Historically, religion has been deeply embedded in civic life. It has been used as a tool to facilitate unity within the nation. For example, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States was thrust into World War II. During that time, the song, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” became very popular. This song isn’t an expression of pure devotion to Jesus. It is an expression of American civil religion and served a unifying purpose. In the English civil war, Oliver Cromwell told his troops, “Trust in God and keep your powder dry.” This similarly conveyed the sentiments of the civil religion of England.
Civil religion served a unifying role in ancient Rome. The Romans believed that the correct performance of the sacrificial and cultic rituals ensured peace with gods and the success and prosperity of the empire. All members of the society were required to engage in these rituals. The rituals involved worship of the Roman gods and the emperor.
The only legal way to avoid Roman worship was for a religion to be granted legal status. Judaism was considered a legal religion by the Romans. As they were part of a legal religion, Jews were exempted from participating in the pagan Roman worship. Christianity wasn’t considered a legal religion until A.D. 313. That meant, before that date, Christians were constantly confronted with the religious requirements of the civil religion of Rome. If they refused to participate, then they would be accused of displeasing the gods and of putting the entire society at risk of the gods’ displeasure. This was a challenging circumstance for the early Christians to face. They would want to be good citizens and cooperate as much as possible with the empire, but they couldn’t compromise their convictions by worshiping false gods.
Against this backdrop, Paul urges the Roman Christians to “do what is good” (Romans 13:3). Paul argues that it is hard for the civil authorities to bring harm to those who work for the good of society. In fact, if we are a force for good, then the civil authorities will praise rather than punish us (Romans 13:3).
The authorities’ proper role is to serve as God’s minister for good and to bring judgment upon those who do evil (Romans 13:4). By living lives that are full of good, Christians may make it possible to receive praise from the civil authorities even when they refuse to participate in the civil religion.