But Seriously (8) – Romans 13, use and misuse

(‘But Seriously’ is a strand on this blog exploring the implications of biblical texts on ‘Church and State’.  Check other entries in the strand for a rounded picture of the issues)

Romans 13 is a key passage for ‘Church-and-State’ issues; before expounding what it does mean, I want in this post to consider some things it doesn’t mean, some ways it has been misinterpreted.  First, the text itself, in RSV

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.  Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.  For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.  Would you have no fear of him who is in authority?  Then do what is good and you will receive his approval, 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; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.  Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath, but also for the sake of conscience.

For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God attending to this very thing.  Pay all of them their dues….

Tax we’ll do another day.  Obviously how we interpret that obligation will depend on how we interpret the earlier verses.

One misinterpretation I call the ‘Verwoerd version’ after a former leader in the days of ‘apartheid’ in South Africa.  John Stott has related how a South African friend of his, an active opponent of apartheid, was one day called in to some government office, where an official confronted him with a bible open to Romans 13 and challenged him with it.  Why wasn’t he obeying the government as this text taught??  We’ll be looking later at the rounded biblical perspective, but I think it is clear that interpreting the text so simplistically would raise considerable ethical dilemmas for the Christian.  Consider how that would have affected Christians in Nazi Germany, for example, if called to obey a government sending Jews to the extermination camps.  It is surely clear that such obedience to the authorities can’t be right…. 

At least part of the solution lies in Peter’s response to the Jewish authorities in Acts 5; 29, when the disciples had been arrested for preaching the gospel – ‘We must obey God rather than men.’  But we must be careful how we use that text, in case we twist it and end up going too far the other way.

Another misinterpretation, I believe, does just that; I call it the ‘Paisley Pattern’ because I found a clear statement of it in Rev Dr Ian Paisley’s commentary on Romans (written while in prison after a demonstration; I would accept that this imprisonment was probably unjust).  Paisley’s start is perfectly correct – “It must be said clearly at the outset that these verses do not apply to laws contrary to the laws of God.  Robert Haldane said once, preaching from the first verse, ‘There is but one exception and that is when anything is required contrary to the laws of God’”.  Haldane by the way was a Baptist who in the early 19th Century led a revival in Geneva, preaching from Romans in Calvin’s pulpit, and his teaching on Romans including that quote is to be found in his Commentary on Romans – the edition I’ve got was published some fifty years ago by Banner of Truth publishers; it’s about the size of the later Harry Potter books and contains even more content as it is in quite small print on fine paper.  In so much space Haldane said a lot more about Romans 13; 1 than just that quote, and I would suggest if you read it you’ll find his interpretation doesn’t go in the same direction as Dr Paisley….

Paisley goes on

Certain people who wish to bolster up a rotten government and the persecuting laws of the same, condemn the resistance of the martyrs, reformers, confessors, non-conformists, puritans and covenanters to the evil laws of their day…. take the line of least resistance …{and} wrest this and other scriptures to their own destruction….

It is clear from these verses that God has ordained and delegated powers to various departments of society.  For example, the father is the divinely ordained power in the family, the basic unit of society.  This does not mean that God ordains and approves every wicked, immoral, murderous brute of a father who is a tyrant in his home.  The office of father, the power of the father, is divinely ordained but the abuse of the office is not divinely ordained…. In society… the authorities are ordained of God in regard to their office or powers, but not in regard to their characters.  The chief magistrate is divinely ordained, the office is sacred, but a Hitler who usurps and abuses the office is not divinely ordained neither are the laws of such a tyrant to be obeyed when they oppose the law of God.  Paul speaks clearly on the nature of the laws he has in mind when he says, “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.  Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power?  Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same”.

 This is soooo nearly right, but…!  First, some explanations….

‘The chief magistrate’ – in modern UK usage ‘magistrates’ means a panel of minor local judges.  Back in the Reformation/Puritan era, and in statements of faith like the Presbyterian ‘Westminster Confession’, and so in ‘church-and-state’ discussions in such traditions, ‘magistrate’ meant any person at a great/ruling level in society, including kings and emperors and as in this case a dictator like Hitler.

‘Covenanters’ – the Covenanters were 17th Century Scots who basically fought a civil war with the Stuart monarchy, objecting to the Stuarts imposing Anglicanism in place of the Scots Presbyterianism going back to John Knox.  By mentioning the Covenanters, Dr Paisley shows that he accepts the possibility of a violent resistance to a government.

Essentially the ‘Paisley pattern’ interpretation of Romans 13 is that you obey the authorities until you think they’ve commanded something against God’s law – but then you rebel and take up the sword, the gun, the pipe bomb….  If you believe that you are supposed to have a ‘Christian country’, a non-Christian government will almost inevitably be considered a suitable target for rebellion (or abroad, crusading warfare) ; as will a government whose ‘Christian state’ is the wrong kind of Christianity – Catholic rather than Protestant for example, or Anglican rather than Puritan.  In Northern Ireland, it wasn’t that the Protestants were being commanded to disobey God themselves – they were just being asked to treat their Catholic neighbours fairly; Protestant violence against the Catholic civil rights movement escalated into the counter-violence by the IRA. 

As Haldane pointed out in his commentary, one of the problems with this is that the apparently reasonable exception ends up taking over from the original rule and nullifying it in practice.  Paul’s teaching of ‘be subject to the authorities’ and ‘do not rebel’ and ‘in no case paying back evil for evil’ and ‘do not revenge yourselves’ is rewritten to an actual practice of “We’ll obey so long as it suits us and when we don’t like it we’ll fight back”.  Paul’s teaching of an unusual godly and spiritually-empowered response to persecution is replaced by a position effectively identical to the ordinary worldly position on such matters.

Dr Paisley and the many others who adopt this interpretation of Romans 13 have, I believe, got confused.  They interpret ‘be subject to’ as if it was simply equivalent to ‘obey’ as in the ‘Verwoerd version’ above; and they think that ‘obeying God rather than men’ is a legitimate exception to ‘do not resist’.  The long tradition of the Christian state going back to Constantine means that they interpret the text within that tradition (a Roman Catholic tradition, please note, Dr Paisley), rather than letting the New Testament mean what it actually says.  I’ll be examining the positive interpretation of Romans 13 in a future post, but for now….

First, yes, I accept that ‘We must obey God rather than men’ is the point where Christian ‘subjection to the authorities’ differs from the unqualified obedience that the state would prefer.  But….

Secondly, We must very much indeed OBEY GOD… and that means we must follow the New Testament teaching, not our worldly desires, on how to deal with a government such as Nero, Caligula, Hitler or Stalin, or of course our own.  That NT teaching includes the implications of Romans 12 for Romans 13, as per the previous blog (‘But Seriously (6)’), and also includes Jesus’ forbidding of the sword, Paul’s insistence that our warfare is not with weapons, and Peter’s clear teaching that Christians must be prepared to follow the example of Jesus (and Peter and Paul) in being willing to suffer unjustly rather than resist/rebel violently against the government.


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