The month of August is always an important month in Singapore politics. There is the National Day celebration on 9 August, as well as the Prime Minister’s National Day Message and National Day Rally. This year (2023), there is also much interest in the upcoming Singapore Presidential Elections, which must be held by September 2023. With all this mind, it is appropriate to study a passage from Romans 13:1-7 to remind ourselves that “the powers that be are ordained of God”.
In Romans 13:1-2, the apostle Paul instructs the churches in Rome to “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.”
Paul was writing to Christians living in the capital of the Roman empire, one of the most oppressive governments that ever existed. This was a government that practiced slavery, expansion by war, and persecuted Christians even to the death. And yet, Paul, speaking by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, commanded them to be subject to these higher powers (i.e. governing authorities). He reasons that this is necessary because these governing authorities have been ordained (i.e. assigned, appointed) by God.
If one were to resist and rebel against the Roman government, one would effectively be resisting God. This is because although God did not directly put the Roman Empire in power, but God providentially permitted their rule. Indeed, “the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever He will” (cf. Daniel 4:17, 25, 32).
What can we learn from this today? We ought to respect the command to submit ourselves to the governing authorities, whether it be prime ministers, presidents, judges, etc., regardless of our opinion on their behaviour. God has providentially permitted them to rule, and if we resist and disrespect these governing authorities, we are resisting and disrespecting God. Let us leave God to be the judge of the governing authorities’ behaviour – after all, “shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25)
Why did Paul command the Christians in Rome to submit to the oppressive and corrupt Roman government? In Romans 13:3-4, Paul gives the cause for doing so. “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”
Paul reminded the churches in Rome that they ought to submit to the governing authorities, because they punished evildoers and provided services to those who did good. For example, the Roman government would have punished criminal behaviour, just like any government today. The threat of punishment by the state would deter many from committing crimes, which would actually result in a more peaceful society. The Roman government also provided state services, such as building their world-famous water aqueducts and roads to serve the needs of the people, many of which are still in existence today. By punishing evil and protecting and providing for those who did good, the government was fulfilling God’s purposes.
What can we learn from this today? We ought to be grateful for the government of the day, which deters criminals through the threat of punishment if one does a crime. If there was no such deterrence, society would fall into anarchy and chaos. We also ought to be grateful that the governing authorities have provided schools, hospitals, police and fire services, which serve the needs of law-abiding citizens, of which Christians are part of.
Having provided the Christians in Rome with a command to submit to the government as well as a cause for doing so, Paul then turns to a call for action. In Romans 13:5-7 he writes: “Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.”
Paul called the churches in Rome to demonstrate their submission to the government, by paying their taxes, and showing reverential fear and respect to them. As mentioned earlier, these Christians were living under a government that was not lily-white – it was corrupt and oppressive. Yet, Paul charged these Christians to pay their taxes, regardless of how it might be diverted into their rulers’ pockets, and called them to show respect to their governors, regardless of their immoral and hostile conduct.
What can we learn from this today? Today, we pay taxes in a variety of ways, such as the personal income tax, as well as consumption taxes like the Goods and Services Tax. It is not wrong to use tax deductions that are provided in the tax code, but we should not even think of illegally concealing other sources of income (such as from the rental of a second property). We should not even consider over-claiming on tax deductions, for that would be dishonest. We will happily pay our share of taxes, knowing that these funds are largely to be used for the provision of services to law-abiding citizens. We will also honour the governing authorities, by speaking of them in respectful terms, even if we disagree with their policies. We will not “flame” the government with profane and vile speech on online forums, social media, or even in our conversations with family and friends.
Brethren, Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome about submitting to the government still ring true 2,000 years later. Let us heed the Command to obey the governing authorities, for they are ordained of God. Let us remember that the Cause for doing so is because the government punishes evil-doers and protects those who do good. Let us acknowledge the Call to pay our taxes and show our respect to the governing authorities, even (and especially!) when we disagree with them.