Rights, Liberties, and Romans 13
By Paul Green
For centuries the book of Romans, chapter 13, has been used to extinguish the flames of liberty. It has been misused to such an extent in fact, that it has become the favourite passage of dictators.
When the State couldn’t beat early Christianity it decided to join in. Soon the floors of Roman tax collection offices had Romans 13 inscribed, and slaughter in the name of Christ began. Hitler also used the passage, claiming that churches should take care of heavenly matters, leaving earthly matters to him. More recently, Mugabe’s totalitarian government shamelessly played the Romans 13 card.
The Christian Right are using it right now, to exempt the State from basic laws like “Though shalt not kill” – making it fine to slaughter the innocent in wars around the world. (See “If God is Pro-War – He Lied“)
At the same time, the Christian Left continue using it to exempt the State from basic laws like “Though shalt not steal” – making it alright for the State to take all it wants and pretend tax avoiders and evaders are the thieves and cheats.
God Plus Country, King, Queen, Government?
Whenever, in the minds of Christians, kingdoms of this earth are merged into the Kingdom of God (see “The Exclusive Kingdom of God“); inevitably their faith is compromised in favour of the earthly government’s will and doctrine:
Faith in God’s provision is minimised, faith in the State’s provision maximised.
Faith in God’s created authority is limited, faith in State authority extended.
Christian activity becomes influencing and expanding State activity, rather than supplanting it.
Reverence in church services is shared with the agents of the government and the flags and symbolism of the State. Governments have even created their own national churches.
But the Gospel of the Kingdom of God – as Jesus taught it – completely excludes the State, undermining it not temporarily, through superficial force of arms, but at its foundation in the hearts of men. That is why the enemies of Jesus and the early church were primarily the agents, allies or beneficiaries of the State – local, national, and later empire-wide.
The early Christians were well aware that ancient Israel was established by God without any earthly government and continued that way for 450 years afterwards – not in chaos, but under the civil Law, judges and natural family elders.
In line with this, the attitude of Jesus toward government and officialdom was made absolutely clear:
Obviously, words like this are not going to go down well with any government and so their allies have preferred to focus upon those scriptures that deal with practical instruction for living under pagan governments. Inevitably, practical instruction is reinterpreted to mean total submission and obedience – the only limit on government authority being the imagination of officials. Other scriptures like Romans 13, upholding proper authority, have been redefined to glorify State supremacy.
Added to the rise of undisguised secular politics worship, the modern state apparatus in Christian countries is built upon the acceptance of approved interpretations of two main scriptures: “Render unto Caesar” (Matt 22, Mark 12, Luke 20) and Romans 13.
I think rendering to Caesar is very well taken care of with precision and detail by Jeffrey F. Barr’s recent article – but to sum up my own understanding here:
The objective was to turn Jesus over to the governor – who would hardly object if Jesus taught a moral obligation to pay any and all taxes. Jesus taught no such thing. Instead, He showed them a denarius, inscribed and deifying Caesar as “theou huios” – “son of the god.” The answer as to how much is Caesar’s and how much is God’s therefore depends entirely on the faith of the hearer. Jesus’ words were an invitation to choose allegiance.
In private, Jesus’ instruction to His disciples on tax was plain and direct:
The message of this article is the same – children of the only true King are free from any moral obligation to the State. Nevertheless (and thankfully) the Gospel does not mandate open physical resistance in the face of a tax demand – just pay up and live to fight another day.
Romans 13 – The Totalitarian Version
Some modern Bible “translations” of Romans 13 completely abandon textual accuracy and just say “obey the government” – and are backed by a government copyright monopoly (see “Christianity and IP“). Other translations are less biased, but I am not a believer in the inerrancy of translators. In fact, I am going to make an attempt at “translating” Romans 13 myself.
But first, my own paraphrase of the authoritarian mindset:
“Totally submit to the government and all its officials, for there is no official that is not preordained by God to rule you. Therefore, any sign of resistance to any official is defying God and you will be destroyed. But do whatever they decide – that is being good and God through His officials will reward you. But disobeying anything they say or decide, any rule they make, is bad and you should be afraid because the government’s agents have swords and guns with good reason – and they are specially ordained by God to violently punish those who disobey them in any way, because to do so is evil. But don’t just obey them because they are threatening you, you should actually feel guilty if you disobey in any way. You should pay them whatever amount they ask without question because they are serving God by taking it from you and doing their very special work. So give without question everything they ask: taxes are theirs, all your money is theirs, your respect is their right, your complete obedience is their right.”
I think that is a pretty fair summary of prevailing ideas about Romans 13. If reading it does not cause a revolt inside you, then it should. That it is a distortion of God’s Holy Word is confirmed by its fruit – contributing to the murder and enslavement of millions.
