Just this once, please allow me to write something I rarely tackle in political discourse: the Bible and Christian history.
Before I proceed, let me remind believers that it’s only proper to read the books of the Bible as a whole, not in loosely fragmented parts. No different from reading a novel or a short story where a paragraph or a line should be understood in the context for which the author wrote it.
Thus, context is vital when reading, all the more religious material. You cannot pick one or several verses like cherries and enjoy them separately from all the rest.
Now, we’ve all heard Sen. Manny Pacquiao quote Romans 13 as proof that it’s wrong to go against an established government—any government for that matter, whether good, evil or seriously and unabashedly flawed to the core.
Many so-called Christians hold firmly to this belief. Which is why a number of Catholics, Evangelicals and sub-groups of Christianity are often silent in the face of government violence, corruption, and impunity.
Romans 13:1-2 says, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.”
Taken as it is, verses 1 and 2 of Romans 13 demand, without question, that every man, woman and child should be subject to governing powers. The word ‘subject’ in the original Greek used by the writer Paul meant “as a soldier would subject himself to his commander”. It’s a strong word that clearly recognizes government authority as one given by God, and thus worthy of unwavering loyalty and respect.
But what if government itself resists the ordinance of God, breaks God’s laws? Should Christians subject themselves to its laws?
Paul wasn’t stupid enough to believe that evil in government did not exist. When he wrote his letter to the church in Rome, somewhere 53 AD-58 AD, a backdrop of 10 years of debauchery, murder, and incest had already marked the reign of Emperor Nero—the number one persecutor and murderer of Christians.
Lest we forget, Nero (or rather, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), wasn’t simply a political figure. As Rome’s emperor, he sat in the place of God as God himself. Emperors demanded worship from their subjects, not just political loyalty.
Which is why no believer can read Romans 13: 1-2 without understanding it in the context of Romans 1—the first words of Paul.
In referring to the corruption of authorities and the Roman people in general, Romans 1: 21-23 states: “Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man [emphasis, mine]—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.”
Authorities, such as the emperor, loved having gargantuan images of themselves set in public places as icons of worship. This Paul disapproved of, calling them fools (Romans 1:22). Here we see Paul calling out the governing powers and the pagan public, Nero specifically, who practiced incest (with his mother), corruption and murder.
Paul refused to stay silent.
It is safe to conclude, therefore, that the verses in the first chapter of the Letter to the Romans give context to the lines following Romans 13: 1-2.
The following lines found in Romans 13: 3-4, Paul wrote, “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good [emphasis, mine]. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.”
In Paul’s mind, to be “God’s minister” is to be a disciple of God, a loyal follower of His laws and edicts, not sit and act as God himself. To misappropriate power and authority this way puts an emperor in league as God’s rival and enemy. So, when Paul said that rulers are God’s ministers to you for good, he was talking of a ruling authority which had subjected itself to God’s laws, not that of Nero.
In short, a government’s punitive powers are based not on blanket authority, but on authority specifically designed to be wielded by a “minister of God”. It is clear in the mind of Paul when he wrote this that evil authority exists, and that Nero, being emperor involved in corruption, debauchery and incest, wasn’t exempted.
Paul, himself a minister of God and an apostle, and who knew the sufferings he had to endure as a minister of the gospel, set a very high bar for governing authorities to follow.
Viewing it from a historical context, on the other hand, the Letter of Paul to the Romans, with its declaration in Romans 1 that Paul is the bondservant of Jesus Christ, “the son of God with power,” was in and by itself a subversive document.
“Son of God” is a term commonly used by emperors to describe themselves, putting their crowns in the same league as any deity worshipped by both Christian and pagan worshippers.
History attests to this ancient truth. Julius Caesar, his successor Augustus Caesar—also known as Caesar DiviFilius (Son of God), which also meant Son of Eternal Caesar—together with emperor Caligula, emperor Domitian (who loved to be addressed as “lord” and “god”), including Nero, who called himself Apollo Incarnate (Seneca, the Roman stoic dramatist, called him “the savior of the world”) demanded worship from their subjects.
In other words, the imperial cult of emperor worship and the Christian worship of Jesus Christ did not exist side by side without the imperials seeking to crush the other, and without Christians feeling they have compromised their faith in Christ if they followed the emperor blindly. Here, a line was drawn and Christians were branded as subversives.
As a result, Christians in ancient Rome held services and readings of the letters and gospels within the catacombs, a network of underground tunnels which also served as ossuaries for the dead, hidden from view.
The question of whether Christians ought to be subject to government under the latter’s blanket authority, therefore, ought to be understood both in light of the whole Letter to the Romans and the history of Rome’s evangelization.
Pacquiao should ask himself, if Christians then were branded as subversives, and if the very document from which he quotes was considered unlawful in ancient Rome, then why did Christians in Rome carried on with the work to evangelize the empire? They continued preaching heightened the gospel of Christ even after Paul was beheaded and the great persecution under Nero.
Thousands of Christians, to this day, continue to preach the gospel and smuggle Bibles in countries where Christianity had suffered the most violent persecution through the years—Russia, China, the Middle East, to name a few. The thousands and thousands murdered for their faith hardly stopped these believers from doing what they loved best.
If Paul meant Romans 13:1-2 to mean subjection to blanket authority, disregarding the ruling powers’ transgressions and abuses, then the preaching of the gospel should’ve been banned in Christianity itself since the days of the emperors.
But no. Between allegiance to leaders and allegiance to Christ, there no refusing Christ what is due Him.
To Christians, we are enjoined to pay respect, honor, even taxes to whom these are due. In short, to those who had earned them.
It is here that we draw the line: There is no other Son of God. G