Tough Questions Concerning Romans 13

Romans 13:1-7 is a passage that invites several tough questions. It is my intent to explore some of these questions and perhaps offer a few answers regarding this difficult text. Hopefully, these questions will draw us closer to the truth, but sometimes we have to set with the questions before we can see the truth clearly. Of course, this will only happen if we approach this section of Scripture with open hearts and open minds.

Who is Paul’s intended audience?

We must begin by acknowledging that we see Romans 13 through a particular lens. The vast majority of people who live in America love this country. We have no problem with Romans 13 because we are a patriotic people. We have pride in our nation, and we want to trust our government. We must keep in mind that Romans 13 was not written solely for Christians living in 21st America. It was originally written to Christians living in the Roman empire. This was a government that at times persecuted Christians and enforced emperor worship. This text was also written for Christians living in communist China. It was written for Christians who are living in the middle east under sharia law. Whatever this passage says about America, it also says about these other countries. We cannot apply it one way when we are talking about a good and decent government, and another way when we are discussing a government bent on evil.

What is commanded of Christians in Romans 13?

This passage centers on one commandment. It is the first sentence in verse one. Paul writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” Everything that follows is an expansion or explanation of this one statement. To submit to someone or something means we yield to them. It means we give up some right, privilege, desire, etc. we have in order to serve a bigger cause. Submission implies doing something we would not ordinarily do. If we were going to do it anyway, then we aren’t truly submitting. The command to submit to the governing authorities is broad. It could mean many different things. When Peter gives similar instructions in 1 Peter 2:13-17, he specifically mentions the emperor and governors. It could be that Christians in the first century were leery about submitting themselves to someone like Pilate or Nero. Zealots argued for open rebellion, but both Peter and Paul give instructions for another way. Paul specifically mentions paying taxes (13:6-7). Some Christians may have wondered why they should give their hard-earned money to a government that does not respect them and at times persecutes them. The answer is that Christians are called to be peacemakers (Rom. 12:14-21). We are to be good citizens even when we may not like it. We are not to fight power with power. The Zealots fought power with power and lost. Christians sought peace and Christianity flourished.

Does Romans 13 offer justification for a Christian to serve in war or participate in the death penalty?

Romans 13 associates violence with government. Violence is part of the fallen world in which we live. Governments are responsible for wars, capital punishment, etc. Governments maintain some sense of order through violence and order is preferred over chaos. Anarchy would invite even more violence. Although violence exists and at times may serve some sort of purpose, is Paul giving his blessing for Christians to participate in this violence? In this passage, Paul speaks about the government and the role of the Christian under the government. He does not address the role of the Christian within the government. If someone wants to use this passage as justification for Christians serving in war or participating in the death penalty, then there are some serious questions one must consider first.

Would it have been alright for a Christian to participate in the executions of Jesus, Paul, Peter, or any other Christian that was put to death by the Roman government?

Does Romans 13 authorize a Christian to participate in an unjust war? If not, then why not?

Romans 13 was written for Christians living under all governments. This means it was written for German Christians and British Christians in WWII. Does this mean a German Christian would be equally justified for following Romans 13 as a British Christian?

Paul is specifically speaking about the Roman government in Romans 13. He wanted Christians to respect the government and not rebel against it. He wanted them to pay their taxes, but this was also a government involved in evil, and they would later be punished for it by God. The book of Revelation is about God’s judgment on Rome. It is evident that although Christians are to live peaceably under the Roman government, God does not approve of all the actions of the Roman government.

Does Romans 13 mean I should do anything the government commands?

No! How do we know this? The man who wrote Romans 13 was put to death by the Roman government. We can assume that Paul paid his taxes, obeyed the laws to the best of his ability, etc., but there were some compromises Paul refused to make. Romans 13 describes a system in which God is the ultimate authority. God will tear down and build up governments. God is the authority we must obey above all else.

What does loving my enemy have to do with Romans 13?

Context is important. The one thing that has caused the most problems in interpreting Romans 13 is its separation from Romans 12. Often people will try to say something about Romans 13 without ever considering Romans 12. In Romans 13, Paul commands us to submit to the government and pay our taxes, but in Romans 12, he gives us many more commands. We are to bless anyone who persecutes us (12:14). We are to repay no one evil for evil (12:17). We are to live peaceably with all (12:18). We are never to avenge ourselves but leave vengeance to God (12:19). We are to feed our enemies and give them something to drink (12:20). Whatever Romans 13 means, it cannot contradict the commands Paul has just given. I do not think this is an issue as long as we understand Romans 13 as instructions on how a Christian should live under the government, not within the government.

