Reexamining Romans 13 Teaching on Civil Government
In these times that try the souls of men and when tyranny seeks to raise its ugly head once again, God calls upon us to trust Him, continue to do good, and courageously speak God’s Word empowered by His Holy Spirit.
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 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: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil (Romans 13:1-4).
Most people do not recognize the courage it took for the Apostle Paul to pen these words under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. The ruling authority at the time was Rome. The crazed emperor was Nero. As you may recall, Nero was the demoniac who fiddled while Rome burned and blamed it on the Christians. This deception opened the floodgates of cruel persecution against God’s people. It was in this environment that Paul defined the role of civil government in the New Testament.
In our attempts to rescue babies at abortion mills throughout America, several times civil authorities from local police to the FBI all started their interrogations by quoting Romans 13:1-4. Their basic premise for quoting this one passage was to deflect their guilt for protecting baby murder and violating God’s law “Thou shall not kill” to make us the guilty party. In the case of Roe vs. Wade, however, it is civil government that is the law breaker. Whereas, those who seek to peaceably rescue the innocent unjustly sentenced to death are the law keepers (Proverbs 24:12, 13). Our response was, “That is interesting you should mention this passage. Hitler quoted it often to condemn Christians who opposed his bloody atrocities as well.” Immediately, their tactics of investigation changed.
Romans 13:1-4 is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misquoted passages in all of Scripture. Most pulpits in America grant civil government carte blanche. They teach Christians should obey civil magistrates no matter how wicked, cruel, and tyrannical their decrees. This, however, is not the true meaning of Romans 13:1-4. Such blind obedience would inevitably lead to tragedy. The state would be the ultimate authority and not God. History records the bloody atrocities when government devolves into this wretched state. No, this passage teaches what good government looks like according to God’s design.
First, it is important to note what this passage does not address. It does not speak to what happens when civil government betrays its sacred trust as a “minister of God.” It does not tackle the thorny issue of civil authorities inverting their calling by protecting evil and punishing good. It avoids addressing civil tyranny, injustice, and oppression.
There are other passages of Scripture which deal with this betrayal against God's ultimate authority by His delegated authority, civil government. For instance, in the New Testament, Peter and the Apostles suffered persecution by the authorities of their day. Acts 5:29 records their righteous resolve in the midst of tyranny, “Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, we ought to obey God rather than men.”
This theme is woven throughout the entire fabric of Scripture. One can recall Daniel in the lion’s den and thrill to the exploits of the three Hebrew children in the fiery furnace as further examples. Daniel 3:12-18 records:
There are certain Jews whom thou hast set over the affairs of the province of Babylon, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; these men, O king, have not regarded thee: they serve not thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up. Then Nebuchadnezzar in his rage and fury commanded to bring Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Then they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadrezzar spake and said unto them, Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, do not ye serve my gods, nor worship the golden image which I have set up? Now if ye be ready that at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, ye fall down and worship the image which I have made; well: but if ye worship not, ye shall be cast the same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace; and who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands? Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, answered and said to the king, O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.
Nebuchadnezzar, the civil monarch, became enraged at their refusal to submit to his governmental, idolatrous decree. In retaliation, he demanded the fiery furnace be stoked seven times hotter than usual. He further instructed his mightiest men to bind them up and cast them into the fire. To the consternation of the king, however, the flame consumed his mighty men, but dared not touch God’s loyal servants. Peering into the furnace, he was not only shocked to find the three men that he condemned to the flame still alive, but another "man" joined them. It is safe to assume this was a pre-incarnate visitation of the second person of the Godhead, Jesus Christ.
When the king finally absorbed the reality that the flame had no power over these men, he called these courageous Hebrews out of the furnace.
Overwhelmed by God’s delivering hand, the Bible records:
Then Nebuchadnezzar spake, and said, Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who hath sent his angel, and delivered his servants that trusted in him, and have changed the king's word, and yielded their bodies, that they might not serve nor worship any god, except their own God. Therefore I make a decree, That every people, nation, and language, which speak anything amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made a dunghill: because there is no other God that can deliver after this sort. Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, in the province of Babylon.
This Biblical premise is vitally important, as many in the modern-day church falsely believe that we are to obey civil government, regardless if they defiantly seek to usurp Almighty God’s place, position, and authority in the earth. The Bible calls this treacherous act idolatry as it clearly violates the first commandment, “Thou shalt have no others gods before Me.”
G.W.F. Hegel believed, "The State is as God walking on Earth.” Benito Mussolini, Fascist dictator of Italy in World War II, declared, “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” These quotes promote the dangerous ideology of statism. It is yet another false god among the myriad of gods competing for the souls of men and the destiny of nations. Tragically, it only serves to create another idol fit for destruction. It is this false god, which is breeding false men, who in turn, bear false witness in the earth.
