What Does Romans 13:1-4 Teach?

Consider the following quotations.

Government is ordained of God, sanctioned and entrusted with power by him. The law must be enforced by power until the people are trained to obey from principle.

– Joseph T. Duryea, Minister of the Collegiate Dutch Reformed Church of New York, 1863

and

While the Scriptures recognize government as a divine institution…they tell us in the same breath that legitimate rulers are the ‘ministers of God’ for good…hence, when governments become a ‘terror to the good,’ and ‘a praise to the evil,’ they cease to be legitimate…and it becomes the right of the people to abolish them.

– Phillip Slaughter, Episcopalian Confederate Chaplain to the 19th Virginia

These two quotations were preached as commentary on Romans 13:1-4, the first quote to Union soldiers, the second to Confederate soldiers. Both interpreters of this passage sought to morally justify their sides’ involvement in the bloodshed of the American Civil War.

Can you imagine Christians on both sides of the battlefield with Romans 13:1-4 still fresh on their minds ready to kill their brothers in Christ? Daniel Boyd has done an excellent job explaining the two major misinterpretations of Romans 13:1-4: Divine Right and Divine Standard. Christian soldiers within the Confederate and Union armies applied one of these interpretations to their cause which led to the untenable position that one Christian ought to kill other Christians in the name of his earthly government.

Despite the 150 years since the American Civil War, this is still a relevant discussion. I’ve recently seen Facebook statuses and blog posts written by Christians that take a side on a big issues like gun control, Syrian refugees, or US military intervention in the Middle East. The writer of whatever blog or Facebook status usually makes their argument and then claims “Romans 13” as the biblical authority for whatever their position was. Unfortunately I’ve often seen this passage used as a blanket statement to prooftext certain political stances. This is a dangerous way to approach this passage because it assumes that if you disagree with the political opinion of the author of the Facebook status, you disagree with the Bible!

It is the purpose of this article to give an accurate interpretation of Romans 13:1-4 that fits within the context of Paul’s letter to the Romans and within the larger context of the New Testament. Daniel’s topic was “What Does Romans 13:1-4 Not Teach?” and mine is meant to be answering in the affirmative, “What in fact does it teach?” though I will deal with certain misconceptions along the way.

One of the Paul’s objectives within Romans 1-11 is to establish the unity of the Jewish and Gentile Christians within the body of Christ, despite their previous associations. Continuing onto what we know as chapter 12, Paul highlights the modus operandi of the newly assembled body of Christ: that instead of “being conformed to the pattern of this world,” they might be “transformed” into something visibly different than what the “pattern of this world” looks like.

The pattern of this world does not produce people who “bless those who persecute ” them (12:14). Neither does it produce those who aren’t “wise in their own sight” (12:16) nor those who “repay no-one evil for evil” (12:17). The cookie cutter of the world certainly doesn’t produce those who shun vengeance, opting instead to feed and take care of his enemy.

Romans 13 continues with apostolic commands as to how Christ followers, Jew and Gentile, ought to  behave with regard to governmental authorities.  Certainly it is an antithesis to the pattern that the world would produce under similar circumstances. Instead of rebelling against malicious dictators or seeking a forceful way to prevent Christian persecution, Paul tells the Romans to “be in subjection.”

Let’s consider the text Romans 13:1-4.

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.

Notice that each person ought to be in subjection. Oftentimes I’ve heard Christians use Romans 13:1-4 to promote patriotism towards one’s earthly nation, or at least allegiance, devotion, and service to the governing authorities. Subjection, however, does not imply any of these things. In fact, every instance of “subjection” (ὑποτάσσω) in the New Testament indicates the presence of at least two seperate and potentially opposing entities: one entity placing itself subordinately under another entity. In each case of subjection, be it young Jesus to his parents (Luke 2:51), the wife to the husband (Colossians 3:18), or the church to Christ (Ephesians 5:24), one entity is limiting his powers or choices in relation to another entity. If subjection was a natural and unconscious process, the command to submit would not have been necessary. As Paul commands the Christians to submit to the government, one entity to another, he doesn’t imagine that the Christians in Rome were in complete agreement with everything the Roman government decided to do. He certainly doesn’t think that the Roman Christ followers had devoted their lives to the service of Rome. On the contrary, it is because they had pledged their allegiance to the Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ, why Paul commands them to submit to earthly government.

Other passages in the New Testament regarding the role of Christians to earthly governments use the same terminology of submission to earthly governments because of ultimate loyalty to God.

Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities…For we also once were foolish ourselves…but when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us. (Titus 3:1, 3-5)

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For this is the will of God… (1 Peter 2:13-15)

Romans 13:1 tells us that our reason for subjection is because of God’s priority over earthly governments. This passage is reminiscent of the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate.

Pilate said to Him, “You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have 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)

Notice that in both the above quoted passage and in  Romans 13:1-4, God is credited with establishing the governing authorities and giving them authority. What does it mean that God established them?

What the NASB translates as establish (τάσσω) is translated elsewhere as institute, appoint, set into place, even specify. Jesus specified the mountain where He wanted to meet His disciples (Matthew 28:16). A specific day was appointed for Paul to meet with the Jewish leaders in Rome (Acts 28:23). We make appointments and specifications all of the time and think nothing of it. This passage tells us that God has appointed human governments to bear the sword to bring vengeance on the evildoer. Despite its importance, nowhere in this passage or other passages does the Scripture imply that God is pleased with this appointment, or that He wants His people to be involved in carrying it out. The Septuagint is full of examples of similar appointments (that also use the same Greek word). For instance, in Jeremiah 19:8, God appointed Jerusalem to be destroyed. Israel was said to have been appointed to be a wilderness by God in Hosea 2:3. Zechariah 7:14 and Malachi 1:3 are other examples of appointments made by God that weren’t exactly honourable.