We should notice that Romans 13 is situated between commands for us to love others (12:9-10; 13:8). At the end of Paul’s instructions regarding Christians and government, he makes the following statement.

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. – Romans 13.1-8

The one thing Christians should be known for is love. If our interpretation of Romans 13 takes us away from this end, then we have not interpreted it correctly, and we should take another look. Governments will come and go, but the kingdom of God will stand forever. The ethics of governments vary drastically, but the ethic of the kingdom of God is love. Let us make sure we are devoting ourselves to the right ethic.

Originally published by Start2Finish and republished with their permission.
Scott Elliott is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and Austin Graduate School of Theology. He lives in La Grange, TX and is the minister for the La Grange Church of Christ. He is married and has two sons. He enjoys writing about the Christian faith and posting the occasional film review. His articles and reviews have appeared in RELEVANT magazine, Englewood Review of Books, and other publications.
Scripture quotations are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version).

“Thirteen Propositions” of Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address

Editor’s Note: Thomas Campbell, upon withdrawing from the Seceder sect of the Presbyterian church, had gained considerable influence among the Christians in Washington County, Pennsylvania. In 1807 Thomas Campbell and several other like minded Christians formed the “Christian Association of Washington” for the purpose of promoting Christian unity and encouraging denominations to unite together on the faith and practices revealed in the Bible. Neither Thomas Campbell nor any other member of the association had any intention of forming a new sect. (It is therefore important to remember that at this time the phrase “Church of Christ” was used not to refer to one particular sect, but was rather used to describe the one universal church). In order to clarify the intentions of their newly formed association in a clear and definite manner, a “Declaration and Address” was written and adopted by the association. The following thirteen propositions were written to encourage Christians to put an end to controversies caused by matters of opinion, expediency, and human inferences. These thirteen propositions will continue to be of great interest to any who desire to see greater unity among Christians.

Let none imagine that the subjoined propositions are at all intended as an overture toward a new creed or standard for the Church, or as in any wise designed to be made a term of communion; nothing can be further from our intention. They are merely designed for opening up the way, that we may come fairly and firmly to original ground upon clear and certain premises, and take up things just as the apostles left them; that thus disentangled from the accruing embarrassments of intervening ages, we may stand with evidence upon the same ground on which the Church stood at the beginning. Having said so much to solicit attention and prevent mistake, we submit as follows:

PROP. 1. That the Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and of none else; as none else can be truly and properly called Christians.

2. That although the Church of Christ upon earth must necessarily exist in particular and distinct societies, locally separate one from another, yet there ought to be no schisms, no uncharitable divisions among them. They ought to receive each other as Christ Jesus hath also received them, to the glory of God. And for this purpose they ought all to walk by the same rule, to mind and speak the same thing; and to be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment.

3. That in order to do this, nothing ought to be inculcated upon Christians as articles of faith; nor required of them as terms of communion, but what is expressly taught and enjoined upon them in the word of God. Nor ought anything to be admitted, as of Divine obligation, in their Church constitution and managements, but what is expressly enjoined by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles upon the New Testament Church; either in express terms or by approved precedent.

4. That although the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are inseparably connected, making together but one perfect and entire revelation of the Divine will, for the edification and salvation of the Church, and therefore in that respect can not be separated; yet as to what directly and properly belongs to their immediate object, the New Testament is as perfect a constitution for the worship, discipline, and government of the New Testament Church, and as perfect a rule for the particular duties of its members, as the Old Testament was for the worship, discipline, and government of the Old Testament Church, and the particular duties of its members.

5. That with respect to the commands and ordinances of our Lord Jesus Christ, where the Scriptures are silent as to the express time or manner of performance, if any such there be, no human authority has power to interfere, in order to supply the supposed deficiency by making laws for the Church; nor can anything more be required of Christians in such cases, but only that they observe these commands and ordinances as will evidently answer the declared and obvious end of their institution. Much less has any human authority power to impose new commands or ordinances upon the Church, which our Lord Jesus Christ has not enjoined. Nothing ought to be received into the faith or worship of the Church, or be made a term of communion among Christians, that is not as old as the New Testament.

