Paul instructed believers living in the Roman Empire not to resist the government since its existence and authority were arranged by God. Writing to the churches of Rome, Paul presents principles for Christian conduct in relation to the State. Believers must “subordinate themselves to governing powers, for there is no authority except by God.” His statement was written when Nero ruled the Roman Empire, the same man who became the first emperor to persecute the church.
But what is truly exceptional is Paul’s exhortation to show respect to “governing authorities” in an imperial system that was anything but democratic, one ruled by autocrats with absolute power.
And at the time he composed his letter, the Empire was ruled by Nero, one of the most infamous of Rome’s emperors. Yet despite the despotic nature of his regime, the Apostle summoned believers in the city of Rome to show respect and honor to Caesar and his officers.
According to Paul, the existing governmental powers have been “arranged” by God. This rendering translates the Greek verb tassō, which means to “order, arrange, set, appoint.” In other words, governing authorities exist by the “arrangement” of God, whether we understand His reasons for the present order or not.
In principle, this teaching was not new. Paul builds his argument on Old Testament precedents, including passages in the Book of Daniel.
Near the start of the Babylonian Captivity, Daniel declared that God rules over the affairs of the nations - “He removes kings and sets up kings… He rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever he pleases, and sets up over it even the basest of men” - (Daniel 2:21, 4:17).
And because He “arranged” the existing authorities, to “resist” them constitutes resistance to the “arrangement of God.” If God does give political authority to whomever He pleases, rebelling against existing authorities would mean trespassing on God’s prerogative and challenging His sovereignty.
Over the centuries, some, perhaps many, church leaders have argued that tyranny, corruption, and incompetence constitute exceptions to Paul’s rule. In such circumstances, the church’s support for political and even violent revolution becomes necessary if not justified.
But that is an argument of expedience, not principle, a form of the “end justifies the means.” Moreover, it ignores the historical context of the Roman house churches.
First, Paul says nothing about any exceptions to the rule. Justifying insurrection based on the government’s repressive policies or corruption is a loophole sledgehammered into the scriptural passage.
Second, Paul is writing to Christians living under a pagan and authoritarian regime. The Roman Empire was certainly not democratic and only occasionally just. Caesar held absolute power, and the government was notoriously corrupt and brutal.
Third, at the time Paul wrote, NERO WAS CAESAR, a man so depraved that even by Roman history and standards he was beyond the pale.
Among other things, Nero murdered his half-brother and his mother. In a fit of rage, he kicked his pregnant wife to death. Needing a scapegoat for the fires that burned much of the city in A.D. 64, he blamed the conflagration on the followers of Jesus, thereby becoming the first emperor to persecute the church, at least officially.
And quite possibly, Paul himself was executed in that very ‘Neronian Persecution,’ the very same apostle who taught the church in Rome not to resist the government.
Considering New Testament principles and its apocalyptic perspective, the teaching of Paul makes perfect sense. The disciple of Jesus is called to give his total allegiance to Jesus, a political action that transcends all national, ethnic, social, and cultural loyalties - (Galatians 3:28, Revelation 5:9-12, 7:9-17).
Christ’s disciple is a citizen of a realm that has no concept of “dual citizenship.” Loyalty to him must supersede all other allegiances. Moreover, he tasked his church with proclaiming the good news of the “Kingdom of God” to ALL nations, thereby summoning all men to render allegiance to its king.
The only “revolution” that matters is the Kingdom of God. The day is coming when His rule will replace ALL existing governments and regimes, good and bad, legitimate or not, and that day will coincide with the “arrival” of Jesus in glory at the end of the age. That biblical declaration alone tells us that no government in existence today will endure forever - (1 Corinthians 15:20-28).
In the interim, every disciple of the Nazarene is called to testify to that political reality while living in a fallen world. But to work for change in the corrupt institutions of this age means working for something that will not endure, to expend time and energy on “meat that perishes” - (1 Corinthians 7:31).
The exhortation to obey even a despotic state ought to give us pause before immersing ourselves in the political processes of this world, let alone advocating rebellion against existing authorities. Any call for Christians to disobey an unpopular government or officeholder must be rebuffed, if for no other reason than because Scripture demands it.
The disciple of Jesus must not disengage from the world, but rather, he or she ought to engage it with the biblical means - faith, prayer, gospel witness, acts of mercy, and above all, self-sacrificial service for others including “enemies.”
We are NOT called to live our lives conformed to the ideologies and values of this age. Yes, very often the State is unjust, even brutal, and that is precisely the point. Disciples must not do evil so some greater “good may come.” The ends do not justify the means! The church is called for something far different than the ideologies and methods of the kingdoms and political systems of the present “evil age.”