More important to our discussion is Habakkuk 1:12b.

You, O Lord, have appointed [the Chaldeans] to judge; And You, O Rock, have established them to correct.

Did God approve of the “violence” (1:9) of the idolatrous Chaldeans, the means by which they would “judge” and “correct” His people? Not at all, for He Himself says, “They will be held guilty, they whose strength is their god” (1:11). Though they were serving God by delivering His cup of wrath upon the nations, eventually they would be forced to drink of that wrath as well (Habakkuk 2:15-16). The Chaldeans would be held accountable for their “bloodshed and violence” (2:8), as those who practice such things today can expect as well. God’s appointment of the Chaldeans was not for their glory or their good, but because of their tendency towards violence. Their violent nature was useful in accomplishing God’s purposes, but was not rewarded.

Romans 13:2 uses the term  “ordinance” (διαταγή) to describe God’s appointment of earthly governments. This word normally comes with positive connotations. Though unbiblical, it is a common thing to hear someone speak of a religious minister being “ordained” by God. We shouldn’t, however, give special importance to this word either.  These connotations aren’t seen in Strong’s Dictionary, which defines διαταγή as an “arrangement or institution.” Matthew 25:41 reminds us that hell is a place that has been “prepared for the devil and his angels.” Who was it that prepared hell? Who else, other than God would have the ability to do so? That being said, God’s preparation, arrangement, or even ordination of something, doesn’t mean He desires his people to take part in it, though it will serve his purposes.

Romans 13:4 and 6 gives two more words that ought not be given the positive connotation commonly given them in a Christian setting: minister (διάκονος) and servant (λειτουργός). Though these words are frequently used in a positive light, Satan’s angels are described as his “ministers” (2 Corinthians 11:15). These words simply denote a position of service.

Consider Jeremiah 25:9 and 12.

Behold, I will send and take all the families of the north,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will send to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, My servant, and will bring them against this land and against its inhabitants and against all these nations round about; and I will utterly destroy them and make them a horror and a hissing, and an everlasting desolation…Then it will be when seventy years are completed I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation,’ declares the Lord, ‘for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans; and I will make it an everlasting desolation.’

Notice, God calls Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, His servant. He then takes full credit for the desolation brought upon Judah, thought it was Nebuchadnezzar who physically carried it out. Further, He claims full credit for the punishment of the Babylonians 70 years later, though it was Cyrus the Persian who physically carried it out.  So, Nebuchadnezzar’s service to God was little more than God’s allowance of a violent nation to conquer a neighbouring people group, the Judeans.

Passages about Cyrus the Persian, mentioned earlier, give us the clearest picture of how God used and continues to use earthly nations, by their own penchant for violence, to accomplish His purposes for His people.

Examine the following passage closely.

Thus says the Lord to Cyrus His anointed,
Whom I have taken by the right hand,
To subdue nations before him
And to loose the loins of kings…
For the sake of Jacob My servant,
And Israel My chosen one,
I have also called you by your name;
I have given you a title of honor
Though you have not known Me.
“I am the Lord, and there is no other;
Besides Me there is no God.
I will gird you, though you have not known MeIsaiah 45:1, 4-5.

Both the explicit terminology as well as its implications in this passage are meaningful. In verse 1, Cyrus is called the anointed of the Lord. The Hebrew transliteration of this word is “Messiah.” From the Greek it is transliterated as “Christ.” In the Christian mindset these words are normally reserved solely for Jesus, God’s chosen one to bring salvation to the world. While this is correct, the vocabulary wasn’t invented solely for the purpose of describing Jesus’ position of service. In this case, Cyrus was anointed by God to “subdue nations” “for the sake of” Israel, “though [Cyrus had] not known [God].” Cyrus, as “Messiah” (also called God’s chosen shepherd in Isaiah 44:28) would serve God by toppling the Babylonians and paving the way for the Israelites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Though he played a crucial part in bringing about God’s plan, Cyrus was said to “have not known” God. In the same way, earthly governments today can still be pictured as serving God without knowing Him. This service, as seen in the cases of Cyrus and Nebuchadnezzar, does not result in salvation or glory for the servants, since they did not know God (2 Thessalonians 1:8).

What type of service do the earthly governments carry out? Romans 13:4 calls them “an avenger” who “bears the sword” to “bring wrath on the one who practices evil.” Certainly being an avenger is a good thing right!? Like Captain America or Iron Man! Well…not in the biblical sense of the word. Jeremiah 50 shows us that those who have been the bearers of God’s vengeance (the Babylonians) will incur God’s vengeance themselves!

Draw up your battle lines against Babylon on every side,
All you who bend the bow;
Shoot at her, do not be sparing with your arrows,
For she has sinned against the Lord.
Raise your battle cry against her on every side!
She has given herself up, her pillars have fallen,
Her walls have been torn down.
For this is the vengeance of the Lord:
Take vengeance on her;
As she has done to others, so do to her. Jeremiah 50:14-15.

