The politics of Paul the apostle
In Romans 13:1-7 the apostle Paul writes: “[A ruler] is the minister of God to thee for good” (v. 3); “Wherefore ye must needs be subject ...” (v. 5); “... pay ye tribute [taxes]” (v. 6).
St. Paul seems to be saying that God ordains human governments and that Christians should honor and obey the government under whose jurisdiction they live.
Many Christians conclude from these verses that Christians should accept whatever government and laws their country has. Other Christians, while accepting the need for government and lawful behavior, question whether Romans 13 commands us to submit to human governments unconditionally. They ask: Is rebellion ever justified? Reform movements? Civil disobedience? Tax protests? Change?
Based on scriptural texts, Paul appears to be a quintessential conservative — not in the contemporary American sense of favoring a smaller government, but in the more traditional political sense of not wanting to disrupt the established order.
Indeed, contemporary progressives reject Paul’s unwillingness to challenge the social status quo. In his epistles, St. Paul tells servants to treat their masters well and vice versa. There are no appeals for “social justice,” equality of status, or redistribution of wealth. In addition to the famous passage in Romans, Paul exhorts Christians to pray for all in positions of authority (I Timothy 2:1-4). These are not the writings of a political dissident.
Before categorizing Paul as a political conservative, let us consider another possibility: Perhaps he was apolitical. Like his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Paul’s life was devoted to a spiritual mission — the advancement of the heavenly kingdom that is not of this world.
His objective was to reform and reconstruct the architecture of the thought, soul, and heart, not the superstructure of civil government. Paul was an evangelist for God and His son, not a political philosopher or activist. He was too busy being a spiritual radical to get involved in a political movement.
Indeed, Paul had to take great care that the fire of the Holy Spirit that burned in men’s hearts not be conflated with the flames of political passions.
Many Jews were still looking for a militant Messiah to lead them in revolt against the hated Romans. Paul must have known that if the followers of Jesus became a political movement challenging the authority of Caesar, the Roman army would crush, if not annihilate, the nascent Christian movement.
Out of love for his Lord and his fellow man, Paul would not lead his flock to certain slaughter. His apparent cautiousness was not due to personal timidity or concern for his own safety. This faithful apostle bravely endured repeated hardships in the service of his Lord: “Five times received I forty stripes save one, thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep ... In weariness and painfulness ... in hunger and thirst ... in cold and nakedness” (2 Corinthians 11:24, 25, 27). Ultimately, this “great lion of God” (as the novelist Taylor Caldwell characterized him) was martyred for his faith.
It is significant that Paul’s statements about honoring government occur in his letter to the Roman church. Certainly Rome, as home to Caesar and capital of the Roman Empire, would be particularly diligent in monitoring potential rebels. What if Roman authorities were to intercept Paul’s letter?
In that case, his statements about honoring government would contradict any charge that Christians were somehow disloyal to the emperor. At the same time, Romans 13 conveys messages that were opaque to the pagans but transparent to Christians.
The chapter begins, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers” (v. 1). While Roman authorities might have assumed that Paul was writing about Caesar, Christians knew that “the higher powers” were divine — that God is the sovereign to whom one owes fidelity.
And when Paul writes that a ruler “is the minister of God to thee for good,” (v. 4) doesn’t this imply that he is speaking of rulers who are just and good — those who uphold God’s rules protecting the sanctity of life, marriage, property, reputation, etc.?
Yes, we should pray for all who are in positions of authority, for benign and just rulers, that they continue to be so, and for corrupt or unjust rulers, that they mend their ways and govern better.
Here is a jarring thought: If Christians are never to rebel against unjust government, then America’s Founding Fathers were wrong to rebel against the English crown and parliament to establish a republic where most people’s God-given rights were given greater protections than anywhere else on earth.
This leads us back to those controversial, fundamental questions about which Christians of good conscience may strongly disagree: What is the proper scope of government?
To what extent should Christians “turn the other cheek” and “suffer it to be so now” by accepting the status quo, and when is challenging and changing laws and government justified?
Is it possible that Paul’s contributions to the scriptural canon were not essentially conservative, but so profoundly revolutionary on a long-term basis, leavening human thought until, centuries later, Christians’ hearts and minds were filled with the unshakable conviction that it was a human right to throw off unjust governments?
Here is one point on which most Christians may agree: Governments often adopt policies that don’t seem right, and we disagree on which policies those are.
But all of us can take heart from that glorious promise that St. Paul gave us in that same letter to the Romans: “... all things work together for good to them that love God ...” (Rom. 8:28). Amen.
[Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City (Penn.) College.]