We need to think more clearly about Christianity and the state:
When it comes to how we are to understand the relationship between believers and civil government, Romans 13:1-7 certainly comes to mind. While the Apostle Paul did not intend for this passage to be a comprehensive, full-blown treatise on the matter, it is one of the longer texts on it found in the New Testament. One should also consult 1 Timothy 2:1-4; Titus 3:1-2; and 1 Peter 2:13-17 for more on the topic.
The question arises however as to how we are to properly understand just what Paul was urging us to do in those seven verses. Is absolute blind obedience to the government in all things at all times what he had in mind? I think not, as I have sought to argue elsewhere: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/05/15/the-state-is-not-absolute/
Clearly there are limits to what the state can and should do. And often Scripture gives us instances where disobedience and resistance are called for, as I have often written about. Here then I want to look a bit further at the Romans passage and draw upon some rather recent commentators on it.
First let me look at some of the obvious questions that arise here as we seek to wrestle with this passage, especially in the light of recent history (just think of Hitler and the Holocaust and how this passage is to be understood in light of that situation). Ben Witherington offers just some of the questions:
Where do we see the tendencies of government to misuse the authority God has granted it? Where do we sense a call for absolute allegiance to the state at the expense of one’s allegiance to God and the Christian faith? What should the Christian response be when there is injustice, even wickedness, in high places? What would it mean in a pluralistic culture to take seriously the “under God” part of “one nation under God”?
He goes on to say this: “One thing is certain: Rom. 13:1-7 should never be taken as a call for blanket or blind obedience to the state. A Christian’s primary allegiances lie elsewhere.” And again:
Rom. 13:1-7 does not justify the sins of the state, as if might makes right and whatever the state is able to do is a reflection of God’s will. Paul is not calling for the resignation of Christian conscience, especially not in the face of a pagan state. There is no full-blown theology of church and state here; there is rather, by implication, a limited endorsement of the state in principle until Christ returns—if the state truly operates as servant of God and minister to the people, bringing justice and peace. But the focus is on an exhortation to Christians as to how they should respond to the legitimate claims of the state on them for respect, honor, and resources.
Douglas Moo, in his 2018 revision of his 1996 commentary on Romans says this:
Balance is needed. On the one hand, we must not obscure the teaching of Rom. 13:1-7 in a flood of qualifications. Paul makes clear that government is ordained by God — indeed, that every particular governmental authority is ordained by God — and that the Christian must recognize and respond to this fact with an attitude of submission. Government is more than a nuisance to be put up with; it is an institution established by God to accomplish some of his purposes on earth (see vv. 3-4). On the other hand, we must not read Rom. 13:1-7 out of its broad NT context and put government in a position relative to the Christian that only God can hold. Christians should give thanks for government as an institution of God; we should pray regularly for our leaders (cf. 1 Tim. 2:1-2); and we should be prepared to follow the orders of our government. But we should also refuse to give to government any absolute rights and should evaluate all its demands in the light of the gospel.
In a 2010 essay, “Paul and Empire,” N. T. Wright offers these words:
We return in conclusion to the famous passage, Romans 13:1-7. This is not, as used to be thought, a plea for a quietist theology in which ‘the state’ can get on with its own business and the church simply has to do what it is told. It fits, rather, within the Jewish world in which, as part of creational monotheism, the creator god intends that the world be ordered and governed through human authorities. The risk from tyranny is great, but the risk from chaos is worse – a point often ignored by comfortable democratic westerners, but well known elsewhere. Followers of Jesus the Lord are not exempt from the ordinary structures of human life, and part of the thrust of Romans 13 may be to curb any overexcited early Christians who might imagine that by hailing Jesus as Lord they could simply ignore the need to pay taxes and give ordinary obedience to ordinary civic regulations. But the main thrust is more subtle. If Caesar is giving himself divine honors, Paul will remind the early Christians that he is not in fact divine, but that he receives his power from, and owes his allegiance to, the one true God (compare the striking John 19:11). The passage constitutes a severe demotion of Caesar and his pretensions, not a charter for him to do as he pleases. This passage continues to disappoint those who want Paul to articulate their favourite form of left-wing social protest, but it continues to remind us of the basic substructures of Jewish thought which underlie his thinking, as well as their transformation in Jesus.
And in his 2016 commentary, Michael Bird concludes his discussion of this passage as follows:
It is worth remembering, though, that 13:1-7 does not give governments a license to do whatever they want to whomever they want and the citizens just have to take it. Stanley Porter believes that 13:1-7 should not be seen as teaching unqualified obedience to the state. Paul thinks authorities can be called to account because they are exercising divinely given powers and disobedience is warranted when this power is misused… Samuel Rutherford’s seventeenth-century political tract, Lex Rex, contested the idea that Christians have to swear absolute fealty to oppressive governments. Rutherford gave a theo-political reading of Romans 13:1-7 that showed that resistance, even violent resistance, to tyrannical rule could be warranted. So there are occasions when opposition to government is not only required but even demanded by discipleship. Just as we have to submit to governing authorities on the basis of conscience, sometimes we have to resist and rebel against governments because of the same conscience.
One final quote is worth running with here. It is especially relevant since so much of the discussion and debate over how we are to understand Romans 13 has especially come to the fore over the past 18 months with the coronavirus. All over the world churches have been shut down or severely restricted in operating. Some pastors have disobeyed these directives, with a number of them being arrested and even jailed as a result.
In his 2018 commentary Frank Thielman looks at some applications here, and he mentions Paul Schneider, a Reformed German pastor. The Nazis wanted him to stay away from the two rural churches he was pastoring. Because he refused to bow down to the Nazis, he was arrested in 1937.
Of interest, the Gestapo gave this as their reason for his arrest: he was endangering “public safety and order”. Hmm, sound familiar? He was brutally beaten and tortured, but he refused to stop preaching to other prisoners at the Buchenwald concentration camp, and he refused to salute the Nazi flag. He was executed in 1939. Thielman says this about his brave defiance:
At any point during his detention he could have been released and returned to his wife and four small children, whom he dearly loved, had he simply agreed to abide by the Gestapo’s orders not to pastor the two little country churches where God had placed him.
Schneider had a clear and exegetically sound understanding of Romans 13:1–7. The church should leave to God the judgment of the governing authorities and obey them as far as possible. “If possible,” Paul says in 12:18, “to the extent that it is up to you, live at peace with all human beings.” But, as both Origen and Käsemann argued, disobedience is the only path for the church when government policies and officials perversely require Christians to abandon their witness to God’s lordship over the entire earth and to abandon their calling of showing love to others.
This is theology in action. Yes, Christians today may well disagree as to what is the right way to proceed with all these church closures going on for so long. A majority seem content not to rock the boat and to simply go along with whatever the state tells them to do. But a brave minority have come to realise that this is government overreach and overkill; that church is indeed an essential service; and that there comes a time when God and the welfare of his people must take precedence over blind subservience to an increasingly irrational and dictatorial state.
Such thoughts are not the last word on this matter, and I realise that not all will agree with me. That is OK. And I know that this will not be my last writing on such matters. The issue of the Christian and government in general, and the issue of resistance theory in particular, are too important not to discuss – especially at a time like this.