Lots of people I respect, as people of faith and intellect, keep getting Romans 13 completely wrong, so I’ll try one more time…

At the outset, this passage (“be subject to the governing authorities”) is likely THE most proof-texted passage in scripture.  People trot it out as though absolutely nothing else in the Word qualifies or clarifies it.  The Bible is one long chronicle of civil and not-so-civil disobedience, from the Hebrew midwives disobeying and lying to Pharoah to the wise men refusing to tell Herod where Christ was born, to Ehud sticking a knife in the belly of the king and calling it a “message from God.”  Peter himself refuses to obey the religious authorities of his day, declaring “we must obey God over man.”  However, for reasons that can only tempt me to speculate, many Christians see blind obedience to evil authority as a holiness test, perhaps even their invitation to martyrdom, forgetting that martyrdom, in scripture and in history, is usually the result of disobeying authority.  Ask St Paul or Bonhoeffer or Jan Huss.

Proof-texting, folks, is a very bad thing.  It’s the hermeneutic equivalent of someone judging you by a single moment of your life, and not its entirety.  The same Jesus who said “resist not evil” told His disciples to sell their cloaks and buy swords.  The same Jesus who counseled “love your enemies” braided a whip and turned over tables in the temple.  The same Jesus who said “my kingdom is not of this world” told His disciples “all authority in heaven and on earth is given unto me.”  Given this complete picture of the Savior’s life, it’s quite possible that we may, at times, love our enemies by knocking over their idols.  Without question, that’s the way Jesus did it on occasion.

In the epistle to the Romans, Paul’s divinely inspired pen actually paints a very rosy picture of civil society.  A community of Christians should, after all, be characterized by people who respect authority and authorities who deserve that respect.  God ordains government, and righteous government at that.  Even when God crowns a wicked ruler, He does so to punish a people who deserve punishment.  But should a penitent, humble, obedient people expect to be ruled by a tyrant?  Of course not.  It says as much in this very text: “For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior.”  Catch that?  God defines a ruler as someone who praises the good and punishes the evil. A ruler (“deakonis” – minister of God) is “an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.”

Now, let’s ponder this scenario: if a righteous man finds himself imprisoned, or beaten, or fined, for being righteous, what do we do with this text?  After all, both Paul and Peter (1 Peter 2), promise us that a ruler “praises the good” and is only a threat to the evil.   Is God not telling the truth?  Heaven forbid.  When rulers prove cruel towards the righteous they declare themselves outside God’s very definition for their office.  They have forfeited their authority and are subject to God’s wrath, and this wrath is delivered in the appointed way, through other leaders–of lesser, and sometimes higher station.  A rogue deputy is restrained by a sheriff, and sometimes a rogue king is held in check by a colonial legislature.   Idolatrous monarchs, like Ahab and Jezebel, witness their high priests hacked to death by a righteous prophet.

In practice, of course, we allow rulers of integrity some grace in their errors.  As our Declaration of Independence proclaims, we endure evil “while evils are sufferable.”  We are patient with a mistaken traffic ticket.  We endure an arrogant bureaucrat here and there.  We pay a small fine we don’t think we owe. We give grace where we can, understanding that the burden of leadership is borne by flawed men.

But kill all the newborn male children?   Allow a wicked king to tax the people into starvation?   Let a public health officer close a church for worship?   Stand by idly while a social justice bureaucrat initiates your child’s “sex-change” operation?  Help law enforcement round up Jews for the cattle cars?

Of course not.  You use what tools you have.  You use either the courts or deception or remonstrance or your fists or your guns.   You engage in righteous defiance, and – rest assured — God is surely on your side.  What’s more, it gets worse for you if you surrender to blind obedience.  He will surely condemn you if you decide to call your cowardice holiness.

Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay everyone according to what they have done?

In the end, Romans 13 qualifies and clarifies itself.  “..There is no authority except from God.”  In one monumental manifestation of predestination, God has written the entire text before the foundations of the world.  Both the king that loses his head and his replacement enjoy the mantle of authority.  Ponder that one.  God commands obedience to both the king that was deposed and the new king who disobeyed his predecessor.  God—in a kind of logic puzzle impervious to human inquiry—has obviously ordained the very rebellion that makes new, and better, authority possible.  Ultra-pietists, like John MacArthur, both scold Americans for “rebelling” against King George, and then find themselves preaching submission to the king’s replacements, until they close his church, and then even John engages in righteous defiance.

Of course, we acknowledge the Joseph clause in the Divine Contract:  what we mean for evil, God can mean for good.  We aren’t allowed to purposefully choose evil means so that good might prevail, but the plucky Christian warrior who reads Romans 13 carefully will understand, and could make the case, that a “ruler” who is abjectly wicked to his subjects is not, by the text’s definition, a “ruler.”  The subject is free of his contract, just as a wife is free of her marriage obligation to an adulterous husband.  It’s difficult to imagine a Christian having to repent for attempting to assassinate Hitler, or Pol Pot, or Stalin, or Mao, particularly if he acted on behalf of a prayerful assembly of the aggrieved. If, say, a Polish Catholic nun could save twelve Jews by burying a knife in an SS officer who knew too much, would the killing really constitute a sin?  A crime?  I’m having trouble seeing how Romans 13 obliterates extremes taken in defense of self, or community.

I get the sense that most of the “abject obedience” interpreters of Romans 13 allow for disobedience when obedience to a tyrant would require them to deny Christ or break the Ten Commandments, but they differ as to the range of defiance allowed them.  The simple fact is that the Bible depicts a wide range of tools — from meekly suffering the wrath of a despot, to outright lies and deception, to leading an armed rebellion complete with regicide, as in the case of Ehud.  In extreme cases, how else could we rescue those “being taken away to slaughter?”

Read the text closely, folks.  God tells a fair number of riddles, to reveal who is paying attention.


Be Subject to Government

13 Every person is to be subject 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 [d]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 servant 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 servant of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Pay to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; respect to whom respect; honor to whom honor.