It’s easy to do and it happens all the time. We so often approach Scripture with our minds already made up as to what it means. Our “study” of Scripture is then no more than a search for proof-texts for our currently held position on any given topic. Or perhaps, we consult the Scriptures to answer a question, but our wills steamroll the honest, labor-intensive work that is required to understand God’s revealed will on the matter.
Most interpretations of Romans 13 fall into one of two broad categories. One category teaches Divine Right. The governing authorities have been established by God and is a minister of God for good. Therefore, governments of man are fundamentally good and ought to be obeyed and supported by children of God in all that they do. This view may even be pressed to justify some behaviors, attitudes, and actions that would be immoral if done by private individuals.
The other category that some interpretations might fall into might be described as the Divine Standard. This view sees Romans 13 as a description of what the governing authorities ought to do and justifies Christians using government to enforce the laws of God on those who only respond to threats of force and reject the persuading words of the Gospel. This view also may place a moral standard for governments to meet before men ought to submit themselves to it. If a given government is not ruling in a way consistent with the divine standard of praising the good and avenging the evil then this is an authority which Christians are not to be subject towards and may overthrow.
Many peoples’ views likely fall on a spectrum within one of these two categories and may even have some overlap into both as well. In fact, it’s the existence of slippery “spectrums” within each category and the ability for some fundamental principles to apply to both seemingly contradicting categories that highlights the existence of error in these interpretations. I’d like to now examine these two categories, consider the ultimate applications of them (following each spectrum to their logical conclusions), and look at why Romans 13 is not the text to support their claims.
Perhaps no other section of Scripture has been touted by the tyrants of world history more than Romans 13 for justification of their oppressive behaviors (or rather, for the people’s quiet acquiescence in the face of such behaviors). Their argument goes that if the governing authorities are established by God and governments are by their mere existence ministers of God for good, then the king, or Parliament, or President, or Judge simply must be obeyed – no questions asked. They are answerable to God alone.
The spectrum of this view is broad. Some would say that this justifies the use of death and taxes in God’s eyes and ought not be critiqued (Doesn’t the text say “It does not bear the sword for nothing…because of this you also pay taxes”?) The permitted use of death could range from a police officer’s use of deadly force in stopping a hostile break-in to the justification of the death of non-violent civilians walking too closely to enemy combatants during a drone strike or atomic bombing. Here are a few questions that ought to be considered by those who would hold the Divine Right interpretation of Romans 13:
- Should Christians have served in Hitler’s army and done all they could to support their governing authorities who were “ministering for good?”
- What about as a guard in Hitler’s concentration camps?
- Which governing authorities should be obeyed in a civil war?
- At what point does a certain group of people arguing with another group of people in the same territory get deemed the legitimate “governing authority” that ought to be obeyed?
- Were Christians in the Confederacy and Christians in the Union both justified in slaying each other during the “War Between the States” (or, depending on your answer, could be called the “Civil War”, “War of the Rebellion,” “War of Northern Aggression,” etc.) since both sides were “submitting to their governing authorities” (the State governments and/or the Federal government)?
- Does participation in government void a Christian’s responsibility to love their neighbors and enemies, not avenge themselves, and reject force as a way of changing others’ behavior?
While each of these questions can likely be answered by each person in a way that agrees with their conscience, let’s address a couple of the underlying assumptions to this viewpoint, which also begins with a question that ought to be asked: Does “established by God” mean “approved by God” and does “minister for good” mean that the actions themselves are morally good and right in God’s eyes?
When we consider the types of men and governments that are also said to have been “ordained” or “established” or placed into their roles in human history by the Sovereign of Creation, we find that this “ordination” by no means necessitated a blessing by God.
Consider Pharoah, who was raised up “for this very purpose… to demonstrate my power in you.” (Rom. 9:17) God’s will was satisfied through Pharoah, but this did not require God to have mercy on Pharoah in Pharoah’s rebellion.
Likewise, when Israel culminated their “Canaanization” after the period of the Judges with a demand for a king “like all the nations,” God chose a king for them (I Sam. 10:24), but this request was still deemed by God an act of rebellion against Himself (I Sam. 8:7) and the king was chosen in God’s anger (Hos. 13:10,11).
