Does Romans 13 Teach Absolute Obedience to Civil Government?
By Joseph Mattera
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and God has instituted those that exist. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers is not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one 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. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
With many laws being passed that have an anti-Christian bias, many believers in the blogosphere are saying that we need to unequivocally submit to whatever the laws of the land are, since this is what Romans 13:1-7 teaches. In other words, acts of civil disobedience—praying in front of abortion clinics, public prayer in schools, and the recent arrests of New York City pastors for praying in front of the New York City Law Department to protest the looming evictions of churches from public schools—are contrary to the word of God. According to the strict interpretation of this passage we should not only cease from all acts of civil disobedience, but we should not even complain about these laws and just pray for our civil leaders.
First of all, scripture must interpret scripture for us to get a clear meaning of any specific passage. Paul, as a student of the Old Testament and the life of Jesus, would not have meant so rigid an interpretation of this passage. During his time, Christians were already being put to death (including Paul himself who was beheaded by Nero’s command) because they refused to acknowledge obeisance to Caesar by burning incense to his image or statue. Jesus and the early saints were not persecuted for religious but political reasons because they proclaimed that there was only one true Caesar and King: the Lord Jesus Christ (read Acts 17:5-7). Hence, if Paul taught in Romans 13 that we should always submit to governing authorities at all times and in all instances then he would have submitted to Caesar and not been beheaded!
I believe in Romans 13 he refers to submitting in general terms, to encourage Christians not to riot like the Jewish Zealots did, in order keep order and peace so the gospel could go forth without hindrance.
Second of all, Jesus taught balance in Mark 12:17: to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. This primarily refers to, as the context in Romans 13:6 teaches, showing respect to the authorities by paying required taxes and showing them honor and respect by not revolting. The point is this: When we give to God the things that are His we are not to put any god before Him (Exodus 20:3) including Caesar. This means the honor and obedience we have towards Caesar and all governing authorities has severe limitations and does not include obeying them to the point of worship.
Thirdly, when it comes to honoring and giving to God the things that are God’s: this most surely includes all matters regarding the sanctity of life. Genesis 9:6 teaches that we are not to murder a fellow human being because they are made in God’s image and likeness. Thus, whenever we shed innocent blood including all acts of abortion we are in essence killing an image of God. This contravenes all human laws and calls for doctors, nurses, and all health practitioners to disobey the law and not participate in any way with abortions including the dispensing of morning after pills, which abort babies immediately after conception.
Fourth, we see how God honored Rahab as a great woman of faith (Hebrews 11:31) for disobeying the king of Jericho by lying to him when she hid two spies sent from Joshua the leader of Israel (Joshua 2). This principle was also in force in Nazi Germany, when many Christians hid Jews in their homes or places of business to protect them from being taken to the gas chambers and death camps. A narrow, unbiblical interpretation of Romans 13 without a proper exegesis of scripture would have resulted in them telling Nazi troops the truth and giving the Jews over to death!
Fifth, the early church would have quickly dissolved into irrelevancy and disappeared if the apostles would have blindly submitted to their governing authorities because they were given strict orders by their superiors to cease preaching the gospel. This is something even God Himself ignored went He sent an angel to set the apostles free from prison so they could continue to spread the word (Acts 5:19-20). The words of Peter in Acts 5:29 to the rulers of the Jews summarizes this whole article: “We must obey God rather than men.”
Finally, what Romans 13 is really teaching is that ultimate authority comes from God. Civil leaders do not have a free hand to rule as they please; they are to represent God and rule justly (Proverbs 8:15-16) as His magistrates. This has been written about by John Calvin in his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, by Samuel Rutherford in Lex Rex (against the so-called divine right of kings to rule as they please), and by the Founding Fathers in the United States’ Declaration of Independence, which separated the Thirteen Colonies from King George of Great Britain.
We are to submit to earthly rulers only when they represent God. When they decree unjust and ungodly laws such as the racist Jim Crow laws—which led to marches, rallies and acts of civil disobedience led by Dr. Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s—we are to obey God and resist the tyranny of ungodly men! May we have more godly Christian leaders like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who died because he tried to usurp the demonic rule of Adolf Hitler!###