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….


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.

Gollum and the Ring of Power

[This post has now been followed up by a loose series labelled ‘But Seriously’ in which I explore the biblical texts on the relation of Church and state.  For now just check other posts under the ‘But Seriously’ heading; I’ll try and get some better indexing or whatever as my blogging skills improve]

I frequently look at the website ‘Ship of Fools’, which is Christianity with a sense of humour.  As well as forums and news it has the ‘Secret Worshipper’ feature where people in effect review church services and comment on them, and some pure fun bits like ‘Signs and Blunders’ – an assortment of usually unintentional ‘gaffes’ from posters, noticeboards, church newsletters etc. (One intentional one I liked was the American church noticeboard saying “Will whoever is praying for snow please stop”!)  One of these features is ‘Born Again’ which amusingly suggests, on the basis of a resemblance, that some well-known figure is a reincarnation of someone (or occasionally something!) else; Ian Paisley of Christopher (Dracula/Saruman) Lee, for instance.  Recently this feature suggested that the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Wellby, might be a reincarnation of Gollum, the Andy Serkis CGI-generated character from the Lord of the Rings.  I sort of saw what they were getting at; but at first I did feel that for once the suggestion was a bit cruel, that ‘Born Again’ had gone too far….

But later I realised that while it might be rather cruel as a personal comment on the Archbishop’s appearance, it might actually be quite relevant as a comment on the reality of the Anglican Church.  Gollum of course starts life as ‘Smeagol’,  an imperfect but not particularly evil hobbit-like person who comes into contact with the One Ring and is led to murder his brother Deagol and ends up as the Gollum we meet in The Hobbit and then in the LOTR saga.  Not a bad person underneath, but corrupted by his addiction to his ‘Precious’, the evil, deceptive and destructive Ring of Power which in the end he simply will not let go of even when this means he casts himself into the fiery Crack of Doom in Mordor.  For the Church of England, the corrupting Ring of Power is the Church’s ‘Precious’ established status….

OK, historically the Church of England didn’t start relatively innocent like Smeagol; it grew out of a Catholic Church already corrupted by being tangled with the state since the days of Constantine, so it started already addicted to its ‘Precious’ in the hands of Henry VIII who wanted religious uniformity and control of his subjects.  Indeed despite a pretty good attempt under Edward and Elizabeth at restoring the Biblical gospel, one could argue that the narrowly national establishment of Anglicanism was a slightly worse form of establishment than the Roman version.  (I should mention here for the record that though currently Anabaptistic much of my early education in Christianity came from Anglicans and I still really appreciate many Anglican scholars like Stott and Packer and other clergy and laity I’ve known myself.)

Right from square one under Henry, the Anglicans persecuted dissenters; not only the Roman Catholics, but also at the other end a party of Dutch Anabaptists were executed by them.  Persecution (such as the imprisonment of John Bunyan) continued till the Act of Toleration under William III, and all manner of petty discrimination carried on even beyond that – exclusion of dissenters from the universities for many years, for example.  However, as will be a major theme of this blog in many of its posts, the big issue is not the obvious problems like wars and persecutions but the simple fact that being an established church is disobeying the Word of God and confusing the gospel teaching in all kinds of ways.  It is particularly frustrating to us serious non-conformists that when one reads books by the like of Richard Dawkins; generally more than half of his criticism of our faith is not dealing with real biblical issues (which he’s usually misunderstood anyway!), but with the completely unnecessary faults and problems of the various established churches, and of others like Ian Paisley who want unbiblical favour and privilege in the state.  We find ourselves having to fight through all that unnecessary stuff – where, let’s be blunt, we agree with Dawkins that it’s wrong – before we can get a hearing for the real biblical teaching.

As things currently stand, the Anglican establishment no longer means the totalitarian uniformity it started as under Henry and Elizabeth; it no longer even means that Anglicans (albeit often nominal) are the majority of the population – partly of course because much of Anglicanism has put people off religion generally.  But still the Church clings resolutely to its destructive ‘Precious’, still the good it does is undermined by the contradictions and practical problems of establishment; still establishment is probably the biggest bar to Christian unity simply because it is impossible to be united with Anglicanism without accepting their entanglement with the state, their position as precisely the kind of ‘kingdom of this world’ that Jesus rejected when he defended himself before Pilate.

So, on the one hand, yes, it’s cruel and wrong to compare Archbishop Justin’s appearance to Gollum – Ship of Fools please repent in sackcloth and ashes; but on the other hand, yes, Gollum with his split personality and his destructive addiction to his ‘Precious’ is a pretty good symbol of the Archbishop’s church and its contradictory personality with its unbiblical clinging to the rags that remain of the tempting power and influence of establishment.