6. That although inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians farther than they perceive the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God. Therefore, no such deductions can be made terms of communion, but do properly belong to the after and progressive edification of the Church. Hence, it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the Church’s confession.

7. That although doctrinal exhibitions of the great system of Divine truths, and defensive testimonies in opposition to prevailing errors, be highly expedient, and the more full and explicit they be for those purposes, the better; yet, as these must be in a great measure the effect of human reasoning, and of course must contain many inferential truths, they ought not to be made terms of Christian communion; unless we suppose, what is contrary to fact, that none have a right to the communion of the Church, but such as possess a very clear and decisive judgment, or are come to a very high degree of doctrinal information; whereas the Church from the beginning did, and ever will, consist of little children and young men, as well as fathers.

8. That as it is not necessary that persons should have a particular knowledge or distinct apprehension of all Divinely revealed truths in order to entitle them to a place in the Church; neither should they, for this purpose, be required to make a profession more extensive than their knowledge; but that, on the contrary, their having a due measure of Scriptural self-knowledge respecting their lost and perishing condition by nature and practice, and of the way of salvation through Jesus Christ, accompanied with a profession of their faith in and obedience to him, in all things, according to his word, is all that is absolutely necessary to qualify them for admission into his Church.

9. That all that are enabled through grace to make such a profession, and to manifest the reality of it in their tempers and conduct, should consider each other as the precious saints of God, should love each other as brethren, children of the same family and Father, temples of the same Spirit, members of the same body, subjects of the same grace, objects of the same Divine love, bought with the same price, and joint-heirs of the same inheritance. Whom God hath thus joined together no man should dare to put asunder.

10. That division among the Christians is a horrid evil, fraught with many evils. It is antichristian, as it destroys the visible unity of the body of Christ; as if he were divided against himself, excluding and excommunicating a part of himself. It is antiscriptural, as being strictly prohibited by his sovereign authority; a direct violation of his express command. It is antinatural, as it excites Christians to contemn, to hate, and oppose one another, who are bound by the highest and most endearing obligations to love each other as brethren, even as Christ has loved them. In a word, it is productive of confusion and of every evil work.

11. That (in some instances) a partial neglect of the expressly revealed will of God, and (in others) an assumed authority for making the approbation of human opinions and human inventions a term of communion, by introducing them into the constitution, faith, or worship of the Church, are, and have been, the immediate, obvious, and universally acknowledged causes, of all the corruptions and divisions that ever have taken place in the Church of God.

12. That all that is necessary to the highest state of perfection and purity of the Church upon earth is, first, that none be received as members but such as having that due measure of Scriptural self-knowledge described above, do profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures; nor, secondly, that any be retained in her communion longer than they continue to manifest the reality of their profession by their temper and conduct. Thirdly, that her ministers, duly and Scripturally qualified, inculcate none other things than those very articles of faith and holiness expressly revealed and enjoined in the word of God. Lastly, that in all their administrations they keep close by the observance of all Divine ordinances, after the example of the primitive Church, exhibited in the New Testament; without any additions whatsoever of human opinions or inventions of men.

13. Lastly. That if any circumstantials indispensably necessary to the observance of Divine ordinances be not found upon the page of express revelation, such, and such only, as are absolutely necessary for this purpose should be adopted under the title of human expedients, without any pretense to a more sacred origin, so that any subsequent alteration or difference in the observance of these things might produce no contention nor division in the Church.

Excerpts from “An Interview Between an Old and a Young Preacher” by Barton W. Stone

Editor’s Note: It is often argued that since God ordained governments, it is right for Christians to support and maintain those governments. In the following article, Barton W. Stone addresses this commonly held belief. This excerpt is taken from “Interview Ninth” from “Interview Between an Old Preacher and a Young Preacher”, originally published by James M. Mathes in the “Works of Elder B. W. Stone” (1859). You can read the interviews in their entirety here. For additional study, take the time to view the hyperlinks you will find throughout this article.

Old Preacher–Well, my son, what success have you had in enlisting soldiers for the holy war since we last met?

