Whenever we study and seek to understand various passages in Scripture, we can experience an array of scenarios. Sometimes, the text is explicit and clear in its meaning and application. For example, in Matthew 7:12, the verse sometimes referred to as the “golden rule”, Jesus said, “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” This is so clear and straightforward that even the pagans understand it and seek to dutifully obey it, though in vain since they are outside of Christ. Other passages can be difficult for many Christians to understand as well as apply. A common example of such a passage is much of the book of Revelation, simply because of its prophetic nature and heavy usage of symbolic language. But when it comes to Romans 13, particularly the first seven verses, we run into a situation where the text itself is clear in its meaning but can require further contemplation and study when it comes to understanding its application.
In order to understand how to rightly apply Romans 13:1-7 in our everyday lives in the society that God sovereignly placed us in, we need to understand what factors can influence our ability to put into practice the truths of this passage. The system of government that we are under and the laws of the land, for instance, certainly play a major role in how we apply this text and are therefore worthy of our consideration. We should also seek to understand how this passage was understood and applied throughout church history. Though many of our spiritual forefathers were by no means under the same type of government that we are under as modern-day American citizens, the wisdom they expressed in their writings and lifestyles should not be ignored nor disregarded.
One such view that has been widely held by many through the centuries, and is perhaps the most common view we see amongst modern evangelicals, is what we will call the “Strict Interpretation”. According to this view, believers are to understand “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1) as a command to obey the government in all situations except when the government commands us to do that which God forbids or forbids us from doing that which God commands. This view is consistent with what we find in one of the earliest known commentaries of Romans 13, written by a 3rd Century early church father by the name of Origen of Alexandria. He had this to say in regards to our submission to governing authorities:
Is an authority which persecutes the children of God, which attacks the faith and which undermines our religion, from God? We shall answer this briefly. Nobody will deny that our senses — sight, sound and thought — are given to us by God. But although we get them from God, what we do with them is up to us. . . . God’s judgment against the authorities will be just, if they have used the powers they have received according to their own ungodliness and not according to the law of God. [i]
To paraphrase what Origen was saying, all governments receive their authority from God, including the wicked and tyrannical ones. Tyrannical governments will be held accountable for how they use (and abuse) their God-given authority, but that does not lessen the Christian’s responsibility and duty to submit and obey the civil authorities. Origen made no provisions for exceptions to this rule, other than when the government orders believers to sin, as we read elsewhere in his commentary:
This injunction does not apply in the case of authorities who persecute the faith. It only applies to those who are going about their proper business. [ii]
Augustine of Hippo, another early church father, wrote the following in his commentary on Romans 13:
If anyone thinks that because he is a Christian he does not have to pay taxes or tribute nor show proper respect to the authorities who take care of these things, he is in very great error. Likewise, if anyone thinks that he ought to submit to the point where he accepts that someone who is his superior in temporal affairs should have authority even over his faith, he falls into an even greater error. But the balance which the Lord himself prescribed is to be maintained: Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s but unto God the things which are God’s. For although we are called into that kingdom where there will be no power of this world, nevertheless, while we are on the way there and until we have reached that state where every principality and power will be destroyed, let us put up with our condition for the sake of human affairs, doing nothing falsely and in this very thing obeying God who commands us to do it, rather than men. [iii]
Fast forward to the 16th Century, and we see the Strict Interpretation begin to be challenged by the reformers. But those during that time period who continued to hold to this interpretation were primarily the Lutherans, who taught the “Two Kingdoms” view as it pertains to God’s rule over His Church (which remains the Lutheran position on the matter to this day). In the church today, this view of Romans 13:1-7 continues to remain popular among many of our evangelical brethren, and for good reason: it is the most straightforward understanding of this text. It safeguards against the possibility of disobeying the Lord’s clear command of submitting to our civil authorities by simply obeying the government as much as possible without directly violating what God has commanded us to do or not do elsewhere in Scripture.
On the other hand, the Strict Interpretation does have its drawbacks, especially when it comes to issues of conscience. There are going to be times when a government enforces a law or mandate that may be viewed as sinful to some Christians but not to others, and we see this happening more and more often in Western societies today. How do we as Christians work through these types of issues? For example, what if the government that you are called to submit to according to Romans 13 were to legislate and enforce a law that you deem to be impossible to obey with a clean conscience, but the leaders of your local church, whom God also calls you to submit to (Hebrews 13:17), decide to follow through with the government’s demands? The workaround for this conundrum, if staying true to the Strict Interpretation, is to understand the various realms of authority that God has established (the conscience, the family, the church, and the state) and the hierarchy that exists among those realms. However, in next week’s blog, we will seek to explore another interpretation of Romans 13 that seeks to eliminate the need for experiencing this conundrum altogether by adding a level of accountability for the governing authorities that is arguably missing in the Strict Interpretation.
[i] Oden, T. C., & Bray, G. (2001). Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Vol. VI: Romans. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.
[ii] Oden, T. C., & Bray, G. (2001). Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Vol. VI: Romans. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.
[iii] Oden, T. C., & Bray, G. (2001). Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Vol. VI: Romans. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.