Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.
— Romans 12:21 —
Yesterday, I preached a message on Romans 13 and what Paul has to say about God and Government. You can listen to that sermon here. In preparation for that sermon I found help from many sources, but especially from Thomas Schreiner’s commentary on Romans; Francis Schaeffer’s insights in A Christian Manifesto; and Glenn Sunshine, Slaying Leviathan: Limited Government and Resistance in the Christian Tradition.
In what follows, I offer three quotations from these three respective books. Together, they provide a helpful perspective on how to read this passage and apply it today.
Thomas Schreiner on Romans 13:1–7 as a General Exhortation
After addressing each verse in Romans 13:1–7, Schreiner observes,
This text is misunderstood if it is taken out of context and used as an absolute word so that Christians uncritically comply with the state no matter what is being demanded. What we have here is a general exhortation that delineates what is usually the case: people should normally obey ruling authorities. The text is not intended as a full-blown treatise on the relationship of believers to the state. It is a general exhortation setting forth the typical obligations one has to civil authorities. Indeed, Paul envisions a situation in which the governing authority carries out its task by punishing evildoers and rewarding those who do what is good.
I am not persuaded that one can account for this passage by appealing to Paul’s good relationship with civil authorities or the more genial part of Nero’s reign. Paul was keenly aware that the ruling authorities had put Jesus to death, and as a student of the OT and Jewish tradition he was well schooled in the evil that governments had inflicted on the people of God. It was simply not his intention to detail here the full relationship of believers to the government.
[Robert] Stein (1989: 334) says rightly, “Governments, even oppressive governments, by their very nature seek to prevent the evils of indiscriminate murder, riot, thievery, as well as general instability and chaos, and good acts do at times meet with its approval and praise.” Paul would not disagree with the call to obey God rather than rulers when they attempted to squelch the preaching of the gospel (Acts 5:29; cf. Mart. Pol. 10.1–2, where rulers are respected but Polycarp will not render worship to the genius of Caesar). Nor would he dispute the claim that the state can function as an evil beast (Rev. 13), since John’s teaching stems from Dan. 7, and Paul himself expects an evil ruler to arise (2 Thess. 2:1–12).
The intention in Romans is to sketch in the normal and usual relationship between believers and ruling power (cf. Titus 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13–17). Christians should submit to such authority and carry out its statutes, unless the state commands believers to do that which is contrary to the will of God. (Schreiner, Romans, pp. 687–88)
Glenn Sunshine on the Political Implications of Christ’s Lordship
Next, in Slaying Leviathan, Glenn Sunshine begins by looking at the implications of the basic Christian confession: Jesus is Lord. He writes,
One of the earliest Christian confessions was “Jesus is Lord.” Most people today do not understand how significant and radical that statement was in the context of the Roman Empire. The de facto imperial confession was “Caesar is Lord,” that is, Caesar is sovereign in this world and has authority over just about every aspect of life. The title Lord even implied a kind of divinity for Caesar. Confessing “Jesus is Lord” (implying that Caesar is not) therefore had unmistakable political overtones that could not help but sound treasonous to Roman ears.
The status of the Christian confession was further complicated by another aspect of Roman culture. In Rome, deities were the supreme authorities in particular spheres of life or of the world. Thus, for example, Neptune was sovereign over the seas, and when you went out on them, you needed to acknowledge Neptunes authority by performing a sacrifice to him. Otherwise, you were risking his wrath. In the political world, the supreme authority was the emperor. This meant that he was periodically viewed as a god, and in all cases, his authority was recognized by performing some form of religious ritual such as burning incense to his statue. Jews had special rights that exempted them from this, but Christians did not, particularly when the church was increasingly made up of Gentile converts.
For Romans, burning incense to the statue of the emperor had little more significance than saying the Pledge of Allegiance today. But to Christians, it was idolatry, giving to Caesar the things that are God’s. So although they did their best to live quiet and peaceable lives following Paul’s exhortation (1 Tim. 2:2), they adamantly refused to participate in worship of pagan gods or of the emperor.
To put this in different terms, Jesus’s own teaching led the church to the idea that government has its place but that its authority is limited. Combined with the confession of Jesus’s lordship, this was a recipe for persecution in the power-obsessed world of ancient Rome. (pp. 8–9)
Sunshine’s observations are vitally important for reading Romans 13 rightly. Earlier in his letter, Paul calls the church to confess Christ as Lord (10:9); he does the same thing in Romans 13:14. Such a confession wholly denies Caesar the place of Lordship, which means that Romans 13:1–7 should always be read conditionally. In other words, the governing authority is instituted by God as a human appointed to exercise God’s wrath on evil-doers. But this human agent is not autonomous, nor absolute in his monarchy. Accordingly, there may be a place to resist him (or them), if they begin to use their God-given authority to promote evil and repudiate good.
Francis Schaeffer on “The Limits of Civil Obedience”
Last, in A Christian Manifesto (1981), Francis Schaeffer writes the following about Romans 13 and the limits of civil obedience.
The civil government, as all of life, stands under the Law of God. In this fallen world God has given us certain offices to protect us from the chaos which is the natural result of that fallenness. But when any office commands that which is contrary to the Word of God, those who hold that office abrogate their authority and they are not to be obeyed. And that includes the state.
