September 4th, 2016

God is not worried about the election.

Romans 13:1-7


Um, thanks?

I hope you noticed an awkward omission after the Scripture reading this morning. Normally the reader says, “The word of God for the people of God,” and the people respond, “Thanks be to God.” I asked that we omit that response today so I could save you from mouthing words you don’t mean. All week long I’ve been listening to people read and discuss this passage, and no one’s first response was, “Thanks be to God.” It’s more along the lines of, “What was Paul smoking!?!” My goal by the end of the sermon is for you to say about this passage, “Thanks be to God.”

It is no accident that we chose Romans 13 for Labor Day weekend, the “official” beginning of the 2016 political campaign season. By most accounts, this year is unusual. You probably heard the news report on Wednesday that Hillary Clinton’s unfavorable rating in the opinion polls has risen so high in the last three weeks that it’s almost as bad as Donald Trump’s. Of course, late night comedians are enjoying this campaign. Conan O’Brien quipped, “Donald Trump’s campaign is now saying he didn’t change his immigration plan, he just changed the words he used to describe it. They also said Trump hasn’t been married three times, he’s just changed the person he calls ‘wife.’” Conan also said, “Hillary Clinton received her first intelligence briefing as a candidate. Officials told Hillary about threats to U.S. cybersecurity such as Russia, China, and her.”

It’s only fair if I’m going to preach a sermon on politics to tell you where I stand. If you are voting for Donald Trump because the thought of President Hillary Clinton makes you cringe, I am with you. If you are voting for Hillary Clinton because the notion of President Donald Trump makes you shudder, I am with you. If the idea that your two realistic options are Trump and Clinton has you concerned, I am with you. In other words, whatever you’re thinking, I’m with you. That makes me the best politician in the room.

If you remember nothing else I say today, I hope you’ll remember this:  God is not worried about the election.

What Paul wrote

When it comes to government and politics, Paul thinks differently. What he says in Romans 13 lies somewhere in between shocking and offensive for most people, even Christians. Every commentary I read, every sermon I listen to, every conversation I have about this text, they all have a “But….” And for good reason. There are other Scriptures that deal with the Christian’s relationship to the state, and Paul is not trying to say everything that needs to be said. But it’s still true this is all he said in this letter.

Paul is writing to Christians in Rome, a place he had never visited. The readers of his letter most likely did not have the Gospels or Acts to compare stories of Jesus or the early church pushing back against the government. Paul doesn’t tell the story of the time Peter said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). He doesn’t mention that he himself had insisted on his rights as a Roman citizen on more than one occasion (Acts 16:7; 22:25). He doesn’t go back to the time when the authorities in power put Jesus through an illegal trial and crucified him. He knows all that, but he doesn’t go there.

Let’s look carefully at what Paul actually said, then we’ll talk about why he said it.

(verse 1) Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.[1]The key words are “submit,” “authority(ies)” and “establish.” Without going into technicalities, these words are connected in Greek, and together they imply order.[2] Think of an organizational chart. God is always at the top. Governments are under him. You are under government. The way you honor the CEO is by placing yourself under the order of the middle management.

(verse 2) Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. Two different words are translated by “rebel.” The first “rebel” is the opposite of “submit” – to be anti-order instead of under-order. The second “rebel” is more “resist,” and in Greek it looks very much like an English word you know – “antihistamine.” Histamines are chemicals your body produces to take a stand against allergies. Anti-histamines try to reverse that “stand.” We take them when we think the body has over-reacted. When you rebel against God, you are resisting the stand God has put in place.

(verses 3-4) For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. This is one of the places where you immediately want to answer, “But….” Don’t go to the exceptions. Stay with the general principle.

Here is part of The Message paraphrase on these two verses – “Do you want to be on good terms with the government? Be a responsible citizen and you’ll get on just fine… But if you’re breaking the rules left right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order.” If you’re glad we have the military to protect our nation, if you want Homeland Security to deal with terrorists, if you’re happy the police are ticketing reckless speeders and those who text while driving while they also will come at a moment’s notice to deal with a break-in or eruption of violence, this is Paul’s point. It’s people breaking the law and trying to harm others who should be afraid – not you if you’re a responsible citizen.