America has become so Biblically illiterate; we have either forgotten or refuse to believe that Jesus Christ is not only Lord of the church; He is Lord of the state. Most of you are probably reeling by such a bold statement. Perhaps you are thinking, “What about the separation of church and state doctrine?” There is a Biblical separation of church and state, but no man, government, or nation is separate from the authority of Almighty God. Perhaps in the future, I will address the separation of church and state doctrine more fully in another article. For now, it is important to know that this lack of Biblical knowledge was not always the case in our history. A.A. Hodge, an American author, lecturer, and theologian at Princeton University stated:
A Christian is just as much under the obligation to obey God's will in the most secular of his daily business as he is in his closet or at the communion table. He has no right to separate his life into two realms, and acknowledge different moral codes in each...The kingdom of God includes all sides of human life, and it is a kingdom of absolute righteousness. You are either a loyal subject or a traitor. When the king comes, how will he find you doing?
The kingdom of God is one, it cannot be divided...If the Church languishes, the State cannot be in health; and if the State rebels against its Lord and King, the Church cannot enjoy his favour...I charge you, citizens of the United States, afloat on your wide sea of politics, THERE IS ANOTHER KING, ONE JESUS: THE SAFETY OF THE STATE CAN BE SECURED ONLY IN THE WAY OF HUMBLE AND WHOLE-SOULED LOYALTY TO HIS PERSON AND OF OBEDIENCE TO HIS LAW.
Psalm 2 prophesied the coming of Christ’s Kingdom and its specific ramifications as they relate to kings, judges and rulers:
Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us. He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision. Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure. Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion. I will declare the decree: the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel. Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.
Communism, Socialism, and Humanism and all other “isms” of man are part of the vain rage of pagans, which oppose Christ’s rule in the earth. They plot counsels to break God’s spiritual bands and moral cords enshrined in His transcendent laws. The distorted doctrine of the “separation of church and state” in our nation would fall under this category. The left in America have wielded this phrase (Not present in any of our founding documents) to successfully remove the knowledge of God from the public life of our country. In the midst of their rebellion against the Crown Rights of King Jesus, however, the Lord laughs at their vain attempts to dethrone Him.
Regrettably, when God laughs in heaven, it is not funny on earth. He shall have our nation in derision and if we continue to rebel, He will smash us with a rod of iron. It is this Kingdom reality[make sense?], which has led America to our current pathetic condition. The more our nation rejects “One Nation under God,” the more we fall apart as a people. God will not be mocked (Galatians 6:7). We have sowed to the wind and we are reaping the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7).
The current vain political philosophies of men are merely readopting the failed “Tower of Babel” strategy of the Old Testament (Genesis 11). Covenant rebels are vainly plotting to reach up into the heavens as it were and pull down God from his throne to replace him. It did not work for Babel and it will not work for any Anti-Christ system or state in the future.
Jesus Christ, without equivocation, stated, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth (Matthew 28:18).” Every knee shall bow and every tongue of man shall confess the Lordship of Christ (Philippians 2:10, 11). The Scriptures declare that Christ has risen to the right hand of Majesty, expecting henceforth till all His enemies to become His footstool (Psalm 110:1; Hebrews 1:13; 10:13). Colossians 1:18 emphatically reveals, “And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.” All things include, law, government and the affairs of state.
Abraham Kuyper, Dutch theologian, statesmen, journalist, and Prime Minister of the Netherlands summed it up best. He stated, “In the total expanse of human life there is not a single square inch of which the Christ, who alone is sovereign, does not declare, 'That is mine!'” America and the other nations of the earth would do well to remember this unalterable truth.
Secondly, godly government recognizes that God is the supreme authority and civil government is a delegated authority. Since God created and established civil government (Genesis 9:6), it is duty bound to uphold His purpose as it applies to the civil sphere. Again, civil magistrates are His ministers. Good civil government recognizes God rules and reigns in the affairs of men. He sets up kingdoms and knocks them down. He possesses and dispossesses nations according to their obedience or disobedience to His moral laws (Deuteronomy 28).
Third, good civil government acknowledges God’s law as the standard for good and evil. Why is this important? Civil government is to wield the sword of justice to punish evildoers as God defines evil and protect those who are good in God’s sight as He defines good. It is only the law of God that can define for man these fixed eternal standards. Otherwise, the sinful nature of men can end up calling evil, good and good, evil (Isaiah 5:20). We see this travesty most blatantly as our government decriminalized abortion and homosexuality. Instead of punishing these crimes as prescribed by God's law (1 Timothy 1:9-11), they protect these abominations with the sword of civil government.
Throughout Scripture, however, God warns rulers that it is an abomination to punish the righteous and pardon the wicked (Proverbs 17:15). Isaiah 10:1 states, “Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, and that write grievousness which they have prescribed.” Rulers descend to this deplorable condition when they refuse to acknowledge God’s law and are negligent in their duty to uphold it in the civil realm.
Today in America, it is popular to spout the erroneous idea that Christians should not be allowed to legislate morality. Again, one hears the cries of “separation of church and state” fill the land to censor “Thus saith the Lord” in the political realm. The truth is every law and public policy is based upon someone’s definition of morality, someone’s view of good and evil, and someone’s view of right and wrong. One cannot escape this reality. There is only question that remains. Will it be God’s objective truth or man’s subjective reasoning that is the basis for law? Regardless, someone’s view of morality is being legislated.
