A couple of times during seminary I went with my little brother’s youth group to an experience called Passport. Passport was a cross between a church camp and a mission trip where you stayed in very nice college dorms. During the week there was plenty of time for the normal church camp activities, free time that I remember using for lots of beach volleyball, and there was a block of time each day in the middle of the day where everyone went to a mission site. There were something like six or seven different mission sites. I think both times I went I was in the group assigned to a nursing home where I would go and befriend and socialize with the residents and pray with them. I seem to remember that it was called passport because you were getting away and they gave you these passport-like books to hang from your neck. For churches with a history of youth going to church camps during the summer I think it was a good step toward going and doing a mission trip. Yet a mission trip is an even better experience for youth and adults because good things happen when you get out of your comfort zone, focus on God, and take risks in serving. Taking a mission trip to another country like what Gina Ross is doing this summer is better still. Of course, if you are actually going to fly into another country to do mission you need a government issued passport. The apostle Paul didn’t have to worry about having a passport in order to do mission within the Roman Empire. But he and the Christians in Rome still had to deal with government bureaucracies, which led him to say the following:
Christians meet legitimate government obligations.
- Paul, like Jesus, faced questions of what to do about unpopular taxes and consistently argued that followers of Jesus will meet all legitimate government obligations. Verse 7 mentions taxes and revenue – the term translated taxes refering to the tribute tax and the term translated revenue refering to various custom taxes. The tribute tax was required of everyone conquered by Rome but not of Roman citizens themselves. It was very unpopular among the Jewish people as well as many other conquered peoples. When asked about paying it Jesus told those asking to show him a denarius and tell him whose image was on it and whose inscription it had – both Caesar’s – and then said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:22ff). So followers of Jesus who owe the tribute tax pay it. Now Paul brought this up for a couple reasons. First, Emperor Nero was requiring immigrants to Rome to pay the tribute levied by the provinces in which they resided at the time of the previous census. Nero would not put up with people moving in order to avoid paying their taxes. This would include all of the Jewish people who had been exiled from Rome and who are now returning to the city. Second, while not everyone in the churches in Rome owed this tribute tax, everyone in Spain where Paul wants to plant churches does owe it. Thus Paul is saying both that Christians who owe the tribute tax will continue to pay the tribute tax and that he will not be involved in any kind of tax revolt or tax resistance movement in the Spanish province. The custom taxes were a wide range of import and use taxes levied upon trade, customs, land, animals, etc. At that time by one count there were more than a hundred different taxes falling into this category paid to various administrators. Thus Christians pay them to whomever they are rightly owed. Then Paul says the same regarding respect and honor. These are not identical terms. Respect has to do with the acknowledgment of legitimate jurisdiction and honor with recognizing superior status and good performance. Thus Paul is saying that Christians meet legitimate government obligations. Notice how conditional Paul is being – for example, Paul is not arguing that Christians always have to obey government officials no matter what they ask, rather Christians obey an official when what is asked is within their rights.
- Like the Christians in Rome, you pay your taxes and various fees like those due for passports and Paul would probably encourage you to show respect to people because of their positions as police officers or as the President of the United States. You may or may not honor certain government officials for doing a good job because you conclude that they are not doing a good job. Nevertheless, if someone has a right to be honored, or respected, or paid a fee or some other tax then you do it. If they do not have a right to ask for it, then you don’t have to give it. You might wonder what you should do when you are stopped by police in Mexico who want a bribe that you do not owe them, but when an official has a right to ask for the payment of a tax then you pay it without question. If you don’t owe sales taxes because you are exempt for some reason, then you don’t have to pay sales taxes. So in short, if you owe it then you pay it and if you do not owe it then you don’t have to pay it. Christians meet all legitimate government obligations. (Paul says what he says about the Roman government and encourages paying to all what is owed them because he understands that government bureaucracy can sometimes greatly help or hinder mission.)
- If at all possible, you do not want government bureaucracies to stand in the way of reaching people for Jesus Christ.
- Paul had a reputation as a troublemaker and himself suffered unjustly at the hands of government officials but he also discovered that the Roman government could be helpful to him without compromising his beliefs in any way. When he mentioned that he was a Roman citizen, for example, he got better treatment from government officials. At least two of the groups Paul knew about in Rome were civil servants – they were slaves that worked for the imperial government and no doubt would be concerned at what might happen since mission among the Jewish people had led the last Emperor to throw all of the Jewish people out of Rome. Not that they really had any choice, but such Christians may have wondered if their work was actually serving the other side. Yet Paul would have seen their cooperation as crucial in going forward with his mission to Spain. Thus he avoided saying anything that would jeopardize the mission with the new Emperor and he provided those Christians that worked for the government with a way to think about their work as serving Christ without endorsing the Roman religious program or Roman political propaganda. It is helpful to know, for example, that the Romans thought that government authorities were historically appointed by Mars or Jupiter or more recently by the pantheon of Greco-Roman deities. Instead Paul says that the true and living God has appointed the Roman government authorities. Thus slaves working for these authorities aren’t serving people appointed by Roman gods but people appointed by the true God. Moreover, there was the propaganda concerning the Pax Romana of which the idea was that the Roman rule of law had brought about a kind of (we might say) messianic peace. In Romans, however, Paul has been arguing that the righteousness of God is by faith in Jesus and not by keeping any law. So he avoids talking about the rule of law and instead talks about how government authorities have been appointed by God to carry out God’s vengenence on wrongdoers. Thus Paul seen by many as a troublemaker is able to show himself as an advocate for good public order in order to pave the way for his mission to Spain without supporting Roman propaganda or religion.
- We could be distracted by all of the questions that arise in our minds about how to understand these verses in light of what Emperor Nero did to Christians later in his reign or how to understand these verses in light of Nazi Germany or other dictatorships in modern times, yet the application to us as Christians in modern America who want to do mission in other parts of the world is much less complicated. If at all possible, you do not want government bureaucracies to stand in the way of reaching people for Jesus Christ. Indeed, you know that the government can actually be helpful from time to time. Sure you pay for the passport, but you also expect that the State Department will help if you go missing or get arrested in a foreign country. So you be a good citizen and you encourage the government to do the right thing. American political propaganda says that the spread of democracy will bring about world peace. I have my own doubts about this having seen what Islamic radicals will vote for in those parts of the world where they do get a vote, but you don’t have to buy into that argument nor do you have to make some argument about American style rule of law bringing peace. In fact, your goal as a Christian is not to stir up political strife in those places where you might go, but to tell people about Jesus. You might even tell government civil servants in another country about Jesus and how they can continue to serve Christ in such positions of influence. But even if you never leave this country to tell people about Jesus somewhere else, if you pay to all officials what is owed to them then you may just be able to influence them to not make it more difficult for missionaries abroad or perhaps even to help them if trouble should arise. Then you pray that God will act through them to bring it about.