(verse 5) Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. A more literal translation is helpful here: “Therefore it is necessary to be subject, not only account of the wrath, but also on account of the conscience.” “The wrath” is possibly a reference to God’s wrath, but also might be the fear of being thrown in jail by the state. “The conscience” is a reference to how Christians think differently. For us, it’s not just about external consequences, it’s about internal conscience. Pagans think, “I’ll keep the law so I don’t have to face the judge.” Christians think, “I’ll keep the law because I want to please God, who established the idea of law.”

(verses 6-7) In these verses Paul turns to our primary response. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. For now, focus on the beginning of verse 7. Literally translated, it’s “Return to everyone their dues.” There are multiple obligations of citizens in any community, and Christians should be model citizens.

That’s what Paul says. Now why does he say it?

Why Paul wrote it

Some Christians, even scholars, think this passage doesn’t fit well in Romans, or at least it doesn’t fit well here. Romans is a letter Paul wrote to Christians in the capital city of the empire. Paul had never visited Rome, so it is his most systematic explanation of how Christians think and live. He is not writing about situations or answering questions. He starts from the beginning and lays our Christian doctrine and practice.

Chapter 12 begins his section on how Christians live: “Therefore I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices… Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Because we belong to Jesus, we think differently and so we speak differently and we act differently. If you don’t start there, you will miss what Romans 13 is all about.

If your questions about Romans 13 are about how we can combat evil in politics or in the world by being so submissive, then you’re on to something. Romans 12 and 13 are all about a world that has gone terribly wrong. “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (12:10). “Bless those who persecute you” (12:14). “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” (12:17). Paul has in mind a bad society and even a bad government.

Paul’s key question in this section sounds like this: “In a world full of evil, how can I be the good?” When the world thinks about government, it thinks about emperors and kings and presidents and senators and governors and mayors and post office workers and IRS agents and police officers and soldiers and on and on. When the Christian thinks about government, we think about God, who is above government on the organizational chart.

The Christian understands that the idea of living with order instead of chaos, law instead of anarchy, control instead of mayhem – that’s God’s idea. When he created human beings in his image, he created them to be in relationship with each other, and every relationship requires some level of order. It’s not a bad thing.

But there’s more. The Christian worships a sovereign God who rules all things. If he’s a God who has lost control of the world, he doesn’t deserve our worship. He’s all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise. What Christians do is recognize that what we see in front of us is not the whole story. What’s visible is not necessarily what’s real. The world has meaning, it has order, it has a plan, because of God. To think that God is not there or doesn’t care or that it’s all up to us is the problem. God is not worried. Why? Because he’s God.

Notice that in Romans 13 Paul doesn’t mention names or situations. He doesn’t mention Nero, who was on the throne at the time. Nero had not at this point completed his evolution into one of the most infamously horrible and heartless rulers who ever lived – in a class with Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, and Saddam Hussein – but from the beginning no one doubted Nero’s resolve to hold on to power at any cost.

Would Paul have written differently if he were writing a few years later, when Nero was lighting up Christians as human torches, having falsely accused them of starting the great fire of Rome? Would he have written differently once Nero had become completely insane, and Paul himself was about to have his head chopped off?

I’m going to say, “No!” Peter wrote his first epistle much closer to that time, when Christians were suffering badly, and he said the same thing. Read it for yourself in 1 Peter 2:13-17. Christians don’t think and talk and act differently because we have good leaders.  It’s because we know their Boss.

If Paul were writing on this subject today, he wouldn’t mention Obama or McCrory, much less Clinton or Trump or Johnson. Paul is telling us to get our minds off the people we see and the situations we’re in – to not let them direct how we live as believers. How the Christian thinks about government has almost nothing to do with the government itself. Almost literally nothing. Nada.

I was asked this week whether Paul would have advocated the American Revolution, or the Civil Rights movement, or resistance to Hitler. I’m going to answer differently than I did on Thursday. Romans 13 is not about that. There are other Scriptures that deal with exceptional situations. Paul’s not writing about that here. He’s writing general principles for how Christians think differently than the world thinks.

