(By Branden Yeates, 1776 Scholar) Paul’s command in Romans 13 to “be subject to the governing authorities” can stir up a lot of internal conflict in the mind of a Christian patriot. The Church often assumes that Romans 13 demands pacifistic submission, but this is totally incompatible with America’s revolutionary origins. An American Christian might struggle with the thought, just like I struggled, that they must therefore choose either their faith or their freedom. However, properly read and understood in the complete context of scripture, Romans 13 actually empowers Christians to choose both.
Romans 13:1-4 states:
1Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4for he is God’s servant for your good.
The typical ecclesiastical position on Romans 13 is the philosophy of submission. Submission is based on a plain reading of the passage, “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed,” and teaches that obedience involves both conformity to the law and conscious acquiescence to its legitimacy and enforcement. In the words of Brunner, “Without showing even the slightest vacillation Paul demands in the sharpest form of command, which otherwise is missing in his appeals, obedient submission to governmental authority – and that not merely external but inwardly conscientious.” (4) Submission is thus a mindset as well as a practice.
Submission enjoys significant scholarly support. Moulder states: “Commentators seem to agree that Romans 13 forbids one to rebel against one’s government.” (4) Cornett writes that Christian rebels in the American revolution “turned to Enlightenment rhetoric for validation, propped up by poor exegesis and application of the Bible,” and MacArthur contends “the United States was actually born out of a violation of New Testament principles.” (1) For many theological scholars, the belief that the Bible prohibits rebellion is simply unassailable. However, this philosophy faces significant scriptural and logical challenges.
First, Romans 13 indicates that God ordains the institution of government, not every government official. According to James McLeod Willson, “it is, however, government and not the particular magistrates by whom authority is exercised, to which Paul here refers. The distinction is important. ‘Rulers’ are mentioned for the first time in [verse] 3. He now treats of the institution of civil rule. The ‘powers’ – the ‘higher’ powers – government in the abstract – the institution of civil rule.” (5) The divine authority of God is therefore invested in the institution of government, not in all the people who happen to hold power. This claim is consistent with the broader narrative of scripture, such as Hosea 8:4 where God declares “they made kings, but not through me. They set up princes, but I knew it not.” The only way to harmonize Hosea 8:4 with Romans 13 is to view “governing authorities” on the institutional level.
Second, the Old Testament recounts numerous stories of righteous rebels. Judges 3:12-30 records that “the Lord strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel… and the people of Israel served Eglon the king of Moab eighteen years.” God ordained the tyrannical Eglon to oppress Israel, and submission would teach that God’s people could only suffer and submit. However, the very next verse states “the Lord raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud.” Ehud proceeds to assassinate Eglon and liberate Israel at the head of a rebel army. Thus, it is clear that God not only ordains authorities, but also ordains revolutions to depose them. Ehud is not alone: Deborah, Barak, and Gideon were other judges God appointed to lead revolts, and they are specifically held up by name in Hebrews 11:32-34 as exemplars of righteousness, stating that by faith they “became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” Submission has no way to handle this continuity between the Old and New Testaments.
Third, submission cannot effectively define governmental legitimacy. If God ordains all governments, Christians must obey governments because all rebellion is sin. However, a tremendous number of governments are the result of rebellion. As just two examples, the American Revolution created the United States, and the Communist Revolution created the People’s Republic of China. Thus, according to submission’s own logic, these governments are illegitimate renegades, and thus Christians are not bound to obey them – except that submission demands that Christians obey all governments. Submission springs its own trap, catching itself in the contradiction that Christians must obey a government that is totally illegitimate.
I therefore propose that a superior exegetical framework for Romans 13 is the philosophy of observance, which holds that Christians should observe government on the condition that it fulfills God’s appointed office, and that provides an allowance for resistance and revolution. Resistance and revolution are not necessarily mandated by observance, but are merely options alongside running, hiding, etc. The point is that Christians are not required to sit on their hands.
The primary defense of observance is that Paul commands submission to the institution of government when represented by good leaders who fulfill their divine office. Paul states that “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” and that the magistrate “is God’s servant for your good.” These adjectives cannot describe evil leaders who serve Satan and themselves rather than God and the people. In the words of Isaak, “As ‘ordered’ by God who is good, these powers (governments) have a responsibility to do good.” (3) If these powers fail to fulfill this responsibility, Willson argues that they cannot “lay any solid claim to be ‘ordained of God;’ at least, in any other sense than the pestilence is God’s ordinance, existing in his providence, but to be shunned and banished as soon as possible.” (5) Thus, Paul’s commandment to subject oneself to the governing authorities hinges on those authorities subjecting themselves to God.
In summary, the philosophy of observance centers on the institution of government. Its adherents seek peace with the state and the blessings of good government for themselves and their neighbors. Observance avoids the disadvantages of submission, allowing disobedience for the sake of faith and freedom alike because it holds that God’s ordinance for government is taken up by righteous rulers, not granted by God wholesale to any megalomaniac with enough power to get his way. It matches the complete narrative of the Old and New Testaments, and answers the logical questions submission is unable to answer. Therefore, I am convinced that observance represents the most persuasive and satisfying interpretation of Romans 13.
In conclusion, Christians must go beyond a simplistic reading of Romans 13. While submission enjoys a broad range of scholarly support, it struggles to answer challenges both scriptural and logical. However, more than this its practical implications are terribly disturbing: submission forbids resistance against slavery, oppression, genocide, and conquest if only they are covered by the gilded fig leaf of government. However, in the complete context of scripture, Romans 13 defends a philosophy of observance, empowering Christians to resist such evils. It allows the Church to simultaneously obey Paul’s command “to be subject to the governing authorities” and Peter’s declaration that “we must obey God rather than men.” While Christians should submit to the institution of government as a gift from God, to subject themselves to government as it if it were God is to commit an error as deadly as it is unscriptural.
- Cummings, Brad. The Founders; Bible. Newberry Park: Shiloh Road Publishers, LLC, 2012.
- Grudem, Wayne. Politics – According to the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
- Isaak, Jon. “The Christian Community and Political Responsibility: Romans 13:1-7,” Direction 32 (Spring 2003), 40. ATLA Religion Database with ATLTASerials. Database online. Ebsco; accessed January 22, 2017.
- Moulder, James. “Romans 13 and Conscientious Disobedience,” Journal of Theology for South Africa 23 (December 1977), 13-14 . ATLA Religion Database with ATLTASerials. Database online. Ebsco; accessed January 22, 2017.
- Willson, James McLeod. Civil Government – An Exposition of Romans Xiii, 1-7. Philadelphia: William S. Young, 1853.