Romans 13 Revisited

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.

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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.

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10 Replies to “Romans 13 Revisited”

  1. Bill, just a question. In your opinion, those of us who choose to not take the jab, do you see gov eventually cutting people off from healthcare, food shopping etc?
    Are we actually going to get to that point here in Aus?

  2. Thanks George. Absolutely. It is not a question of if, but when. Businesses, corporations, governments and even Morrison himself have all spoken – one way or another – of various types of mandatory vaccinations or vaccine passports for all sorts of things: travel, work, shopping, public events, and so on. I make no claim to being a prophet, but it does not take too much foresight or insight to see how something like what we find in Revelation 13:11-18 might fully tie in with what we see happening here. It seems like the perfect storm to me.

  3. Romans is are tough one to understand, especially when it was Caesar Nero that had thousands of God’s own people killed by lions, torn up by dogs in his arena for pure entertainment and burnt on cross’s. It was also Nero that blamed the Christians for the burning of Rome, and it was Nero that had Apostle Paul beheaded by are sword and Apostle Peter crucified.

    So if what Paul is saying in Romans 13 applies here. Then we are led to believe that God would have already known about the terrible deaths that Paul and the thousands of Christians would go through in his name and put Nero there for just this purpose. If you put it in that context then taking are jab in the arm pales in comparison.

    Also it stands to reason that if God put Nero there as are servant to do good by commending them for doing the right thing, than the Christians of that day must have done the wrong thing thereby bringing upon themselves the punishment of death by God’s chosen agent of wrath.

    Paul even said that if they do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. Interesting enough Paul himself died by the sword when he was beheaded, so was Apostle Paul actually doing wrong thereby deserving this death?

    Or is it at all possible that Caesar Nero was not chosen by God. We need to ask ourselves why would God put in place are ruler that he knows will kill off so many of his own people in such are horrific way. If you were to look up the history of Nero you will find that he was not really the rightful Ruler of Rome. That in fact he had the rightful heir killed and that he even had his own mother killed who had conspired to get him into that place of power. We need to ask ourselves does that sound like someone our loving Father in Heaven would have approved of?

    So I tend to go more with N.T. Wright’s interruption of Romans 13. Paul was both are Roman citizen and are Jew and if you read Acts you can see how he could plead his case with the Kings at that time and they listened and finally let him go on his way. He clearly practiced what he preached at that particular time and believed it. It is even interesting to note that God himself in Acts 12:23 had an Angel strike down King Herod because he would not give praise to God. So what does that tell you. God is not pleased with those who put themselves in the place of God.

    Honestly we all need to stop trying to compare the way that Christians live in this age to the way that they lived in the New Testament Days. There is NO comparison. Yes we all read the bible, it is are safe place to go for reproof and correction, however our Christian history never just stopped there. It continued on throughout the ages till today.

    Through God’s good grace we today choose who our rulers are going to be, and the irony of it all is that we get the rulers we deserve.

  4. Bill,

    After revisiting Romans 13: 1-5, it appears to this layman that the statements about government are predicated on, “Does this government honour God by ruling according to His word?” If yes, then obey them, if no, obey God. The Bible is aimed at us individually, therefore, if a government is made up of Christians, then they should act according to God’s word and we can obey them freely.

    If governments being ordained by God is a blanket application then by extension, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot plus others were duly put in place to be obeyed. That would be a contradiction to God’s character and His word.

    In the same way, how can Christians support a government that legislates to kill the unborn, kill the sick and aged and legalise practices that are clearly sinful?

    I think that some of the support government at all costs is based on a fear of persecution. No one would wish for it to come upon them but eventually, we will be forced to make the choice, God or man.

