Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers: for there is no power but of God; and the powers that be are ordained of God. Therefore he that resisteth the power, withstandeth the ordinance of God: and they that withstand shall receive to themselves judgment. For rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. And wouldest thou have no fear of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise from the same: for he is a minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is a minister of God, an avenger for wrath to him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be in subjection, not only because of the wrath, but also for conscience’ sake (Romans 13:1-5).
For 1,700 years the controversy has centered on Romans 13.
For all the New Testament teachings regarding Jesus’ spiritual Kingdom, its pages provided precious few declarations regarding earthly nations and their governance. Only in Romans 13:1-7 is earthly government discussed in any substantive and meaningful way. Little wonder, then, that once Christianity gained societal respectability and earthly authorities began professing it, Romans 13:1-7 would feature prominently in justification of and argumentation regarding how governments would act.
To this end the text has been stretched and bended far beyond anything its original author would have intended. In the middle of the seventeenth century, the king of England and loyal political philosophers laid ahold of Paul’s declaration that the earthly government is ordained by God (Romans 13:1-2), and used it to justify the doctrine of the divine right of kings, suggesting that since God ordained the king to be in charge, the commands of the king were as the commands of God. Yet, by the end of that century and into the next, some Enlightenment philosophers laid ahold of Paul’s reasoning behind the existence of the earthly government as the agent of God’s wrath toward those doing evil in Romans 13:3-4, inferred that any ruler terrorizing good conduct and good people and not sufficiently punishing evil has lost their divine mandate, and thus suggested that it was justifiable to overthrow any government which had thus “lost” its divine mandate. Within two centuries the same text could be used to justify both the establishment of a dictatorship as well as its overthrow.
The government and the Christian’s relationship to it is a sensitive topic today. As we can see, the main text describing that relationship has been used to justify all sorts of attitudes toward government for centuries. What shall we do?
We do well to honor one of the most fundamental principles of Biblical interpretation: first understand the text in context. When Paul writes what is found in Romans 13:1-7, he does not have in mind the British monarchy or the American democratic republic per se. Instead, he writes to the Christians living in the capital of the Roman empire in the early days of the Emperor Nero.
When we take a moment to strip away the layers of assumptions and inferences in order to try to get back to Paul’s original premise, we find that Paul’s primary purpose in Romans 13:1-7 is to legitimate the existence of an earthly governmental authority, consistent with what Peter will write in 1 Peter 2:13-17 as well. If we think about it, this concern makes a lot of sense, for one of the principal proclamations of the Gospel is that Jesus is Lord (kurios; cf. Acts 2:36). If Jesus is Lord of all, that means that Caesar is not, and many of the opponents of the Gospel seized upon this (cf. Acts 17:6-7). Meanwhile, the Roman authorities were ambivalent toward or hostile against the faith: the recently dead Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome, possibly because of the preaching of Jesus as the Christ (cf. Acts 18:2). There were already whispers about the darker side of Nero’s personality and conduct, and that ugliness would only become more evident as time wore on. If Jesus is really Lord, and the government sometimes stands in the way of Jesus’ purposes, why have a government at all? Why obey and submit to these earthly, pagan, ungodly rulers, if Jesus is really Lord?
Paul provides a rebuke to such “Christian anarchism.” Paul declares that God has all power, and therefore earthly governments exist because God has granted them the ability and power to exist (Romans 13:1-2). They have a good reason for existence: government exists to punish evil behavior (Romans 13:3-4). If a Christian is busy doing good, he or she should have little to fear from the governing authorities; therefore, to ask for them to be in subjection to governing authorities is not really asking too much, on account of wrath and conscience (Romans 13:3-5). For the same reason, tax, tribute, and honor should be given to such authorities, since their existence is justified before God (Romans 13:6-7).
While such things are said to the Roman Christians in the context of the Roman empire, it is evident from the way in which Paul speaks that the message is not limited only to such persons. What Paul says is true regarding the Christians of Rome and their relationship to the Roman Empire would be equally true for Christians living under a monarchy, dictatorship, aristocracy, oligarchy, or democracy. Paul says nothing about how the governing authorities obtained their power or how well they adhere to the rules or guidelines which theoretically govern that country. He does not make explicit any of the inferences derived from this passage, either to justify whatever a ruler says or to justify revolution against a government. We do well to wonder why that is.
Paul insists that Christians should be subject to the governing authorities, as does Peter in 1 Peter 2:13-17. Peter will go on to speak about slaves and how they should be subject to their masters, not just the good and gentle ones, but also those who are “froward,” unreasonable or unjust (1 Peter 2:18). Peter goes on to describe the gracious matter of suffering unjustly while doing what is good and right and holy, reminding the Christians of his time how Jesus had done the same for them (1 Peter 2:19-25).
There is quite the lesson to be learned there: in many ways, the Christian’s relationship to the government is like the Christian slave’s relationship to his master. It is for the Christian to submit no matter the type of master, save in that which is against what God has decreed (cf. Acts 5:29). The Christian is never justified in acting according to a rebellious or contrary spirit; the reason for disobedience against any earthly authority is because of obedience toward God. It is not given for the Christian to weigh the fitness of the rulers before deciding to submit to them, contrary to what some have said. It is also not for the rulers to fancy that whatever they say ought to be as if God Himself had said it, contrary to what others have said. God will judge Christians for how well they respected rulers and obeyed them, and the rulers for how well they governed according to the principles of righteousness, as can be seen from Romans 13:1-7.
In Romans 13:1-7 Paul sees a separation between Christians and their government: “you” are the Christians and “he” is the authority in the passage, and we do not see the two meet. How Christians are to relate to a government in which they have the opportunity to voice their beliefs and to shape policy is not explicitly outlined but certainly would not be in opposition to what God has revealed through Paul in terms of how Christians are to relate to any government. Christians are to show proper respect and honor for their rulers and should be subject to them, obeying the laws of the land. Whether the rulers are good and fair or immoral and unjust is irrelevant; Christians are not given the right to treat the rulers differently on the basis of their conduct. There may be times when Christians will find themselves on the wrong side of civil laws because they are obeying God; such does not justify a spirit of rebellion. In all cases of such “civil disobedience” that we find in Scripture, the Christians remained respectful of government and willingly suffered the civil consequences of their behavior. Early Christians never agitated for the overthrow of the government.
Paul could write with such indifference to the fate of any particular government because he understood that Jesus is really Lord, and the only way of salvation was through the message of the Gospel (Romans 1:16). The advancement of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God is all that is really important (Matthew 6:33). Earthly authorities are to be respected and obeyed but they are not our saviors or redeemers. Only Jesus can do that. Let us obey God in all things, including showing proper respect toward and subjection to the earthly authorities!
Ethan R. Longhenry