It’s NOT About Obeying Tyrants!
There’s a “movement” within the church that’s harping on “ROMANS 13” as an excuse to look the other way when government officials do wrong or commit atrocities. It’s causing a lot of confusion among some Believers, because it appears that we have to believe all authorities are ministers from God (even when it’s obvious that they aren’t). Does God appoint all government authority? Are all the police, federal agents, soldiers and politicians ministers of God “to do good for you”? Isn’t it true that, as Christians, we aren’t to stand up against them when they indict us on false charges, or seize our property, or levy fines? After all, “God did it for a reason.” (Maybe He figured you’d pray better if you were in jail). Oh, well, “Hallelujah anyhow!” I guess we’re supposed to just turn our brains off and obey any thug who happens to have authority. It makes life so much easier.“ROMANS 13” has become a popular mantra in some churches today – as people are beginning to question the unconstitutional “laws” (i.e., “Patriot Act”) being put into force now. But some churches are populated with comfortable people who want to believe authorities are right (they haven’t had to deal with any “authoritarian thugs” yet!). In hot times like these, we’d better see what God REALLY says about the matter.
In Romans, Paul addresses this letter to a body of believers who include many who are substantially ignorant of some basic, civilized living codes and orderliness. In chapter 12, verses 1 through 7, he exhorts them to subject themselves to worldly authority. He is pointing out that order is from God, and that it is necessary to free ourselves from power struggles with the world so we can stay focused on the things God wants us to carry out. Just a few verses before Romans 13, Paul writes:
Romans 12:18-21 – If it is possible, insofar as it depends on you, live at peace with all men. Dearly beloved, do not take revenge on your own behalf, but rather give place for God’s wrath: for it is written, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink: for in doing this, you shall heap coals of fire on his head. Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.
This sets the stage for the “obedience to authority” instruction that follows. There is a trust in God’s ability to set aright what an enemy may do to you, and for God to administer vengeance on him, This is very different from saying that all authorities are acting on God’s behalf. If we teach that, someone might read about some Nazi war criminal, make a hero of him and imitate him on the idea that this “authority” was an “Agent of God”! We have to clearly understand what the point of Paul’s message is. We are to live at peace with all men, including those in authority, as far as it is possible for us to do so (12:18). We are to act “as if” the authority figures are acting on God’s behalf, and then ask God for justice when the authorities are abusing their power. “Pray for them which despitefully use you,” Jesus instructs in Luke 6:28. Paul’s letter is a continuation of that principle. It is crucial that we understand when authority’s actions are out of line with God. Being able to judge between right and wrong conduct from someone in power is a key characteristic of the mature Believer.
1 Corinthians 6:2-3 – Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world shall be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more the things that pertain to this life?
Paul here is making clear just where the mature Christian stand in the hierarchy of the Kingdom of God. We cannot slough off our responsibility to rightly judge between the Godly and the ungodly – how would we even know that God is good if we keep accepting evil leaders to rule over us without holding them up to the Law of God? How could we then show others how to live in the Kingdom of God? Are we to consider the abuses of a person “in authority” as acceptable, while condemning a fellow Believer for committing a lesser legal offense? We are to recognize when an authority is out of line with God’s laws. Paul’s instruction in Romans 13:1-7 was given to Believers to avoid getting into strife over worldly affairs, be able to receive revelation from God about how to best deal with an abusive situation, and thus live “at peace” with people… as much as possible. We are to have full trust in God’s ability and intention to administer justice – vengeance – when the situation calls for it.
Romans 13:1-8 – Let every soul be subject to the higher powers. For no power exists except that which is from God: the powers that exist are ordained by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to those who do good works, but to those who do evil. So, then, do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will have praise from the one in power. For he is God’s minister to do you good. But if you do evil, then be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who does evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’s sake. Therefore, give to everyone what is due them: Give taxes to those who are due taxes: revenue to those who are due revenue; respect to those who are due respect; honor to those who are due honor. Owe no man anything, except to love one another: for he who loves other has fulfilled the law.
“For he who loves others has fulfilled the law.” Here in verse 8 we have the TRUE POINT of this admonition to “submit to authority”: if we are not bound up by resentment about wrongdoing by the jerks of the world, our Godly Power is not crippled – and we can then OVERCOME THE EVIL AUTHORITY FIGURE. We can deal with all people, corrupt or good, with the dynamic of “love”, knowing from whence OUR POWER DERIVES – and not feel cheated when they act from ungodly motives. Operating this way, we fulfill the Law.Even given this understanding of the “Obedience to Authority” verses in Romans 13:1-7, THERE’S STILL A PROBLEM: It looks like Paul is radically OVERSTATING the case for UNQUALIFIED submission to worldly authority. The Bible itself is replete with examples of kings and pharaohs and soldiers who were clearly acting in complete opposition to God:
Exodus 1:16,17,20 – And the king of Egypt said, “When you act as a midwife to the Hebrew women, if the baby is a boy, kill him…” But the midwives feared God [more than they feared the king] and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded, but saved the male children. Therefore, God “dealt well” with the midwives…
These midwives did not “submit to authority” for it was clear to them that the “authority” was out of line with God’s will: And God dealt well with them for their refusal to submit to this ungodly authority. If we took Romans 13:1-7 to be true in ALL cases, then God would have wanted these women to kill the male children as the king commanded them. Like these midwives, we have to operate with a spiritual intuition that lets us distinguish between God’s will and evil “authority”. Most church people would have condemned them as “sinners” for disobeying this authority – but God dealt well with them (Ex 1:20).
Joshua 2:3,4,6 – And the king of Jericho sent word to Rahab, saying, “Bring forth these men who came to you…: But Rahab took the two men and hid them, and said to the messengers of the king, “The men have left; where they went to, I do not know.” But she had brought them up to the roof of the house, and hid them…
Rahab not only disobeyed the order of the king: she lied! And it was the Godly thing to do in that situation. It was all part of the plan which caused the Israelites to enter the land which God had promised them. She had heard of the God of the Israelites, how He empowered them with victory in their battles, how He had dried up the Red Sea, etc. (Joshua 2:9-10). And in choosing God’s will, this “powerless” subject of the king had the COURAGE FROM GOD to stand against sinful worldly “authority”. A shallow view of Romans 13 would see this as “sinful”.
2 Corinthians 11:32-33 – In Damascus the governor under Aretas the king had troops stationed in Damascenes in order to arrest me [Paul]. But I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped his hands.
Paul himself wasn’t so eager to “submit to the authority” of King Aretas when he was being pursued by him. Of course, Paul recognized that the good king wasn’t acting as a “minister of God” on that day, and wisely opted to take flight.
Matthew 2:16 – Then King Herod issued orders to kill all the children from two years old and under [King Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus].
WELL…how about this one?! “For no power exists except that which is from God”? Not only was Herod killing all these infants age 2 & younger – but his motive was to kill the Messiah sent from God Himself! Herod’s power was certainly not reflective of God’s will. Would we submit to an “authority” who is recognizably opposed to the will of God? Are we to understand Romans 13:1-7 in that way? OBVIOUSLY NOT!This is why it’s necessary to look at the WHOLE message of the Bible in order to understand individual verses, and what the writer had in mind when he wrote them. Paul was a scholar of the scriptures, and knew them thoroughly. Way too much foolishness has been taught from the New Testament by avoiding the Old Testament. We need to keep the Old Testament in our thoughts while looking at the New Covenant. The two must be understood in harmony, because that’s the way the Believers of that day heard these statements. Put “ROMANS 13” in context with Bible history. The Hour At Hand is far too dangerous for us to surrender holy things to godless thugs.