This passage is reminiscent of Jesus’ command to Peter in Matthew 26:52b: “for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” In their active obedience to Romans 12, Christians would be free from God’s vengeance, never having taken vengeance on their own enemies. Instead the Christian remembers the sermon on the mount: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matt. 5:7). Indeed, “whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Gal. 6:7).

The “sword” is the named weapon of God’s vengeance used by the civil governments. In Isaiah 10:5-7, Assyria is described as a “rod” and an “axe” that God used to carry out his purposes. Note the fact that God is using Assyria though their intentions are different than His.

Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger                           And the staff in whose hands is My indignation,          I send it against a godless nation                                     And commission it against the people of My fury         To capture booty and to seize plunder,
And to trample them down like mud in the streets. Yet it does not so intend,                                               Nor does it plan so in its heart,                                         But rather it is its purpose to destroy                             And to cut off many nations. 

It’s critical to note that the weapon held by Assyria is associated with God’s “indignation.” Though Assyria arrogantly assumed its own plans and purposes, God simply used them as a tool in His hand. As a tool, Assyria is implemented to accomplish God’s plan.

Is the axe to boast itself over the one who chops with it?
Is the saw to exalt itself over the one who wields it?
That would be like a club wielding those who lift it,
Or like a rod lifting him who is not wood.                 Isaiah 10:15.

Despite the usefulness of the tool, the One who used it has no need for it after His purposes are completed. Note the final outcome for the Assyrians.

So it will be that when the Lord has completed all His work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, He will say, “I will punish the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the pomp of his haughtiness.” Isaiah 10:12.

Bringing our discussion back to Romans 13:1-4, what exactly is God accomplishing for His people by allowing earthly governments who do not know Him to be the ones who bear the sword of vengeance? The Bible doesn’t specifically say. Perhaps 1 Timothy 2:1-4 provides an answer.

First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

God’s primary concern is the salvation of mankind. Paul isn’t telling us to pray for the good of the earthly kingdoms or that their plans will prosper. He is telling us to pray that they will stay out of the way of the advancement of the gospel! Jeremiah 29:7 echoes this as well.

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.

Ought we to seek the welfare of our earthly country? Of course, but only because we will partake in the good of its welfare and the difficulties of its hardships. However, we ought not forget that God can use seemingly difficult situations, even persecutions, to bring about His glory. The early Christian writer Tertullian noted in Apologeticus 50, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”  If one lost soul was brought to Christ because of your physical death, would it be worth it? Jesus certainly thought so. As we follow His example we must always remember that this world is not our home. We’re just passing through. We are exiles.

Contrary to popular belief, Romans 13 does not say anything about whether Christians can be involved in the vengeance of the governing forces. It does not encourage Christians to rejoice in the government’s use of the sword. It simply teaches the responsibilities of each group. Notice that in every command to the church in Romans 12 and 13, Paul speaks in second person plural pronouns (“You all”). In every description of the governing authorities he uses either the third person singular (“He”) or third person plural (“they”) pronouns, verbs, and participles. The Greek cases show a distinct separation between the “You” (Church) and the “They” (governing authorities).

If we were to ask the question, as many have, “Should a Christian take part in the vengeance prescribed to governing authorities?”, we could respond with another fitting question: How could the Christian fulfill both responsibilities?

Romans 12 Romans 13
Never avenge yourself Avenge the evil doer
Leave it to God’s wrath Carry out God’s wrath
Feed your enemy Bear the sword

One might ask, “How could blood-thirsty, deranged, Nero, who regularly persecuted Christians for his own pleasure, be considered God’s minister for good”? The same way that Nebuchadnezzar could be called His servant, Assyria His rod, and Cyrus His messiah. But we know the outcome for each of these kingdoms (Daniel 2:31-45) as well as the final outcome for the earthly kingdoms of today (1 Corinthians 15:24-25).

As long as sinners are in rebellion against God, it would be resisting the ordinance of God to resist one’s human government by seeking to overthrow it. It is God’s ordinance for punishing sin and sinners, and as such it is right and good for the end for which God ordained it. Christians are commanded to submit to the authorities that exist, not the authorities they prefer, not the authorities they may believe constitutional, but the authorities they happen to be under.

God has demanded Christians to submit to earthly governments, not anything more than that. Romans 13:1-7 doesn’t give license to participate or support earthly governments by using the same methods that these governments do. It certainly doesn’t show obligation of the Christian to “protect their country” as many have taught. A great example of this was the prophet Daniel. Daniel knew life as an exile. When under the government of Babylon he submitted to Nebuchadnezzar and was subservient to him as his slave. When Babylon was overthrown by the Persians, Daniel submitted to Darius, and served him with equal fidelity. Can you imagine Daniel fighting the Persians to uphold the Babylonian government? It seems absurd, yet we hear many using Romans 13:1-7 to teach that Christians are somehow obligated to physically defend the “freedoms” of their earthly governments.

In summary, the text of Romans 13:1-7 tells Christians to be in subjection to governing authorities. It also tells us of God’s appointment of them to bear the sword. To this end, they are His “minister” and his “servant.” Despite the positive connotation these words usually carry, it is obvious from similarities between the Old Testament passages referenced and the explanation of governmental authorities in Romans 13 that modern governments are part and parcel with the ancient Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians. Their anger and warmongering were used by God to punish the people of Israel. Their actions were not pleasing to God, but he used them to accomplish His purposes before destroying them as well.

Let us pray that we and all of our Christian brethren will submit to our earthly governments, wherever we happen to live. Let us pray also that we give all allegiance, devotion, and service to Jesus and Christ and His otherworldly kingdom. Let us work diligently for the kingdom established by God “that will never be destroyed” (Daniel 2:44).

Comparing Krishna of the Bhagavad Gita to Jesus of the Bible

After teaching English to a Hindu family, I was very interested in learning more about the primary Hindu text: the Bhagavad Gita (BG).

Bhagavad Gita, Translated by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, 2nd Edition; Revised and Enlarged, The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International, Inc., 1972, 1983

The BG is a story about the supreme Hindu god, Krishna, and his discussion with his follower, Arjuna. The setting is a battlefield where Krishna calls Arjuna to fight against his enemies, though many in the opposing army are members of Arjuna’s family. Krishna encourages Arjuna to keep his duty, which is the highest devotion one can pay towards Krishna. For more, see here.

The wife in the family I was studying with assured me that the BG, just like the writings of other religious groups (the Bible, the Quran, etc.), was all about love. She said that each of these writings taught their respective communities how to love one another and make the world a better place. In modern society, this is a very appealing statement. It is tempting to accept the notion that all religions are just different, but very similar, representations of each culture’s desire to leave the world better than they found it. If this was true, how could any religion claim to be superior to another?

As I read the BG, however, I didn’t find very much about love. In fact, I can’t recall “love” ever being mentioned in a positive light. Unfortunately, I believe my friend has been misguided. She is a very sincere and lovely person, but the religion that she and so many other Hindus follow is wholly inadequate when compared to the Christian religion. It is my purpose in this article to show the inadequacies of the supposed god Krishna and, thus, question the foundations on which many Hindus base their faith.

From what I have learned, there are many important Hindu writings, which I am sure would benefit me in my study of this religion. The translator, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, assures that though there are many important writings the BG is sufficient in leading one into the “truth” of Krishna.

Because Bhagavad Gita is spoken by the supreme personality of godhead, one need not read any other Vedic literature…This one book will suffice because it is the essence of all Vedic literature (BG Intro, 28).

Though the preface to the book claims that the BG is “historically authorised” (BG, xvii), The historicity of the BG, unlike that of the Christian and Jewish writings, is difficult to certify because of the lack of evidence. The introductory material of the BG actually claims that:

Krishna descends to this planet once in a day of Brahma, or every 8,600,000,000 years (BG, xviii).

One can imagine how difficult it would be to historically prove this claim. Because of the lack of information, most assert that the BG would fit in the literary category of the epic, along with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The writing of the BG has been dated somewhere between 400 BC and 200 AD but there is no evidence within the writing itself that assumes a historical date of the events therein.

Swami Bhaktivedanta, in the introductory material, makes claims about the Bhagavad Gita that differ from my friend’s more inclusive statements about all religions:

The Krishna consciousness movement is essential in human society, for it offers the highest perfection of life.

-BG, xix

In this present day, people are very much eager to have one scripture, one God, one religion, and one occupation. Therefore,…let there be one scripture only, one common scripture for the whole world – Bhagavad Gita…let there be one God for the whole world – Sri Krishna…and one hymn, one mantra, one prayer – the chanting of his name…and let there be one work only – the service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

– BG Intro, 29

It is clear from these quotations that the respected swami does not consider all religions to be good and useful. On the contrary, the BG and its introduction makes similar claims of religious exclusivity that the Bible makes.

Ephesians 4:4-5

There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.

If both of these religions claim to be exclusively true, their teachings deserve examination.

Searching Out the Truth in the Gita and in the Bible

Let’s first examine the methods by which these books ought to be read.

Lord Caitanya clearly says that anyone who tries to understand Bhagavad Gita from the Mayavadi (those “without perfect knowledge of Krishna”) point of view will commit a great blunder. The result of such a blunder will be that the misguided student of Bhagavad Gita will certainly be bewildered on the path of spiritual guidance and will not be able to go back to home, back to the Godhead.

-BG, xviii

In order to save oneself from this offence [interpreting the Bhagavad Gita without first trusting in Krishna], one has to understand the Lord as the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

-BG, xviii

To understand Bhagavad Gita, one must “be a devotee in a direct relationship with the Lord.”

-BG Intro, 4

Bhagavad Gita should be taken up in a spirit of devotion.

-BG Intro, 5

The Gita is “for devotees only.”

-BG note, 716

Much like the Book of Mormon (Moroni 10:4) , the BG asks its reader to trust it as absolute truth before reading it. I find this to be a major logical fallacy. Ought we trust someone just because they tell us they are trustworthy? In everyday life, we only trust things that have already proven themselves to us. The Bible teaches this clearly:

1 Thessalonians 5:21

Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.

1 John 4:1

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

Revelation 2:2

I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false.

Unlike the BG, whose translators tell us, “Vedic knowledge is complete because it is above all doubts and mistakes… We have to accept perfect knowledge which comes down, as is stated in Bhagavad-gita” (BG Intro, 13), the Bible actually tells us to test everything and only accept it if it passes our tests. If a god capable of giving us intellect and reason actually exists, we would expect his writings to be in accordance with the intellect and reason that his creatures exhibit. “Trust me, because I said so” is not a mantra fit for the questioning and logical human mind.

Let’s consider some conclusions that the BG asks us to trust, just because “Krishna says so” (10.14).

Societal Divisions and Prescribed Duty in the Bhagavad Gita

Krishna – “The four divisions of human society are created by Me.”

