But Seriously ( ) Romans 13 – the ‘so crazy it must be true’[i] interpretation….


(‘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….


Miscellaneous – including Ann Widdecombe and more on ‘divine right of kings’.

With a couple of longish essays still being worked on, just a brief post of ‘bits and pieces’.

First, I’d intended quite a long examination of Ann Widdecombe’s TV presentation ‘Are you having a laugh?’ in which essentially she complained about comedians making fun of Christianity.  But in the end I thought the Bible says it better

…it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom but we preach Christ crucified (a crucified Messiah), a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and Christ the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

In other words, we are preaching a somewhat counter-intuitive message which at first sight people will find either scandalous or funny; if we want respect for such a message we need to earn it, not just take it for granted or expect it as of right, nor complain when some people joke about us.  Be humble among our non-Christian neighbours….

On the ‘crumbling cathedral’ issue I’m wondering was I a bit polite – I mean, a supposedly ‘Christian country’ runs a national lottery almost all of which is anti-Christian in implication (appeal to greed, trust in chance…) and the supposed national Christian Church is seeking to profit from the gambling!!  Do we really have to politely pretend there is nothing wrong with this picture??

Looking through the ‘Stats’ bit of ‘Blog Admin’ I came across some anomalous ‘search terms’; and I’ve been wondering whether someone was really searching for those things or if they were trying to comment on the blog but being unused to blogs had put the question in the wrong window or something like that.  Two of these seemed to deserve a response anyway…

First, “What has Rameses to do with Church and State?”  Answer, not a lot – but my blog is ‘mostly’ about church-and-state issues, not ‘exclusively’ on that topic, and other things that interest me like the Exodus date will crop up from time to time.

Second, “What happens to the ‘divine right of kings’ when you kill into it?”  I assume that means when somebody usurps the previous king and kills him, or when a king is defeated in battle.

Basically, most kings and similar rulers have wanted their subjects to believe they either are divine (see Emperors of Rome and Japan) or that they otherwise have divine backing so that the subjects mustn’t dare object and especially don’t plot to kill them!  Such divine right has of course its own limitations – ‘divine emperors’ are usually only demigods rather than full gods, while others by claiming divine right risk that the priesthood of their religion will interfere with the ruler in the name of the gods in question.  When one country defeats and takes over another, the assumption will be that ‘the gods’ favoured the winner who thus has the divine right.  Usurpation is tricky; a really strong usurper won’t be challenged anyway on grounds of sheer brute force, a weaker usurper will probably have to do a lot of propaganda to satisfy their subjects that the usurped king had either forfeited his divine right or never had it in the first place….  That kind of thing could be seen throughout the ‘Wars of the Roses’ particularly when Richard III usurped the throne of his young nephew, and then when Henry Tudor in turn usurped Richard.

In the kind of case I was putting in the original blog on ‘divine right of kings’ I was really cutting through all that as irrelevant to Christians.  We don’t accept the ‘divine right’ claimed by non-Christian kings because we don’t believe in the god(s) in question.  We also reject the idea found among many kings of ‘Christendom’ that they are ‘anointed’ kings like David and Solomon, because the position of God’s anointed king over his people is already eternally filled by the resurrected and very much alive Jesus himself.  For Christians the ‘divine right’ doesn’t actually exist in the first place, except for Jesus himself, so you can’t ‘kill into it’ as the question implied.

But what about Romans 13    “There is no authority except from God, and those in charge are divinely constituted, so that the rebel against the authority is resisting God’s appointment”.  Isn’t that the ‘divine right of kings’?  Well, sort of – for a detailed explanation of the text see a forthcoming post on Romans 13; actually a two-parter because I believe in context, so a post about Romans 12 will come first….

But Seriously (5)… The Divine Right – or Wrong – of Kings


I’m not sure how these things are taught in schools now, but I recall that when we were learning about the English Civil War, King Charles’ idea of his ‘divine right’ as king was presented as having been a key issue.  And in various forms this has been an issue ever since there began to be ‘Christian’ rulers of ‘Christian nations’, from Constantine through Charlemagne and down to modern kings and queens including Elizabeth II of the UK now, ‘supreme governor’ of a state-established church.  OK, the modern queen would not assert quite the same right against her subjects as Charles I, but she does still get crowned in a church ceremony.

