We have finally finished another election year in the United States, and the election of Mr. Donald Trump promises to continue dominating the news as it has done so far. It has been interesting, if not also tragic, to see how much social media and reality television now define our election process. And while it is easy to bemoan much of what we see reported every day, the change of power in the United States from President Obama to President Trump can also serve as an opportunity for every true Christian to ask himself or herself: Am I really an ambassador?
Many of us are familiar with the admonition in 2 Corinthians 5:20 to be “ambassadors for Christ.” But do we really detach ourselves from the political scene? Or do we get too emotionally attached to our nation’s politics? Do we become distracted from what the Bible truly says about our nation and what our attitude toward our political leaders should be?
The New Testament contains a few passages about how Christians should interact with their secular government. In this article, we will examine Paul’s writing to the Romans, specifically Romans 13:1-8. However, before we do, it might be helpful to remember the setting of Paul’s writing. Romans is traditionally dated around 56ad, when Emperor Nero was ruling over Rome’s vast holdings.
Life under Nero
Perhaps you’ve heard of Nero. Even if you don’t know anything specific about him, you might still recognize that this name is not attached to a particularly nice person. Nero would not make the “top ten list” of leaders to imitate, or for positive characteristics in general. Instead, Nero was a vain, cruel ruler who managed to alienate most of his subjects during his reign. Nero specialized in assassinations (which he probably picked up from his mother, who was suspected of assassinating the previous emperor), and he used them frequently against his family (including his mother) and others he saw as political threats. He was widely blamed for a major fire in Rome, which he might have caused, and his poor response to it increased his unpopularity. Nero demanded worship as a “god,” which was begrudgingly given by his pagan subjects, but which also eventually stirred the Jews to revolt. Unsurprisingly, the Romans eventually had enough, and Nero’s bodyguard deserted him, at which point Nero committed suicide rather than be assassinated, himself. Tragically for the Jews, his death did not end hostilities, and Jerusalem was eventually captured and the temple destroyed in 70ad.
This historical information is interesting, because it was during Nero’s reign that God inspired Paul’s words. Think of it another way: what if Romans 13 had been part of the Psalms? What if it had been written during one of the times that Moses, Joshua or Nehemiah were leading Israel? If it had been written during those times, we might not see the real challenge of what Paul is telling us to do. We might say to ourselves, “Well that’s how Christians are supposed to act when they have good leaders.” We could argue that if Barack Obama were more like Moses, we’d be more respectful, or that if Donald Trump were more like David, we’d be able to do just as Paul says. But that’s not how God inspired Paul’s words. God waited until His servants were under one of the worst secular rulers the world has ever seen to inspire Romans 13. We cannot pretend that we have it harder due to our modern leaders’ lack of character—Nero had no character himself!
With that in mind, let’s turn to an examination of five lessons we can learn from Romans 13 about truly being Christian ambassadors.
1. All Authority Is Ultimately Granted by God
Romans 13 starts off by reminding us that “there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (v. 1). This is easy to forget under democracies, such as the American system of government. When I taught civics, I noticed a bias in public school textbooks to which all secular education falls prey: the book focused solely on men—human beings. This might not sound like it would make much difference, but this narrow focus becomes especially noteworthy when the textbooks talk about how to solve problems in society: they never mention a need to repent before God, only the “need” to elect the right people! For all the worldly wisdom and education many of them possessed, the Founding Fathers of the United States were human beings, and the Constitution they created is still only a man-made document, meant to help human beings solve problems according to man’s own wisdom. As wisely as it may have been crafted, the U.S. Constitution will never be enough to solve America’s problems. Humanity focuses only on its own approaches to solve its problems without God, and its problems, therefore, continue!
This focus can infect true Christians too. We often heap too much praise or blame on men and forget the clear fact that “the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, gives it to whomever He will, and sets over it the lowest of men” (Daniel 4:17). This does not mean that all secular leaders are always the “lowest of men” (think of George Washington or Winston Churchill, for example). However, it does point out that God is not limited in whom He chooses to put over a nation. God will put over a nation a leader of His choosing, not ours. Consider the recent election. Who would have guessed two years ago that Donald Trump would be a serious contender for the presidency, much less win it? Who would have guessed the same about young Barack Obama in 2006? It is not my point to try to suggest that President Obama or President Trump are the “lowest of men”—rather, the point is that God is able to put in power anyone He chooses, regardless of what seems apparent to human experts. We have to keep this fundamental Biblical truth in place to be effective with the other lessons from Romans 13.
2. Be Sure When You Disagree That You Do Not Become Disrespectful
This point is one of the missing factors in American politics today. It is rare to see politicians from either party show any respect for their political opponents. Nevertheless, Christians are called to give “honor to whom honor” is due (Romans 13:7). This does not mean we will always agree with our political leaders! Honoring them does not mean agreement. I seriously doubt Paul agreed with everything Nero did! There are often many things Christians disagree with in the official platforms of various political parties, including the major political parties of the United States. Peter commands us to “Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17). His letter, like Romans, was written while Nero was “king.”
