1 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. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 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. 4 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. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
From the city park camps of the Occupy movement to impromptu protests organized by the leaderless Internet-based group Anonymous, a distinctive mask has been showing up everywhere, one identified with Guy Fawkes, a terrorist who attempted to blow up the houses of Parliament in 1605.1 Those who wear it are not known so much for a particular cause, but for a general contempt for authority, and that puts them at odds with the teaching of Scripture.
When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, the Emperor Nero was on the throne, the Nero infamous for his persecution of Christians. One might expect Paul to speak dismissively of the emperor, reserving his call to submit for believers in happier realms. But in the face of great difficulty under Roman rule, the apostle pressed his fellow saints to be respectful citizens as best they could, even though this was the very state which had crucified their Savior, Jesus.
Perhaps this was simply the counsel of prudence, given the numerical weakness of the Christians in the empire. Or perhaps it was a matter of priority, with evangelism and church planting coming first. By this interpretation, Paul was concerned that the nascent church not waste its time and energy on good projects while neglecting the best project for its day. But Paul does not ground his command in peculiar circumstances; rather, he ties this duty to the revealed truth that government, per se, is God-ordained.
Of course, this command is not an absolute, for the same passage provides a job description for the emperor, one which could render his rule illegitimate should it become so devoid of justice and decency that it resembled, for example, the Third Reich or ISIS. Thus Christians rightly praise Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s fatal effort to eliminate Hitler. But the default position must be one of obedience to law and deference to authority. Accordingly, the burden of proof lies upon the one who urges civil disobedience over one issue or another in the name of righteousness, and not upon the one who says his fellow citizens should comply with the government’s directives.
In this vein, the pastor must not stir the pot of insolence or lawlessness when riots are impending, but rather appeal to cooler thinking, due process, and patience, pointing to the opening verses of Romans 13 for the higher authority which authorizes the lower authority. Yes, there is a time for resistance and even revolution, but that time comes much later rather than sooner. And whatever protest God’s people may mount—unlike the “Guy Fawkes” crowd—they don’t wear masks, but rather stand and let themselves be identified as voices of dissent, not as self-indulgent, even cowardly, belligerents without constraint.
1 The popularity of this mask stems from the 1980s, when Alan Moore and David Lloyd created a series of graphic novels, from which issued the movie V for Vendetta. The main character, an anarchist, wore a Guy Fawkes mask featuring a big grin, big mustache, and rosy cheeks. “How Guy Fawkes Became the Face of Post-Modern Protest,” Economist, November 4, 2014, http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2014/11/economist-explains-3 (accessed February 26, 2015).