BUT – does this idea of Christian kings in Christian states ‘stack up’ in New Testament terms? 

For insight into the kind of thinking involved, I’d like to quote from Martin Down’s 2008 book ‘The New Jerusalem’; Martin is not quite Anabaptist but still heavily critical of ‘Christendom’.  Here he discusses the start of the ‘Holy Roman Empire’ circa 800CE….

…it was now possible for the Popes to reinvent the Christian Nation, not on the Emperor’s but on their own terms.

On Christmas Day 800, Charlemagne was crowned as Emperor in Rome by Pope Leo III.  From this time, the subjects of Charlemagne, who had been referred to as “the Frankish people” were called “the people of God”.  Two other ideas had now been fused; the Christian state, empire or nation, and the nation of Israel as it had existed in the Old Testament.  It was not just that the nation of Israel might be a type of the Church.  Charlemagne’s empire had replaced the nation of Israel in the purposes of God, and the Church was now God’s nation in the same way that Israel had been God’s nation.  This opened the way for a whole world of Old Testament ideas and precedents to be applied to the Christian monarch and his people.  It was not just the Church but the Franks who had now become “the holy nation”.

Charlemagne was not anointed at his coronation in Rome, but his son and successor, Louis, was both crowned and anointed by the Pope in Rheims Cathedral in 816.  The Pope declared; “Blessed be our Lord who has granted us to see the second David”.  The kings of Christian Europe came to see themselves as the successors of the kings of Israel.  To this day, the kings and queens of England have been crowned to the strains of Handel’s anthem, Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king.

Anointing with oil was the symbol of the conferring of kingship in Israel, whence references to the kings as ‘the Lord’s anointed’; David described Saul thus, and even when Saul was trying to kill him David would not harm the anointed king.  The Hebrew word for anointed is ‘Messiah’; the Greek word is ‘Christ’- you may already be getting a clue why it might be inappropriate to anoint a modern monarch as a successor to the kings of Israel….

Let’s take a step back to when Israel first had kings; I Samuel is very open about what happened.  The Israelites came to Samuel and said look, you’re getting older, your sons are not worthy successors to you; “…appoint a king over us to be our judge like all the nations”.   Samuel wasn’t happy; in his eyes, God himself was Israel’s king, and to ask for an earthly king was to reject God’s own kingship.  God agreed with this assessment, but nevertheless told Samuel to do as the people asked – ‘but solemnly warn them’ what it would be like to have such a king

So Samuel warned them

This will be the procedure of the king who shall reign over you; he will take your sons and employ them for his chariots and as his horsemen; they shall run in front of his chariots.  He will appoint some for himself in command of thousands and of hundreds; others to cultivate his acres and to harvest his crops; also to construct his weapons and chariot equipment.  Your daughters he will require for perfumers, for cooks, and for bakers.  Besides he will take your choicest fields, your vineyards and your olive yards and give them to his attendants.  He will besides take a tenth of your grain crops and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants.  Your male and female servants he will take from you and your choicest young men; also your donkeys and employ them for his business.  He will appropriate a tenth of your flocks too, and you yourselves will become his servants.  By that time you will cry out about the king you chose; but that day the Lord will not answer you”

But the people wouldn’t listen, so Samuel had to appoint a king.  God first led Samuel to Saul, but in due course Saul ‘blew it’ by disobedience to God.  Then God led Samuel to anoint David, and there followed an uneasy period till Saul was killed in battle and David could take over.  David was far from perfect, particularly of course in his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah; he was nevertheless so much a man ‘after God’s heart’ that God promised to establish his ‘house’ in the kingship for ever.  Solomon succeeded David and was a fairly good king, but he too went astray in various ways.  On Solomon’s death it became clear that he had exploited his people a bit too much, as Samuel had prophesied, and when his son arrogantly threatened the people with even harder service, the northern tribes revolted and set up a separate kingdom under a non-Davidic king, while the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin stayed with the Davidic line. 

