There are plenty of great dealings with Romans 13 out there. Many of them ask the tough questions such as: “If this passage was meant as a blanket order for the Christian to obey every single government every time, what are we to do about the Hitlers of the world?” Or: “If we are to always to obey government, what if the government makes a person kill an innocent woman?” These are provocative, and healthy, questions. But I want this to be from another angle. What is the positive, as opposed to the previously presented negative, interpretation of Romans 13. It is easy to know what the passage does not mean. But what does the passage mean? That is my goal.
First, I will show the passage. Then I will walk through it verse by verse. Then I will give the main points.
Romans 13:1-7 reads as follows:
“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. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 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. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 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.”
It is important to remember the context and setting. To be brief, the setting of the passage is that it comes directly after a discussion regarding the “marks of a true Christian.” How should the Christian conduct himself in society, in relationships, and even before his enemies? Paul seeks to answer those questions in chapter 12. The next question that he seeks to answer is seemingly addressed in chapter 13. Paul’s audience understands Paul’s message and then moves forward to question the Christian behavior toward government. Which government? Nero and the Roman Empire. So that is context. The Christians are suffering. How can they apply the content of chapter 12 to an entity that is systematically opposed to them? Any who attempt to read the following without first reading Romans 12 will fail to appreciate the context.
It is vital that we recognize this context. The Roman Christians were persecuted for their faith, especially by the government that existed over them. All of what Paul writes must be understood to be relevant to the 1st century Christians in its original context; Paul wants them to apply the lessons of Romans 12, even to the wretched government. Far too often people overlook the descriptive aspect of this chapter and only consider how it can be prescriptive. Moreover, the mistakes in interpreting this chapter are especially obvious when we don’t reflect on its words in light of the rest of the Bible’s teaching of right and wrong and our status as Pilgrims on this earth. The fact that God has apparently, in his ordaining will, declared that there should be evil institutions like the State, does not mean that the actions of the State are somehow morally justified. Gordon Clark:
This answers a question which is occasionally raised in political discussion as to whether the state is a positive good or essentially an evil. The Christian answer is that the state is not a positive or unconditional good, but rather a necessary evil.
The state is an evil not only because of the abuse of power by the magistrates, but also because it interferes with freedom and introduces an unnatural superiority among men.
Gordon H. Clark (2014-06-05T04:00:00+00:00). A Christian View of Men and Things (Kindle Locations 1963-1965). The Trinity Foundation. Kindle Edition.
Verse 1: After writing that the Christians ought to be patient with those who treat them wrongly, no doubt the obvious question was what to do with the tyrannical Roman Empire. Paul answers: “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.” Paul immediately addresses this sensitive topic with a statement on the sovereign nature of God. All authority stems from God, and therefore, if an authority is in power, it is because God has placed or instituted it. Those governing authorities, in other words, are the means by which God has determined to accomplish his end. Therefore, the individual must submit to, that is, be arranged under, the authority. God does not institute an authority purposelessly. He has a goal in mind and the Christian ought to humble himself before the Lord and his plans. This is a very broad statement that Paul makes. This is not a statement that is uniquely applied to government; the same could be said of anything in reality. The devil himself has been ordained by God as a means by which God will attain some end. The devil, and thieves and murders, exist because God has determined to use them to accomplish various goals, only very few of which we are aware. Has not God ordained all evil? Tyrants like Nero, democratically elected oppressors like Hitler, and comparatively lesser authoritarians like Bush and Obama are all ordained to exist by God. This does not make their actions or status’ in society morally acceptable. They too, and all other criminals of both the private and public sector, are to be judged by the moral law of God.
This concept is important. For all too often Christians forget that there is a difference between the preceptive and decretive will of God.
Verse 2: “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” This is a logical extension of verse 1. Charles Hodge commented on this verse: “This is an obvious inference from the doctrine of the preceding verse.” God has ordained something and to resist this thing, even if it is justified (such as if the government commands that we not read the Bible), is to resist what God has appointed. Those who resist Nero resist what God has appointed. This who resist Mussolini resist what God has appointed. This is all logic. There is no prescription here; only description (the prescription will come in later). God does not say that whoever resists the authorities is wrong because they are resisting what God has appointed. It is simply a logical observation. One could be consistent with this by saying: whoever submits to the authorities submits to what God has appointed. (Don’t read too far into this paragraph yet, I do believe that we should generally not physically resist the evil deeds of the State).
