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How Should Christians Relate to Governing Authorities? Michael Bird Clarifies
"Origen, who knew Roman brutality all to well, said: 'I am disturbed by Paul’s saying that the authority of this age and the judgment of the world are ministers of God.'" (Michael Bird, The Story of God Bible Commentary: Romans, 442)
- What does Paul mean that we should “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1)?
- And in what way is it “necessary to submit to the authorities.” (13:5)?
Michael Bird brings clarity in his new Romans commentary (The Story of God Bible Commentary series). He helps us hear and explore the text in it’s original Roman context, while also applying it to our current global one.
Below we explore four of Bird's reasons why Christians should submit to governing authorities today—with an important caveat.
4 Reasons for Submitting to Governing Authorities
Paul's controversial comments on Christian-government relations breaks down into four sub-sections.
First, Paul makes it clear, “there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” (13:1) Paul’s point is that “all authorities exist exclusively by divine appointment, and since God has appointed them, they must be obeyed.” Bird points out that “government is a form of common grace instituted by God where God uses human rulers to provide justice, order, and civility for the peoples governed.” (444)
By extension, “To resist or disobey these authorities is to rebel against God himself.” (445)
Practically speaking, "There is no fear of penalty for those who do what is good; in fact, they can expect to receive praise from their political masters for noble conduct.” (445)
Finally, Paul appeals to “conscience.” “This ‘conscience’ (syneidesis) refers to an inner moral compass that points people to a manner of life recognized as right by both God and people.” (446) Bird explains that to keep a good conscience requires performing certain acts, which for Paul included the obligation “to give rulers what they are owed, whether that is taxes, duties, respect, or honor.” (446; Rom 13:6)
Caveat: When to Resist Governing Authorities
Is Paul’s teaching an unqualified statement that gives “governments a license to do whatever they want to whomever they want and the citizens just have to take it”? (449)
Bird says no.
Consider Stanley Porter's condition: qualitative superiority. “According to Porter, Paul only expects Christians to obey authorities who are qualitatively superior, that is, authorities who know and practice justice.” (449) The Greek for “governing authorities” (exousiais hyperechousais) seems to suggest this, given that hyperecho carries with it a “qualitative sense of superiority in quality.” (449) Therefore, the only governing powers to which Christians should submit are those that reflect the qualitatively divine justice they’ve been entrusted to bear, enact, and steward.
It would be naïve to suggest this passage is the last word on church/state relations, given that our conception of “state” is conditioned by post-Enlightenment views and the original context for Paul’s instructions came during a time of relatively benevolent and well-behaved authorities.
Bird reasons there are occasions resistance to governing authorities is both required and demanded by Christian discipleship. “Just as we have to submit to governing authorities on the basis of conscience, sometimes we have to rebel against governments because of the same conscience." (450) When governments misuse their power, sometimes Christians must say, "We must obey God rather than human beings!" (Acts 5:29)
Bird likes John Stott's summary of this discussion: “Whenever laws are enacted which contradict God’s Law, civil disobedience becomes a Christian duty.”
Engage Bird’s Romans commentary yourself to better understand and better teach how it looks to submit to (and resist) the governing authorities during and after this election season.
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