– BG 4.13

The duties and qualities of each of the four divisions (Brahmans, Ksatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras) are laid out in BG 18.42-44.

Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, knowledge, wisdom and religiousness – these are the natural qualities by which the brahmanas work. Heroism, power, determination, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity, and leadership are the natural qualities of work for the ksatriyas. Farming, cow protection and business are the natural work for the vaisyas, and for the sudras there are labor and service to others.

Take note of what this passage teaches. There are certain classes of people who cannot attain to virtues such as: purity, honesty, knowledge, and wisdom. The lowest class cannot attain to anything higher than physical labor and service to others. Krishna specifically states that women, vaisyas, and sutras are of “lower birth” (BG 9.32).

The subsequent outcome of the caste system, Krishna’s four divisions of society, is the prescribed duty of each individual in whatever caste they find themselves born into. Examine the teachings of the BG passages regarding duty.

BG 2.27 – Duty is unavoidable.

BG 2.31 – Duty is specific according to caste.

BG 2.33 (3.8) – It is sin to reject your given duty.

BG 2.47 (3.19, 31; 18.9) – “You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your actions.”

BG 3.5- Duty is prescribed by being born into a specific caste.

BG 3.22-24 – Even Krishna is subjected to prescribed duties.

BG 18.7 – “Prescribed duties should never be renounced.”

BG 18.59 – “By [Arjuna’s] nature, [he] will have to be involved in warfare.”

In summary, everyone is born into a particular caste, which comes with its own particular duty. It is sinful to reject your prescribed duty or to aspire to a higher duty than the one you have been born into. Because of the prescription of duty and the unchanging nature of your caste, you shouldn’t feel responsible for the consequences of your actions. Consequences of actions are, after all, not your fault since Krishna demands that you follow your duty.

Take careful note of the implications of the following passage:

By following his qualities of work, every man can become perfect. Now please hear from Me how this can be done. By worship of the Lord, who is the source of all beings and who is all-pervading, a man can attain perfection through performing his own work. It is better to engage in one’s own occupation, even though one may perform it imperfectly, than to accept another’s occupation and perform it perfectly. Duties prescribed according to one’s nature are never affected by sinful reactions…Therefore one should not give up the work born of his nature, O son of Kunti, even if such work is full of fault 

-BG 18.45-48

These particular words of Krishna’s are in response to Arjuna’s reluctance to killing his brothers and cousins in war. In essence, Krishna says, “You must do it. You are a soldier and it is your duty.” In this teaching, perfection is not a moral standard to be aspired to, but a blind acceptance of one’s duty, despite the outcome of one’s actions.

Isn’t it interesting that Krishna admits that certain types of prescribed duties are “full of fault” ? It is human nature, as Arjuna argues, to hold more tightly to moral obligations than to perceived caste duties. Should the son of a family of beggars, with a talent for music, not seek to improve his family’s desperate status by leaving his socio-economic class behind for a better, more prosperous status? Should the boy born in Nazi Germany have honoured his duty to fight as a soldier upholding Hitler’s evil regime, instead of his moral obligation to fellow man? Would Krishna be pleased with someone born to a family of beef butchers who worked in the slaughterhouse because of his prescribed duty?

Societal Divisions and Prescribed Duty in the Bible

Consider the aspects of societal divisions and  “duty” as seen from the Bible. It is evident, I believe, that the teachings found in the Bible fit within the moral obligations inherent in human society, much better than the notion of prescribed duties taught by Krishna in the BG.

Instead of the caste system, in which all people are divided, the Bible teaches that Jesus has come and torn down those barriers which formerly separated groups of people. Everyone has the same value, no matter their race, gender, and economic standing.

Galatians 3:28

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 5:6

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.

Ephesians 2:14-15

For [Jesus] Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall…so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace.

Christianity teaches the unity of mankind where every individual is equally valued and important. In accordance with this teaching, every man and woman has the same duty.

Ecclesiastes 12:13

The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.

Matthew 22:36-40

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

The duties taught by Krishna might very well include fighting and killing because of the group you were born into. The duties taught by Jesus include loving God and as a natural outgrowth of that love, loving all other humans.

Standard of Morality in the Gita Compared to the Bible

You can imagine that the standards of morality given by Jesus and Krishna would be as vastly different as the prescribed duties that each of them teach. In the following passage, Arjuna tells his reluctance to fight his brethren. In fact, he is much closer to the moral teachings of Jesus before he is convinced by Krishna to follow his duty as a soldier.

Arjuna – I do not see how any good can come from killing my own kinsmen in this battle, nor can I, my dear Krishna, desire any subsequent victory, kingdom or happiness…Of what avail to us are a kingdom, happiness or even life itself when all those for whom we may desire them are now arrayed on this battlefield? …Why should I wish to kill them, even though they might otherwise kill me? …I am not prepared to fight with them even in exchange for the three worlds, let alone this earth…Sin will overcome us if we slay such aggressors…How could we be happy by killing our own kinsmen?…Why should we, who can see the crime in destroying a family, engage in these acts of sin?

– BG 1.31-38

Alas, how strange it is that we are preparing to commit greatly sinful acts…Better for me if the sons of Dhrtarastra, weapons in hand, were to kill me unarmed and unresisting on the battlefield. – 1.44-45

Arjuna’s words of love and sacrifice for his family are very similar to the words of Jesus in Luke 6:27-29, 31-33.

But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either…Treat others the same way you want them to treat you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.

