Not many people like to be bossed around. I have a mixed relationship with authority. Having been a pastor of an African-American church I heard plenty of stories of racial profiling in Chicago, of people receiving harsh treatment at the hands of the authorities and of trumped-up charges which were upheld in court. I tend to have empathy with those who sit in their car talking with a traffic-cop. This may come from my upbringing where my father jokingly called the police the ‘gestapo’ or ‘the pigs’. I know that these ideas are inappropriate, especially in America where there is a strong connection with anti-Semitism and Nazis, but even though I wouldn’t use derogatory terms for the average policeman, I have a gut response that they are rule-followers who lack compassion and have a delight in catching others in acts that they do themselves.
Romans 13 challenges my emotions quite strongly. Let’s look at the first few verses together:
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 judgement.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, honour to whom honour is owed.
God is the source of authority. His nature is the defining basis for authority. When police exercise their authority rightly, they do something which is in the nature of God. So, if we do not come to a complete stop at a stop sign, or our car stops just over the line, we have transgressed and the police can rightly issue the full punishment of the law. Although this feels horrible, it is, in fact, good. It measures up to the absolute standards which have been set. Laws were not really made to be broken, as many people say, they were made to create an orderly society. In many cases, there was an evil, like accidents at stop signs where people just blew through them. This evil was addressed by the good law. However, what it reveals in me is that I do not measure up to the standard. It reveals a shortcoming in me when I am pulled over by a policeman. Rather than feeling gratitude I feel resentment, frustration and embarrassment. If I am doing 70 mph on the tollway in Chicago, I drive with some level of fear that I will be pulled over because the speed limit is 55. If I want to drive without fear, I should drive at 55.
Christians should be supportive of an ordered, law-abiding society. The current ideas of freedom which thumb their noses at law-enforcement and look for loop-holes in the law, are not really biblical. In one sense Christians are free from the law, because we have died to the requirements of Mosaic law as a means to be right with God. In another sense,though, Christians are subject to the law. This is because we choose to be model citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven who live out holy lives for God’s glory.
The final part of the passage above emphasizes order. It emphasizes a structured and hierarchical society where each person receives the respect and the submission which fits their position. I have never disrespected a policeman and I have paid fines which I have owed. The emotional patterns formed in my youth may still be under the surface, but I act in accordance with what I know to be right. I don’t always like what is right and good, but, in public life, I seek to submit to the authorities that God has put in place.