Moving on to the second part of this sentence, Paul notes that there is a consequence, that is, a necessary result of this resistance. The argument now becomes: if you resist, judgement will be incurred. Since there is a “judgement,” does this mean that verse two is actually a prescription? I don’t think so. The reason I don’t think so is because of who is doing the judging, which will be revealed in the next verse. It is vital to catch the flow that will take place between this verse (2) and the next.
Verse 3a: “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority?” If one resists the present civil authority, this authority will exercise force. This is the nature of coercive authority. They respond to things that they consider bad, with coercion. Our modern Federal Government that reigns in Washington DC considers it bad when the free exchange of medicine and health insurance takes place; and thus they exercise force against all who do not obey the rules of the Bureaucratic Machine. Nero considered it bad when Christians preached the gospel, and thus he responded with force.
This is unlike the Market, which responds to things it does not like peacefully and without coercion (society is in some ways a struggle between what Murray Rothbard referred to as the tension of “Power and Market.”) God, in his ordaining will, has instilled this deep into the very essence of a ruler. This is the nature of the State; the State is the institution of force and aggression. No man has ever feared a ruler who refused to exercise judgement. Understand the reflection here. God possesses ultimate authority and God exercises judgement. God has given some temporary “authority” to institutions that govern. Therefore, he has also given the capability of exercising judgments. Man, being corrupt and sinful, when in a place of coercive authority, tends to exercise judgements according to his own standards of right and wrong. Why do you think every civil government in the history of the world almost immediately begins the trend toward authoritarianism? Aware that sacred cows are about to be slaughtered, the Constitution itself has been disobeyed by Presidents since George Washington (example: Washington approved America’s first central bank). Men in positions of authority over other men can never be ideal because mankind is sinful. “Limited government’s” greatest enemy is the sinful men who occupy it.
However, there is something else happening here in verse 3. Paul is transitioning from a broad statement about government to a type of prescription for government. There is no reason to think that this sudden prescription is intended as a practical statement for the Christian citizen. Rather, it is a prescription for the government itself. They must, whenever they exist and in whatever form, be a terror to bad, not good conduct. In other words, government (as vitally distinct from the institutionally coercive State –see below) as a role (meaning courts and criminal punishment) does indeed have a place in a society, and this verse indicates what that role is (libertarians don’t object to the existence of courts and protection and arbitration). The governing agency has zero authorization to be a terror to human activity unless that activity consists of physically aggressing another. None. Every instance of “terror” or “wrath” that is not applied to bad conduct is outside the authority of the role of government. Reformed Baptist John Gill uses the following phraseology of the bad: “doing any injury to any man’s person, property, and estate.”
Moreover, this nature or essence is ingrained within the government itself. It is naturally terrible to the wrongdoer, yet approving to the “do-gooder.” But of course, there are different standards of good and bad behavior. We believe that the actually perfect standard of right and wrong are God’s, as expressed in the Bible. What if though, by legislation (which is a modern, and terrible, invention), it artificially erects its own standard of good and bad? What if “good” and “bad” are defined wrongly by the governments? We know from this verse that, by its nature, it will act according to what it sees as good and bad. Therefore, the entity that God intended to be a means to pursue actual justice against actual criminals, has itself been corrupted when it attempts to deny God-given rights. Hitler determined that it was bad to be a Jew. And therefore he became a terror to those who breached his own artificial standard.
Notice that Paul does not use the specific words for righteousness (dikaios) and sin (hamartano), which would necessarily bring in the entirety of the moral law of God. Rather he uses the very general terms for good (agathos) and evil (kakos). The civil authority, the one who administers and enforces laws in society, are not doing such so as to appease the wrath of God against the sinner. The purpose of earthly laws is not to reconcile men unto God, but rather, men unto other men. God’s wrath against those who have offended Him is yet to come.
