Several people, during this tumultuous week, have asked me how they should read and understand Romans 13. I have been glad that they asked because in just these handful of days I’ve heard Paul’s instructions on obedience to civil authorities misused three or four times. So how should Christians read and understand these words from the 13th chapter of Romans?
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good…
It seems to me that there are two or three things that Christians ought to clearly affirm from this text.
First, God ordains authority. My favorite two Hebrew words are tohu and bohu. They are those two twin words found in Genesis chapter one that are often translated “formless” and “void.” (In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was tohu and bohu). However, they can also be thought of as the embodiment of chaos. In the Hebrew imagination God has from the beginning been opposed to the forces of chaos. Order is always preferable to anarchy.
For that reason, the existence of positions of authority (including civil authority) is a very good thing. From a biblical perspective it is good that children have parents, students have teachers, churches have pastors, cities have magistrates, nations have kings… etc.
Second, God can bring about his purposes through leaders of various kinds – whether or not they worship or honor him. It is true that the Scripture often interprets God’s working his will through sometimes unwitting vessels. The most significant example is the way the people of God interpreted Babylon’s Nebuchadnezzar as an instrument of God in reforming Judah through the experience of exile. Without question the Scripture often interprets the painful experience of living under the bumbling, arrogant, and idolatrous king Nebuchadnezzar as something God redeemed for the sake of his mission through is people. So just because a leader isn’t expressly Christian doesn’t mean that God can’t be using he or she for his purposes.
Third, Paul’s discussion throughout Romans regarding freedom in Christ from the “law” does not mean that Christians are exempt from the civil law. It would be easy to imagine folk hearing “freedom from the law” and thinking that means all law. Paul wants to be clear that although Christ has set believers free… it might be a good idea to keep paying your taxes.
That being said, the popular interpretation of Romans 13 as somehow commanding Christians to follow the civil authorities as though directly obeying God or exempting Christians from the possibility of civil disobedience and resistance against evil authorities lacks historical and exegetical support. Here are a handful of things to think about when preaching or teaching Romans 13.
First, there are a couple of contexts to consider – cultural and biblical.
Paul’s cultural context was one of constant political resistance and rebellion. It is clear that many of the early Jewish followers of Jesus had started out as zealots. These were people more than willing to commit violence against the civil authorities in an attempt to secure political freedom. Of course, the problem is eventually the Romans tired of the rebels and would stomp out the rebellion as happened with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. So Romans 13 could and probably should be read in part as Paul saying to the potential Christian extremists of his day, “Stop creating unnecessary trouble for us with the authorities. It is damaging to the church’s reputation and relationship with them and it is getting people killed needlessly.”
Which leads me to the Scriptural context. I have often considered it unfortunate that a chapter break was placed between the end of chapter 12 and the beginning of chapter 13. Here is the end of Romans 12:
Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good… Bless people who harass you – bless and don’t curse them… Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good. If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back says the Lord. Instead if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good. Let every person be subject…
It seems clear to me that Paul’s words about obedience to civil authority are set in the context of moving away from violence as the means through which not only resistance but transformation happens. It doesn’t exclude resistance to authority but it redefines what resistance looks like in the light of the cross.
Second, it seems clear in the broader witness of the Scripture and to some degree even in Romans 13 that a distinction needs to be made between God’s establishment of authority and God’s ordaining of particular authorities. Because God has established the role of authority it is critical that particular leaders or authorities themselves operate in ways that reflect God’s life-giving care or it is right that they are resisted.
Think of all the examples in the bible (beginning with Pharaoh in Exodus and ending with “the Beast” in Revelation) of God’s people recognizing that their primary call is to obey God rather than a particular ruler. Don’t forget, the same apostle who wrote Romans 13 spent an awful lot of time in prison for resisting and disobeying the authorities.
When particular people who become rulers or authorities act in ways that God has ordained authority to operate then they rightly should be honored and obeyed. But when those same rulers cease to use their God-granted authority for his creation ordering purposes it is not only okay to call them to repentance but they should be disobeyed because the believer’s highest obedience is to God and not to any person. Romans 13 should always be read in the light of Revelation 13 - sometimes powers become beastly.
Third, Christians should be careful to distinguish when the bible is dealing with leaders inside God’s people and those on the outside. This is a challenging hermeneutical point, but there is often a difference between the way the Scripture imagines God’s interaction with Israel’s kings on the one hand and his dealings with the rulers of “the nations” on the other. It’s not that God pays no attention to the rulers of other nations, but the majority of the Scripture thinks about the unique responsibilities of those who lead and represent God’s people.
In the light of my last blog on God’s action and human freedom, I’ve had lots of people quoting passages from the Old Testament to me about God raising up and taking down kings. Thanks for all the proof-texts, but I would argue two things about those passages. On the one hand, those texts are primarily warnings to the leaders of God’s people that they had better align their purposes with God’s purposes because they are accountable to him. Those texts are the biblical equivalent of the old comedy line about parenting: “I brought you into this world and I can take you out…” God is saying, “I gave you this authority. I can take it away.”
On the other hand, those texts are specifically directed to the leaders of God’s people. Today I would be much more apt to read them and apply them to God’s interaction with the leaders of the global Body of Christ than with the leaders of any other particular secular nation. There is a lot of what I call “we confusion” in the use of the Scripture. When the kings of Israel are addressed the “we” is God’s people – which today aligns with the “we” of the church and not with the “we” of America. Getting the right “we” may change the way some of those texts are preached and taught.
Finally, Christian history does not support a simplistic reading of Romans 13. Significant theological voices including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and Bonhoeffer have read and interpreted Paul’s instructions about obeying civil authorities with important interpretive caveats. They each recognized that, in the wrong hands, Romans 13 could be used to validate oppression and sanctify evil. The German Church unfortunately misused Romans 13 in ways that Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church had to correct.
Many of the people in the last few days who have tried to offer me a simplistic and de-contextualized reading of Romans 13 are from more Reformed Christian traditions where a great deal of theological weight is placed on God’s sovereignty. For that reason I would offer John Calvin’s interpretation of Romans 13. Calvin concluded his commentary on Paul’s great passage this way:
But in that obedience which we hold to be due to the commands of rulers, we must always make the exception, nay, must be particularly careful that it is not incompatible with obedience to Him to whose will the wishes of all kings should be subject, to whose decrees their commands must yield, to whose majesty their scepters must bow. And, indeed, how preposterous were it, in pleasing men, to incur the offense of Him for whose sake you obey men!
The Lord, therefore, is king of kings. When He opens His sacred mouth, He alone is to be heard, instead of all and above all. We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against Him let us not pay the least regard to it, nor be moved by all the dignity which they possess as magistrates – a dignity to which no injury is done when it is subordinated to the special and truly supreme power of God.
It would appear to me that some of my Calvinist friends are more Calvinist than Calvin.
I’ll conclude with this final thought. Because I have heard Romans 13 quoted so frequently these last few days I would ask those who are quoting it to examine their motives. I could be wrong, but it is my sense that many Christians are running to that text today as a way of validating their own political position. Again, my memory could be faulty, but I don’t remember a whole lot of American evangelicals offering devotionals and sermons from Romans 13 in 2008 or 2012. (Few of the people whom I’ve heard use the text lately would be willing to admit that their use of the text invalidates the legitimacy of the American Revolution).
When the Scripture is proof-texted to fit our own agenda then it’s not God’s voice we are trying to hear but it is our own voice that we are making divine.
In the days to come all Christians in America (and elsewhere) will continue to have to wrestle with the honor due to the authority that God ordains for the sake of order and peace. But that does not exempt Christians from reminding those authorities that they are servants of the one who has granted all authority. And it does not exempt believers from the commitment to obey God rather than any person.