel.

Tiberius’ nephew, Caligula (actually his nickname), succeeded Tiberius in A.D. 37 following Tiberius’ death. Caligula found himself with absolute power at age 25 and no preparation for the power he inherited. He was, to put it mildly, insane at best or totally depraved at worst. Caligula spent most of his time in drunken orgies, committing incest with his sisters, and in various other acts of ill repute. Caligula attempted to force the Senate to install his horse as a Roman consul. Caligula also planned to place the Roman imperial insignia in the Temple in Jerusalem, an act guaranteed to result in a Jewish revolt. Fortunately for Judea, the Praetorian Guard (the Roman emperor’s equivalent of the Secret Service) assassinated Caligula in A.D. 41 rather than continuing to tolerate his madness.

Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, had cowered in mortal fear behind a curtain in the imperial palace during Caligula’s assassination. Claudius suffered from lameness and a severe stutter for most of his life and seemed an ill fit for Roman emperor. However, some members of the Praetorian Guard found him blubbering behind the curtain, planted him on a horse and took him to the Guard camp outside Rome. Claudius feared the Guard would execute him, but they instead proclaimed him as emperor. Claudius ruled from A.D. 41 to A.D. 57 and proved an amazingly competent emperor, reforming Roman law and basically leaving the Jews alone except for expelling them from Rome in A.D. 49. Claudius, unfortunately, married his ambitious niece named Agrippina with a young son named Nero. Agrippina knew how to insure Nero’s accession to the throne. Claudius died in A.D. 57 after eating poisoned mushrooms.

Sixteen-year-old Nero succeeded his adopted father and, for his first 5 or 6 years, ruled rather well under the advice of his tutors, including the famous Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger. Agrippina resented the tutors’ influence over Nero and schemed to  have them replaced if not killed. At age 21, Nero finally had his mother murdered, while his tutors either died or (in Seneca’s case) retired. Seneca was later forced to commit suicide. The unlimited power of Rome lay in his grasp. In A.D. 64, a fire broke out in Rome and burned most of the city. After the fire, Nero built a new palace; this led most people to suspect he had started the fire in the first place. In an attempt to deflect blame, Nero accused the Christians of starting the fire and began arresting its leaders. Both St. Peter and St. Paul were in Rome at the time, and both were arrested. St. Peter died of crucifixion in A.D. 64; St. Paul, as a Roman citizen, died by beheading in A.D. 67. Nero himself would commit suicide in A.D. 68 in the face of an open revolt by the army.

For the next 250 years, numerous Roman emperors persecuted the Church, following Nero’s example. Refusal to participate in the state cult of the Empire was tantamount to treason, but Christians steadfastly refused to worship the emperor as a divine being. Domitian, Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Diocletian: these emperors and others sent Christians to their deaths, often in gruesome events in spectator-packed coliseums throughout the Empire. Even after Constantine’s legalization of Christianity in A.D. 313, emperors Julian the Apostate and Valens both instituted persecutions of Trinitarian Christianity.

Now that we’ve read Romans 13, and now that we know something about Roman persecution of Christianity, here’s the question: Which of these emperors did Christians recognize as legitimate rulers and thus fulfill St. Paul’s instructions in this chapter?

The answer: All of them.

Remember that in Romans 12-15, St. Paul addressed the implications of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the Christian. Since Roman believers had confessed Jesus as Lord, they owed Jesus alone their prime allegiance. St. Paul needed to remind these believers that allegiance to Jesus did not free them from their obligations to their secular rulers. Most Christians in Rome had little reason to debate the issue while Claudius ruled. What did St. Paul’s instructions mean once the imperial government began persecuting the Church? Were Roman believers to abandon their Roman citizenship? Were Christian non-citizens to declare their freedom from the emperor and live as if they recognized no secular authority?

The Church has lived under secular authority for most of her existence. Today, American believers find ourselves in the same situation. As American citizens, we must fulfill the obligations that come with the privilege of our citizenship. As believers in Jesus Christ who have confessed Him as Lord, we must also fulfill our obligations to Christ. St. Paul’s words in Romans 13 guide us in how to structure our allegiances and to live them in a way that glorifies Christ, our risen Lord.