Young Preacher–None, none. The way is completely obstructed by counter currents of worldly policy, called politics. This appears to be the all-absorbing theme, and spring of action among the people of every age, sex, religion and profession in the land. It is a thick veil thrown over eternity and eternal things–it is an opiate which has induced a senseless torpor to religion–it is ruination to Christian character–it has banished shame from the heart of the professor, who seems to enjoy the revels of the day… The small still voice of religion can not be heard in such a turmoil, nor can she have entrance or abode into hearts so heated with politics….To preach during such excitement appears in vain; and yet to refrain I can not. I find a few, and but a few mourners in Zion, who weep for her desolations. This upholds my sinking spirit, with the heart-cheering truth, the Lord reigneth. Here the young preacher’s sorrows burst into a flood of tears, and prevented further utterance.

 O. P.–My son, wipe your tears and trust in the Lord. It is true a dark cloud hangs over the world, which may burst in vengeance or mercy. An exterminating war has long been waging between religion and the world, and “the fight will be maintained until the weaker dies.” A compromise can never be effected between them; for whosoever loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him; and whosoever will be a friend of the world is an enemy to God. The friendship of the world is enmity to God. To seek the friendship of the world and the friendship of God at the same time, can not be done consistently with truth–it is a vain work; and yet this work, vain as it is, seems to mark the professors of Christianity at the present day; almost an armistice seems to be concluded between the world and professed Christianity. The God of this world has blinded the eyes of professed Christians, and is fast leading them deceived into their ranks into captivity–into bondage and death. Christians are virtually forsaking the government and laws of heaven to prop up and sustain the governments and laws of men, whether those men and laws be ecclesiastical or political; in fact, they are based upon the same foundation.

      Israel were always scattered when they forsook the laws and ordinances of heaven and followed their own devices. Their enemies prevailed against them, and led them into captivity; nor were they ever gathered together from their dispersions, till they returned to the laws and ordinances of God which they had forsaken. These things were written for our example, on whom the ends of the world are come. We must return to the government, laws and ordinances of our rightful king, the Lord Jesus, before we shall ever be gathered together and become worthy subjects of his kingdom. We must unite our energies, advance the government and kingdom of our Lord, and meddle not with the government of this world, whether human, ecclesiastical, political or civil; all others aside from that of heaven will be put down by a firm decree of our Lord before the end come.

Y. P.–You astonish me. Are not the civil powers and governments that be, ordained of God? And is it not the duty of Christians to be subject to them, and to sustain them? Do instruct me on this subject.

O. P.If it be the duty of Christians under one worldly government to uphold and support that government, then it is the duty of Christians living in every worldly government to uphold and support that government; those living in North America must uphold and support the democracy of all the United States; those in Britain must support the monarchy of England; those in Russia must support the despotism there; those in Rome must support the government of the pope, the man of sin, the Antichrist of our rightful Lord; those in South America must support every petty tyrant that wades through blood to sit in the supreme chair of State. These governments must be supported and sustained by all their power, influence, blood and treasure. Can we for one moment think that the Lord enjoined on his people under the Caesars of old to uphold and defend their bloody governments, which enjoined the extirpation of the Christians, or to force them to abandon their religions and sacrifice to idols? Can we think it possible that the government of the pope, the man of sin, the true Antichrist, must be supported by Christians at the expense of all their influence, blood and treasure, and that by oath, and I may add, at the expense of their own souls? I grant that Christians are bound to submit to the powers as far as to pay their dues, as custom, tax, etc. But they are not enjoined to seek for nor fill those powers, and thus sustain the government. How awful the thought that the Lord would enjoin on his followers to sustain and support the antipodal, the antagonistic government of Rome, which aims at the subversion of his own!

 Y. P.–You confound me; but are not the powers or governments that exist ordained of God? Is it not then right for Christians to support or maintain them?

O. P.–If all the governments which exist are ordained of God in the common acceptation of the term, then it undeniably follows that all the jarring governments on earth are Divine and good–constitute parts of his own government. Will this be admitted by any intelligent man? No, not one. The translation of the verse (Rom. 13.1) has caused this confusion. The words are ordained, in our version, are in the present tense, but in the original, are in the perfect, and should be translated have been ordained. Trace the history of God’s government from the beginning, and we shall find that he, as monarch of the world, always gave his own laws to his people for their government, but always ordained or appointed men to rule under him according to those laws. But we never find that he ever gave authority to uninspired men to make laws in any age or nation for the government of his people. The authorities or executors of any laws but his own, it is evident he did not ordain.