As history developed, the Northern tribes (‘Israel’) set up a rival to the Jerusalem temple and had often less satisfactory kings and a usurpation or two until they were finally overwhelmed by invaders; many were deported into slavery, those who remained intermarried with the invaders and eventually became the ‘Samaritans’ of Jesus’ day.  The southern tribes (‘Judah’, whence eventually the term ‘Jews’) lasted a good while longer but they too were eventually overrun, exiled and enslaved.  Then the invaders were in turn invaded.  The ‘new management’ adopted a policy of letting slaves return to their lands, and the southern tribes returned in some quantity and with a faith strengthened by the experience of exile.  They built a new Temple in Jerusalem and gradually spread back throughout much of the original lands including into Galilee, though there remained a central area still predominantly Samaritan.

After the return from the Exile, the Jews remained a subject people for centuries except for a brief period when the Maccabees turned out Antiochus Epiphanes’ Greeks.  By the time of the New Testament, they had been a client kingdom of Rome for some time and Judaea in the south became a Roman province under a Roman governor, Pilate being the best known.  Even the kings they did have in this period were not of the Davidic line – Herod and his family were not even full Jews but Edomites.  So as they looked for national freedom their hopes focussed on that promise to David of a king of his house to rule forever, a king who would truly be the ‘Lord’s Anointed’ or Messiah/Christ.  Many men before and after Jesus led rebellions claiming to be such a messianic king.

Then came Jesus, the true fulfilment of the messianic promise, but also for many Jews an unexpected fulfilment because he was not a narrowly nationalistic king only for the land and people of Israel.  Instead he is a king for the whole world, Gentiles as well as Jews; and paradoxically, to best carry out that role, he is not a worldly king with the usual military trappings, but has a kingdom ‘not of this world’ whose subjects are those of every nation throughout the world who believe and follow the truth he brought.

Now realise that God achieved something extra here.  As we saw above, since the time of Saul there had been an undesirable division of kingship; God was ultimately king, but there was also a human king of God’s people, a king of variable quality to say the least.  Yet God had promised that the Messiah would be an everlasting king in the human line of David – how could this be worked out?  Would not the coming of the Messiah mean that the division of the kingship continued; that God would not be fully king?

If the Messiah had merely been a descendant of David, establishing a narrow kingdom of Israel, and setting up a normal kingly line through his descendants …. Well yes, a still divided kingship.  But Jesus came not only as descendant of David, but also as Son of God – God himself entering human history, yet also as heir of David.  He wins his kingdom not by brute force conquest, but by dying for his people’s sins; vindicated by resurrection, he is to be personally their eternal king.  In the person of Jesus, God has reunited His kingship with the kingship of the House of David, in a way that makes it truly eternal.

This has unavoidable implications for the claims of human kings, from Constantine and Charlemagne through Henry VIII, Charles I, and the present monarch of England.  Put bluntly, there is simply no vacancy in Christianity for a ‘second David’; the only and eternal second David is Jesus himself.  A human king in the present age who is anointed as a ‘king of God’s people’ is in principle setting up as a ‘rival anointed’ – or as the Greeks would say, an Antichrist!  Hmmm!

Now I am not suggesting that Queen Elizabeth II is personally a demonic monarch, or even that she is personally not a sincere Christian; indeed the evidence seems strongly otherwise.  Nevertheless she has innocently inherited an essentially false position, as has the Anglican Church of which she is nominally the earthly ‘supreme governor’, and it is surely long past time for that false position to be challenged.  As fellow-Christians we should not be encouraging that false situation, surely?

Really this comes down to the doctrine of being ‘born again’, which means that no country can be identified with the church, and of course no monarch can guarantee to be born again ‘ex officio’, to be a ‘second David’ just by being born king.  To try to make it so by laws and edicts really contradicts Christianity, disobeys Jesus, and distorts the Christian message.  The church itself is the only Christian nation, and it isn’t a regular ethnic or geographical nation that can have an earthly king.  Jesus is the Church’s only king.

This does not mean that Christians are to be rebels; as we’ll see from Romans 13, I Peter, and other passages, Christians are supposed to recognise the king or other ruler of their earthly country as God’s providential choice for the nation for the time being, and to be ‘subject to’ that ruler.  But that is far from the kind of ‘divine right of kings’ practiced by Henry, Elizabeth or Charles; indeed these texts assume that neither the ruler nor the country will be ‘Christian’.  We’ll be looking at this in future….