How many Christians has it influenced – as soldiers, serving despots from Hitler to the Pentagon – in concluding that, right or wrong, they are not responsible for innocent deaths but just following orders?
The same understanding has kept much of the Christian world in servitude to parasitical governments, when it should be spreading liberty in accordance with the enormous price paid for our freedom by Christ our Lord: “To proclaim liberty to the captives… To set at liberty those who are oppressed.”
The door to liberty is wide open – but the inmates are too scared to go outside.
Romans 13 – Private Property Protected
Remember, the context of the book of Romans is a hostile Roman Empire with the likes of Nero and Caligula, while at the local and national level there were armed religious power elites.
I found the almost copyright-free Bible.org helpful, in particular this Greek interlinear feature. You might want to right click and open in another window to do your own translating. After double-checking in several places; this is my own translation/paraphrase:
“(1) Everyone should be subject to presiding authority – for it is not authority unless under God and only exists as ordered by God. (2) In which case, resisting such authority defies the order of God – and resisting that invites enforcement action. (3) For a person in charge is no threat to good conduct but bad. Just behave well and you will be appreciated, (4) for he is your servant from God. But do evil and be afraid, for he does not bear a weapon without reason – and in rage will exact a penalty on the wrongdoer. (5) It is therefore necessary to comply, and not only because of his anger, but for conscience sake. (6) For this particular reason (the punishing of wrongdoers) settle the annual levy for public officers when they are acting as God’s servants in this regard. (7) Yield to everyone that which is actually owed: a levy where a levy is due, a settlement where due, respect where due, at the correct price and amount that is due. Never withhold payment but rather love one another, for whoever loves his neighbour fulfils the law.”
I believe that is a whole lot better and more accurate than most translations. I am not saying all other translations are completely wrong – but their choice of words is generally guided by an underlying assumption that the State is exclusively the subject.
That is not the case.
Centres of Authority
In fact, the word often translated “authorities” or “powers” in verse 1 is not the equivalent of the State. The meaning, according to Thayer’s andVine’s, is firstly the “liberty, the power to do as one pleases,” which a person has over their person, property or domain. It might even be translated “Everyone respect primary rights and liberties…” In 1 Cor 8:9 it is translated “this liberty of yours.“
Also, the word often translated “rulers” in verse 3 is not the direct equivalent of State officials. It is used elsewhere in the Bible to denote “rulers” of a synagogue, judges, elders – anyone in charge of a social function. The Bible even refers to a “ruler of the feast” and a “governor of the feast.”
In fact, there are multiple legitimate centres of authority described in the Bible and which are ordained and set in place by God. Each one is violated by the lawless State when it claims authority it does not have over these domains. For example:
A father is to “rule his own house” and bear arms in its defence:
A father has the duty to serve for the good of his household, guests and visitors. This authority is clearly limited, yet in the case of trespassers and armed robbers, a head of household has every right to use force and violators should be very afraid of incurring his wrath.
A landlord or landowner has every right to control and protect his property by force –
Jesus taught the parable of the landowner, who leased his vineyard to tenants, who killed first the landowner’s employees and then his son. Jesus asked the disciples what the landowner should do. The answer, fully accepted by Jesus, was that the owner should destroy the tenants.
A church leader is ordained to serve the congregation, but also to direct church affairs and should have security measures in place. But limitations are clear – when a leader starts assuming authority over the life, household and money of members, it becomes a cult.
A business proprietor exists to serve his customers, but also to direct the business and guard against thieves. Customers will be valued and served; but thieves and troublemakers should be ejected – by force if necessary.
To uphold all of these rights, liberties and centres of authority, there is a legitimate place for third-party public judicial resolution of grievances and enforced punishment for those who are violators. This is included specifically in verse 6 of the passage.
But this function does not extend to making up new laws or creating new centres of authority; only respecting those already given by God. Assumed authority just does not exist – no one has the right to institute a new authority or domain in order to dominate others.
The Divine Right of Kings?
As worded by many translations, the second part of Romans 13:1 is ambiguous. The typical rendering is “There is no authority but from God and those that exist are appointed by Him.”
In addition to assuming that the State is the exclusive and all pervasive authority referred to, the prevailing interpretation is that any and all officials named by the State as an authority are ordained by God.
Many Christians today actually believe an official can write a number by the side of a road and more or less create a new sin – exceeding the speed limit – whether anyone was actually endangered, let alone hurt, or not.
Many believe that God required 10% but that governments have a divine blank cheque. They might protest at the current 50–60% of GDP that is being spent in places like the UK and the US, but still believe that not paying it would be robbery in the eyes of God.
We might at least expect a consistent misinterpretation, but many of the same people support invading and deposing other “divinely appointed” governments. When faith is in “God and Country” – and where “Country” means “Government” – it seems that their Country must prevail.