The people soon, through their depravity, became dissatisfied with God’s government and laws, and began to depart from the laws of Heaven, and to legislate for themselves; yet they retained the authorities and offices which God had ordained. Then were the people scattered, and formed nations, and made laws, and instituted governments for themselves, retaining the offices Divinely ordained to execute the laws, not those laws given by God, but those made by themselves. Thus the whole world is divided into kingdoms, states, governments and parties, whose opposite laws and governments, create collision of interests, strife, war and carnage. The kind purpose of God was to reunite the jarring world, and to make them one, and to reconcile the world unto himself by his Son. This will never be effected till they all return to the government and laws of God, and forsake their own. These laws are given us by Jesus Christ, and when received and fully acted upon will unite the world in harmony, love and peace; wars will cease to the ends of the earth, and discord and strife be known no more forever. It will truly be the kingdom of peace–of heaven on earth.

Y. P.–Could we live on earth in safety without civil government? Would not the strongest sect of professed Christians persecute and oppress the weaker, unless checked and restrained by the civil authorities? Would not the wicked part of the world continually bring upon us tribulation and distress?

O. P.–We may imagine a thousand difficulties; but have we not a king in Zion, who is jealous for the glory of his Church upon earth? Is he not almighty? Can he not check and restrain opposing powers? Will he not hear prayer, and interpose in time of need? To these queries our enlightened judgment answers in the affirmative; but where is our faith? Can we trust in this king? Persecution would add a score to the ranks of Immanuel for one cut off. The Church would continually gain from the world by the truth, and sufferings for it, until he whose right it is to reign triumphantly over all. While civil governments exist, we may, as did Paul, appeal to Caesar from the judgment of our enemies; he is to keep his subjects from injuring us, because we honestly and punctually pay our dues to his government. The amalgamation of Church and State is an unholy alliance, and every advance to it is a departure from truth. The world is beginning to be awake to this subject. Yet some of the parties seem to cast a wishful eye to the highest.

Standing Up For Your Rights

by David Lipscomb

The Gospel Advocate; July 6, 1882

A man who insists on having his rights, will frequently find more wrongs than rights in this world. This world is not the world where right rules; on the contrary, it is an evil world,—a world where Abel dies while Cain lives; a world where God’s servants are killed all the day long, and are accounted as sheep for the slaughter; a world where the wisest of men see that in the place of judgment wickedness is there, and in the place of righteousness iniquity is there,—and find their only consolation in the fact that at last God shall judge the righteous and the wicked, and so right the wrongs that nothing else will ever remedy. We may as well accept these facts at first as to learn them by bitter experience at last; and we may as well content ourselves to bear the iniquities, the falsehoods, the slanders, robberies and wrong-doings that occur in this world, for so surely as we undertake to right the wrongs that are perpetrated, we shall receive fresh injuries and be made the victims of still greater wrongs. Charity “beareth all things,” and though there may be times when iniquity de­mands rebuke, and wrong-doing requires exposure, still he who does this with the hope of securing his own advantage, may expect to be disappointed. For one’s own personal profit it is better to endure almost any wrong than to undertake to obtain redress. We are in an enemy’s land, and a man may find perils where he least expects them. Hence we are to arm ourselves with the same mind that Jesus had, and suffer patiently, over­coming evil with good. The Talmud has this saying, which illustrates the life of one who beareth all things in the spirit of Christian charity:—“He who says, Mine is mine and thine is thine is a just man; he who says, Mine is mine, and thine is mine, is a wicked man ; he who says, Thine is thine, and mine is thine, is a pious man. ‘Love seeketh not her own.’” This principle of yielding, bearing, and endur­ing is not merely the dictate of Christian forbearance and charity, but it is also, in an evil world, the dictate of worldly prudence and com­mon sense. Unless a man can make up his mind to a life of warfare and strife, which may in the end involve him in injustice and personal wrong­doing to others, through a determination to have his own way, he may well make up his mind to suffer injury trusting in God who, in the day of final account, shall make all things right and shall give reward to his servants the prophets, and to his saints, and to them that fear his name, both small and great.