Politolatry (Romans 13:1-7)
Topic: Romans Passage: Romans 13:1–13:7
I. Review: Inside Us, Not Outside
The French pastor and theologian John Calvin once wrote “...man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” Similarly, in his commentary on the book of Acts he added, “...every one of us is, even from his mother’s womb, an expert in inventing idols.”
This past month we have been grappling with the reality of “American Idols”. No, not the kind who sing; the kind that are served; the kind that are worshipped. And these are not the statues or images that usually come to mind when someone hears the word “idol”. As we've already seen, sinful human beings can make an idol out of anything, and in many cases, out of very good things.
But why is this subject so important? Well, I believe it's important because idolatry can be so subtle. Idolatry can involve sinful behaviors that are explicitly condemned in God's word (as we saw last week when we talked about sexual immorality). But idolatry can also involve attitudes and actions that are not specifically mentioned in Scripture. And this fact, along with the reality that our idolatry often involves good things (like technology or sports or hobbies)... these facts often allow our idolatry to 'fly under the radar'.
You see, idolatry is not ultimately about things outside us. It is about what is inside of us. It is about the impulses of a sinful heart, impulses that reject God and seek to replace Him with something...with anything else.
But it is important to state from the outset that the reality of idolatry should always drive us to the gospel (Good News) of Jesus Christ. When we expose the ugliness of idols, it should always drive us to the beauty of Christ. When we realize that we are acting the slave of an idol, we should run to the freedom that only Jesus can make possible.
Resisting idols is never first about reforming my behavior. Resisting idols is only possible because, on the cross, 1) Jesus took the judgment for our idolatry, 2) because Jesus broke the power of our idol-inventing sin, and because 3) Jesus can, by grace, through faith, give us a new heart to love God above all else. Only by faith in the Good News of Jesus' death and resurrection can we walk in love for and thankfulness to the only true God.
II. The Passage: “Governing Authorities” (13:1-7)
But this morning I'd like us to tackle one more idol. And in order to expose this particular kind of idolatry, which can be, as we've discussed, very subtle in its deception...in order to expose this kind of idolatry, we need to turn to God's word. Turn with me this morning to Romans 13. Let's look together at verses 1-7...
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,  for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.  Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience.  For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.  Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Notice that this whole section deals with one theme: (v. 1) “the governing authorities”. For the readers of this letter, those who lived in the very capital of the Empire, the “governing authorities” were a known quantity. While the old forms of the Roman Republic still stood, under the Caesars, Rome had become a dynastic monarchy. When Paul wrote this letter, the “governing authorities” would have been the emporer Nero, the leading families of Rome, the Roman network of regional governors or proconsuls, and a number of other lower level civic leaders.
But I want you to notice three things Paul teaches these Christians about living a life of gospel-inspired obedience, specifically in regard to these “governing authorities”.
1. First of all, Christians are to submit themselves to the governing authorities (vs. 1, 5). To submit includes not resisting these governing authorities (v. 2). Submission or subjection also means doing what is good, not what is bad (v. 3), or we might say, doing what is legal, not what is illegal.
2. Second, the governing authorities are servants of God for the good of all people (vs. 1-6). Followers of Christ are called to submit to governing authorities because we recognize that God is ultimately the one who appoints or institutes these governing authorities. In fact, these civic leaders are twice described in verse 4 as “servants of God”. In verse 6, Paul calls them “ministers of God”. Paul is certainly not declaring that these governmental leaders are fulfilling the work of the gospel. No, as Paul teaches in verses 4 and 6, these governing authorities carry out God's work of maintaining civic order, whether that happens through the enforcement of laws or the collection of taxes.
Going back to Calvin one more time, he wrote that, "some kind of government, however deformed and corrupt it may be, is still better and more beneficial than anarchy". Therefore government is an expression of God's care and concern for our world.
3. Third, for conscience's sake, Christians should give what is owed to governing authorities (vs. 5-7). If subjection to civic leaders and to civic laws sounds rather passive, Paul adds a more active emphasis in verses 5-7. Not only should we not resist such leaders, but as God's servants before God's servants, we should honor and respect these individuals, AND honor our obligations in terms of taxes and fees. As Paul puts it, this is what is owed them, not because they are inherently worthy of honor, but because God has commanded it and because God is working out his purposes through such “governing authorities”.
III. Confusing the Spheres: Idolatry and Politics
Now if we fast forward 2000 years, we find ourselves in a very different world. But one thing does remain the same: we also live under “governing authorities”. But just as the earliest generations of Christians struggled with their relationship to civic leaders, we can also struggle. But for many of us, these struggles are radically different than those of the early church.