The following similarities and differences between church and state come principally from Buddy Hanson's book called the “The Christian Prince.”
• Both the church and the state find their source in God. They are both His ministers and shall give an account of their administrations before the eternal bar of God’s justice.
• Both must observe the commandments of God related to their specific sphere of authority. God has granted both explicit directions and principles from Scripture to guide them in their God-ordained responsibilities.
• Both are appointed for the glory of God and the benefit of mankind.
• Each should complement the other, since they are both extensions of His will in the earth.
• The church is to be concerned about spreading God’s salvation and the eternal welfare of the souls of men, while civil rulers should concentrate on the physical safety and temporal welfare of men.
• The church is to be a minister of grace, while civil government is the minister of justice. The church has the authority to punish evildoers by excommunication, while civil rulers have the authority to execute capital offenders. The church is to expose evil, while the civil government is to punish and restrain evil. The church should teach God’s law, while civil government enforces God’s law as it applies to the civil realm.
• Whereas the church is supported by God’s social tax, the tithe, the civil government is supported by God’s civil tax, the head tax.
• The church has courts just as valid as judicial courts.
• The church is to concentrate on the welfare of men’s souls, while civil government should be concerned about warfare to protect and serve its citizens.
Lastly, both the Apostle Paul and Peter admonished the church in its duty towards the state. They called the church to obey civil authorities and yet they both died at the hands of tyrannical governments. What can we make of this apparent discrepancy? One thing for sure, they were not hypocrites that contradicted the will of God.
When civil government abandons its divine calling, Christians are duty bound to obey God rather than men. When the laws of men countermand the laws of God and civil government becomes the law breaker, the church must remain law keepers. This is why the church does not advocate civil disobedience, but Biblical obedience. Christians are not rebels and anarchists. Our call is to trust God and continue to do good, even though our good will be considered a crime by a despotic state. This is God’s directive to his people in times of tyranny. It is also His rebuke to a civil government that is violating its sacred trust.
Albert Camus, famous existentialist, stated:
There always comes a time in history where the person who dares to say that 2+2=4 is punished with imprisonment or death. And the issue is not what reward or punishment will be the outcome of that reasoning. The issue is whether or not 2+2=4.
It is strange that an existentialist would conceive such a powerful statement. Existentialism stresses that an individual’s judgment is the determining factor for what is to be believed in life rather than by religious or secular world values. This system of thought attempts to define human life in terms of “existence,” rather than human “essence.” In other words, the existentialist seeks to make life meaningful, rather than find the meaning in life. In this state, as with others as well, man is left to construct his own truth system and worldview, apart from the revelation of God.
Obviously, if an existentialist stayed faithful to his worldview, he would reject the notion of moral absolutes that is transcendent and binding upon all men at all times. Yet Mr. Camus utilizes 2+2=4 as a moral absolute and a self-evident truth that does not change with the passing of time or with the opinions of men. 2+2=4 is so, whether man believes it or not. Yes, we can choose to ignore, deny, or seek to vainly change it, but at the end of the day, 2+2=4 will always be 2+2=4. Even the “new math” cannot alter this reality.
In light of this, what is Mr. Camus seeking to communicate? There comes a time, perhaps in each generation, when truth becomes hate to those who hate the truth. As the hatred against the truth seeps into the culture, law and governmental policy, danger of imprisonment and perhaps even martyrdom may result against those who still cleave to its veracity.
Mr. Camus, however, removes experience as the ultimate judge of reality by stating, “And the issue is not what reward or punishment will be the outcome of that reasoning.” The “reward or punishments” for holding steadfast to the truth does not, in and of itself, validate or invalidate God’s commandments.
Truth is truth, whether no one believes it and a lie is a lie, no matter how many believe it. Truth carries with it the seeds of its own survival, while lies carry the seeds of its own destruction. Truth does not need lies to exist, but lies depend upon the manipulation of the very truth it seeks to deny, distort or undermine to spread. Thomas Jefferson addressed this phenomena in the civil realm by stating, “Error alone requires the assistance of government. The truth can stand on its own."
I will take this line of thought one step further. Man’s beliefs, no matter how sincere, do not determine truth. No, God’s truth, His Word, must determine man’s belief. Therefore, the question is not what will happen to us if we stand for the truth. No, the bottom line issue is “whether or not 2+2=4.” What say ye?
Even as I write, the American church is being forced to deal with these burning issues. We must not fail our Lord or fail to warn magistrates drunk with power, perversion and corruption. We must remember our Lord’s admonishment to the Apostles. Jesus declared:
But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; and ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you (Matthew 10:17-20).”
In these times that try the souls of men and tyranny seeks to raise its ugly head once again, God calls upon us to trust Him, continue to do good, and courageously speak God’s Word empowered by His Holy Spirit. This duty is ours, the results belong to God.