Paul and Politics
Patriotic Christians point to Paul’s words in Romans 13 in order to justify their loyalty to ruling authorities. It seems Paul is commanding everyone to submit to, and be obedient to, the governing rulers.
The context of Rom. 13:1-7, however, favors a more limited view of the “good” that rulers accomplish. Paul’s use of “good” and “evil” in 13:3-4 is preceded by his use of those words in 12:17,21. Paul follows Jesus in 12:14 when he tells the Roman Christians to bless those who persecute them, not curse them; in 12:20 Paul adds that if their enemy is hungry, feed him (again reflecting Jesus’ call to love even enemies). Thus Christians should not repay evil (persecutors) with evil (that persecutes or curses the persecutors) (12:17); rather than being overcome by evil, they should overcome evil with good (12:21). Instead of avenging themselves, Christians should leave any vengeance to the wrath of God (12:19).
Paul then introduces the governing authorities in 13:1 as those whom God might use as instruments of wrath against those who do evil. They are the ones who will punish evil (persecutors) and approve good (that does not get revenge on its own); they are the ones who can become servants of God for the good of persecuted Christians; they can execute God’s wrath on evil persecutors (13:3-4). If Christians, however, decide to do evil (and get revenge on their persecutors), God could use the authorities to punish that evil as well (13:4). That is why everyone (the persecutors and the persecuted) should be subject to the (punishment of evil by the) authorities (13:1).
After 13:1-7, Paul then resumes and concludes this theme started in 12:14 by telling Christians not to owe anything (any revenge), but to love one another (13:8). And love does no evil to a neighbor (13:10).
The context before and after Rom. 13:1-7 shows that Paul is commenting on specific kinds of good and evil–and on how Christians should respond: when the evil of persecution arises, they should not pay it back with similar evil; they should above all love their enemies; and they should let any punishment of that evil be done by the authorities; so everyone (especially the persecutors, but also the persecuted) should be subject to the authorities, who might be used by God to punish such evil.
Paul is not saying that the authorities are usually servants of God. Outside the limits of punishing persecutors of Christians, or the revenge of Christians, the authorities are not generally God’s servants. What Paul thinks of such rulers in general can be found earlier in Romans. He depicts the Gentiles–including Gentile rulers like the Roman authorities–as not acknowledging the great God of creation (Rom. 1:18-28). Because they exchanged the glory of God for the glory of images of man (like the statues of rulers, who were idolized as gods, especially after they died), God’s wrath gave them up to their own evil thoughts and deeds. As a result, they were filled with all kinds of evil: covetousness, malice, envy, murder, deceit, boastfulness, heartlessness, and ruthlessness (1:29-31).
A specific example of how Paul dealt personally with a Roman authority is found in Acts 23-24. After being persecuted and almost killed by Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, Paul is rescued by a Roman tribune (a military officer) and put in prison until the Roman governor can hear his case (Acts 23:26-35). The Roman governor Felix converses from time to time with his prisoner, Paul, hoping to get a bribe from him (24:24-26). But Paul does not flatter him or submit to his wishes. In fact, when Paul speaks to Felix about faith in Christ, he also argues with him about justice, self-control, and future judgment (from the king of kings). This strong challenge against the evil of Felix leads him to tell Paul to leave (and go back to prison). Paul does not consider Felix a servant of God in general; he confronts Felix’s behavior as worthy of God’s wrath; and Paul says this to Felix’s face.
Those who use Paul, especially his words in Rom.13, to affirm their general patriotic loyalty have misunderstood him.