The Conscience of the King

Romans 13:1-7 (NLT)

Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you. The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong. So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience.

Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons. For government workers need to be paid. They are serving God in what they do. Give to everyone what you owe them: Pay your taxes and government fees to those who collect them, and give respect and honor to those who are in authority.

I’ve been saying for a few weeks now we would eventually hit the part in Romans about how Christians should relate to government leaders. We have arrived, and Paul seems very supportive of the idea of government, right down to telling us to pay our taxes.

Here’s the strange thing about what Paul wrote in Romans: His letter was being circulated during the reign of one of the most infamous leaders the world has ever seen. If anyone should have been against the idea of government, you would think it would have been Paul, who knew all his life what it was like to live under the oppressive Roman Empire, and late in life under the reign of Emperor Nero.

Like a lot of characters from ancient history, stories about Nero are disputable, but there’s little doubt he was flippant about murder, arranging to have his own mother and other family members killed early in his reign.

He also was blamed by many in his day for starting the fire that burned a large section of Rome, a section he wanted to use for his own grand palace, eventually known as “The Golden House.” The Roman historian Tacitus is the one who tells us Nero began to blame Christians for the devastating fire to divert attention from himself, launching one of the early persecutions of the fledgling church.

During this time, Christians were taken to the arenas and thrown to wild beasts or crucified. Occasionally some of them were dipped in tar, tied to posts and used as living torches to illuminate these persecutions.

And of course, the ultimate irony in Paul’s words is that the apostle most likely was martyred during Nero’s persecutions. While the account is not in the Bible, church tradition has long held that Paul was beheaded in Rome as a leader of the Christian movement.

So, when Paul calls leaders “God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong,” we have to ask ourselves: Was he simply naïve?

I don’t think he was. I do think it’s safe to say Paul was idealizing the role of government. In this time he lived in and we live in, this time before Christ returns to set all things right, our human leaders, acting as servants of God, should be working to bring order and security. This is God’s mandate for government.

Ideally, the government does its job, society runs smoothly, and citizens find themselves relieved of burdens rather than being burdened. Such a government also would create an ideal environment where people are free to develop spiritually.

Reading Paul’s words makes me think of Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States, from August 1923 to March 1929. We don’t talk much about Coolidge or study him at any length in general history classes. The primary reason is there were very few earth-shaking events while he was running things, despite the fact he first took office after scandal-plagued President Warren G. Harding died suddenly.

The U.S. government worked quietly, and in general life clicked along smoothly in a period called the “Roaring Twenties.” (We do have to remember the Great Depression began just seven months after he left office.)  While in office, Coolidge made some morally sound decisions: He granted citizenship to American Indians living on reservations, and he began some important conversations about racial equality. But mostly he was known as “Silent Cal.”

Here’s one of his more famous quotes: “The words of a President have enormous weight, and ought not to be used indiscriminately.” Obviously, Twitter had not yet been invented.

As most of us of any significant age know, government leaders seldom want to work in a Coolidge-like way. But like Paul, we can be loyal to the idea of the importance of steady, godly government. As we discussed at Luminary before the last national election, we can pray fervently for our leaders.

We also are blessed in a way Paul could barely imagine. By voting, we can actually wield our Christian influence when we go to the polls, shaping who represents us at every level. I’m not talking about “Moral Majority” Christian voting blocs like we saw in the 1980s, but I am talking about being the kind of voters who examine the morality of what a candidate proposes and an official does.

In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet finds a way to use words to capture “the conscience of the king,” revealing whether the leader is good or bad. As Christians, we seek not only to discern our political leaders’ moral stances, but to influence those leaders so they truly become God’s representatives on earth. When we act as Christian citizens, our consciences influence their consciences.

Again, these are all temporary matters. No leader has ever done for humanity what Jesus Christ did on the cross, making eternal life available for all.

Christ was Paul’s true king, and Christ is our king, too. But until such time as Christ returns, we are to be involved in the world enough to support our leaders, to pray for our leaders, and even to lead, if we are called to do so by God.

The featured image is “The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer,” Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1883.

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