Let every person be subject to the governing authorities… For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good. (Romans 13.1,3)
This election will mark the ninth time I’ve voted for president. If memory serves correctly—and I’m fairly confident it does—the size of government has been hotly debated in every contest. The candidates play to their parties’ predispositions, promising big cuts and less interference on one hand and more effective use of spending and power on the other. When elected, rarely does either side live up to its promises. And that shouldn’t surprise us, because candidates enter office with no way of knowing the challenges they’ll face. When the hoopla dissipates and the real business of running the nation takes hold, size is a phantom issue. Leaders—if they’re wise—do what must be done; expedience drives policy, not the other way around. So we should ask ourselves if all of this wrangling over size is worth the effort. Is there a better question? For believers, there is.
In Romans 13, Paul couldn’t be clearer that Christians are to respect to their leaders. This had to be tough for the Romans to swallow. At the time of his writing, they’d survived Caligula, were dealing with Claudius, and would soon endure severe persecution under Nero. Given their distrust of Caesar, Paul’s admonition that they “be subject to the governing authorities” had to sound nuts. And one struggles to imagine they found solace in his reasoning. “For there is no authority except from God,” he writes, “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 judgment.” (v1-2) Equating submission to Caesar with obedience to God’s will—and threatening judgment for resisters, no less—sure sounds like a catch-22, a real lose-lose proposition.
What do we do with this? Can we toss it out with Paul’s other cranky bits—his misogyny, for example, or comfort with slavery? Not really. Paul’s doctrine is deeply rooted in faith in God’s sovereignty above all. God sanctions human government as the penultimate authority, reserving final say for God’s Self. Without a doubt, many rulers abuse power and visit great suffering on their nations. But Paul focuses our attention on God’s intentions and our obligation to honor them. Verse 3 tells us, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good.” When we see leaders defy this ideal, promoting bad conduct rather than good, Paul’s words are no easier for us to swallow than for the Romans.
Again, what do we do with this? We are exponentially more fortunate than the Romans. We are free to choose the authorities who govern us. Thus, as believers, we should first question the substance of those we elect. Can we trust them to be “not a terror to good conduct, but to bad”? Will we be able to live out our faith while complying with their principles and policies? For believers endowed with democratic privilege, substance, not size, is the deciding factor. If we let substance guide our choice, we’ll have no reason to fear those we elect.