August 05, 2020
I didn’t vote for President Rodrigo Duterte during the 2016 election. But when he won a historic victory against his opponents, it was clear to me that I am duty-bound as a Filipino and as a Christian to support his administration. I know that I pledged support to the government because that’s the right thing to do.
But what does it mean exactly for me to support the government? Is it about agreeing to everything the authorities do? How does that figure into my duty as a citizen to hold the government accountable? And when I witness oppression and injustice, what does my Christian duty to speak up for the poor and the powerless mean (Proverbs 31:8,9)?
One of the most widely contested verses in the Bible today can be found in Romans 13. In this chapter, the apostle Paul made a sweeping and somewhat controversial statement:
Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished.
Romans 13:1,2 (NLT)
In plain reading, it seems that Paul made a direct imperative: Submit to the government, or you will be guilty of committing rebellion against God who instituted it.
This passage has been a source of confusion and debate among Christians. Under different circumstances, these verses have been severely misquoted, misunderstood, or even abused to stifle dissent.
What did Paul really mean when he charged Christians to submit to all kinds of authority?
Does submitting to authority mean supporting the government at all cost and being silent on its misdeeds?
Does the Bible encourage blind submission and mindless subservience to the government no matter what?
One common mistake that people make when reading and interpreting the Bible is that they take a Bible verse and directly apply it to their situation without first understanding its original context.
In biblical studies, there’s such a thing called exegesis—the process of carefully analyzing and studying biblical passages in order to accurately interpret or understand its original meaning.
The Bible is an ancient book, written thousands of years ago to a specific audience, under specific circumstances, for a specific purpose. Yes, the Bible was intended for us, but the authors didn’t have us in mind when they were writing it.
Reading the Bible is like reading a letter that was written for someone: You can relate to its content because of the somewhat similar situation you’re in, but it was originally written by the author for someone else.
Now, in order to understand Romans 13, we must understand the circumstances in which Paul wrote it. If we miss out on the original context and the nuances of this passage, we run the risk of misinterpreting what the Bible meant by it.
First and foremost, it’s important to understand that the letter was addressed to Christians who were under the rule of the Roman Empire.
One big difference is that the Roman Empire was not a democracy where people elect their leaders. The emperor possessed absolute power, and the empire enforced its rule by subjugation, intimidation, and conquest.
The citizens were mere subjects of the government. They had no power or voice to shape their socio-political situation. Those who threaten Roman Peace—Pax Romana—will face dire consequences such as imprisonment, flogging, and crucifixion.
Why, then, did Paul write Romans 13?
Paul wasn’t making a sweeping generalization that refers to all kinds of government, let alone corrupt and tyrannical ones. Again, Paul had his reasons for writing this passage.
Different commentaries and Bible scholars mention various assumptions based on the prevailing condition at the time of its writing:
First, this could be Paul’s way of reminding Christians to stay safe, lest they incur the wrath of the emperor and suffer dire consequences such as persecution and death.
Second, the Jewish Zealot Movement at that time was unrelenting in their efforts to overthrow Rome, and Christians could be easily associated with this movement because of their Jewish roots. The empire was bent at quashing all kinds of resistance that could potentially disrupt Roman Peace.
Third, and most importantly, Paul wanted Rome to be the base of his Christian mission to Spain, so he wanted to ensure the safety and stability of the church in Rome.
We, however, live in a different world, with a different system of government.
Unlike the Roman Empire, we live in a democracy where people elect their leaders. Democracy encourages and thrives in social participation.
As a republican democratic nation, the government is viewed as a public trust. As the Philippine Constitution puts it, “Sovereignty resides in the people, and all government authority emanates from them.” (Article II Section 1)
Democracy is a social contract between the government and the governed.
The citizens elect the leaders they trust, with a pledge to submit to them by paying taxes and following the rule of law. Elected officials, on the other hand, are expected to perform their duties to serve the people and uphold the Constitution.
Both parties are bound by a social contract and will be held accountable as to how they fulfill their end of the deal.
