Romans 13: Respect for Government Leaders (seriously?!)

In one of my last posts on politics, I discussed how Jesus responded to the question of politics and taxes in his day. That naturally leaves us with the question of, what does the Bible have to say about our modern political process? That’s where we pick up in the book of Romans:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

–Romans 13:1-7

Now, let’s acknowledge right up front that there has been abuse of this scripture in the past. In ages past, scriptures like this one were used as a hammer to beat down on people who challenged the authority of a “divinely-appointed” king. That is not at all what this scripture is saying. Let’s also acknowledge up front that our political sensibilities are very different from that of 2,000 years ago. In democratic societies of today, we at least have a say in who governs us. If we don’t like our political leaders, there’s always a chance that they’ll be voted out of office. In fact, in the United States we are taught that we have a right to do that. Paul and the Roman Christians had no such expectation. And by the way, that doesn’t make them less intelligent or sophisticated human beings.

The Roman Empire at its greatest extent. As it expanded, Rome incorporated worship practices from other people groups like the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and others.

The governing authorities that Paul was referring to when he wrote the book of Romans were not so different from the ones I discussed in my post on Jesus and politics. The Christians were subjects of Rome, which publicly endorsed the worship of any number of gods. If you take a look at Roman history, the Romans were about as religiously inclusive as they could be. As the empire spread to Egypt and the Middle East, the Romans would incorporate worship of Egyptian and Middle Eastern deities into their religious traditions. Not only did the Romans endorse pagan deities, but Rome as a whole rejected Christianity and even persecuted the Church. (It wasn’t constant, but it did happen.)

These were the same authorities that Paul told Christians that they had to submit to! Paul even told the Christians to honor their political authorities. What sense does that make? It seems that Paul is making an argument that because God made the world and all of mankind is a creation of God, all human authorities are ultimately responsible to God for how they use their political power. Even the political authorities that deny God are still responsible to him and God uses them to keep humankind from descending into chaos.

Now, that does bring us to a whole host of questions about authority: what about evil dictators who kill their own people? Do we respect them or is there not some point at which we should depose them for no other reason than to preserve human life? Those are hard questions and I would rather not try answering them until I have more of a chance to consider them carefully. Besides, that is not really the point I’m trying to make with this post.

My point is, the Bible’s unified message seems to be that if we are trying to be faithful to God and follow Jesus, we have a debt of respect and honor to our political leaders even if they hate God and hate us.

Respect is in short supply in today’s political discourse. If we were simply more respectful to people of differing political beliefs, that alone could bring health and wellness back to our discourse.

If there is one political issue that gets me worked up, it’s this issue of respect. When I was in high school, George Bush was still the President. It always grated on my nerves to hear people refer to George Bush as “the dumbest president we’ve ever had.” It wasn’t because I was particularly fond of Bush; it was because they were being so disrespectful to him, essentially saying, “Yeah, I could do a better job than Bush.” No, you couldn’t. In spite of his accent, he went to college and he spent years of his life as the president, giving him experience. Instead of using such extreme statements, wouldn’t it be more honest and respectful to just say, “I don’t like Bush’s politics?” or even “I don’t think he’s qualified to be president?”

Now I know people who refer to President Barack Obama as “the worst president we’ve ever had,” as though they could do a better job than him. I’ll admit that I don’t like Barack Obama as President. Why? I don’t agree with his politics. That’s all. But at the same time, he is my president and he deserves my respect. I’m not saying that everyone has to like their political leaders and I’m not saying that we can’t have a healthy, honest discussion about which politicians we disagree with. I’m saying that we can disagree with the decisions our leaders make and still show them respect.

It seems out of fashion to show respect to those whose politics are diametrically opposed to our own, but let me remind us all: Jesus showed respect to the Roman authorities who would authorize his crucifixion. Paul told the Roman Christians to be submissive to the political authorities who might have been responsible for the cruel deaths of their spouses, siblings and children at some point or another. Even in the Old Testament, David refused to kill Saul even though Saul was literally hunting David down to kill him (see I Samuel 24). If that is the standard for treating those who hate us, why are we so disrespectful and even hateful to our political leaders when their only crime against us is not believing what we believe?

Just so I’m clear, I also acknowledge that there’s plenty of room for me to grow in this area of respect. I’ve been known to have rant-fests about politicians from time to time and I’m not always respectful to those I am disagreeing with. So…

How can we show respect to our political leaders? How can we honor our leaders who believe differently from us, even when we are stating why we disagree with them?

One thought on “Romans 13: Respect for Government Leaders (seriously?!)

  1. I am eternally interested in things like this, and I really appreciate the point you make about being mindful with what you’re trying to communicate, so as not to miscommunicate that one could do a better job than X politician. It promotes more concise and educated discourse. It calls me to be more present in my own convictions and statements about our political leaders. I’ve struggled with this verse quite a bit in my life, as well as similar verses prompting us to honor mom and dad. I always asked the question, how do you honor someone who isn’t worth honoring? The answer I’ve found through prayerful meditation is that I’m not the judge of who is honorable. I’m called to do something and I’m expected to do it, even if honoring them only means not returning negativity, strife, and hate. Which I think is applicable to this discussion of political leaders, or any authority figure. In the end, we’re only responsible for our own actions and how we respond to the things we disagree with.

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