St. Paul opened the chapter by addressing directly the issue of Christian response to secular authority: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” The “governing authorities” in this case clearly referred to the secular imperial authorities of Rome. St. Paul fully believed in Christian freedom from sin, but he also realized that Christian freedom did not relieve believers from their obligations to the state.

What about those authorities with which the Church may disagree? “There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” In ways we do not understand, God brings nations into existence and works through their governmental structures to accomplish His redemption of the world.

Jesus’ example stands as a clear example of God’s work through government. Although His execution was unjust, the Roman crucifixion of Jesus accomplished God’s purpose of redemption of humanity from sin and death. The God we serve can work even through injustice to bring blessings to His people.

Do believers have any recourse? Can we simply ignore or actively disobey those authorities with which we disagree? St. Paul’s next words remove this option: “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” Any Christian who intentionally disobeys the government must prepare to accept the consequences. We have no authority from God to disobey the government unless its laws contradict the laws of God.

St. Paul then gives his reason for supporting secular authority. “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”

Humans long ago learned a basic fact about ourselves: We cannot live with one another without some form of authority. Our own pride and greed will inevitably affect every relationship we form with other people. At some point, someone must rule who gets what he wants and the consequences for disobeying the ruling. “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.”

Humans long ago learned another lesson about government: Government requires money. Americans owe our existence as a nation to a taxpayer rebellion, and we still despise paying taxes to the government. Our nation’s first internal crisis (the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794) resulted from tax policies. St. Paul told the Romans of his time and believers today, “For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” Do we see our government as “ministers of God”?

Some could legitimately argue that, as Americans, the voters constitute the legitimate authority in our government, and that we have a legal means of changing our government through elections. I agree, but I believe we can go farther with this. I’d say Americans have a duty to vote in our elections. We cannot expect our government to represent our views if we do not fulfill our obligation to vote. As a Christian American, if you don’t like the laws passed by the party in control, contact your Representative or Senator and voice your disapproval. Then, vote in elections. I personally have no patience with people who complain about our government and then fail to vote in elections.

Now that we know how to relate to the secular authorities, we need to understand how to relate our Christian calling to those authorities. To insure believers understood the laws of God, St. Paul reiterated those laws in a form that reminds of Jesus’ words: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” St. Paul, doesn’t discuss credit and lending here; instead, he addresses the best way to fulfill our obligations to one another.

If government helps us live with each other, love alone will show our fellow citizens the true meaning of loyalty to Christ. “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”

We must note that the law of Christ calls us to do more for our fellow citizens — and non-citizens — than follow the secular law. Secular law frowns on adultery; Jesus’ love tells us to see every person of the opposite sex as a person created in the image of God that will live for all eternity. Secular law tells us not to murder people; Jesus’ love requires us to sacrifice our lives if necessary to save others. Secular law tells us not to steal; Jesus’ love tells us to provide for those who live so desperately they see no option but theft to live. Secular law tells us what we cannot do; Christian love demands we do something constructive for all people, both believer and nonbeliever alike. Christian love expects us to do something that will lift the other person and leave him better than we found him.

Why should we do this? St. Paul had already reminded the Roman Christians in chapter 12 that living in love will draw other people to confess Jesus as Lord. St. Paul knew that Jesus would return one day, and he wanted all people everywhere to live eternally in the new Creation God will prepare for all who confess Jesus as Lord. “Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

People often miss the eschatology in this letter. St. Paul and first-century Christians lived in the shadow of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. Some people will say, “Jesus hasn’t returned after nearly 2,000 years, so why expect Him today?” Every generation has lived in the expectation of Jesus’ return. We expect His inevitable return, recognizing Jesus may or not return in our lifetimes.

Therefore, St. Paul instructed his readers: “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” The world’s standards of morality emphasize instant gratification of our desires, whatever those desires may entail. As subjects of Christ, we must overcome those desires, especially when our desires would harm someone else or cause us to degrade someone in some way. Christians must always put the needs of others before our own needs, seeing them as God’s unique, eternal creation.

Does this program work? Did St. Paul really expect people to follow his words in chapter 13? Did St. Paul expect his teachings to result in the redemption of Creation and the salvation of humanity from sin and death?