Schaeffer cites Romans 13:1–4 and continues,
God has ordained the state as delegated authority; it is not autonomous. The state is to be an agent of justice by punishing the wrongdoer, and to protect the good in society. When it does the reverse, it has no proper authority. It is then a usurped authority and as such it becomes lawless and is tyranny.
In 1 Peter 2:13-17 we read:
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.
Peter says here that civil authority is to be honored and that God is to be feared. The state, as he defines it, is to punish those who do wrong and commend those who do right. If this is not so, then the whole structure falls apart. Clearly, the state is to be a ministry of justice. This is the legitimate function of the state, and in this structure Christians are to obey the state as a matter of “‘conscience” (Romans 13:5).
But what is to be done when the state does that which violates its legitimate function? The early Christians died because they would not obey the state in a civil matter. People often say to us that the early church did not show any civil disobedience. They do not know church history. Why were the Christians in the Roman Empire thrown to the lions? From the Christian’s viewpoint it was for a religious reason. But from the viewpoint of the Roman State they were in civil disobedience, they were civil rebels.
The Roman State did not care what anybody believed religiously; you could believe anything, or you could be an atheist. But you had to worship Caesar as a sign of your loyalty to the state. The Christians said they would not worship Caesar, anybody, or anything, but the living God. Thus to the Roman Empire they were rebels, and it was civil disobedience. That is why they were thrown to the lions. . . .
The bottom line is that at a certain point there is not only the right, but the duty, to disobey the state. (A Christian Manifesto, in The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, 5:468–69)
Proving this point from Church history (pp. 469–73), Schaeffer lists examples of Christian resistance from the Reformation in countries like the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Geneva, Scotland, Hungary, France, Spain, and Scotland again. Focusing his attention on Samuel Rutherford, and his work of Protestant political resistance, Lex, Rex (trans. The Law and the Prince), Schaeffer concludes with Rutherford’s reading of Romans 13. He writes,
Romans 13 indicates that all power is from God and that government is ordained and instituted by God. The state, however, is to be administered according to the principles of God‘s Law. Acts of the state which contradicted God‘s Law were illegitimate and acts of tyranny. Tyranny was defined as ruling without the sanction of God. (473–74)
Moving from this definition of tyranny, Schaeffer explains how, according to Rutherford, “tyrannical government is always immortal,” and thus Christians must always be on guard. Summarizing Rutherford, Schaeffer gives incisive instruction for what Romans 13 means in the context of wicked rulers.
First, since tyranny is satanic, not to resist it is to resist God—to resist tyranny is to honor God. Second, since the ruler is granted power conditionally, it follows that the people have the power to withdraw their sanction if the proper conditions are not fulfilled. The civil magistrate is a “fiduciary figure’”—that is, he holds his authority in trust for the people. Violation of the trust gives the people a legitimate base for resistance.
It follows from Rutherford’s thesis that citizens have a moral obligation to resist unjust and tyrannical government. While we must always be subject to the office of the magistrate, we are not to be subject to the man in that office who commands that which is contrary to the Bible. . . . A ruler, he wrote, should not be deposed merely because he commits a single breach of the compact he has with the people. Only when the magistrate acts in such a way that the governing structure of the country is being destroyed—that is, when he is attacking the fundamental structure of society—is he to be relieved of his power and authority. (474, emphasis mine)
This is a crucial distinction and one that we will consider as we conclude this blogpost.
Obedience Always and Sometimes Resistance
As Schaeffer notes, we must not charge rulers of tyranny when they do things we don’t like or when they commit a single breach of trust, Rather, resistance to tyrants applies when the governing authorities are destroying the fabric of society itself in a serially and ongoing way. In his final estimation, Schaeffer believed this was already happening in America in 1981.
For us today, we need to keep our eyes open to what is happening in our country, our states, and local municipalities. The above quotations help us to see what Romans 13 means and how it calls for submission to governing authorities and measured resistance which obeys Romans 12:21: “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” This certainly applies to interpersonal relations, but it also applies to our interaction with the state.
As Schreiner, Sunshine, and Schaeffer remind us, when governing authorities act wickedly, Christians should respond in prayer, petition, and political action to oppose those who legislate evil and oppose good. The reason for this is not because Christians are trying to establish Christ’s kingdom in this fallen world. Instead, it is because in this fallen world, disciples of Christ believe Christ has authority over all things, including government, and because governments that honor God’s definition of good and evil are the best places for the gospel and churches to go forward. In this way, political engagement is not a “gospel issue.” The gospel will go forward with or without government support. But in places where freedom of religion is practiced, individuals are in the best place to receive the gospel—without coercion or fear.
Again, Romans 13 positively teaches that submission is our basic posture to governing authorities, but it is not, and has never been, the only posture of faithful Christians. Wise Christians know this and they also know that Romans 13 does not deny political resistance. Instead, Paul’s words call us to bless our neighbors with our presence, and to count the cost in moments when in obedience to God we stand up to tyrants.
For more on the subject of political resistance, read Sunshine’s book. You can also get a taste of how Romans 13 informs us today in my Sunday sermon. In all, we need to be aware of how governing authorities are (mis)using their powers today and why Christians should care about that and how Scripture teaches us to respond.
Scripture is not silent on matters of God and Government. And faithful disciples will grow up in Christ as they let the whole counsel of Scripture inform their views of the world, including all matters pertaining to government.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds