Romans 13--unlimited governmental power?
Muse Time paper 3, December 1997, by Derek Carlsen, in Zimbabwe.
Does Romans 13 give the government unlimited power to do whatever they want to do? Many assume that Christians must obey everything the government says. Even when the government’s actions are unjust and evil, people argue that it would be a greater evil to disobey their unlawful commands or try to reveal their unrighteousness by the light of God’s Word. Such thinking believes Christians are bound by God to obey the government no matter what—being responsible only to pray. A careful reading of Romans 13 and the rest of Scripture will show that God’s Word is light and salt for every area of life and it is through the actions and words of Christians that God’s truth touches all these areas. To withdraw God’s light from any area of life is immoral (Matt.5:14,15, c.f., vs.11,12).
When Paul wrote Romans 13, Nero was ruler of Rome (a wicked, cruel and ruthless tyrant). Therefore, it is argued, that since Paul said obey him, Christians ought to obey every government today. What this argument fails to realise is that Paul wrote Romans during the first 5 years of Nero’s reign which was, according to the historians, a period of enlightened and good government, making Nero famous throughout all the provinces. During these early years Nero was influenced by such men as the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca. Thus, when Paul wrote Romans 13, Nero’s immorality and wickedness had not yet been unleashed. We will see that Romans 13 does not give Christians the liberty of ignoring political immorality.
In Romans 13 Paul is not setting out a detailed account of government, but merely raising a side-issue within the whole of his letter. Nevertheless, Paul tells us that God has requirements for both the common person and for those in authority. He does not teach that the common people are under God’s authority, but governments can do whatever they want and make whatever laws they want.
Paul says in vs.1 that government is a divine institution—it has been ordained by God. This does not mean governments have been given supreme authority, for God alone has this. Rather what’s meant is that governments are accountable to God—since they derive their authority from Him they are accountable to His absolute authority. The state has not been given the right to act independently of God. For example, an ambassador derives his authority from the government that appoints him to that position. For an ambassador to then act independently of the source of his authority is to disqualify himself—he cannot disregard the commands and wishes of those who gave him his authority. An ambassador is given authority in order to further the wishes of those who gave him authority. Just as an ambassador’s authority is derived, so too, is all government authority. Only God has absolute, independent authority—all other authority is appointed by God and is therefore, accountable to Him.
It is strange indeed that some people think Paul is saying in order for Christians to be righteous, God expects them to obey commands that violate His Law. Rather, Paul’s point is that since God appoints leaders they are morally responsible to serve and obey Him in everything they do. In vs.4 Paul calls government officials by religious titles. He says they are “ministers of God”, or “servants of God”. A servant carries out the wishes of the master. Paul goes on to explain what God specifically wants His “ministers” to do. He wants them, in the name of God, to reward the good and punish the evil. Does God give authority to these servants to punish evil and reward good without defining either evil or good? Is it not great ignorance to think that God allows the government to determine good and evil on their own? Man’s desire to define good and evil independently of God is the root of all sin (Genesis 3). Humans were incapable of doing this even before sin infected our hearts, how much less able are we now after sin has seriously damaged our total being?
Are we to think that the government is being a faithful minister for God just as long as they are punishing some people and rewarding others? Is God indifferent to the “small” details as to who they are rewarding and who they are punishing? No, never! For someone to be rewarded in the name of God or to be punished in the name of God, it must be done according to the will of God. Anything less than this is an abusive use of delegated authority.
Since the government or magistrate receives authority from God, Paul tells us in vs.2 that this is the moral reason for obeying them. This is a general principle: authority and order are ordained by God, but to argue that this means godless principles and laws coming from these authorities are binding, is to do violence to Paul’s meaning. He clearly shows that everyone in society is responsible to obey God. When governments act independently of God (i.e., lawlessly), they are not representing God with respect to those lawless commands, therefore, to resist them at those points is not resisting God. Paul’s principle is that governments are appointed by God, therefore we must obey them, but to draw from this that God expects us to give absolute obedience to them and remain silent in the face of flagrant wickedness is faulty reasoning and certainly cannot be found in Romans 13. Especially since Paul shows that governments are God’s servants who are to fulfil His wishes and are accountable to Him.
