Romans 13 has a lot to say about how we should live on earth. Romans 13:1-5 looks at ‘submission to governing authorities’ and has been the subject of much debate over the years. The letter to the Romans was probably written in the mid 50s and corresponds to the events described in Acts 20:1-3, where Paul was taking up an offering from the churches to give to the church in Jerusalem (see also Rom 15:25-26). There is no doubt that Paul suffered much under the hands of the authorities (see 2 Cor 11:23-26). He had also pursued Christians himself when a Jew, persecuting them as a man under authority who was zealous for God, even though he was at the time obviously totally misguided. The Roman empire was certainly at this time no godly empire: the Roman religion included Emperor worship! Yet Paul talks about being subject to the governing authorities and says ‘there is no authority except that which God has established’ (Rom 13:1), which makes little sense to us. We can cope with the idea of obedience to that which is good and righteous, but is Paul really telling us to submit to authorities which are ungodly? What about Peter’s comment in Acts 5:29 “We must obey God rather than men!”? Is there no place for civil disobedience in Christianity?

These are difficult questions and Christians don’t always agree on the answers. But as we look at different authorities in the Bible, we may be surprised sometimes to see how God views them. God called Cyrus, a heathen king, his ‘anointed’ (Is 45:1) – the same title given to Christ! David refused to touch Saul, the Lord’s ‘anointed’, when he had the opportunity to kill him, even though Saul was persecuting David (1 Sam 26:5-11). Habakkuk struggled with the idea that God could use the Babylonians to discipline His chosen people, the Israelites: “God, you chose Babylonians for your judgment work? Rock-Solid God, you gave them the job of discipline? But you can’t be serious! You can’t condone evil!” (Hab 1:12, The Message)

The Bible also talks about how those who have lived under sinful authorities have reacted in the past. Moses, the ‘prince of Egypt’, tried to do God’s will in his own way by murdering an Egyptian who was ill-treating a Hebrew (Ex 2:11-12). That way didn’t work and Moses had to wait a long time before being called by God to be His deliverer in a different way (Ex 3:1-11). Daniel and his friends showed how to live with integrity and honour even in a culture that did not honour God or know His ways. Dan 1:8-16 shows how they negotiated a compromise of vegetarian diet which would allow them to obey God and yet which would also serve as a witness to the authorities. It’s not easy to be dogmatic about these issues. Sometimes we have to disobey (see also Daniel 3 and 6) and put our lives on the line. Jesus’s command to preach the gospel clearly had precedence over the authorities’ command not to teach in the name of Jesus any more (Acts 5:28-30). However, though we may struggle with the whole idea of authority in our society where the default setting seems to be anti-authority, we cannot escape the uncomfortable truth that God’s ways are not our ways and sometimes there are things He tells us to do which seem contrary to common sense and what we want to do. We need to listen carefully to His still, small voice and be both humble enough to submit to authority and confident enough in His authority to take a stand for Him, swimming against the tide if necessary.