Paul wrote the book of Romans to Christians who lived in a city full of politics. Rome was the government seat of the most powerful empire on earth. What did Paul say to saints in a city where the church and the state met face to face?
The longest section in the New Testament on the Christian’s relationship to the government is found in Romans 13:1-7. Government is ordained by God, and we are not to rebel against it (vv. 1-2). The government has authority from God to put evildoers to death (vv. 3-4). Without law and order men take the law into their own hands and act like wild animals. We are to pay taxes to the government because of the service they render to us (vv. 6-7). The Roman government was corrupt, but Paul told Christians to submit. This is the basic rule. The exception is when the government oversteps its bounds and tells Christians to violate the law of God. In that case we must say, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). There is a balance that needs to be kept between these two extremes. Christians must rightly divide the Word to know when government has overstepped its authority and when citizens have abused their rights.
This book also shows that it is scriptural for a brother in Christ to hold a public office. Though he was not in Rome, Erastus was the “chamberlain” or treasurer of the city of Corinth (Rom. 16:23). It is possible for a Christian to work in the government and be faithful to the Lord.
The book of Romans also shows that Paul did not hesitate to speak out on sins of politicians. For instance, idolatry and superstition were ingrained in the culture and economy of Rome. The Senate voted that Augustus was declared deity after his death, and this practice continued with emperors who followed him. The Roman government also erected idols and built idol temples. But state-sanctioned idolatry did not keep Paul from speaking against it. He said that there is no excuse for anyone being an atheist or idolater, referring to idol worship as foolishness (Rom. 1:20-25).
Homosexuality was also widespread in ancient Rome, and a number of top government officials were guilty. The fact that powerful rulers engaged in this sin did not stop Paul from condemning it. He directly spoke against this perversion, writing that women with women and men with men is against nature (Rom. 1:26-27).
Abortion was also common in Rome. There were doctors who specialized in this procedure and administered pain-relieving drugs to women who could afford their services. Some women had babies and left them out in the cold to die. This cruelty toward infants is included in the words “without natural affection” in Romans 1:31. This expression refers to the lack of love for one’s own flesh and blood.
Today a number of moral and religious issues have spilled over into the political arena: the theory of evolution being taught in public schools, the battle over abortion and same-sex marriage, the issue of capital punishment, the issue of Christian involvement in public offices, the attitude of government toward Christian and non-Christian religions, and rebellion and rioting among citizens. Written almost two thousand years ago, the book of Romans contains everlasting principles that deal with these and many other concerns of our time.