The government has been given the “sword”, which means they have the right and responsibility to execute those whom God’s Word says are worthy of death (murderers, kidnappers, rapists, etc). Governments do not have the right to use the sword in any way they want—boundaries have been set for them and they cannot exceed nor reduce these bounds. The modern trend to oppose the death penalty is rebellion against God’s requirements. Those who think they are wiser and more merciful than God and thus do away with capital punishment will receive His judgement in their communities.
Paul is showing in Romans 13 what governments ought to be and how they ought to act. He is not promoting the office of government to some “divine” position and saying that whatever this “god” says, has to be obeyed. To separate the government’s authority from their moral responsibility to God is to unleash a destructive monster in our midst. This happens when people refuse to submit every area of life to the Word of God. God’s judgement upon such blind rebellion is usually to hand the nation over to a government that thinks of itself as god on earth. If a government refuses to be accountable to God, then there is no one they will be accountable to.
In Acts 5 the apostles were commanded by the Sanhedrin (the highest authority in the Jewish nation) to act contrary to the Word of God. Now, since all authority is ordained by God (Rom.13), these leaders had their authority from God, however, the apostles disobeyed their command. The apostles were not contradicting Romans 13. Those in authority are ministers of God and are to do everything in line with His Word and for His name. The Christian is not to think of revolution each time the government acts contrary to the Word of God, however, neither is he allowed to remain silent in the face of lawless rulers. Christians are to be the salt and the light at all times and in all areas of life. We are not to compromise the truth and we are not allowed to let injustice and wickedness go unchallenged. (The whole subject of Christian resistance needs more than a brief paper like this. What I want to expose here is merely the misunderstanding of Romans 13 that says the Christian has to obey any law made by the government and that we are not allowed to shine the light of God’s Word into the government’s sphere of activities).
John the Baptist was arrested and then lost his head because he rebuked the immoral “private” life of a political leader (Matt.14:4,5). Jesus called this same political leader a “fox” (Luke 13:32), drawing attention to his ungodly slyness. Elijah was hounded by king Ahab because he pointed out the king’s wickedness and rebellion against God (1 Kings 17:1; 18:18). The prophets were hated, persecuted and killed for exposing the very real day to day wickedness around them, both in the nation and in the lives of their rulers.
The government’s primary responsibility is to serve God and implement His justice. When they do this then they are servants of the people too. Modern governments don’t want to serve God or the people. They want to serve themselves—their own ambitions and goals. If God’s justice (i.e., His Word) is not the foundation for a nation, then what can bring stability and prosperity to that nation? As St. Augustine (a.d. 354 - 430) said in his day, “If justice be taken away, what are governments but great bands of robbers?” (The City of God, 11:4). Justice is not determined by parliament, but by the Word of God, for He is above presidents and parliaments. When God’s justice is ignored, it is because those in authority want to promote injustice and when a nation allows injustice to be called “justice” they are on a path of self destruction. All those who hate God, love death (Prov.8:36).
A government that persistently rejects God’s Word as the only standard for truth and error and as the only guide for all things, is heading for disaster. All authority is delegated from God and is to be used to minister to those who come under this authority. Rulers are to be the servants of those people they have authority over and they are to serve them according to God’s revelation found in the Bible. For rulers to act in any other way is lawlessness. For the citizens within a nation to ignore the lawless activities of their rulers is to share in their guilt. The modern church, in fleeing from its God given responsibility, has invented a doctrine of pietism that is not found in the Bible. They have reduced Christianity and the Kingdom of God to some small area within the hearts of individuals and have ignored their calling to be salt and light in all of life. They have reduced Christ’s commission from discipling the nations (Matthew 28:19), to discipling individuals—reducing Christianity to an internal heart religion, rather than a dynamic faith that touches and influences every part of God’s world. Christians have withdrawn the light of God’s Word more and more from every area of life (especially with respect to the state). As a result, darkness has increased in every part of society. This increase of darkness is then held up by these Christians as “proof” that God’s light and truth have no rightful place in these areas, resulting in greater withdrawals of light, leading to ever increasing darkness.
If we will not consistently submit to every Word of God and allow His Word to be our only light for every area of life then we will not fulfil our callings and responsibilities under God. Our nation is in desperate need of light, truth and courage, so in understanding, be mature (1 Corinthians 14:20).
Think about these things!