Moreover, elected officials, while holding positions of leadership, are actually “employed,” so to speak, by the sovereign State to serve and protect the people. (Article II Section 4)
Hence, while we honor and recognize their God-ordained authority as leaders, it is also our rightful duty to hold our public officials accountable by virtue of the Constitution.
If that’s the case, then how does Romans 13 apply to our modern context?
What, then, does it mean to submit to governing authorities?
Here’s a difficult truth: No matter how fallen and evil a government looks like, it was God who gave them the power to rule.
In Romans 13:1, the Bible clearly states that “all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God.” In fact, God controls the course of world events; He removes and sets up rulers and kings (Daniel 2:21).
The command to submit to governing authorities is an absolute imperative. It’s non-negotiable, no matter how deplorable the government may be.
It’s a tall order, especially in light of what we’re experiencing right now as a nation. But it’s the definition of the word “submit” that spells all the difference.
The Message version puts it this way:
Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order. So live responsibly as a citizen.
Romans 13:1 (MSG)
In this passage, Paul was simply encouraging the believers to be good and responsible citizens.
For Paul, submission to authorities is an expression of our faith and obedience to God.
1. Submission to authority doesn’t mean blind obedience to the government.
The Bible never teaches mindless subservience to ungodly leaders. In fact, several stories in the Bible tell us that God approves “disobedience” if obedience to human governments would entail disobedience to God.
When King Darius forbade everyone to pray to any other god except him, Daniel kept praying to God three times a day. He was thrown into the lion’s den for his defiance. (Daniel 6)
When King Nebuchadnezzar ordered all his subjects to bow down before a golden statue in his image, three young Jewish men—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—openly defied him and suffered punishment. (Daniel 3)
When Peter and the apostles were forbidden by the high priest to preach about Jesus, they strongly declared, “We must obey God rather than men.” They were beaten up for their disobedience. (Acts 5:29)
Romans 13 doesn’t negate all of these instances. Paul wasn’t advocating mindless subservience to evil authorities.
Submission to authority means that we are to submit to human authorities to the extent that if our Christian convictions will mean disobedience to governing authorities, we must be willing to submit to them and face the consequences of our actions.
2. Submission to authority doesn’t mean silence in the face of evil, injustices, and oppression.
Because of the polarizing tendency of politics, many well-meaning Christians decide to distance themselves from political issues and discussions.
This is highly understandable, and I myself have also chosen to keep mum when my political views could potentially harm my relationship with people. I believe that keeping my significant relationships is far more important than insisting on my political views.
But that could also be problematic.
When we reduce evil, oppression, injustice, mass murder, and corruption to just being “political” in nature, we miss the point that these are actually moral and ethical issues.
No matter where you stand in the “political divide,” all Christians must agree that murder, corruption, lewdness, bullying, harassment, violence, and injustice are sin. More than a duty, it is our Christian nature to hate what is evil.
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice.
Proverbs 31:8,9 (NLT)
Speaking up against evil does not constitute rebellion against God-ordained authorities. It’s part of our calling as Christians to care for the least in society, to protect the rights of the oppressed, and to be the salt and light of the world.
One of the traits of a fully functioning democracy is when its people are actively involved in nation-building and in safeguarding the integrity of its democratic institutions.
A law-abiding Christian who lives in a democracy is expected all the more to speak up in the face of tyranny and abuse of power.
Renowned theologian Wayne Grudem said, “If we do not have significant moral influence, then from where will the government get its moral guidance? If Christians don’t speak publicly about moral and ethical issues affecting the nation, who will?”
But if we truly want to hold public servants accountable, we need to invite them to a proper discourse. We cannot be the first ones to jump to conclusions, assume guilt, or spread false or poorly investigated publications.
No matter how that person is portrayed on social media, as Christians, we are the first ones to remember that each human being is created in God’s image. This means we may arbitrate justice when guilt is proven, but even then, we do not have the right to tear down or cancel anyone.
Certainly, speaking up is just one of the many things that we can do in the face of oppression and injustice. How else must we respond as a Church when we encounter them?
In light of our role as Christian leaders, here is a companion article: https://www.encleaders.ph/how-should-christians-respond-to-oppression-and-injustice/