I also want to mention one more piece of insight on this verse. If this is a prescription for government, then it is a law that God wants governments to obey. And since governors and rulers are sinners just like all humans, it follows that they constantly break God’s moral law. That is to say, just as individuals constantly fail to adhere to the Moral Law of God, so rulers do also. Below, I will distinguish between government and State by insinuating that a government becomes a State whenever it systematically breaks the prescription in this verse (that is, when it acts in self-contradiction or hypocritically). I will explain why I define government and civil magistrate in a way that is consistent with the moral precepts that binds all people and compare this with the State as an engine of wrongful coercion. The former group is consistent with a private law society (for all you who are familiar with Hans Hoppe out there) and the latter is not, for the latter is the socialization of “government” services.
Verse 3b and 4: “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.” In context, what could possible be meant here? The recipients of Paul’s message would clearly have grounds for strong objection with such a statement. They were under the reign of Nero, a Christian hater; an enemy of the church. I would interpret this statement as follows. Christians, do what is good, as discussed [in chapter 12] and know that the preceptive desire of God is that any governing entity that exists should respond to this good with approval. That is what God wants this entity to do. If they don’t respond to good with approval, remember the previous chapter: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (12:19).
That is a lot of extra words. Am I adding to the scripture here? I would humbly pray not. I am simply reading such a seemingly backwards verse in the broader context that all the readers have already read. In summary, the Christian ought to focus on what he can control, government has a certain role that it must practice (punish criminals), and if the government refuses to properly adhere to its purpose, God (who is sovereign [verse 1]) will take care of it, but we will not. For if God hands over authority to an entity, and that entity abuses this authority (which in history it always does), God still has ultimate jurisdiction to judge even the governments. Government is subject to the same law as God has ordained them to enforce. Thus, the government that steals from, kills, or harms the innocent acts wickedly. This was the historical protestant principle of Lex Rex, that is, the Law is above the king (Samuel Rutherford). Governments are a tool that God has decided to use in this imperfect world. Please understand what I am saying here, because people usually mean something different than what I mean. Here is my argument: everything that we see in the world is a tool that God has decided to use. Governments exist. Therefore, they too were put here by God. I suppose no right thinking person can say that Obama has acted morally in his rulership. But by the proof of his very existence, Obama is a tool that God is using to accomplish some end. The best part of having a Calvinistic theology is that this reality does in no way make the deeds undertaken by Obama (or Bush, fill in the blank) morally permissible.
Verse 5: “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” Submit to the authority that is in the hands of the Government. This is a “turn the other cheek” (Matt 5:39) principle. If you don’t, the government will exercise God’s wrath. Why does it say “God’s wrath?” Because all authority and wrath ultimately belongs to the Lord. “Jesus answered [Pilate], “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:11). The government has been loaned the ability and capability to exercise wrath, but ultimately, that wrath belongs to the Lord. That, dear reader, is an incredible amount of pressure on government. What happens when God gives an institution authority to exercise wrath, and this institution abuses the wrath? Perhaps we catch a glimpse of the result in the discussion of “Babylon” in Revelation. God gave Nero the capability of exercising authority over the empire. And in a grand display of glory and almighty power, God has eradicated the Roman Empire. In any case, one should not convince himself to incite violent revolution against the State. This will do nothing except get you in trouble. Live peaceably and turn the other cheek, despite the sins of the State.
Moving on, besides the fact that the government has wrath-on-loan, it is also for the sake of the conscience that the Christian also ought to subject himself to the governing authorities. It eases the mind when one is not in a state of constant panic regarding the possible wrath of the State. The State is powerful and dangerous, and if all possible, living with a clear conscience is practically a great piece of advice. In other words, submit to the government to avoid punishment, but also to avoid the fear of punishment.
Verse 6 and 7: 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 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.” If the government says pay taxes, it is wise to pay them. We as Christians are not trying to make enemies. Again, this is a turn the other cheek principle. Submit your hearts to trusting God by giving up the money that the government aims to steal. Both “turning the other cheek” and “paying your taxes” do not make slapping or stealing legitimate. But we still turn and we still pay. Store up your treasures in heaven; while thieves and States may take what you have now, no one can steal from the eternal treasure that awaits those who have been justified.
