What does Romans 13 have to say about the myriad of civil matters that we face today?
Here I want to make a few observations that come out of the heart of the nerd who has been studying reformation theology and writings. Granted, these observations on Romans 13 in reformed thinking do, of course, touch on all the issues we have today.
Even so, I am not writing this as some sort of online battle, which normally I would not say but today I feel I must due to how volcanic the internet seems. I offer this little FAQ as simply my thoughts on Friday morning and later updated in the day.
Should we submit to unjust governments?
Paul says, “Let 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” (Rom 13:1). When writing that, he penned a letter to Roman christians in Rome who lived under an empire who regularly by force captured, enslaved, and subjugated peoples. Nero was also the Emperor. If that name seems familiar, it is because he was not a just Emperor.
Paul would answer yes to the question then, although I maintain that he was no dummy. He knew how to use the system for Gospel ends. He strategically used his Roman citizenship to preach to rulers and even to get a ride to Rome. There, he stayed in prison for two years while proclaiming the kingdom of God in chains (Acts 28:30).
[I’ll get to the exceptions in a bit since we should not bow down to idols as the three young men Daniel 3 illustrate]
Why should we honour authorities?
Paul writes, “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”
We honour authorities because God institutes every authority. Note in Romans 13:1–2 the word “authority” appears three times. That is what God institutes, authority or “authorities.” Following an observation of Meter Martyr Vermigli, I believe we can identify “authority” given to rulers as God’s institution not “rulers” (Rom 12:3) per se.
In God’s providence, I affirm that all rulers gain their authority due to God’s plan. I am not doubting that. I am making a distinction between authority and rulers in the context of Paul’s particular argument. The former is the good gift God institutes; the latter, a ruler, receives that gift, objectively has it, but may misuse it. This explains why an unjust government (ruler) may still have God-given authority but misuse it.
God does not love an unjust ruler, but an unjust ruler nevertheless has God-given authority. God will judge such a misuse, and in any case, all governments are unjust this side of the resurrection. Here, I am not denying the reformed notion of lesser magistrates who can challenge and usurp unjust reigns. But that goes beyond Romans 13, which I am mostly focusing on.
Does Romans 13 outline the government’s obligations?
Paul concludes this section by affirming that the Romans should pay the government taxes, which the Roman government uses for roads, aqueducts, war, and more besides (Rom 13:7). Paul’s statement implies a general acceptance of governments using their power and authority for various ends; I use the word “general” because I assume Paul would disagree with specific uses of taxes as we do today.
However, some people read Romans 13 as a comprehensive guidebook for governance. Paul does after all say:
“3 For 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, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Rom 13:3–5)
But the position has little support. Paul wrote to a burgeoning group of Christians in Rome, not to the government. He further highlights how Christians should relate to the government.
Paul notes how things work without providing any sort of comprehensive political philosophy. I use the word “comprehensive” because Paul’s words do contribute to political thinking to a degree.
Yet, that this letter goes to a small group of Christians in Rome should tell us who the audience is and what sort of goals Paul here had.
Note in the verses cited above how Paul gives a general statement (v. 3) and applies it directly to the Romans: “for your good” and “if you do wrong.”
Indirectly then, Romans 13 does not aim to provide the only duties of the state even if it generally affirms primary duties of governing authorities (sword, justice, tax).
In Romans 13:7, Paul says that Christians owe tax money to authorities, which the Roman government used for roads, aqueducts, war, and other public works. Taxes paid for a wide range of government practices, which also shows that Paul does not provide exclusive limits on government actions in Romans 13.
Use of tax money includes many public works, all of which falls under the authority of the government.
Are governments allies or antagonists?
Paul calls a ruler “God’s servant for your good” (Rom 13:4) and “ministers of God” (Rom 13:6). In other words, God reigns over creation through authorities that he institutes who in turn are God’s servants and ministers (actually a priestly term). Authority, even in a fallen world and even in Rome under Nero, serves God as God’s minister “for your good.”
Government, even a government in a fallen world which means every government is unjust to some degree, is a natural ally to the church. Vermigli affirms that anarchy is worse than tyranny; and so even Nero, to some degree, maintains peace and order in the Empire. His disastrous end, however, could illustrate how God punishes unjust magistrates.
