A pastor friend asked me if it is Biblical for pastors to encourage their congregation to join the Anti-Pork rally today in various cities in the Philippines. Obviously, Paul hates pork because he is a Jew (Deu 14:8), but if he was alive today as a Filipino, he will also hate the absolute corruption and plundering of government revenues involved in pork barrel funds.
But in spite of this, Paul’s teaching in Romans 13:1-7 is certain to generate a lot of opposition among Filipinos, because of the current state of affairs of total corruption in very high places in the government:
1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
From the above text and other Scripture passages, here are ten things we learn. Remember that Paul lived under the occupying forces of Rome, which was not exactly favorable to Christians. He was not only talking about good governors, but government authorities in general.
1. Government is instituted and appointed by God. When a citizen violates the laws of the land, he is condemned by God (verses 1, 2, 5). Again, Paul doesn’t make a distinction between good and bad rulers, or between those who came to power by election or by force.
2. As citizens, Christians are to be subject to their government. To be “subject to” is also translated “submit to” (Eph 5:24). Submission or subjection usually means obedience (1 Pet 3:5-6), so the Christian citizen must obey his government, whether good or bad. John Calvin wrote about this:
We are not only subject to the authority of princes who perform their office toward us uprightly and faithfully as they ought, but also to the authority of all who, by whatever means, have got control of affairs, even though they perform not a whit of the princes’ office (Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.20.25).
3. Government in general is a blessing to the people. Sometimes God gives good civil authorities who are “a terror to good conduct,” and Christians should thank God when their civil magistrate governs with wisdom, justice and righteousness, and upholds the rule of law. But sometimes, God raises up evil rulers as a means of testing or even punishing nations, as when God’s wrath came upon Judah because of King Hezekiah’s pride (2Chr 32:24–25). And because God is a God of order, he instituted governments to prevent anarchy.
Anarchy was exactly Israel’s condition during the time of the judges when they had no instituted government. Although God was not pleased with Israel’s demand for an earthly king, the last words of the Book of Judges are telling, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes“ (Jdg 21:25).
4. Submission to civil government is subject to the Word of God. On pain of imprisonment or even death at the hands of government rulers, Peter did not cease from preaching the gospel, saying, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) Other faithful believers who disobeyed authorities because the law contradicted God’s commandments were: the Hebrew midwives (Exo 1:17); Daniel and his three friends (Dan 3:12–18; 6:10); and Moses’ parents (Heb 11:23).
5. A peaceful demonstration is different from civil disobedience. As a corollary to Nos. 2 and 4, Christian citizens may join protest rallies and denounce corruption and wickedness of the government and the people like the Old Testament prophets. But this right to peaceful assembly and speech is not a license to lawlessness. For example, if the civil authorities do not grant a rally permit, then a demonstration is unlawful. As well, the “Occupy” movement in America last year was lawful until the protesters camped in the parks—and trashed them—when camping in such places were illegal.
But what about citizens who want to force out their wicked and tyrannical ruler? Calvin said of “magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings”:
I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy [wicked corruption], because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance (Institutes 4.20.31).
What Calvin was saying is that lower-ranking civil magistrates are duty-bound to expose and oppose unlawful acts of their higher authorities, such as what whistleblowers who hold lower positions of authority are doing when they expose the corruption of their superiors. As Paul says, a civil magistrate has the right to “bear the sword” because “he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer,” even if the wrongdoer happens to be the president.
6. Pay what is due to the government. Christians must not refuse to pay taxes or disobey laws simply because they see that corrupt civil officials are embezzling their money. In spite of the corruption, injustice and wickedness of Rome, Jesus, Paul and all the Christians who were persecuted by the Roman Empire did not ever preach to overthrow the Roman authorities.
Jesus first explained this in saying, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mat 22:21). Therefore, we are to be subject even to corrupt civil authorities (verses 6-7). He must submit to both rulers, but God’s law takes precedence over a human authority’s law if there happens to be a conflict between the two.
7. Leave the matter of punishing wicked rulers to God. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Rom 12:19). He will punish wicked rulers, whether in this age or in the age to come. He even uses his own appointed men to uproot them and to lead his people against wicked kings, like Moses who led Israel out of Egypt against the decree of the Pharaoh; and Israel’s judges “who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them” (Jdg 2:16).
Calvin differentiated between two classes of people whom God uses as instruments to punish wicked tyrants:
The former class of deliverers being brought forward by the lawful call of God to perform such deeds, when they took up arms against kings, did not at all violate that majesty with which kings are invested by divine appointment, but armed from heaven, they, by a greater power, curbed a less, just as kings may lawfully punish their own satraps. The latter class, though they were directed by the hand of God, as seemed to him good, and did his work without knowing it, had nought but evil in their thoughts (Institutes 4.20.30).
One kind of people God uses are his own appointed righteous deliverers, such as Moses and Israel’s judges, who used non-sinful action. Moses did not lead a revolt, but Pharaoh allowed them to leave after God sent ten plagues against Egypt. The other kind of people are those who act against God’s will in Romans 13 to accomplish his justice and righteousness. Various revolutions, including the French, American and Philippine revolutions, fall under this category. Even the two non-violent EDSA revolutions, which spawned various non-violent revolts across Europe, are against God’s commandments as well.
What would a people do to remove tyrants? Various lawful mechanisms in various countries have been set in place by their governments. In the Philippines and elsewhere, there are regular elections. If a wicked president is elected, then the lower magistrates, such as Congress, can impeach him out of office. If there is absolute one-man rule such as the Marcos dictatorship, and there is no mechanism to remove a tyrant, God will surely take vengeance on him by some other means, even if it takes years or decades.
Although God does not seem to be sovereign over all rulers, he actually rules over all earthly rulers even now (Dan 2:21). But in the end, God “shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end” (Dan 2:44) and Christ shall make “his enemies … a footstool for his feet” (Heb 10:13).
8. Wicked rulers are oftentimes toppled by even more wicked rulers. In the Bible, God sometimes uses wicked rulers to conquer other wicked rulers. Habakkuk questioned God’s justice in raising up the wicked Babylonians to judge Israel for Israel’s sins. But God told him that he would raise another people to destroy the Babylonians (Hab 1-2). In the last century, we have Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, Russia, Africa, Latin America, China, Southeast Asia, including the Philippines. This is practically the experience of the whole world, even from the very early days of history.
9. The pulpit is not for preaching politics or social action. Related to No. 6, the church’s pulpit is for the salvation and sanctification of the congregation, not for encouraging and calling them to join a political rally. On their own, individual Christians may join a lawful protest against corruption and wickedness. The pastor, like the prophets of old, can denounce and condemn wickedness in the government and in the culture. But he may not lead his congregation in joining the Anti-Pork Rally in Luneta. D. G. Hart writes about what the church is all about,
The church as the house of God, the gate of heaven, a place for weary souls seeking refuge from the conflicts of this world through the cross of Christ—that is actually what the spirituality of the church begins with…
10. Christians ought to pray for their civil authorities. We do so, Paul says, in order that “we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1Tim 2:2). This is consistent with Jesus’ commandment to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mat 5:44), if it happens that the civil magistrate becomes the enemy of the gospel. And when we obey them and pray for them, we not only avoid God’s wrath through them, but also maintain a good conscience because this is God’s command (verse 5).
Here’s a useful article about the Christian’s relationship to the civil magistrate, “Reformed pastors are invoking Reformed resistance theory to justify disobedience to the Obama administration: Do they have a case?” by Matthew Tuininga.