5 Things to Bear in Mind About That Biblical Passage Concerning “The Governing Authorities.”

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. — Romans 13:1–7 (NRSV)

In times of civil unrest, the Bible, specifically the passage from Romans 13 above, will often be used to argue that Christians should be obedient to governmental authority. In recent days, as protests over police violence and the killing of Black people at the hands of police have erupted across the country, voices in some quarters have taken to citing Romans 13 again about why the protests are not a proper Christian response.

These words got a lot of attention a couple of years ago when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions used this passage to justify the separation of children from their asylum seeking parents at the southern U.S. border.

Now, it has been pointed out that this passage was used by slaveholders in the American South to justify the institution of slavery and to demand the obedience of slaves to the slaveholding system. It has been further pointed out that this passage was also used by the Deutsche Christen (the “German Christians”) in Nazi Germany to justify subservience to the Nazi state. Both of those things are true.

But the question for us is, given the apparent clear language of this passage, how do we make sense of what seems to be a straightforward Biblical admonition to submit to governmental authority? To understand this passage and what it means for us today, we have to bear a few things in mind.

1. Paul Is Not Jesus

Jesus had a few choice things to say about governing authorities. He noted that “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them,” and instructed his disciples that “It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.” (Matt 20:25–26 NRSV) Here Jesus is making a key distinction about the ethic of authority within a Christian community and that on display among the kingdoms and empires of the world.

Further, the ethic that Jesus insisted on most frequently is directly at odds with what the governing authorities today are doing. This is especially the case when it comes to the way children at the border were—and continue to be—treated.

Jesus said, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matt 18:4–5 NRSV). Further, he defined the faith of children as that to which we should aspire: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:14–15 NRSV)

He also said, that the righteous would be rewarded by the King of the Universe for their love and compassion:

“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’ “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” (Matt 25:34–40 CEB)

And finally, Jesus condemned those whose slavish adherence to the requirements of the law blinded them to the deeper law of love and mercy:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” (Matt 23:23 NRSV)

Even assuming that the law required the separation of children from their families (it doesn’t), and even assuming that asylum seekers were violating the law (they aren’t, this is what seeking asylum looks like), the actions of the administration would still fail this test of Jesus’ because neglecting justice, mercy, and faith undermines whatever obedience to the law you were purporting to demonstrate.

So, even if Paul were saying that you needed to obey the law at all times (and he may not have been, see below), Jesus gives us some very different instructions. And Christianity is not about trying to imitate Paul, it’s about trying to imitate Jesus Christ. I mean, c’mon folks, it’s in the name of the religion.

2. Paul Was Not Writing Scripture

But major sections of it, especially the epistles of Paul, were never intended to be scriptural. They were intended to be mail.

Paul was an itinerant preacher, founding and supporting fledgling Christian communities throughout the ancient world, particularly in Asia Minor (present day Turkey). Because Paul was frequently on the move, he corresponded with these communities to answer any questions they had about their Christian faith, about life in Christian community, and so on.

What this means is that Paul’s writing is hightly situational and contextual. It was written to a specific group of people, in a specific place, at a specific time. That his writings were also useful to others in different times and places is a testament to many of his insights, but it does not change Paul’s intention for his writing. Quite simply, Paul would likely be surprised to discover that his mail was now the majority of a new section of the Bible.

But it’s that highly contextualized nature of the writing that must be paid attention to. Because the context changes the nature of Paul’s writing and often the substance. One community will imagine that they are bound to the Jewish law and so Paul reminds them that they are new creations in Christ, free of all obligations to the law, and no longer divided by the categories of the world. But then to another community who imagines that they are already living in the Resurrection and can do whatever they want, Paul reminds them that they are not quite free of the obligations under the law of God. See, Paul is not a systematic theologian; he’s a pastor, putting out brush fires here and there however he can.

Now, regarding the letter to the Romans, we don’t really know why Paul wrote this letter. He didn’t found the church in Rome. As far as we can tell, no one wrote him a letter first prompting his response. But what cannot be ignored is that there was some context, some situation that defined Paul’s writing the letter and this passage in it. And what that means is that this passage should not be interpreted as being of universal applicability. There was a reason that Paul wrote those words to that group in Rome at that time. It’s entirely possible that were there to be an Epistle to the Washingtonians today, he might write something altogether different.

3. Jesus Again, this time on Submitting to State Authority

When Jesus asks whose image is on the coin, the Greek word used in the text is εἰκων eikōn. It is the same word used in the Greek translation of Genesis when God says that God will create humanity in the divine eikōn, the divine “image.”

So, when Jesus is asking whose image is on the coin, he is leaving unspoken the question of whose image is on you. With this context, we understand Jesus’ response, “Give to Caesar those things that are Caesar’s and to God those things that are God’s” in an entirely different light. Far from advocating for a division of loyalty between church and state, Jesus argues for giving your entire being to God because it is on that being that God has placed the divine image.

To any listening Romans, this would’ve sounded like an acceptance of Roman power; but to the Jews who would have heard it, it would be a clearly subversive statement. Because if we give ourselves fully to God, then nothing belongs to Caesar. Jesus was no supporter of the status quo and of the “governing authorities.” He was a troublemaker. Subverting the established order.