We know that some rulers persecute Christians. This happens then when a ruler misuses God-given authority. Nero did that. Injustice happened to Paul as he was imprisoned. Injustice happened to Jesus whom the Romans crucified.
Even so, Paul writes what he does.
Why should we submit to authority then?
Paul explains, “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience” (Rom 13:5) which reinforces 13:2: “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”
Resisting authority even one such as Rome (enslavers, conquerors, militaristic) means we resist God’s minister and servant. God rules through them, and so we resist God’s rule. We will undergo judgment.
Paul goes so far as to say that our “subjection” explains why we “also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing” (Rom 13:6). I suspect the “very thing” means bearing the sword from verse 5, that is, punishing wrongdoers.
What if we do not like what the government does?
Since Nero and Rome bear God’s authority on earth, Paul will say, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom 13:7). We may not love how our government acts but we still owe it taxes, revenue, respect, and honour.
In other words, we may not dishonour the authorities because they are of God. We can of course speak the truth. We can call out premiers and MPPs. Paul does not say anything like that. He does say we must give them the respect they deserve since their authority comes from God. Rejecting or dishonouring authority according to Paul is completely wrong.
What about bad governments? When should we disobey?
Paul provides no exceptions in this passage. Other passages in the Bible do. Rome was unjust in some ways, just in others. Every kingdom of this world will have a mix of good and bad. All government is unjust. The question will be where are the limits where we must obey God rather than men.
The answer seems to lie in how God reigns over creation and over the church. The reign is single but distinguished in application. In the church, God reigns over the conscience, justifies in spirit, and so on. In the creation, God orders society to flourish according to natural ends.
Both serve each other as the government provides the material means (peace) for the church to flourish; but their realm and function can be distingushed. A church as the church does not aim to take authority from the state, although a Christian person may wish to enter into elected office. That distinction matters because it explains, at least in part, when we should obey / disobey authority.
In short, in matters belonging to the church, namely, Word and Sacrament, the state has no authority given by God. The state cannot define the spiritual meaning of the Word, baptism, or the Lord’s Supper. It cannot bind your conscience to deny Christ or deny God in prayer. These spiritual truths belong to us invisibility but totally.
The three young men did not bow to an actual idol in Daniel. Daniel did not stop praying. These are obvious cases in which the king had no spiritual authority. The three young men could not deny YHWH, nor could Daniel stop communing with the one God. The king could compel the three to go to an event around the idol; the king could arrest Daniel for prayer. He has control over the body, society, and its order.
But Daniel and the three are free men. They freely worship God, not an idol; Daniel freely prays. They get into trouble with the law. They submit to it. They are servants to all, bound to the king’s decree of arrest or punishment, but free in spirit in which all blessings belong to them.
Is the Canadian government forcing us to disobey God?
In Canada, no one today is telling us to worship an idol (at least under compulsion!) nor to cease praying. We are asked to follow public health ordinances to order society for its safety. Whether you agree with the government’s reasoning or not, they may have the ability to do so under the Charter, although that will be challenged in some places.
At this point, I am free to pray how I want, worship God, define the Sacraments and the content of preaching. I can do all these things. I am restrained in freedom across society. Whether Christian or not, we all are. These public restrictions, whether we like them or not, are applied (for the most part) to the whole country for the purpose of public health.
Christians are expected to worship together in Scripture, although the Bible does not command a specific day or size of gathering. Granted, Sunday makes sense due to the resurrection and tradition. A full gathering makes the best since given the nature of the congregation. These matters should make us fully affirm the essential nature of gathering together.
And so as we carefully balance the health of the congregation with our requirement to honour God’s authority on earth, we need to wisely set a course. There may be a time when the government can no longer justify what it’s doing and under Canadian law can be resisted (as in BC perhaps).
At this moment, I say “not now.” The Bible is too clear on the reign of Christ over all things for us to resist authority, that is to say, to resist what God has ordained. I understand why some disagree with me. Do so in good conscience, and I will continue to disagree but affirm you as a brother in Christ.