One way we can test ourselves to see if we are honoring our leaders is to examine how we talk about them. Simply stating a person’s office before his name—such as “President Obama” or “President Trump”—often shows a measure of proper respect. Are we consistent with how we talk about our leaders, regardless of their political party? Exodus 22:28 warns us not to curse a ruler of our people, and in Acts 23:5, Paul showed that he considered this command personally binding. Sometimes, we can find ourselves feeling offended if a person curses a politician or president whose policies we have enjoyed, but accepting if someone curses a leader whose policies or politics we don’t like. Yet, while we should never accept, agree with, or condone sinful behavior, we also shouldn’t let a leader’s party or politics cause us to be hypocritical. Politics is no excuse to ignore God’s laws concerning respecting leaders.
Every leader of every nation on earth is a human being who will have faults. Those leaders will do things we disagree with—and should disagree with when their actions and policies conflict with Scripture. That does not give us an excuse to become disrespectful in our discussions, comments and public posts about our leaders.
3. Obey All the Laws We Can
Sometimes people use Peter’s bold statement in Acts 5:29 that “we ought to obey God rather than men” as an excuse to disobey laws they do not like. However, most of the time our government asks us to obey laws that do not contradict God’s laws at all. Typically, we can obey God and man at the same time! Furthermore, we often can serve God by serving men. The same Peter who made that bold statement in the book of Acts also wrote, “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13). The fact that we don’t like a law doesn’t give us an excuse to break it. The only reason to break one of man’s laws is if it requires us to violate one of God’s commands!
One example where man’s laws often do not conflict with God’s laws are the traffic laws. Do we follow our government’s instructions about how to drive? According to one study, traffic deaths in the United States would be cut by 96% if people would simply obey the laws! Some 30,000 Americans die each year on the road. The three most common causes of death are distracted driving (due chiefly to texting), driving drunk, and speeding. We could potentially save nearly 29,000 lives a year if Americans would follow their government’s laws against these activities! Do we do our part? Or do we give ourselves excuses to speed, drink and drive, or text while driving? We should not allow our reading of Acts 5:29 to be “a cloak for vice” (1 Peter 2:16).
God loves those who have obedient hearts. We have the opportunity to show Him our willingness to obey, not only in our response to His eternal, spiritual laws, but also concerning the vast majority of our nation’s man-made laws—as temporary as they may be in the bigger picture.
4. Try Not to Worry about Taxes
This is especially tricky. Our politicians spend plenty of our tax money on things true Christians should never support! And yet, so did the Romans. The Jews hated the Roman taxes that paid for pagan worship and licentious behavior, which is one reason why the Pharisees tried to trap Christ with their question about paying taxes, found in Matthew 22:16-22. Christ gives us the famous response that we focus our lives on what we render to God rather than what we render to Caesar. Simply put, we are not responsible for how the government spends our tax money.
While we can often focus on the negative uses of tax money, we should try to focus on the positive. Again, Romans 13:6 commands us to “pay taxes” so that secular rulers can serve as “God’s ministers.” Did you notice what Paul was inspired to call our secular leaders? That’s right, they are called “God’s minister(s)” three times in Romans 13! We typically look at the word “minister” and think of a pastor or local elder, but the word can simply mean servant, as it does here in this chapter. While pastors serve us spiritually, those people whose salaries are paid by our taxes also provide services. We might not always want their services, but we can focus on those we do appreciate (police officers, firefighters, etc.). It is an easy trap to become critical of how our government uses tax money, but ultimately we have to simply focus on the positive and remember we are not accountable for the negative. God will one day hold them accountable for how they spent the taxes they collected—that prerogative is His, not ours.
5. Pray for All Authorities
Since Romans 13 reminds us that true Christians should view secular rulers as “God’s ministers,” do we pray for them? In 1 Timothy 2:1-3, Paul exhorts us to pray for “all men” and specifically “for kings and all who are in authority.” Sometimes this can be difficult to do, especially when we see our leaders make unethical decisions. Nevertheless, as mentioned before, Paul was actually telling first century Christians to pray for Nero and the Roman leadership! Christians in all ages have been commanded to pray for their secular leaders.
Sometimes it can be difficult to know what to pray, but we need not stray from God’s word. Paul gives the specific prayer for our leaders: “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (1 Timothy 2:2). If we can peacefully keep God’s commandments and His way of life and do His Work, we should pray that our leaders would continue to let us do so! Often our lack of satisfaction with our secular leaders comes from our having very high expectations for them, and the knowledge that their decisions have very real impact on our lives. We worry they will take away our rights—and this is increasingly an understandable concern. At the same time, in many of our countries we enjoy more freedom to practice God’s way of life than most Christians throughout history could ever dream of! All the more, we should use that freedom to obey Paul’s command and pray for our leaders.
If you are an American, how many times over the last eight years have you prayed for the President? By the end of two four-year terms, we will have had nearly 3,000 days to pray for a president! I know I failed to pray for President Obama on a daily, or even weekly basis. Now, I am commanded to pray for President Trump! If I focus on his public faults and apparent, human carnality, prayer for Mr. Trump will not appeal to me. Yet if I want to live by “every word of God” (Matthew 4:4), I had better get ready to start praying!
Being a Christian ambassador is never easy. It is uniquely difficult for those of us living in democracies, which tend to encourage civic participation in the government, to distance ourselves from the lie that is very easy to accept: that men are the solution to our problems. The hope for the future is not electing the right person to the presidency. It is for mankind to finally “be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20) at the return of Jesus Christ. As citizens of the Kingdom He will bring (Philippians 3:20), let’s put our focus where we should—on being ambassadors of Tomorrow’s World.