And it was not only Israel over whom God ruled in the affairs of man, but also the nations. The ruthless nation Assyria was deemed “the rod of My anger” (Isa. 10:5-10). While under Babylonian captivity, Daniel informs us that “the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men” (Dan. 4:17 KJV). God calls Cyrus, the pagan ruler of the Medo-Persians, his “shepherd” and his “annointed” (messiah). And just to make sure we don’t think God suddenly laid down his ways of choosing evil men and evil governments in order to satisfy his longer-term purposes of good, take note of our Lord’s statement to Pilate on the day of his crucifixion.
So Pilate said to Him, “You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have the authority to release You, and I have the authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above.” John 19:10,11.
And finally consider the command of Romans 13:1 in the historical and literary context. Paul has just commanded Christians that we are to not simply resist repaying evil with evil, but rather to bless those who pursue us, live at peace with others anytime the “ball is in our court,” provide for the well-being of our enemies and leave vengeance to God. He then immediately identifies the governing authorities as being agents of God’s vengeance in the present age. He has chosen governing authorities to do the very thing that Christians are forbidden to do on their own behalf. This is not a justification for their actions, but rather a providential means of dealing with evil men with men.
Romans 13 is written in the historical context of Caesar Nero, one of those most morally debased rulers of history. Nero is labeled by Paul as having authority established by God and a minister of God for good. This does not mean Nero was justified in his evil ways but rather highlights that despite Nero’s arrogant claims of divinity and sovereignty, God was indeed in charge.
This point about Nero being the emperor at the time of Paul’s writing leads easily into the deconstruction of the category about Romans 13 describing the “ideal” government, or the description of a government that is indeed God-ordained or that a government that rebels against the law of God is fair-game for overthrow.
Paul does not say that all men ought to be in subjection to “good government” or “democratically elected government” or “to the government that you desire.” It simply says to be in subjection to the governing authorities that exist. Likewise, if our standard for “God-ordained” government is one that acknowledges the God of the Bible and enforces His laws, then it should quickly be recognize that every government of man is one that could be rebelled against. Every government ruled and administrated by sinful men fail to accurately enforce God’s law in some area.
Then how was Nero a minister for good if this a phrase that’s applied even to evil governments? I would suggest that it applies in a couple of very real ways. One is an application of Psalm 76
You caused judgment to be heard from heaven; the earth feared and was still when God arose to judgment, to save all the humble of the earth. For the wrath of man shall praise you; With a remnant of wrath You will gird yourself.
God rules over evil, uses it towards His own good purposes, and constrains it to go no further. Likewise Romans 8:28:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God.
This encouraging statement is made within the context of enduring bad things. God rules over those things that cause us pain and suffering and even works them towards our good in a scheme and timeline that is often bigger than we can see at the moment when they first occur.
Also, consider that even evil governments have desire for fundamental order in society (this point would not apply to all governments since some governments seek greater power by causing greater chaos). Most governments still have laws against certain types of murder. Many governments that are perhaps very evil in some areas have laws that constrain evils that the governments often deemed “good” allow to go unchecked.
Christians are commanded to pray for our rulers with an eye towards our being able to live “quiet and tranquil lives” (I Tim. 2:1-4). We are commanded to submit to the governing authorities, even the evil ones. (Rom. 13). We are commanded to pay our taxes (Rom. 13) and given the example of Christians who “joyfully accepted the seizing of [their] property” (Heb. 10:34). But we are never to obey a command that contradicts the law of God (Acts 5:29), and we are to model our conduct and attitude after our Lord regardless of our occupation (I Pet. 2:21).
Submitting to the governing authorities is not a backdoor for otherwise evil behavior to be committed by either Christians nor non-Christians, but is a command to trust in the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and to live faithfully in His Kingdom. Likewise, it is not a backdoor for Christians to resist governments that fail to submit themselves to the God who establishes authority.
May we all pray for humility, peace, and endurance as we live as citizens of heaven among the kingdoms of man.