Romans 13: Christians and Culture
March 21, 2023
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
How are Christians to relate to the world around them? What are the principles that should guide some of the complicated decisions that inevitably have to be made by Christians as they consider the right way to live in a society and culture that is predominantly non-Christian? Paul, in this famous chapter 13, addresses that question first from the standpoint of the government, and then from the standpoint of more personal interactions with neighbors and colleagues at a more grassroots level.
Paul’s advice regarding the government has often been misinterpreted to mean that Christians should never object to any form of government whatsoever. But it is important to remember that this was probably written during Emperor Nero’s so-called “good period,” when Christian witness was still largely under the protection of the state at the time. Of course, the government and society were still thoroughly pagan—with Roman gladiators and everything. But nonetheless, this is not quite the same situation as was faced by the Christians in Acts chapter 4 where they there told the authorities that they would not submit to them, but instead would preach the gospel. In the situation in Romans 13, where the government is not in favor of Christianity, but is not commanding Christians to do something that is heretical or anti-Christian, what is the right approach? Paul urges the Romans to be good citizens. To support the government. To pay their taxes. In the context of modern Western democracies, this includes things like participating in the democratic process, voting, and if the opportunity and desire and calling are there, even serving in elected office and having an influence for Christ in that way. The point is that Christians are not rebels. We are not revolutionaries. Governments, even pagan governments, should be glad to have Christians as their citizens because they support the government as much as their conscience will allow, they pay their taxes, and they are exemplary citizens.
Then when it comes to the more personal interactions, Paul takes the second table of the Ten Commandments—the part of the Ten Commandments that is focused on our interaction with people (rather than the first table which is focused on our interaction and honor of God)—and applies that to pagan society. We should love our neighbors, even our pagan neighbors. Christians are to be good neighbors, not merely in an old-fashioned helping out your neighbor sense (though that is indeed a good thing to do), but in determining not to live in a way that does harm to your neighbor. We don’t want to take advantage of our neighbors or try to get ahead at the expense of what is in the best interests of our neighbors. So in other words, Christians are not only to be exemplary citizens, they are also to be the kind of people that you, even if you are a pagan, would want to have living next door to you, and if you are an employer, that you would want to employ in your firm or company. This loving our neighbor does not, though, Paul is quick to add, mean going with the flow and doing whatever it is that your pagan neighbor does. No, we are not to be immoral but instead to clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, that is to act like him and seek to live in the way that he lived.
These principles about how to live as a Christian in ancient Rome apply very acutely to modern secular societies. May God give us grace to follow the teaching of Romans 13, and wisdom to know when instead we should follow the teaching of Acts 4:19.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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