That’s why Paul wrote Romans 13 the way he did. So now let’s go back to verse 7, where Paul applies these principles. What Paul says is applicable in any political situation.

Thanks be to God!

First, be a good citizen. That’s what Paul means by “Render to all their dues.” Whatever your government or situation requires of you as a citizen of the state, do it. Paul is almost certainly making a direct allusion to what Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). We don’t even have to ask whether Paul would advocate obeying the government if the government tells you to disobey God. That’s a no-brainer. If middle management tells you to disobey a direct command from the CEO, are you obligated? Of course not.

But that’s rare enough not even to deserve mention in this context. Paul is simply saying that even though our citizenship is not of this world, the believer does what is right within the system because it pleases God. So, this is where we insert that our system of government is a system that allows and expects full participation and involvement from the citizens. In a democratic society, to be a good citizen is to vote, speak up, engage, run for office, do your homework, listen, persuade. As Tim Keller says, “You become more political when you become a Christian.”

Second, pay your taxes. Yes, that’s a Christian duty. Nobody likes taxes, and in America we quibble over taxes as if one party wants all your money and the other party wants to drop the tax rate to zero. That’s not true, of course. The debate is over a range somewhere in the middle. If you drive on public streets, want water delivered to your house and sewage taken away, if you want to call 911 to summon a fire truck, ambulance, or police car, if you want our kids educated, if you want Medicare when you’re older, if you want the military defending our freedom, you believe in taxes. The debate is over how much. Whatever the result of that debate, Christians pay up.

Third, fear doing wrong. I’m quibbling with most commentators and translators when I use the word “fear” instead of “respect.” But I think it’s consistent with the context. Take, for example, texting while you drive. Or creating a disturbance, embezzling, or stealing. If there’s anything you’re doing that’s illegal, you should be afraid. Let that fear be one of the factors that keeps you doing the right thing. But, as Paul had said earlier, don’t let it be the only factor. Do what’s right because it’s right as you follow your conscience.

Fourth, give honor where it’s due. This is where Christians seem to have a hard time with following a very clear teaching of the Bible. Very clear. You may say, “Well, I don’t think our leaders are “due” honor. You’re missing the point. They’re not “due” honor because of their policies or practices. They’re due honor because they’re in office.

In 1997 Bill Clinton was President, and our 12-year-old daughter Cara knew we weren’t his fans. While visiting the Florida home of golf legend Greg Norman, President Clinton fell down a set of stairs and injured his knee. When I told Cara about it, she exclaimed, “Ha!” thinking she was simply affirming her parents’ dislike for the President. She still remembers how I scolded her and made her write a get well note to Mr. Clinton. Honor for the office is something we need to teach our children.

I would argue that in a democracy those who are “due” honor are also fellow citizens. There isn’t one “Christian” party or way of handling taxes or immigration or trade or so many other issues. Certainly no one party has it all figured out. Is government about responsibility, as Republicans claim, or compassion, as Democrats say? It is both.

If you could join a church with 100% political agreement, would you? I hope not. Here’s a more important question. If you could convert someone to your party or to Jesus, which would you choose? Do people on your Facebook page or those in your social circles think your party is more important or your trust in Jesus?

Finally, pray. This is admittedly not in this text. It’s from 1 Timothy 2:1-2, where Paul writes, “I urge then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving be made for everyone, for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” There’s a difference between “praying for” and “praying against” someone. Pray for President Obama – for wisdom, for strength, for humility, for protection, for his family, for the great responsibility he carries.

Why do we pray? Paul says in Philippians 4:6, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” We pray so we can stop worrying. We turn it over to God, because it’s beyond us.

There’s an inexplicable peace that washes over me when I realize that government is middle management. They answer to God, who is good, sovereign, and wise. That, my friends, is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] In this sermon I’m quoting from the pre-2011 New International Version because that is what most worshipers will have in front of them.  For this passage, most of the changes in the updated NIV are in an effort to use inclusive language – for example, “Let everyone be subject…” instead of “Everyone must submit himself…”

[2] “Submit” is the Greek hypotasso (arrange under), and “institute” is from the same root, tasso, arranged.  “Authority” (exousia) is used broadly in the New Testament, but in context here clearly refers to human governments.

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