In his commentary on Romans, Colin Kruse observes that in Romans 13 “Paul is drawing upon teaching in Jewish literature about God’s sovereignty over the rise and fall of earthly rulers” (Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 493). Supporting that claim, he lists a handful of key passages from the Old Testament, the Jewish Apocrypha, and Josephus. Here’s his list.
By me kings reign and rulers issue decrees that are just; by me princes govern, and nobles—all who rule on earth. (Prov 8:15–16)
In the Lord’s hand the king’s heart is a stream of water that he channels toward all who please him. (Prov 21:1)
With my great power and outstretched arm I made the earth and its people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please. Now I will give all your countries into the hands of my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; I will make even the wild animals subject to him. All nations will serve him and his son and his grandson until the time for his land comes; then many nations and great kings will subjugate him. (Jer 27:5–7)
He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. (Dan 2:21)
The Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes. (Dan 4:17, 25, 32)
For your dominion was given you from the Lord, and your sovereignty from the Most High; he will search out your works and inquire into your plans. (Wis 6:3)
The government of the earth is in the hand of the Lord, and over it he will raise up the right leader for the time. (Sir 10:4)
He will for ever keep faith with all men, especially with the powers that be, since no ruler attains his office save by the will of God. (Josephus, Jewish Wars 2.140)
Standing upon this biblical worldview is important not only for understanding Paul’s argument in Romans 13, but also for understanding its limits. In other words, as Paul commands believers to willingly submit to governing authorities (Rom. 13:1, 4), he does not mean that governing authorities have absolute autonomy or unchecked authority. As Romans 13:4 says, they are “God’s servants,” hence subject to God himself. And it’s this point of reference—the relationship between governing authorities and God—that we need consider more fully.
Far too many have a simplistic, even child-like, understanding of Romans 13. And if the church is going to survive our post-modern, post-Christian world, we need to think more carefully (read: more biblically) about Romans 13.
Obedience and Resistance
When we read Romans 13 we need to see what it says and what it doesn’t say. Namely, the faithful Christian is to obey the command to submit to those in authority, seeing them as God’s servants. But at the same time, when governors misuse their God-given authority and violate God’s law, faithful Christians can and must obey God and not man. Or as Francis Schaeffer once put it, “since tyranny is satanic, not to resist it is to resist God, to resist tyranny is to honor God” (A Christian Manifesto; cited in the Introduction to Lex, Rex, by Samuel Rutherford).
This truth of resisting tyrants stands on the bedrock of Christian political resistance argued by many in Church History (See Glenn Sunshine’s Slaying Leviathan for a full bibliography). But it is a way of thinking and living that is sorely lacking today.
One modern voice calling out in the wilderness is Douglas Wilson. His reading of Romans 13 is much needed. In his Introduction to Lex, Rex (a 600-page, seventeenth century treatise on how the Law of God trumps and triumphs over the king) Wilson observes the way many have misread Romans 13.
When modern Christians exhort us to do “whatever the governor says,” and they do this in the name of obeying Romans 13, the irony is that they are violating Romans 13 as they do this. The duty of the people to resist unlawful encroachments of those who hold office is a duty that every citizen is a part of. To say that the people do not have the right to do this is to kick against our established constitutional authorities. (vii)
Wilson is right. In America, our greatest authority is not a man, nor even an elected official, it is the Constitution. Therefore, when the people or its governing officials stand outside of their constitutional authority, they—not those who call them to task—are in violation of Romans 13. Pointing this out more clearly, we can look at the mask mandates, as an example. Again Wilson is on point,
When governors and mayors ordered everyone to start wearing masks, numerous Christians simply assumed that the powers of an American governor were identical to those of an ancient Roman proconsul or worse, a Persian satrap. If someone who is in charge gives you what looks like a lawful order, then doesn’t Romans 13 require us to obey that order, and with no backchat?
The answer is no. Not only is the answer no, but it is a thoroughly biblical no. It is an obedient no, not a disobedient no. But in order to be instructed in the reasons for such a response, you have to be prepared to work through books like this one [Rutherford’s Lex, Rex]. (iv)
Sadly, Wilson’s perspective is a minority report today. What has replaced the bold, biblical arguments of Samuel Rutherford and Francis Schaeffer are the smarmy, evangelical puff pieces that tell us to all get along.
Of course, peace-making is a Christian virtue. Children of God know how to make peace (Matt. 5:9), but the gospel of peace is also a weapon of war (Eph. 6:15). And the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, chops down strongholds and calls out tyrants.
Waking Up the American Church
America and American Christians, in particular, have been living off the borrowed capital of religious liberty for centuries. And without realizing it, Christian churches—when they were gathering—repeatedly gave thanks for the freedom to worship, but they did so cheaply, without putting any money in the coffers of liberty. In other words, instead of investing in a biblical theology of God and government, God’s Law and man’s laws, too many churches have, for generations, not taught their members in matters of religious liberty. We assumed that religious liberty was our lasting birthright, not knowing that we needed to fight to keep it.
I think some are waking up to the fact that religious liberty is not a sustainable resource, one that will last without intervention. But I wonder if that “wokeness” has come too late. Will a crash course in Romans 13 be sufficient to preserve religious liberty in our country? Or will that blessed gift of religious liberty soon be lost?
Let me be clear. The church does not need the First Amendment to prosper. Christ will build his church, with or without religious liberty. But if a peaceful and quiet life is what we are to pray for in our country (1 Tim. 2:1–4), and if God has granted to the American church the gift of religious liberty instantiated in state and federal laws, then as a matter of stewardship and obedience to God, we must teach afresh what Romans 13 does and does not mean. And we should pray and work towards preserving that liberty, while it is still on the books.
As our fathers in the faith understood, Romans 13 is not a blank check for governors to do as they please, whether we like it or not. Rather, Romans 13 is a call to obey those governors who oppose evil, protect good, and know what is good and evil according to God’s standards. No, this does not mean that every politician must be born again. But it does mean that there is Law-Giver who reigns in heaven who is sovereign over the state. And we must not forget that as we interpret and apply Romans 13, we are called to obey governors and resist tyranny.
Indeed, Paul couldn’t be telling the church to do whatever Caesar says, for he had just declared “Jesus is Lord” in Romans 10:9 and this confession—as Paul knew and would die declaring—was a statement that directly opposed the lordship of Caesar and effectively broke the law in Rome, where the people declared “Caesar if Lord.”
Reading Romans 13 Rightly
In short then, Romans 13 must be read in the context of the whole letter and the context of the whole Bible—which has plenty of instances of godly men and women disobeying governors in order to obey God. Moreover, we should read Romans 13 with assistance of those who have obeyed God and opposed tyrants (I’ll be sharing more on this in the days to come).
And if and when our governing authorities act like despotic tyrants more than servants of God, we should not be surprised. But neither should we act like we don’t know what to do, unless we really don’t know what to do. And in the case of the latter, we must rightly understand Romans 13 and its call for Christians to obey governors and to resist tyranny. Read rightly, Romans 13 teaches both. And we need to be able to see why.
Unfortunately, American churches of late have done little to equip people to think in those terms. But some have, and we need to learn from them, as well as those champions of the faith whose scars purchased religious liberty for us. May God help us to be faithful in our generation, for God has promised that he will be faithful and that he will equip us for every good work, whether the state allows it, or not.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds