Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due. -- Romans 13:1-7
There are some words that just seem to be loaded for bear, so to speak. “Authority” is one of those. Just saying the word conjures up images of power, strength, the ability to compel, the quality of decision, the demand of compliance. Authority also implies structure, boundaries, security, certainty, ability to act, arbiter of what is right and proper. It fact, it’s really hard to define “authority” without using the word itself. It sums up so many things in five simple syllables. From birth to death, a person is always under the authority of someone, directly or indirectly. Parents, teachers, police, judges, superior officers, royalty, elected officials, legislative bodies, bishops, priests, religious leaders – there is never a time when someone is not subject to external authority, unless, maybe, they decamp to a deserted island and live as a hermit.
In Paul’s world, authority was to be obeyed and dissent was quickly squashed. A smoothly running society was the expected norm, and the honor of a family, like that of the society as a whole, depended on each individual doing his or her duty, paying taxes, religious tithes, and expected gifts and charities. Any deviation was subject to swift punishment, from loss of status to prison or even death. Our culture today would be totally foreign to Paul, based as it is on individual merit, whether through hard work, skirting the edge of legality or both. Paul reflected the belief that all authority was from God and to revolt against the legitimate authority was, in essence, revolting against God and God’s will. Today, it only seems to be God’s will if the right person is elected or the right government with the right agenda is in power.
It’s funny, I hear a lot of God-talk going on these days. As a matter of fact, I hear God invoked more today by all sorts of people, quite often politicians, than at any other time in my life that I can remember. Oddly enough, God is being invoked on both sides of issues such as rights for women, GLBT folk, immigrants, the poor, children, and the unborn. It is like a tennis match where people are the ball and God is the racquet in the hands of opponents on either side of a net. It can be pretty disheartening sometimes. I wonder -- do those who feel that God's will is expressed when a candidate they endorse is chosen believe that God abdicates periodically when someone they oppose is elected? I wonder how they reconcile that with "...for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God." Looking at many comments from ordinary people to stories on the internet and in other media regarding leaders like the current (or even the past) President, there are a lot who believe that God couldn't possibly have chosen him, despite majority vote of the electorate who chose him. It makes me wonder, what do I believe about authority and when it should be endorsed or rejected? And what am I going to do about it when I feel rejection is the only answer?
Sometimes contemplating Paul's writings makes my hair hurt, but when I dig far enough, I usually find a lot that I need to think about. In this case, it is the role of authority and where God is in the process. One thing I have come to believe is that authority is a power that should be wielded benevolently and a crown (or mitre) that should be worn lightly. Most of all, God should be the ultimate authority to whom allegiance is owed and honor is due, not a racquet or a club with which to beat people or drive them in a desired direction.
I think that might be what Paul had in mind.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 21, 2012.