Unfortunately, Arjuna listens to Krishna, who tells him that his love for his family is “degrading impotence” and “weakness of heart” (2.4) because he is not ready to uphold his duty.

Krishna’s reasoning for saying these things is as follows:

Never was there a time when I did not cease to exist, nor you, nor all these kings; not in the future shall any of us cease to be. – BG 2.12

“How can a person who knows that the soul is indestructible, eternal, unborn and immutable kill anyone?” – BG 2.22

“If, however, you do not perform your religious duty of fighting, then you will certainly incur sins for neglecting your duties and thus lose your reputation as a fighter.” – BG 2.33

Here is another passage in the BG where devotion to Krishna requires a blind acceptance of Krishna’s words as truth, solely because “he said so.” Why ought we to believe in the cyclical rebirths and reincarnation taught in the BG? Because Krishna says we ought to, and because we ought to have already come to faith in Krishna before we started reading the BG. This reasoning is as cyclical as the cycles of reincarnation taught in this book.

It is remarkable that Krishna, after commanding Arjuna to fight and kill his family members, he then tells him to “keep all abominable activities far distant” from him (2.49).

The Christian might ask, “If killing isn’t abominable, what is?”, but the BG is consistent in the teaching that sin is only accomplished when one does not keep his duty (2.33).

Krishna wavers in his definitions of what is abominable. In one passage, an “abomination” is simply failing to uphold one’s prescribed duty. In a later passage, his definition of “abominable” seems to be more inline with Arjuna’s perceived moral obligation to love his family. In this case, however, Krishna reminds Arjuna that:

Even if one commits the most [seemingly] abominable action, if he is engaged in devotional service he is to be considered saintly because he is properly situated in his determination. – BG 9.30

This is in complete contrast to what is taught in the Bible.

Romans 12:9

Hate what is evil. Hold fast to what is good.

Notice that the things God hates are certain types of behaviour that humans take part in. Therefore, unlike the teachings of Krishna, the God of the Bible has set a divine standard for human behaviour. See Proverbs 6:16-19:

There are six things which the Lord hates, Yes, seven which are an abomination to Him: Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, And hands that shed innocent blood, A heart that devises wicked plans, Feet that run rapidly to evil, A false witness who utters lies, And one who spreads strife among brothers.

Questions for the Bhagavad Gita

1) If Krishna truly desired peace (BG, xiv), why did he give his army to Duryodhana and give himself as advisor and chariot driver to the Pandavas, Duryodhana’s enemies? If he truly desired peace, why did he command Arjuna to fight at least five times (BG 2.18, 39; 3.30; 8.7; 11.33-34) ?

2) If Krishna is completely separate from the material world, why would he desire his followers to offer material things to him (BG 9.26-27) ?

3) Krishna urges Arjuna to “be relieved of the miseries of material existence” (BG 9.1). If Krishna created the material universe (BG Intro, 11), why did he create it to be so miserable?

4) Why does Krishna give conflicting commands to Arjuna? He tells Arjuna to fight and kill his enemies (family members), and then later says that if anyone wishes to come to him, he must be “friendly to every living being” (BG 11.55)? Later, Krishna says that if one wishes to be his devotee, he must be “a kind friend to all living entities” (BG 12.13). Furthermore, Krishna states that godly men will show “charity,” “nonviolence,” and “compassion for all living entities” (BG 16.3; see also 17.14 and the comments on 18.17). How do these commands harmonise with one another?

5) Who prescribed Krishna’s duties (BG 3.22-24)? If Krishna really is the “Supreme Personality of Godhead” (BG Intro, 29), who would have the authority to tell him what to do?

Differences between the teachings of Krishna and Jesus

Krishna says:

BG 3.13 – Enjoying food is a sin.

Jesus says:

1 Timothy 4:4 – For [every food] created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.

Krishna says:

BG 5.20-21 – Rejoicing because of something pleasant or lamenting because of something unpleasant is evil.

Jesus says:

Romans 12:14 – Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Krishna says:

BG 6.10 – A holy person ought to live alone in a secluded place.

Jesus says:

Matthew 5:14-16 – “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden…Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.

Krishna says:

BG 7.11 – Sex for pleasure is sin.

Jesus says:

God created sex to be good and enjoyed between a husband and wife.

Hebrews 4:13, Song of Solomon, 1 Cor. 7:2-5

Krishna says:

BG 8.13 – All sensual engagements are sin.

Jesus says:

Jeremiah 2:7 – “I brought you into a plentiful land to enjoy its fruits and its good things.”

Krishna says:

BG 16.16 – Hell is for those who enjoy the senses.

Jesus says:

1 Timothy 6:17 – God richly provides us with everything to enjoy.

Krishna says:

BG 6.15 – Heaven is the “cessation of existence.”

Jesus says:

Revelation 21:1-4 – Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “ Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away

Differences in the person of Krishna and the person of Jesus

Krishna’s mercy depends on our perfection

“A person free from all attachment and aversion and able to control his senses through regulative principles of freedom can obtain the complete mercy of the Lord” – BG 2.64

Jesus’s mercy depends on His perfection

“He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy” Titus 3:5.

Krishna desires destruction.

“To deliver the pious and to annihilate the miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of religion, I myself appear, millennium after millennium.” – BG 4.8

“Time I am, the great destroyer of the worlds, and I have come here to destroy all people.” – BG 11.32

Jesus desires no-one to perish.

“The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”- 2 Peter 3:9

Krishna claims to be death.

“I am all devouring death.” – BG 10.35

Jesus claims to be light.

“Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.'”. – John 8:12

Conclusion

I urge all followers of Krishna and the BG to consider the logical fallacies found within this book. The life that the God of the Bible has created for you is not meant to be hated. Life’s joys are meant to be enjoyed and our sadnesses and griefs such as death, infidelity, and loneliness bring sadness to God as well. He has created us in His image (Genesis 1:26) and we have the same moral values as our Creator. This is why Arjuna initially felt wrong in killing his family members. Arjuna was right before he listened to Krishna! God created us and he has put within us a compass pointing us to do what is right and to flee from what is evil.

The caste system and subsequent duty taught by Krishna in the BG is not reconcilable with the human values of: love, compassion, and improvement. These values are found in the Bible and are celebrated as being from God.

Likewise, Krishna teaches that perfection is found only when all earthly desires are rejected. Jesus teaches that physical desires are not inherently evil, and that God’s creation (food, relationships, beauty) are made to be enjoyed.

If you are a Christian, please show love to your Hindu friends and neighbours. Tell them about the “abundant life” that Jesus has provided for everyone who follow Him (John 10:10).

If you are a Hindu, please consider this article. Consider your feelings and emotions. Do you think God created everything that is pleasing to mankind just so he can make us feel bad for enjoying it? Of course not.

Jesus loves you and wants you to enjoy your life.

John 10:10

Jesus- I came that [you] may have life, and may have it abundantly

He also wants you to be prepared to meet Him in the next life.

Romans 2:6-11

God will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well- doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self- seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil… but glory and honour and peace for everyone who does good…For God shows no partiality

Are you ready?

Do Not Be Conformed to the [Religious] World

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:2 was the first passage I ever seriously considered and meditated upon. This occurred many years before I was introduced to the concepts of historical or literary context. This passage was initially introduced to me as a supporting verse for 2 Timothy 2:22 and fleeing “youthful lusts.”At that time, I interpreted the verse to mean that the more I read my Bible, the easier temptation would be to deal with. While I was certainly not too far off, I later came to realise that my interpretation was incomplete.Perhaps we can find more meaning within the historical context of the Roman church at the time and of the literary context of Paul’s writing.

The Historical Background of the Roman Church

We know that “visitors from Rome” were present in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost when the initial 3,000 were baptised into Christ (Acts 2:10). Assuming that these early Christians returned and worshipped in Rome, the earliest Roman church would have been composed entirely of early Jewish believers. Their evangelistic efforts, at this point, would have been limited to other Jews in the synagogues of Rome. Later, however, the Roman church would have begun reaching out to the Gentiles, as the other early churches did. Following the conversion of the first Gentile converts, Cornelius and his household (Acts 10), the first mass outreach to Gentiles began (Acts 11:19-21). The successes among the Gentiles that Paul and Barnabas experienced during their first missionary journey (Acts 13:48-49; 14:1, 27) actually prompted the church in Jerusalem to send a letter to the Gentile brethren in nearby locations (Acts 15:23-30). Though we only have available the travels of Paul recorded in Acts, we can imagine the conversions among Gentiles continued to increase in the churches, including the church in Rome.

Paul’s meeting with Roman couple Priscilla and Aquila gives us more insight into the historical context of the Roman church (Acts 18:1-12). Priscilla and Aquila’s “trip” to Corinth was arranged by Emperor Claudius, who decreed that all Jews must leave the city of Rome. Roman historians Suetonius and Cassius Dio reinforce the biblical text of this historical occurrence. Looking to archaeology, we find that the Gallio inscription (Acts 18:12) in Delphi dates this event sometime between January of 51 and August of 52. The majority of the Roman congregation, presumably Jewish, would have been subject to Claudius’ edict. The welfare of the early Roman church, therefore, would have been left to the propriety of the rather recent Gentile converts for a significant amount of time.

By the time Paul, who had at that point had not personally visited the Roman church (Rom. 1:10-13), wrote to them, the Jewish population had returned (Romans 16:3). As you can imagine, the differences between the Jews and Gentiles in the church were amplified by the return of the Jewish Christians who most likely felt an overwhelming sense of culture shock. I can imagine them saying, “What happened to our synagogue style, mostly Jewish assembly?”, “Can you believe the Gentiles are coming to worship then going out for lunch at the temple of Athena!?”, “These guys don’t know our scriptures very well! What qualifies them to teach about Israel’s prophesied Messiah?”

The Literary Context of Romans 12

For obvious reasons, Paul spends considerable time in the book of Romans reconciling the brethren in Rome. His letter begins with passages like 1:16, 2:9-11, and 3:9, 29-30 which remind the brethren that: the stain of sin has affected ALL mankind, ALL mankind will be judged according to their works, and fortunately, the saving gospel of Jesus is also for ALL mankind. Spiritually speaking, “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek” (3:22; 10:12).

Therefore the spiritual realities of: baptism (Romans 6:1-11), the release of the Jews from the Mosaic law that bound them to sin (Romans 7), and the promises of the Spirit (Romans 8) all serve to bring the Jewish and Gentile believers together into a new category: those who have responded to God’s call through faith in Jesus.

Chapter 1:18-32 focuses on “them,” the Gentiles with no regard for God. Chapters 9-11 focus on “them,” the Jews who haven’t accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Chapter 12, however, begins with an appeal to the Christians in Rome. Unlike the hedonistic Gentiles and the self-righteous Jews, the Christians ought to recognise the disobedience of all mankind, and the greatness of God for giving the opportunity of mercy to both Jew and Gentile (11:30-36). This discussion provides the immediate literary context for Romans 12:1-2.