The conclusion: The only possible meaning consistent with other scripture is that authority of any kind – home, business, church, judicial – only exists to the extent that it is from God and as ordered by Him in creation. All other falsely assumed authority should be opposed:
Authority and Force
Romans 13 verse 4 underlines that proper authority is rightfully backed by force.
God’s people were always armed. This is evident on countless occasions from Abraham’s household slaying marauders to David killing Goliath. In fact, the only time they were unarmed was when disarmed by the Philistines.
Jesus himself affirmed this in Luke 22, when he commanded his disciples to make proper provision, their having undergone earlier special training to rely exclusively on supernatural provision:
As mentioned earlier, He had already said, “a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are in peace” and affirmed the authority of a landowner to use force against violent thieves.
But on top of this, Jesus personally, as rightful Head over the temple in Jerusalem – made a whip of cords and used it to drive out the moneychangers.
At the same time, revenge and getting our own back is not right. Jesus did teach turning the other cheek to insult and provocation, even to suffer non-critical loss or hurt, in order to exercise mercy and to avoid trouble.
The apprehension of wrongdoers is also a legitimate use of force. The judicial system is introduced in Romans 13:6, but with the clear proviso that it is there for one purpose – respecting, enforcing and protecting rights, liberties and proper centres of authority.
Paul was pointing out – in the context of a violent Roman dictatorship – that where there is a local judicial system and insofar as it operates to punish actual wrongdoers (thieves, murderers etc.) Christians should go along with it and even be willing to pay for it.
That does not make the Roman government system or any other right or necessary:
In Anglo-Saxon countries until the mid 1800’s with the introduction of police, the administration of justice worked well, largely without government. The Common Law was (and still is in some places) administered by unpaid local Justices of the Peace and Constables who were independent and often opposed the State. “Citizen’s arrest” was the primary means of enforcement. Enforcement of law under ancient Israel was similar, with Judges and volunteer officers of the court.
Note that Romans 13:6 refers to a moderate annual levy (or tribute) – it is not a blanket endorsement of all tax for all reasons.
Honour all people
Finally, verse seven returns to showing due respect for “everyone” in general:
A landlord has the right to be paid for rent – on time. A passenger should pay his fare. Bills should be settled when due. A “keep off the grass” sign posted by the owner should be respected. A teacher should respect the Principal. A CEO should respect the company founder or board Chairman.
The message of Romans 13 is to respect others rights, financial or otherwise, wherever rightly due. But the lines and limits of authority in each of these cases is clear to most people. It is an anomaly when Romans 13 is read as if there were no limits to the authority of government, that it can make up its own laws and enforce them violently with divine backing.
Prudence and Practicality
It is one thing to realize the illegitimate nature of the State (read 1 Samuel Chapter 8 if you have any lingering doubts); it is another to defy it openly.
Sometimes open defiance is right – where a government drafts soldiers to kill innocent people; where a government switches from insidious corruption to open confrontation of Christianity; where a government comes to seize or indoctrinate children; or where backed by public support.
Then again, an otherwise illegitimate government’s actions can be supported where it confines itself to proper judicial enforcement against actual wrongdoers – as defined by the laws of God, and without violating the innocent. Some scriptures cover this:
1 Peter 2 makes clear that it is important “for the Lord’s sake” that we comply with human institutions, where it will help spread the Gospel. Our objective is transformation from within, not just superficial defiance. But only “the punishment of evildoers” is legitimized, not any arbitrary right to redefine good and evil.
Much is made of “Fear God. Honour the king.” But why should this not be reminding us of the true King, Jesus? Even if it is ambiguous, why should the other possible meaning be any more than an instruction to be courteous, and to love even our enemies – the same Greek word is used in the same verse: “Honour all people.”
Titus 3:1 uses exactly the same Greek word for “authorities” or “powers” as Romans 13, defined by Vine’s first and foremost, as “power of choice, liberty of doing as one pleases,” which may indeed include judicial authority, if and when it operates within its remit.
Most of the time however, dealing with the improperly assumed authority of government is simply a matter of practicality and prudence in the face of violent force.
Understanding proper God-given centres of authority is the key to understanding Romans 13. That’s why I appreciate Romans 13 – it upholds our own rights and domain along with the rights of others.
Think about the 95% of daily life that the government cannot control. Why is it not chaos? Life is ordered by natural spheres of authority, ideally revolving around the family household for social provision, and free enterprise for material provision.
Above this, there is only one true King, the Giver and Protector of all liberty.
It is time for Christians to retake their proper authority, stop yielding themselves as “slaves to men,” and speak out for the exclusive, supreme Kingdom of God and against the usurping kingdoms and governments of this world.