You see, for many of us today, politics (as we often call it) can become an idol. And that path toward idolatry begins with a confusion about the spheres of God's work. Remember, the NT primarily describes the ministry of the church (what we could call the ministry of the gospel), but it also describes here in Romans 13, what we could call a ministry of the government. And each operates in a particular sphere. Gospel and government.
The first readers of this letter by Paul to the Romans may have been tempted to think that the sphere of God's kingdom, which was announced and inaugurated by Jesus, had superceded the kingdoms of the world. Therefore, they might have believed that Christians no longer had to submit themselves to human governments. But Paul tells them, “No, that is incorrect. You are confusing the relationship between these two spheres that God is using simultaneously.
In the United States of America, we can also struggle from confusing these spheres. Let me give you four ways in which I see this confusion manifesting itself.
First, there can be a Confusion About Identity.
Because many our founders and founding principles were influenced by the Bible and Christian thinking, some Christians believe America was and should be a so-called 'Christian nation'. Some believe that the U.S. has some kind of favored nation status before God.
Another identity struggle takes place when we see one political party as the more 'Christian' party, which can lead to the false belief that there is a proper “Christian” position on every political issue.
But there is a second way in which we can confuse the spheres of gospel and government. We can suffer from Confusion About Goals.
Watching and listening to some evangelical believers, it's easy to think our number one goal is fighting for a more moral America, one that more consistently reflects our so-called 'family values'. For some the big issue is defending marriage from the gay agenda. For others the issue is abortion. For still others the goal is cleaning up the media, or putting prayer back in the schools, or fighting for Christmas or the Ten Commandments in the public square.
Or as I mentioned before, some Christians spend the lion's share of their time thinking, talking, blogging, and arguing about issues that have never traditionally come under the 'family values' label. They baptize issues like gun control, immigration, welfare, and the environment, and demonize those who do not share their so-called 'Christian' perspective.
But this simply leads to a third struggle. We can and often do struggle with Confusion About Methods.
When the spheres of the gospel and government began to merge and blur, Christians can find themselves knee-deep in political action: we create lobbying groups, we produce voter guides, we boycott and petition, we host and attend fundraising dinners, we bring legal action, and we cozy up to and blog about and post about and argue about OUR candidate, the one we've 'christened' based on his or her position on one, maybe two key issues.
And beyond this, we labor to get more Christians into political office. Many of us believe that if more Christians were legislating, signing into law, and adjudicating at every level of government, the moral sanity of our nation would be restored.
Finally, I ultimately see a Confusion About (the issue of) Authority.
There are many believers who act and speak as if our civic leaders possess a kind of absolute authority. These folks are tempted to believe that if the right person is voted in, then her or she will use that political authority or power to fix things and make everything better. But these same Christians also seem to believe, that if that person does not win the election, all hope is lost. Strangely, when the so-called 'wrong' candidate gets elected, there seems to be more discussion about the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus.
You see, the path toward political idolatry begins with a confusion of the two spheres of gospel and government. Remember what we've said in weeks past about idols. According the Bible, our idols always promise us salvation. How many people are looking to the government for their salvation, for deliverance from this or that problem? OR, how many people are looking to politics for salvation from the government?
We've also talked about the fact that idols always demand our service. How many of us spend more time talking about politics than we do about Jesus? How many of us spend more time watching or listening to or reading our favorite political pundits than we do in God's word?
And as we've seen in past studies, idols always encourage our sinning. Time and time again I've seen people who seem to radiate the love and humility of Christ, I've seen them suddenly turn when the subject turns to politics. They become agitated and harsh and arrogant and sarcastic and cynical and unreasonable and ungracious and disrespectful.
I like how blogger Justin Taylor describes the temptations of political involvement:
“Yes, some of us can care too much. The political junkies among us follow every field poll and breaking-news alert and instant-debate analysis and breathless report on the latest pseudo-scandal, always craving our latest fix. We find ourselves tempted to believe the worst about the candidates we disdain and to look the other way when our preferred candidate stretches the truth. When our candidate loses the debate, we’re not just disappointed but depressed. And when our candidate wins, we feel unusually elated and expressive.”
IV. Our Dual Citizenship
Brothers and sisters, friends, this morning we need to let God's word equip us with the truth. We need to listen to the Bible as it steers us away from the idols of our heart.
Did you know there are 66 countries that will not allow you to retain your citizenship there when you gain your American citizenship here? That is, they do not allow dual citizenship.
But this morning, we can rejoice together that God absolutely allows, that God has in fact ordained our dual citizenship. Do you remember what Paul wrote in Philippians 3:20, 21?
But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,  who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
Do you see what Paul is telling them here? The people of Philippi gloried in their Roman citizenship. But Paul is directing them to something far greater. Their ultimate allegiance did not lie with any earthly power. No, their eternal naturalization papers had been signed with the blood of Jesus. They were now first and foremost citizens of heaven, subjects of God’s kingdom.
