Romans 13:1-7 and Christian teaching
Paul makes some bold statements in Romans 13:1-7. These bold statements have seen a lot of work done to qualify and moderate them, and the result has been that Paul somehow accommodates the changing political ideologies of the ages.
Unfortunately these approaches do not do justice to the gospel of Jesus Christ or the bold statements Paul makes. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a bold challenge to the existing social power structures and to oppression. However, Romans 13:1-7 presents an entirely unqualified and uncritical approach to the state – how can we do justice to both?
This series addresses this question primarily by examining and expositing Christian teaching, building up the tension between the two, and presenting a resolution that takes the passage – and Christian teaching – seriously and honestly.
Face value of the text
We begin by analysing the face value of the text in more depth. The focus will be initially on the crucial concept of redress of wrongdoing.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary:‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.[And the LORD will reward you. (Pr. 25:21-22)]’Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour. (Rom 12:17-13:7, emphasis added, quotation extended)
The face value of the text may be analysed as follows:
1. Do not take revenge against wrongdoers, but leave room for God’s avenging wrath.
2. God has instituted the governing authorities as his agents of wrath, avengers of wrongs – God’s proper channel for redress of wrongs.
3. God has also instituted the governing authorities to commend those who do right.
4. Submission to the state, including payment of taxes, is required because of its legitimacy.
This face value can be further developed by working through the implications. To illustrate these implications we will examine the Westminster Confession of Faith, of 1646, which, along with traditional Protestant doctrine, takes the passage at face value.
1. The type of revenge being prohibited is private and direct personal revenge. Revenge through the ‘proper’ legal channel is not prohibited; rather it is permitted, even enjoined.
2. The state courts are the proper and legitimate God-ordained forum for hearing cases of alleged wrongdoing, and, when proper cause is shown and supported by adequate evidence, are the proper channel for using its sword to enforce awards for money damages, capital punishment or other civil or criminal remedies and punishments. Accordingly, Christians are not prohibited from using the state courts as they are ‘God’s servants for your good’ in Paul’s words. (The above two implications are not in the Westminster Confession of Faith, not because they were not held, or because of controversy about them, but because there was no one at the time taking any contrary position.)
3. Christians are permitted to make advance appeal to the remedies of the court by swearing oaths that imply the availability and permission to use such remedies, and likewise they may give evidence to the court under oath in connection with lawsuits and criminal prosecutions. ‘Yet, as in matters of weight and moment, an oath is warranted by the Word of God, under the New Testament as well as under the old; so a lawful oath, being imposed by lawful authority, in such matters, ought to be taken.’ (Ch XXII:II)
4. Positions in the state courts, and the state law enforcement and judgement enforcement agencies are legitimate occupations for Christians to hold and practice. Indeed Paul describes such activities as being in service to God and to us and protecting us against wrongdoers. Even tax collection is an acceptable Christian occupation. ‘It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto’ (Ch XXIII: II)
5. Obtaining state court judgements in our favour is a form of commendation and vindication of our conduct by the governing authorities that God has provided for our good and is in this sense a reward from God for right conduct. In the same way that state court judgements against those who do wrong are God’s institution against them, state court judgements in favour of those who do right are God’s institution for their good. ‘God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, has ordained civil magistrates, to be, under Him, over the people, for His own glory, and the public good: and, to this end, has armed them with the power of the sword, for the defence and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evil doers.’ (Ch XXIII:I)
6. Submission to the state is limited to the extent of its legitimacy – if submission is required because of its legitimacy, the submission could be more or less coextensive with the legitimacy. For example unjust governments could potentially be validly overthrown and there could be circumstances where refusal to pay unfair taxes could be justified. ‘It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honor their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience' sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, does not make void the magistrates' just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to them: from which ecclesiastical persons are not exempted, much less has the Pope any power and jurisdiction over them in their dominions, or over any of their people; and, least of all, to deprive them of their dominions, or lives, if he shall judge them to be heretics, or upon any other pretence whatsoever.’ (Ch XXIII:IV) – note that the Protestants had no problem, in principle, with civil as well as religious rebellion against the Pope and aligned civil powers.
7. In addition to justifying the power of the sword in principle for civil justice and public order purposes, in like manner its use in warfare can be justified: ‘they may lawfully, now under the New Testament, wage war, upon just and necessary occasion.’ (Ch XXIII:II)Interestingly enough, most Christians today would agree without reservation to all the points above. Others would insist on some ultimately minor qualifications, for example saying that we should not sue a Christian brother but may sue an unbeliever if necessary to recover a debt or achieve justice against him that may rightly be regarded as sufficiently important. Or that Christians must not swear oaths but they may ‘affirm’ even though such formal affirmation has the same legal effect in court as a sworn oath.