Having spoken of the church’s role in the world, Paul turns to speak of the powers of the world. He speaks of these also in Ephesians 2:10, “So that through the church, the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” This means the governments of the world. The “heavenly places” means above, the higher places of government over people. (Titus 3:1)
Paul’s description in Ephesians 2:10 is in line with Christ’s reconciling kingdom, that Paul was speaking about from Ephesians 1. Christ is even reconciling the ruling powers of the world, meaning our governments and cultural institutions, bringing them into his image. This means, into the serving image of the cross.
Peter also speaks of this, showing the church’s role in giving respect to the powers, even to Emperor Nero, one of the worst rulers to oppress the world. Yet, according to Peter, the church was still supposed to honour the king as appointed by God, not to overthrow the rulers through revolution. (1 Peter 2:17) Christ didn’t revolt against Pontius Pilate in his sufferings but had a different method of renewing authorities. The church should follow the cross as God’s means of renewal.
Likewise, Paul said in Romans 13 that the government of Rome was appointed by God. The church was to respect the government in the places where the church lives in diaspora.
This is what Jeremiah told Jerusalem in his time. They should not rebel against the government of Babylon but be subject to them. (Jeremiah 27:12-15, 38:17-18)
In other words, Jeremiah wasn’t commending the Babylonian Empire. We know the biblical testimony against this empire, about how wicked it was. It was the same with the Roman Empire. This passage in Romans 13, isn’t Paul commending the government, but showing the church that the way in which she fulfils her role in society isn’t to rebel against government, but instead to renew it by example. Governments are renewed as they see the wisdom of God within the church. This is God’s plan, not rebellion or revolution.
Sometimes we have seen this passage in Romans 13, about the government being ministers of God, and that they have the sword to punish the wicked, as a warrant for the church to take up such powers for her own security or dominion in the world. But to think this, is far from what the bible teaches.
Paul was distinguishing the role of the church from the role of state power and showing in Romans 12 and 13 that our functions are very different.
Our role is to pray for the government, for peace in our region, but not to attempt to use the government for the purposes of the church. If we do, this brings injustice against others and creates more enemies for the church. The gospel must be shared through the cross, never through the sword. The church doesn’t do power well, it always ends up using it for worldly purposes. Power corrupts, as we hear, and complete power corrupts completely. So, it must be by the cross, meekness and by service that the church carries out its mission. If not, then we are not the church, not followers of Christ. As the saying goes, “When Christ disarmed Peter, he disarmed the church.”
What Paul was saying in Romans 13, is that the church is like the Jews in diaspora. We see Daniel as an example of this. He was in Babylon and advised the king. He respectfully advised the king to, “break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed…” (Daniel 4:27) He was bringing a transforming influence to the government, so that its power would be used to serve the weak, instead of oppressing them. If we, as members of Christ, find ourselves serving in government, then this is the transforming influence we are to bring.
We are to bring the cross to the government, to show that it is to beat its swords into ploughs, to serve the poor. If we use the government, like some biblical Jews tried to do, to bring its power against our enemies, then we create further enemies for our future. We are instead to seek justice and mercy for the needy, not to think of our ourselves. This will renew our world.
Some might claim that Paul said its God’s will for the government to execute the wicked. This is in a broken world.
Habakkuk struggled with this question, asking “Why does God use wicked Babylon to judge Israel?” God used wickedness to stop the wickedness of others. He didn’t motivate any of the wickedness of Babylon. That came entirely from their own hearts. But he allowed their wickedness to control the evil of Israel, to limit evil in the region.
And then Babylon’s wickedness also came back upon their own heads and brought them down as well. This is how the untransformed world works. In as much as its God’s permissive will in a fallen world, and the church shouldn’t interfere with it in revolution, this doesn’t mean that these governments bear the image of God in what they do. Only Christ bears the image of God through the cross.
And this was where Habakkuk was told that the just shall live by his faith-fullness. (Habakkuk 2:4) It was in direct contrast to the wickedness of Babylon, and the sword they used against Israel as God’s messengers. Though they were “the army of the Lord,” they were still a corrupt power. (Joel 2:11) This brings us back again to Romans 1:17 and what faithfulness is in this letter of Paul. It is living out a community witness of selflessness in the midst of a corrupt and covetous world.