In summation of the passage, it should not be used as a justification for whatever the State does and however it acts. The individuals who make up the State are still bound to the moral law to the same extent as the citizens of a nation. Paul is dealing with a specific problem amongst the Roman Christians in the first century. However, we are to obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29) whenever we are told to act in a way that is immoral, unethical, or unjust. When the State immorally makes you do things generally (file a business license, even though the State should not be commanding such things), you should obey, so as to not cause trouble; but when the State makes you do immoral things, we ought to prefer persecution.
There are four overall points that can be gathered in this passage.
1. God is sovereign and he has a plan. He can use evil to achieve the ends that he has ordained before the foundations of time. In the original context: God exists over Nero.
2. In our gospel-oriented ministry, we are not seeking to overthrow the government. When Paul wrote this he understood that it might have reached Nero’s hands. It was wise of him to make sure Nero understood that there was no Christian movement to take over. All governments from the dawn of time until today, are jealous governments, always scared that someone will steal the throne. But the Romans (and the present State) should understand that the Kingdom of God is not to come by revolution. We are pilgrims in this world. In the original context: Nero, we are not aiming for your throne.
3. Government, being made up of human beings, has a mandate to submit to the higher law of God by only punishing the wicked and not the good. Anything beyond that is abuse of power. Therefore, as the absolute libertarians would advocate, it is wrong for the government to forbid the spontaneous arising of other “governments.” This specifically renders secession a legitimate activity. There is no mandate in scripture telling the government that it must have a monopoly on governing services. In the original context: Nero, you have a purpose; submit to it.
4. Turn the other cheek and be patient and long-suffering in the context of Statism. We must practice daily Christian character. In the original context: Apply my lessons [in Romans 12] to even the government.
To conclude, from a libertarian standpoint, it is important to note that a governing entity is the means by which God has decided to carry out justice. This in no way should be assumed to be a defense of the morality of the State itself (on the difference between government and the State, please see both here and here). In a forthcoming article I plan to go into depth beyond what I have already said on the distinction between the State as an institutionalization of illegitimate aggression and government which is a role that pursues, but does never systematically contradict (lest it become a state), justice, law, and criminal prosecution.
This passage can only be assumed to be a defense of the existence of an entity that practices the pursuance of justice. God has given laws and imputed rights to individuals. Man has rights to his life and his property because God has entrusted him with those things. And what God has given, man cannot take away. This is the law. Justice consists of enforcing these rights, this law. This is the only role of a government. But who says this government cannot, in theory, be funded via the free and voluntary market? In fact, a free market government is distinct from the State by virtue of its compatibility with the mandate “don’t steal.” If government refers to laws and courts and justice, then it has a legitimate place in society, for without these things, society can’t function. The great question though is whether we are going to advocate, in political theory, a government that is consistent with his stated goals of justice and property rights enforcement or a State which by definition monopolizes the role of government and thereby corrupts it.
The Bible never gives the role of government a right to monopolize its own function and yet the State by definition monopolizes the role of government and declares itself to be the final arbitrator of all conflicts, even conflicts involving itself. This is absurd. Natural (God’s) laws must be enforced, and yet this does not necessarily lead to the existence of a Federal Government no more than it leads to the existence of a world government. There is no Biblical reason to say that the Constitution was a better system than the Articles of Confederation; and empirically, it turns out that the anti-federalists like Patrick Henry were right to prefer a looser confederation over a more centralized Union. Is a State-level government too big? Depends on whether the counties, and subsequently towns, want to secede. God has given no government, at any level, the right of monopoly. The beauty of the free market is that it provides a check and balance. If a government body becomes the enemy of free property rights, another governing body may challenge it. This principle is even consistent with a property-rights order (absence of a State –but note the difference between a role [government] and an institution [the State]) as developed by Murray Rothbard in his later years and Hans-Hermann Hoppe in his obliteration of democracy and “public” (socialized) government services.
A civil magistrate just refers to the one who administers laws in a society. But the great question of political theory is what form governments and laws ought to take. How does the civil magistrate fit into society? Property-rights libertarianism, also referred to as Propertarianism, is an attempt to provide an answer.
There is no need to assume that the governing body itself must be “public” or a tax (theft)-based agency (private, for-profit, or insurance-based services are far more moral and consistent). But if it is, and by all appearances God wants to keep things this way for the time being (see God glorified in the evils of statism), Paul says to submit. And submit we shall. Unless of course it orders us to disobey the standards of God.