This chapter clearly explains St. Paul’s teachings regarding the relationship of the Church with the secular authorities. Christians have lived by these words for centuries. Most believers have lived quiet lives under the governments ordained by God; others have followed the laws of those governments until those laws conflicted with the law of Christ. At those times, believers have disobeyed the secular authorities and lived by Jesus’ law, knowing they would suffer the penalties ordained by the secular authorities. Countless Christians have suffered martyrdom rather than place their secular loyalty above their spiritual loyalty to Christ, their risen Lord.

Today, I believe that the American Church, especially among Christians who vote conservatively, needs a reminder, and this chapter presents me an opportunity I can’t miss.

I’ve heard many conservatives say to me, “I’ll pray for my president, but I didn’t vote for the current White House occupant, and you can’t make me pray for him.” This chapter reminds us that God ordains the affairs of nations. Regardless of my personal opinion or my understanding, I must accept that, at this time in the life of our nation, God has ordained Barak Hussein Obama to serve as President of our nation. I must recognize him as my president and show him the respect due to the holder of his office. I must pray that God will give President Obama the wisdom he needs to lead our nation. I must pray for his safety. If you’re an American citizen, the President of the United States serves as your president regardless of your vote. You have a duty to support him, with your prayers and with your obedience of the secular law unless the secular law contradicts the law of Christ. You have a Christian duty, under the law of Christ, to pray for President Obama and those who advise and serve him. I’ve said on more than one occasion that if everyone who complained about President Bill Clinton had prayed for him as much as they condemned him, his presidency may have gone differently.

I also remember hearing as a child, “Politics is too nasty for any Christian.” It won’t surprise you that I disagree. Believe it or not, God calls Christians to political service. Those He calls to politics must fulfill that call just as those of us He has called to ministry must fulfill our calling. I love the way C.S. Lewis described this in Mere Christianity:

  1. People say, “The Church ought to give us a lead.” That is true if they mean it in the right way, but false if they mean it in the wrong way. By the Church they ought to mean the whole body of practicing Christians. And when they say that the Church should give us a lead, they ought to mean that some Christians — those who happen to have the right talents — should be economists and statesmen, and that all economists and statesmen should be Christians, and that their whole efforts in politics and economics should be directed to putting “Do as you would be done by” into action. If that happened, and if we others were really ready to take it, then we should find the Christian solution for our own social problems pretty quickly. But, of course, when they ask for a lead from the Church most people mean they want the clergy to put out a political program. That is silly. The clergy are those particular people within the whole Church who have been specially trained and set aside to look after what concerns us as creatures who are going to live forever: and we are asking them to do a quite different job for which they have not been trained. The job is really on us, on the laymen. The application of Christian principles, say, to trade unionism or education, must come from Christian trade unionists and Christian schoolmasters: just as Christian literature comes from Christian novelists and dramatists — not from the bench of bishops getting together and trying to write plays and novels in their spare time. (Mere Christianity, “Social Morality,” III.iii).

I think this chapter reminds us of something else as well. I lived through the time when some in the Church thought they could best convert our nation to Christianity by manipulating the legislative process, not through the laborious process of living the law of Christ day by day. I remember the founding of the Moral Majority in 1979, during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, and the subsequent politicization of many churches. I remember when many in the Church chose to wed their hopes to a political party instead of to the promises of Christ to honor the honest work of His people. I’ve heard people say, “No real Christian could vote for the other party.”

As I’ve read the Scriptures, I’ve never found a reference that lists Almighty God as a card-carrying member in any human political party. To the contrary, I praise God that He can work His will in human governments regardless of the party in charge. I also praise God that He calls believers to serve in both of our major political parties. Whatever you do, don’t condemn a person for voting according to his conscience as informed by Holy Scripture and the Holy Spirit.

People of God, hear this: Jesus Christ, our Lord, said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). The medieval Church in the West tried to establish the kingdom of God on earth through secular power. In the thirteenth century, the pope ruled over most of Europe as the primary secular authority. The Church continues to pay a heavy price in Europe for the papacy’s excesses in this period. I once wrote in an email, “There's a reason why Baptists traditionally advocate separation of Church and State: the Church has never made a good, compassionate State.”

St. Paul gave us the program we must follow: Obedience of the secular authority, and Christian love toward all. We will not convert America to a Christian nation through legislation; we will see our nation turn to the cross of Christ one soul at a time, led there through the submission of ordinary believers to the eternal law of Christ, the law that will outlast the governments of the world: The law of love.