In today’s epistle portion, St. Paul discusses the Christian’s relation to the state. His premise is that the source of civil government, indeed of all authority, is God, for He alone is sovereign. Therefore, St. Paul says, we are to be subject to these powers – but it is sometimes tricky.
The purpose of civil government is to produce a social order grounded in goodness, not evil; indeed, government is responsible for punishing evildoers. The state has been given the power of the sword, St. Paul says, the power of life and death over its subjects in order to maintain social order.
In addition, he says, we owe tribute or taxes to the same civil authorities.
The Church and State for St. Paul are certainly distinct, but not isolated one from the other, for the very people who make up the one may be members of the other. The state and its authority exist to maintain order and justice in society. In our prayer for the whole state of Christ’s Church, we pray for Christian rulers, that God would so
“direct and dispose [their] hearts that they may truly and impartially administer justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of His true religion and virtue.”
We assume that some who rule, or are elected to serve, may become Christians or be so already. But many who do so are not Christians, led by God and His Spirit. What about them?
We need to remember that St. Paul was writing to the Church at Rome, which was under not just a non-Christian ruler, but one who actively persecuted them. St. Paul himself would be put to death by the authority of Nero, the emperor.
“The problem of church-state relations was an acute one for the early Christians. How could they accept that a government that persecuted them had been ordained by God? Nevertheless the Fathers consistently supported the New Testament idea that the civil authorities were divinely ordained within their own sphere. They had every right to exercise restraint on the body, but not the soul. Christian obedience out of conscience must be serious in the temporal realm, but if the secular ruler transgressed his authority, it was the duty of believers to witness the truth by peaceful means.” – (Gerald Bray, ed. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture- Romans)
The fact is that without the moral voice, the conscience of the Church, the state can easily become the purveyor of evil rather than its punisher. It can become the opponent of goodness and justice.
Hence, a dilemma arises from the juxtaposition of two Biblical principles. One, the call to submit to the governing authorities and to recognize even non-Christian civil authority, and the other: that we are called above all to an unqualified obedience to God and His commandments. When the two conflict, we are bound to honor the latter rather than the former.
We have many examples of civil disobedience in Scripture: Daniel’s illegal praying, the Apostles’ illegal preaching and teaching, St. Paul’s own refusal to leave his prison cell as commanded in Acts 16:37f.
Church history provides innumerable examples: refusal to worship the emperor; refusal of military service; the illegal printing and distribution of Scripture; illegal religious instruction, to name a few.
Careful discernment is always necessary to determine when God’s authority and our obedience to it trumps our responsibility to the civil authorities. And as Christians, our response must always be non-violent in nature. If we do not believe that might makes right, or that violence leads to anything other than more violence, we are bound to be non-violent in our response. Murdering abortionists is not a Biblical response to the murder of innocents.
We must always consider that there is an indissoluble link between the means and the end. The means affect the character of the end, and so they should exhibit the character of the desired end: peace, justice and truth. Godly ends are achieved only by godly means. Most times the greatest witness we can bear in the face of civil opposition to our Godly call is that which Jesus manifested in the face of His: silently standing in the truth, which sees beyond the immediate circumstances into eternity.
St. John Chysostom wrote:
“Why do the pagans enjoy luxury and power, while the faithful suffer? So that you should recognize their weakness when they disintegrate of themselves with no external pressure, and that you should triumph in the power of the Faith which suffers misfortunes and yet multiplies through its opponents.”
We know full well Who is ultimately in authority, and Who will ultimately have the final say. Our task is to stand before Him with a clear conscience, having striven to keep His commandments above all, and to have prayed, as we do each day, that He will “save the state.”