(‘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)
So finally I get to interpreting Romans 13….
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….
And really it’s rather simple – it means what it says. Of course, it means what it says in the context of the overall teaching of the New Testament, whereby Jesus’ kingdom is ‘not of this world’, and so doesn’t envisage a supposedly ‘Christian’ government. Instead it envisages Christians basically in that situation of ‘resident aliens’ which is discussed at length elsewhere in this blog. Clearly at some point we’ll have to look at the situation that arises when there is a ‘Christian state’; but for now let’s look at this from the perspective of the early Christians like Paul and Peter living in a pagan society…. When we have that clear we can look to other variations and whether they are biblically legitimate.
There is one feature of Paul’s Greek which is not brought out in most English translations; he uses a set of interrelated words with a common root, the verb tasso, ‘to order’. First time I preached on Romans 13 I produced a paraphrase which does not purport to be a spot-on exact translation ( though it’s not so far out either), but does use a set of English words with the common root –ject to demonstrate in English how Paul’s chosen words ‘bind’ the text together. Here it is….
“Everybody must be subject to the state authorities, because there is no authority except under God, and those that do exist are part of God’s project. Whoever objects with violence to the existing authority opposes that divine project, and by opposing brings divine judgement upon himself.”
The version ‘be subject’ is actually used in some English translations, perhaps most notably the ‘King James’ version. It’s considerably better than translating the word (‘hypotasso’ in the original) as ‘obey’. Having said that I think it is slightly biased to James’ wishes by using the concept of being ‘subjects’ to an earthly ruler like James.
The two places I’ve used the word ‘project’ are actually two different Greek words, tasso and diatasso, and are verbs which I’ve paraphrased into a noun because, used as a verb, ‘to project’ doesn’t quite have an appropriate meaning. The implication is that all rulers are ‘ordered’ by God; as the Jewish historian Josephus wrote at around the same time, “No ruler attains his office save by the will of God”. Note that this includes bad as well as good rulers.
‘…objects with violence…’ represents the Greek ‘antitasso’ , ‘to be disorderly’ or to ‘stand against order’, or even the military concept to ‘stand in array against’. Again, ‘disobey’ is not quite right; ‘object violently’ would just about have worked, but I recalled the phrase being used in a somewhat ‘camp’ style by comedians, and I wanted to be clear that this is a word conveying the idea of military rebellion, not just somebody being querulous.
As I say, this isn’t a dead accurate translation anyway, but a device to bring out in English the relationship of the Greek words. The overall meaning of the text is that we are to take our place in an orderly manner in an arrangement of the world ordered by God, and not take a disorderly position which may work against God’s purposes.
For Christians, the government is ‘ordained’ or more accurately ‘ordered’ by God, it is his providential choice for our country for the time being. It is not our responsibility to fight against it in a sense of rebellion, but to accept it. However, note that this is not the ‘divine right of kings’ such as was claimed by, for example, England’s Stuart kings. It absolutely does not give the king a right to do and demand whatever he pleases. This is more like the instruction Jesus gave us to ‘turn the other cheek’; we are to react to being ‘smitten’ by turning the other cheek – but that doesn’t mean that the smiter can claim a right to smite us, or that he can demand as if it were a right that those smitten must turn the other cheek. Likewise Christians are to accept and respect the ruler, even a Nero or Caligula such as Paul and Peter faced, or the likes of Hitler or Stalin in modern times; but they don’t therefore have any God-given rights they can explicitly claim against us as a result.
This ordering works out that
1) We are ‘subject to the authorities’ – no exceptions.
2) We must not ‘resist’ the authorities – no exceptions.
3) We must ‘obey God rather than men’ – no exceptions.
Only it doesn’t seem to work out, does it? How can we reconcile these requirements? As we’ve seen, one common effort is to make ‘obeying God rather than men’ the exception to the other two, and further, the exception that means we stop being subject and start resisting. You may recall I’ve quoted 19th Century Baptist Robert Haldane saying that ‘obeying God rather than men’ was ‘the only exception’ to ‘being subject’. He was at least clear that ‘resisting’ was out of the question. I believe however that he wasn’t quite right in construing ‘obeying God’ as an exception.
If we understand the text to be dealing with ‘order’ rather than ‘obedience’, it works out consistently, because we are positioned in a line ‘ordered’ by God, deriving from His will, and trusting that He knows what He is doing in His providential management of the world. We stand in order under the ‘authorities’, but also under God. We ‘obey God rather than men’ as part of that order; and sometimes that means we can’t do what the earthly authorities want us to do. BUT, as another part of obedience to God, we remain ‘subject to the authorities’, so we follow the example of Jesus and the apostles and the many martyrs of the early church; if the authorities choose to punish us, we accept the punishment. And of course, if that obedience to God is our choice, we don’t ‘resist’ the authorities. We also, by the way, don’t isolate this issue from general obedience to God – like ‘turning the other cheek’, and ‘our warfare is not with physical weapons’ and so on. It’s a real tangle if we disobey God both by resisting the authorities and by ‘taking up the sword’ that Jesus told Peter to ‘put up’; yet that is what an awful lot of people do, in places like Ulster for example.
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.
It may seem that this doesn’t work out either; all very well for Paul to say rulers are only a terror to bad conduct, but of course Paul himself was to end up martyred under Nero…. And isn’t Paul forgetting the odd few episodes of imprisonment, floggings and so on, at the hands of those very authorities? Again, I often feel that interpreters who so easily find ‘exceptions’ to Paul are forgetting that Paul knew all about persecution. He had not only suffered it, he had been part of a Jewish equivalent of the Gestapo or KGB actively persecuting the early church. Paul is not naïve about rulers and persecution, he knew it from both sides, and he wasn’t forgetting it when he wrote Romans! So what is he saying here?
Very simple – do good. The ruler, the authorities, the government, can’t criticise you for doing good, so in that respect you will have nothing to fear. Of course, ‘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’. So if you follow such examples as Ulster paramilitaries who shoot and bomb, and finance themselves by bank robberies, or the various groups which riot and endanger the lives of their fellow-citizens and the police, in the ‘flag protests’ for example, the authorities will be after you and God will not be protecting you because you are disobeying Him…. And He will in the end be having some strong words with you over and above anything the authorities do to you, even if you haven’t quite gone so far that your actions ‘in the name of God’ have actually damned you!
Persecution is a different matter. To suffer persecution is indeed part of the ‘war without physical weapons’ which we wage not only in God’s name but with God’s power. We need not fear the ruler who persecutes because he ultimately cannot harm us, and the experience of martyrdom, whether to the death or a lesser suffering, is one of those ‘all things’ which ‘work together for good to those who love God’. We should so behave that the only things the ruler can find against us are the good things we do in obedience to God, that is, the simple fact that we are Christians.
That’s the outline. I know that not every case will neatly fit, there will be grey areas; but this is our starting point, and we should be reluctant rather than eager to look for exceptions, because we trust God for consequences.
[i] ‘So crazy it must be true’ – there is a story that Einstein was once approached by colleagues who wanted him to ‘have a word’ with a younger colleague whose ideas were ‘crazy’. Einstein is said to have replied something like “Certainly the ideas are crazy – the question is, are they crazy enough to be true?” To many, a conclusion that we are to be subject to rulers and not defend ourselves seems crazy – but if it is the biblical teaching, it may nevertheless be true….