With each day, it becomes more apparent that it’s past time for Christians to get some clarity on the relationship between civil government and Christianity. Are we supposed to just shut up and do what we’re told? Is it ever right to take an actual stand against tyranny?
It doesn’t help that many believers, and their teachers, routinely blurt out the text of Romans 13:1-7, as if that passage must obviously agree with them, that our job is to kiss the ring of the magistrate and, basically, learn to deal with it. That is a poor interpretation of that passage.
What follows is admittedly not a detailed, exegetical study. I’ve done that work elsewhere.
I want to present you with Seven Reasons to Conclude that Romans 13 is not teaching unqualified, slavish obedience to civil government.
Reason One: Christians are not told to “obey” anyone in this passage.
They are told to submit themselves in 13:1 and 13:5. “Submit” and “obey” are different concepts. They are related, certainly, but it’s instructive that the Holy Spirit left out the available terms for obedience. The term that’s used is the Greek word hupotasso, which is aiming at a cheerful willingness to acknowledge that my name appears below yours in whatever system of authority we’re dealing with, and, thus, you have a legitimate right to give me an order. If you use that authority to tell me to do something that is lawful, then I would have an obligation to obey.
Submission comes before obedience, and may well lead to it. However, notice that Romans 13:1 specifies that all authority comes from God. So when we’re creating our flow chart of authority, and determining who is over whom, God’s name is in the top spot. If your name is over mine, fine. But understand that God’s name is over yours, as well as mine. My submission to God will demand that I disobey an order that is not given in submission to God. This is how Peter, who desired to submit to the authority of his day, was nonetheless able to declare to the Sanhedrin, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)
Though he freely acknowledged that they were “over” him in terms of authority, which is the first demand of submission/hupotasso, still he rightly understood that his submission to God was prior to that. His notification that they would not be obeying the authority was not rebellious, precisely because the authority had failed to submit itself to God.
Reason Two: The magistrate is referred to as the servant (literally, the “deacon”) of God in verse 4, and minister in verse 6.
Interestingly, in that latter spot, the word for minister is the one from which we get our term “liturgy.” It is a thoroughly religious word and implies the one titled “minister” is also a worshipper.
But, pastor, you say, wasn’t Paul talking about Nero there? The short answer is “no.” This sort of language makes it clear that God is not describing Nero. Rather, He is revealing to us, through Paul’s pen, what civil government ought to be. The text is clearly prescriptive, giving us rules and boundaries; it is not descriptive of Nero, or any other particular ruler.
Reason Three: The magistrates are called servants for you, in Romans 13:4.
This text is explicitly not making anyone the servants of civil government. It’s the other way around. This understanding has been reflected for hundreds of years in Western societies. Government officials were and often still are, referred to as public servants, or “ministers.”
Most of us here right now were raised in that sort of society. We’ve been trained by it, so much so, that we probably fail to see how radical a statement it was in that 1st Century setting, to hear anyone say that the government existed for the people, and not the other way around. That other way around was the uniform, standard practice of pagan society. The people were the king’s servants. The king didn’t serve. He was served. We should note here that Jesus specified, when He washed the disciples’ feet, that He was turning that whole world system upside down. (John 13:3-15; Luke 22:25-27)
Reason Four: God has given the civil government a very narrow mission.
The governor is to execute wrath (the wrath of God) on those who do evil. He doesn’t get to define evil for himself, either, which will lead us to our next point. For now, it is enough to see that by God’s design, the magistrate should stay in his lane, so to speak, and that lane is narrow. Governor, you have one job. Just one. Do that, and we’ll all be happy. Any notion of a government that decides to go out and do positive good, by feeding the poor, providing employment, etc., is contrary to the explicit words of the text.
Reason Five: Romans 13 lives in the same Bible as Deuteronomy 17.
Deuteronomy 17:14-20 establishes what I like to call, The Regulative Principle of Government. That is, the king was specifically forbidden from deviating from the commands of God. Neither to the right or the left. He wasn’t allowed to make it up as he goes. Punish the crimes that God has defined as crimes. Punish those crimes in a manner consistent with the specified solutions found in the text of the Law.
It is ludicrous to think that in a time of greater revelation, a time in which, under the terms of the New Covenant, the nations are supposed to be discipled to Christ, that God would shrug His shoulders and say, “Hey, governor, just do what you feel is right.”
He’s God’s deacon, God’s liturgist, God’s avenger, exacting God’s wrath, so whose standards of good and evil ought he use? His own? Who should decide what he can and can’t do? Himself?
Reason Six: Romans 13 lives in the same Bible as multiple stories of heroes resisting tyrants.
To list them all here would represent me chewing your food for you. Just read! Several such resistors find their way into the so-called Hall of Fame of Faith in Hebrews 11, as models for us. Jesus routinely undermined the ruling class of His day in public by His teaching, and by direct, public confrontation, exposing their foolishness. His apostles, likewise, defied the wishes of human governments by escaping from their agents and from their prisons.
Reason Seven: The “Just Do What You’re Told” view of Romans 13 is unworkable in the actual world God has made.
Let me illustrate. My local Sheriff has vowed to oppose any Red Flag gun laws being implemented in our County. So let’s say a State patrolman shows up at my door, demanding access to my home to search for and confiscate guns. But the Sheriff also shows up and loudly tells me to ignore the State guy and go back inside my house. Now what? If I’m supposed to obey all civil government without question or hesitation, which one should I obey? And, frankly, that’s even before we bring up the fact that both the US Constitution and my State constitution allow for no such confiscation of my firearms.
That’s an extreme example of course, but the truth is that, at least in America, it’s not uncommon for one arm of government to be at odds with another arm, or for one magistrate to make decrees contradictory to another.
The American might answer here, “Well, that’s not a tough dilemma. You obey the authority that is more in line with the Constitution, the highest law of our land.”
I happen to agree with that solution, but understand: If you advocate such things, you’ve just done away with the concept of unqualified, unquestioned obedience to any and all government. You’ve admitted that the one submitting to authority has the right to decide which authority is really acting lawfully. In so doing, congratulations: you’ve arrived at the more biblical way of understanding what Romans 13:1-7 actually requires.
For more in this area, check out the author’s new book, On This Ancient Battleground: Winning the War Between Tyranny and Christian Faith.
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