  5. John Calvin and David VanDrunen both offer Jeremiah 27 and 29 as the most related Old Testament equivalents to Romans 13. David VanDrunen, citing Romans 13:1-7 (along with Matt. 22:16-21; 1 Tim. 2:1-2; Titus 3:1; and 1 Peter 2:13-17), writes: “Although they may come to power by different routes … God is the ultimate source of their legitimacy … Since God has ordained civil magistrates for such propitious ends, Christians ought to submit to them, honor them, pay taxes … and pray for them …” David VanDrunen, Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), 26. Further, he adds, “While these texts directly affirm political legitimacy, Acts does so indirectly through its account of the early church. Here the apostles implicitly acknowledge the legitimate authority of civil officials and the legal structures in which they operate. Paul had frequent confrontations with the powers of his day, and though they sometimes treated him roughly, he never challenged their office or the governing laws.” He cites Acts 16:37-39; 18:14-16; 19:35-41; 22:25-29; 23:16-35; 24:10-21; 25:11; 26:2-23; 27:42-43. VanDrunen, 26. While VanDrunen disagrees with the extent of John Calvin’s directions to obey tyrannical civil governments in his Institutes (Book 4:25-32), and explores various reasons for civil resistance as legitimate (see his chapter, “Authority and Resistance”, pp. 319-356), yet in a personal conversation with this author seeking his thoughts on Romans 13, Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex, and the present temporary requirement to wear masks including in worship during the pandemic, he agreed such is not a violation of Scriptural relations with civil and ecclesiastical authorities and rather is only a circumstantial rule in the midst of overlapping spheres. Further, he points out in his book that Romans 13:1-7 is the most detailed text concerning government where God states it has “authorized … protectionist efforts …” Ibid, 345. Whatever disagreement there is about government restrictions during COVID19, it certainly has in general the authority and responsibility to protect the lives of all its citizens (including Christians). And while giving detailed considerations to appropriate situations for civil resistance, VanDrunen yet qualifies, “ … there may be prudential reasons for obeying in some situations … Christians, furthermore, have a distinctive calling to endure unjust treatment in circumstances in which there is no way out (e.g., 1 Peter 2:19-25; cf. 1 Cor. 7:21) … A law might be unjust because one aspect of it is unjust, yet it forms a part of a larger complex of just provisions that accomplish good things. No body of human law will be perfect. Thus it may well be the better part of wisdom and neighborly love to bear with some injustice for the sake of a greater good (without giving up on lawful means to remedy the injustice). Therefore, although an unjust law does not obligate per se, taking into account all relevant moral considerations may indicate that tolerating it is the best course of action.” Ibid, 352, 356.

    VanDrunen, who very much is making the case for a place for civil resistance, yet acknowledges: “The text indicates that it is a travesty when civil officials perpetrate injustice, but it says nothing to indicate that disobedience, resistance, or revolution is justified in such circumstances. If Romans 13 leaves a place for resistance, it is not because the text itself says so … Paul simply does not address whether there are exceptions to his general teaching in Romans 13:1-7 … It is entirely plausible that there are exceptions … Romans 13:1-7 could very well be the kind of text that gives a broad exhortation without mentioning exceptions that do exist. Thus we need to inquire whether other biblical texts provide helpful perspective.” Ibid, 350-351. Also, the Westminster Confession of Faith 1:9 instructs the proper “analogy of faith” hermeneutic: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” For instance, Ephesians 5 speaks in great detail about the married relations and responsibilities of husband and wife and thus it rightly takes prominence in guiding a study on Biblical marriage.

    Footnotes from my article (a part two to Romans 13 on the same issue with a different take on the emphasis of the text), here: https://www.reformation21.org/blog/moses-wore-a-mask-and-other-reflections-on-covid-19 A link is provided there to myriad Romans 13 commentary excerpts we have made available on our church’s website.

  6. Thanks Grant. Sorry for the delay in responding, but life is busy! And to be honest, rather long excerpts from rather long articles offered as comments here really require that I respond in kind in order to give important topics like this the justice they deserve. So an article-length reply is now finally being worked on and will be up soon. I will alert you to it when it appears.

  7. Hi again Grant. As mentioned, and for what it is worth, here is my two-part article. Bear in mind it is just as much of a generic discussion piece which all believers might benefit from as it is a particular response to some of the matters that were raised in your comment. Obviously much more can be said on all this. Indeed, I have written many articles looking at these issues in more detail, be they in my politics section, my theology section, or in my resistance theory subsection. Thanks again for your thoughts. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/08/23/scripture-government-submission-and-resistance-part-one/

    And Part Two is here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/08/23/scripture-government-submission-and-resistance-part-two/

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