You see the gospel brings correction to our confusion. It helps us understand that our far greater and far more glorious heavenly citizenship calls us to be faithful as earthly citizens, just as we saw in Romans 13. Thinks about how the gospel brings correction to our confusion:
When it comes to the issue of identity, we know that we have been born again by God’s Spirit. This means we are now, “sojourners and exiles” (I Peter 2:11), and that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” (Hebrews 13:14)
The Bible leaves no room for this idea that America has some sort of special relationship with God. America and many other countries throughout history have benefited from the wisdom of God's principles, but Israel was the only nation that had a covenant relationship with God.
And the church of Jesus cannot be identified with any particular country. Instead, the church is a group of people from “every nation and tribe and language and people..” (Revelation 14:6), a people who are called to GO to “all nations”, not establish nations. As one pastor recently put it, “Christians need to recognize that we have far more in common with our brothers and sisters from other countries than we do with our unbelieving countrymen.”
The more God's people in the sphere of the gospel identify themselves with those in the sphere of government, the more we will be tempted to compromise and distraction, and the less distinct we will be as those who follow the One who said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36)
The more we present ourselves as partisans, or as some kind of lobbying or special interest group, the more easily the spiritually lost will become confused about who we are. It’s a lot easier to write off a political opponent than it is a messenger of the gospel.
But the gospel also speaks to this issue of goals. In II Corinthians 5 Paul tells us that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (5:16-19) Four years ago, we heard a lot of talk about “change”. On the radio this morning I heard, from ‘the other side of the aisle’, promises of “real change”.
Brothers and sisters, we know where REAL change comes from. We know WHO it comes from! Only the gospel brings real change because only the gospel can defeat, and heal, and reshape the human heart. Only the gospel can bring true freedom to our hearts.
If we get confused about our identity, we will get confused about our cause, and our cause is making disciples of Jesus Christ. But as dual citizens, we are called to be “salt and light” (Matthew 5:13-16). Therefore, when we can, we should stand up for what is good and right and just.
But the gospel also speaks to the issue of methods. In their book “Blinded by Might”, Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson speak to this very issue when they write, “Jesus emptied himself of power that was rightfully his. We try to fill ourselves with power that belongs to the world and seek to usher in a kingdom not of this world by using tools that are of this world…You can pass a law to restrict the making of and selling of alcohol, but no law can force a person not to drink. A change in people’s behavior comes from a change of heart, and only the gospel can bring about that change.”
But Jesus died that we might live. He emptied himself that we might be filled. He loved those who were his enemies so that through Him, we can “love [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute [us]”. (Matthew 5:44) He has called us to “pray for kings and all who are in high positions” (I Timothy 2:2). He has called his people to “seek the welfare of the city [of our] exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf” (Jeremiah 29:7).
He has called us to “respect” and “honor” our leaders, not lampoon them (Romans 13:7). (if Paul could respect and honor someone as depraved and vicious as Nero, surely we can do the same for those with whom we disagree politically) You see, God has called us to be like a good soldier, not getting “entangled in civilian pursuits” but instead, “his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.” (II Timothy 2:4)
Christians can and should speak out in the political arena. Some should even run for elected office (even Paul took advantage of his Roman citizenship (Acts 21:39; 22:25-29)). But we can never lose sight of the fact that the tools of politics cannot bring real change. They can restrain, but they cannot redeem. They can bring fairness, but they cannot bring forgiveness.
Finally, we know that the gospel speaks directly to the issue of authority. The Apostle Paul writes in the very next chapter of Romans: For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. (Romans 14:5-9) As the risen Jesus proclaimed, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).
When Pilate said to Jesus, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?”  Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:10,11) As Romans 13 has made clear, the authorities that do exist, all of them, have been instituted by God.
As those who are standing firm on the promises of the gospel, and as those who believe in God’s power to fulfill all those promises, we do not have to be afraid or anxious about the ebbs and flows of the political landscape. God is firmly seated on His throne. As the word says, Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.  When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.  Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God (Psalm 146:3-5).
And if God is our ultimate authority, then there will be times when, as the apostles declared in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men.” But the general rule is subjection to governing authorities. Why? Because we are first subjected to the highest authority.
Brothers and sisters, friends, through the gospel, we must guard ourselves from making politics into an idol. As a bit of fictional advice from one demon to another, listen to how C.S. Lewis expressed this danger:
““Let him begin by treating Patriotism or…Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. The quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the ’cause’, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce…Once you have made the World an end and faith a means, you have almost won the man and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing.” (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters)
So on November 6th go and vote. But even more importantly, remember how the Apostle Peter made the same point the Apostle Paul was making in Romans 13. I Peter 2:13-17:
Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme,  or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.  For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.  Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.  Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (I Peter 2:13-17)