Romans 13 in Context
Recently I received the following email from a DBO reader. It raises some very pertinent questions about the Christian’s relation to the state, and especially about the meaning of Romans 13.
Here is a brief response:
I agree with you that there is a great deal of confusion about the Christian’s attitude toward the state. According to the limited insight God has given me, permit me to say a few things in response to your excellent questions.
I believe we may dismiss from the outset any thought of a servile, uncritical attitude toward the state. I stress this because so many Christians today believe they are to give unquestioning obedience to the state. Such an attitude is based on a faulty misinterpretation of Romans 13:1: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (please read vv. 2-7 also). Statists are accustomed to appeal to this text as if it supported an unconditional and uncritical subjection to any and every demand of the state. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The immediate context shows that Paul’s point is something quite different. He is at pains to show that the state performs properly what is forbidden to the individual Christian: it takes vengeance on the one who does evil (see verse 4). Christians, on the contrary, must never repay evil for evil (12:17), and therefore they are not to oppose this legitimate function of the state but are to submit to it. God alone may take vengeance, and it is the “sword” of the state that he uses for this purpose. Essentially, Paul is teaching the same thing that Jesus taught: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Jesus assumes that the existence of the state is willed of God – even the existence of the pagan Roman Empire. But the disciple of Jesus is not allowed to give to the state what is God’s. Whenever the state makes an illegitimate claim to what is God’s it has transgressed its limits; and the Christian will not render to the state what is unjustly required of him.
The state is often confused with the kingdom of God. Indeed, many Christians are guilty of this false association. The state is a temporary institution (see 13:11). It will pass away, whereas the kingdom is eternal. Therefore, as long as the present age exists, Christians need not oppose the institution of the state as such. Rather they are to give the state what it needs to exist (e.g., taxes) and submit to its right to bear the sword. This is the plain meaning of Romans 13.
Keep in mind that while the state is “ordained” of God, it is not by nature a divine institution nor are its principles equally valid to those pertaining to the kingdom. Elsewhere Paul uses the term “rulers of this world” (1 Cor. 2:8) to refer to earthly political leaders. The state in which they rule is willed by God and hence Christians have to affirm the state as an institution. But, as Paul says in another passage, Christians are not to allow their controversies to be judged by the state because Christians themselves will one day sit in judgment over the very powers that now stand invisible behind the state (see 1 Cor. 6:1 ff.). So there is no question of Christians obeying the state at any point where it demands what is God’s. For Paul at least, this meant that no Christian could say “Caesar is Lord” or “Let Jesus be accursed,” even though such confessions might be demanded by the Roman state. The state that deifies or absolutizes itself has freed itself from its proper constraints as the servant of God and has, in fact, become satanic.
Inasmuch as the state remains within its proper limits, the Christian will acknowledge it as the servant of God. But inasmuch as the state transgresses its limits, it is to be considered the instrument of Satan. But even when the state functions properly as God’s servant, the genuine state for the Christian – his politeuma (the Greek word Paul uses in Phil. 3:20) – is in heaven. (On the concept of our Christian citizenship, please see my essay, The Christian as Citizen.)
And so the Christian gladly acknowledges the place of the state in God’s earthly economy, but he also knows the state’s place within the divine order. For that reason he will see his task regarding the state as one of watching to see that at no point does the state fall away from the divine order.
Thus I am forced to conclude that, far from teaching that the state is to be accepted uncritically in all that it does, Paul’s discussion in Romans 13 serves as a warning against the state exceeding its limits. How this works itself out in daily life is, of course, another topic and one I hope to address in a book that I am currently writing entitled Unleashing the Church.
Thank you again for writing, and my very best wishes and warmest regards,
January 7, 2005
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com. He is the author of Why I Stopped Listening to Rush and numerous other books.