This is the purpose of the community Paul was building in Rome, and the reason he was striving to bring Jews and gentiles together into one loving family, to fulfil God’s promise to Abraham. This was to fulfil the purpose of exposing, reconciling and renewing the world’s corrupt powers, just like the cross of Christ did, to deliver the creation from its bondage to corruption. Romans 13 is about renewing these powers through the witness of community. If these powers aren’t renewed, then the creation isn’t renewed.
The church in Paul’s day understood what Paul meant, as they forbad any baptised believer from enlisting in the Roman army and killing in any way. The early church had a consistent pro-life policy. They forbad abortion, infanticide, capital punishment, killing in war, or euthanasia for the elderly or sick. This was the consistent policy of the church for at least its first 200 years, possibly longer, until in the era of Constantine this policy changed, along with the church’s theology.
The reason the church held to this policy on killing, was because they said killing was inconsistent with the nature and kingdom of Christ. They appealed to the image of God seen in the cross and to the Prophets, like Isaiah, who spoke of the kingdom of God coming through a serving, self-giving church, that put an end to all violence. They said that if all became Christians, followers of Jesus (this was before “Christendom”) then there would be no more war. There was no argument about his in the early church. Their baptism was a baptism to peace. The ending of war is a stated goal in scripture for the coming of the kingdom of God through the church. But today, this vision in this age of the church, has been largely set aside.
So, Paul was not invoking the role of the government to commend it, nor to suggest the church use the government to support the church’s peculiar interests, or to suggest the church emulate the government’s power, but only so that the church would not come into danger and harm by revolting against the power, just as in the same way Jeremiah advised Jerusalem concerning the Babylonian Empire in his own time.
The church’s role is to bring a transforming leaven to the powers of the world, not to emulate or use the powers for its own particular interests within the society. The church’s role is to transform the powers of the world through our own model of a self-giving, cross ethic, in caring for the least within our community. This is what the church did within the Roman Empire and it worked. They eventually transformed the empire this way.
The best thing the church can teach the powers of this world, is to overcome the world’s greed and violence by caring for the poor and by reconciling different groups of people together through merciful justice to them all. When the world builds separate pockets of self-interest, not caring for others, then trouble is certain, and warfare will be inevitable. The church shows reconciling life styles, healing within our wider church community, the peace we live between our different races and economic groups within the church, as the witness of how the governments are to heal their nations. This is the tree of life the governments will eventually eat from in Revelations 2122.
This is the church’s role in the society:
“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the
commandments, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet, and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: you shall love your neighbour as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10)
Paul sites the Ten Commandments, which were the renewing word of Israel to the nations in their diaspora. The Ten Commandments were the centre piece of the synagogue’s testimony to the nations. Now the Ten Commandments are the renewing word to the world, through the love in our own hearts, lives and relationships. Love within our transformed lives is the living witness of Israel’s Torah, come to life in our relationships through the cross and Spirit of Christ. Our lives are the word of God that the world reads. This, not the world’s power, is what the church uses for transforming our communities. Paul was siting Israel’s diaspora mission being fulfilled in the church of Christ.
“Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarrelling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Romans 13:11-14)
“The night is far spent; the day is at hand.” We only have a limited time in our life to serve God. We should spend it wisely, before we spend it on foolishness. The wise way to spend our life is in building a renewing community on the ethics of the kingdom of God, giving witness to the world of the kingdom to come. Because when this kingdom comes, which will be very soon to us all, then this kingdom will be eternal.
Israel wasn’t to be in Babylon forever. They were to expect their deliverance and the renewing of their land through their return. The Prophets, like Isaiah’s Servant Songs, were clear, that God would deliver them in his righteousness, and that they should not give up this hope. So, the church isn’t to follow the ways of Babylon, but to expect that through us, there is coming a new kingdom into our nations, which finally, in the resurrection, will renew our land entirely. This is how we are to live, as though this day is now upon us. We are to live with the Romans 8 vision of a world being set free from its corruption, rather than join that corruption.