To summarise Paul’s argumentation, it’s almost as if he’s saying, “Enough talking about ‘them.’ Let’s talk about ‘you’ Christians. You’re all from different backgrounds, but you’ve found a new identity in Christ. Forget the past. Whether it be the sensuality you formerly knew, or your supposed self-sufficiency in observing the law, you’ve all died to your former lives, and now you know that God’s mercy comes through Jesus.”

A Closer Examination of Romans 12:2

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

How would the early Roman church have read this passage?

Romans 12:1 urges the Christians “to present [their] bodies a living and holy sacrifice.” It’s within the context of the epistle to suppose that this passage might have been presented to the Gentile Christians and their previous lives of sensuality. 12:2, however, is likely directed to the Jewish Christians who risked conforming their minds to a worldview that allowed no room for a crucified Saviour from Nazareth.

The Jewish Christians could be encouraged by this passage to use the available evidence (the Old Testament scriptures- Acts 17:1-2 and apostolic signs- 2 Cor. 12:12) to prove that: faith in Jesus, as opposed to faith in the observance of the law, is actually God’s will. Subsequently, the inclusion of the Gentiles into the family of God was also part of God’s plan (Eph. 2:11-22). By accepting these things, the first readers of this epistle wouldn’t be moulded by the societal or religious status quo of first century diaspora Judaism, but instead would be transformed, together with their Gentile brethren, into the “body of Christ” (Rom. 12:5).

Applying Romans 12:2 Today

“Since we’ve answered the question, “What did this passage mean to them?,” we can now ask, “What should it mean to us?”.”

There are major differences between our context and that of the original audience. Primarily, the distinction between Jew and Gentile is nonexistent today. Our western society generally champions the ethics of diversity and inclusivity, sometimes to a fault. Our society generally accepts any religious faith and practice, while the first century Christians were subject to eviction from their homes (as in the situation in Rome) and other types of persecution.

Despite the differences there are notable similarities between our churches and theirs. For one, division in the church is still a significant issue. Despite Jesus’ plea for unity among believers (John 17:20-23), there are more denominations than ever before in church history. The “World Christian Encyclopedia” by Barrett, Kurian, and Johnson (Oxford Univ Press, 2nd edition, 2001) counts as many as 33,820 Christian denominations. Paul’s exhortation “to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus” (Romans 15:5) is completely applicable to contemporary church culture defined by differences.

The widespread division between churches raises another similarity between the modern and early Christians: falsehood taught under religious pretext. The blind observance of Pharisaic traditions led many Jews to ultimately deny that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ. Can we say that we would have fared any better? How do we know that the religious sentiments we express today in our daily lives and our worship services aren’t just man-made traditions?

The Bereans come to mind in this conversation. They were said to have “received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” (Acts 17:10-11). They weren’t focused entirely on new teachings as the Athenians were (Acts 17:21). Neither were they “always learning but never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). They were eager to hear a new teaching (Jesus as Messiah), but they also examined what was being taught with what they already knew to be true, the objective standard of Scripture.

How can we benefit from the example of the Bereans and Paul’s exhortation to the Roman church?

  1. Don’t wholeheartedly accept everything you’ve been given. I love my parents, my friends, and my former teachers who have all taught me spiritual things. Though I have a great respect for these individuals, the outcome of my own soul is even more important to me. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). If Christianity is the exclusive pathway to heaven as Jesus says it is, what is the outcome of all the Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims who wholeheartedly accept the teachings of their friends and family? The outcome of their souls depends on their willingness to honestly examine all the evidence. If I expect this type of attitude from my non-Christian friends, I ought to exemplify this attitude in my own approach to seeking truth.
  2. Don’t wholeheartedly reject everything you’ve been given. I’ve noticed that some, in the spirit of rebellion or because of a personal flaw within a person who taught them, completely reject everything that they’ve been taught. 1 Thessalonians 5:21 instructs us to, “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.” It would be a logical mistake to imagine that every single aspect of religious information we were taught is wrong, simply because we inherited it from our parents or faith community.
  3. Accept the fact that you’ve been wrong before, and it’s likely that you’ll be wrong again. It takes a humble person to admit this but it is vital to our growth as Christians. Just because someone brings a different interpretation that I haven’t heard before, doesn’t automatically make them wrong. Apollos gives us an example of humbly accepting correction and moving on with newfound knowledge to the glory of God (Acts 18:24ff).
  4. Accept the fact that you’ve been right before, and it’s likely that you’ll be right again. If we take the previous point too far, we might begin doubting that it’s possible to know anything. If I’ve been wrong before, how do I know that I’ve ever been right before?! Without going to that extreme, I can accept that every interpretational decision I’ve made is based upon the best evidence that I’ve processed so far in the best way I know how. I have a rational mind able to examine evidences and come to proper judgments.

By adopting this attitude, every new idea that is presented to me will inevitably renew my mind because my interpretational decisions will be further confirmed or reasonably questioned. If we take to heart Paul’s exhortation, we won’t allow ourselves to be conformed to the world’s desire to mould us, be it sensual or pseudo-religious. I pray that we constantly and consciously invite our minds to be renewed. This process won’t allow us to become close minded to any question asked of the Scripture. Neither will it allow us to accept every teaching as equally valid. Only when our minds are open to renewal will we be able to “prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”