4. The Bible is Not of One Voice on the Question of Submitting to Authority

In the eighth chapter of the Deuterocanonical First Book of Maccabees, the story is told of the Jewish effort to enlist allies in their fight against the Seleucid Greeks. They decide to turn to an up-and-coming power on the Mediterranean, a republic on the Italian peninsula known as Rome. The text’s praise of the Romans is effusive, extolling the many victories and subjugations that the Romans have accomplished against their enemies. And then the passage concludes:

But the Romans have kept friendship with their allies and those who rely on them. They have subdued kings far and near, and as many as have heard of their reputation have feared them. Those whom they wish to help come to power, they make kings. Those whom they wish, they bring down. The Romans have been greatly exalted. Yet even with all this, not one of them has put on a crown or worn purple as a mark of pride. Instead, they built for themselves a senate chamber. Daily, three hundred twenty senators plan constantly concerning their people in order to govern them well. They trust one man each year to rule over them and to control all their land. All listen to this one man, and there is no envy or jealousy among the Romans. (1 Macc. 8:12–16 CEB)

This glowing admiration for Rome’s power and republican government fit the context of the Jewish liberation struggle against the Seleucids. But it’s not an attitude that would last.

Jump ahead a century and a half and we wind up square in the middle of the first century, when a Pharisee with Roman citizenship has become the great Apostle to the Gentiles of the early Christian movement and has decided to write a letter to the Christian community at Rome in anticipation of his arrival there later on. In that letter, he spends a lot of time reflecting on the righteousness of God and then gives some advice to the church on obeying the “governing authorities.” He uses no rabbinic reasoning, nor does he make an eschatological argument about the resurrection as he is wont to do. (In fact, some scholars even go so far as to say that Romans 13 is an interpolation — added there later by another scribe — because it lacks these distinctive Pauline traits.) It is middle of the road advice, not effusive in its praise of Roman power, but recognizing the propriety of submission to it.

Jump ahead another four decades and a man named John is writing from the Isle of Patmos concerning a vision he has had that helps to make sense of the strife and conflict going on all around him. In his text, which we know as the Book of Revelation, he presents a stark, apocalyptic vision that details the coming of God in power to vindicate the martyrs and to set the world to rights. But before that happens, a lot of death and destruction is described, and the Roman Empire makes a powerful appearance in chapter 13:

And I saw a beast rising out of the sea having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority. One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast.They worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. It was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation,and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered. Let anyone who has an ear listen: If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (Revelation 13:1–10 NRSV)

Roman soldiers marching
Roman soldiers marching

In apocalyptic literature, beasts arising out of the sea are false or wicked empires. This empire is described alike a leopard (Persia), with feet like a bear’s (Medea), and mouth like a lion (Babylon). And its authority comes from the dragon — previously identified as Satan. Because this empire insists on calling its rulers divine and granting them titles like “lord” and “savior,” it utters “haughty and blasphemous words.” The empire is not the praiseworthy Republic, nor is it the ordinary “governing authorities” worthy of respect; it is the beast, the instrument of Satan and the oppressor of the people of God.

Here, in these three samples we see starkly different approaches to Roman power. Thus, it is hard to argue that the Bible has a consistent attitude on being supportive of the government, when it doesn’t even have a consistent attitude toward the Roman government. This is a reminder, too, that rarely can any complex issue be resolved by any statement that begins, “Well, the Bible says…” The Bible says a lot of things and rarely limits itself to one point of view on a topic like this.

5. Romans 13 Provides the Basis for Resisting the Government

This raised the very real specter that a given prince might actually become the enemy of his people rather than their protector. What were the Protestants to do in the face of the threat of oppression from the duly constituted “governing authorities”?

Reformation theologians began to articulate a theology of resistance to tyrannical rule: Vindiciae contra Tyrannos, “the verdict against tyrants.” And curiously, the text they used to develop this doctrine was none other than Romans 13. To the reformers, the implications of the verse “for it is God’s servant for your good” were plain: if the government was no longer doing good, then it was illegitimate and could be opposed.

These Reformers argued that “God has ordained civil government and civil rulers to serve the public good.” A tyrant is not serving the public good and therefore has already abdicated. Therefore, there is not only a right, there is a duty to resist. (This is one of the reasons that language referring to King George III as a “tyrannical prince” was included in the Declaration of Independence.)

In effect, this theology holds the entire system to a higher law. The Christian is not a subject within a civil governmental system. Instead, both the Christian and the earthly kingdom are under the governance of the law of God, and that law is a law of justice, mercy, and faithful love. Only those states and those governing authorities that are in line with that law of God have legitimacy to demand our obedience. Only if the governing authorities are actually acting for the good can we be expected to defer to them and support them.

This was the lesson the Reformers discerned. It was a lesson heeded by the Founding Fathers as they resisted their own governing authority. It was a lesson upheld by the abolitionists and by those running the Underground Railroad. It was a lesson upheld by the Confessing Movement as they resisted the German Christians’ attempt to conform the church to the Nazi party. It was the lesson of the Civil Rights Movement that faced down police and firehoses out of a fidelity to a higher law. It is the lesson at the heart of the gospel’s message of perfect Christian freedom in love.

So bear these things in mind the next time someone whips out their Bible and insists that it demands your undivided obedience to the state. You might want to encourage that person to read the text a little more thoroughly.

Retired Methodist pastor, lawyer, language nerd, and Red Sox fan. Upstate NY transplant in DC. Author of “The Certainty of Uncertainty.”

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