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Problems With Romans 13

Chuck Michaelis

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a litmus test is “a test in which a single factor (as an attitude, event, or fact) is decisive.” It is difficult to conceive of another passage of scripture that meets this definition like Romans 13:1-7. Christians are, like Churchill’s famous bon mot, two camps of believers divided by a common passage on this issue. One camp interprets the passage to say, in a straightforward manner, that any person holding a government office is God’s chosen representative and must be obeyed as such. The opposing camp interprets the passage as a more complex explanation of what constitutes legitimate, anointed government service.

A serious problem for the straightforward interpretation can be demonstrated by a word replacement exercise.
Romans 13:1-7 (ESV)
[1] Let every person be subject to the Hitler. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. [2] Therefore whoever resists Hitler resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. [3] For Hitler is not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of Hitler? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, [4] for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. [5] Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. [6] For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. [7] Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

The exercise demonstrates crippling, if not fatal, flaws in this interpretation. Any reasoned reading of verses three, four and five in light of history demonstrates the fallacy. Hitler could not possibly be construed as a terror to bad conduct or a servant of God for our good. Moreover, while Hitler did bear the sword, it is an abomination to insinuate that he was doing so as God’s servant to avenge evil. Another crippling flaw in this interpretation is the implication that any resistance to a despot like Hitler, either internal or external, is in opposition to God’s word. In this case, conflicts like World War II can only be interpreted as rebellion against God’s anointed. This interpretation is often used to disparage rebellions like the American Revolution by extremists. Sadly, the prevalence of this interpretation in German churches was used by the Nazis in the 1930’s to lull them into complacency and even garner enthusiastic support from them. Only a brave and discerning few, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, understood the implications and rebelled. This in the birthplace of the reformation.

The second category of interpretation begins with an understanding that God’s government consists of more than just civil authority. The modern American’s mind almost automatically thinks civil, usually federal, authority when the word government is mentioned. God’s word makes it quite clear that this view is entirely too narrow. Four distinct types of government are mandated by God for man’s benefit. They are self-government, family government, church government and civil government. Each has a specific purpose and well-defined boundaries that the others can cross only in very specialized circumstances. Each has a chain of command with Christ at the head of a delegated authority with specific biblically defined qualifications.

While the modern narrow view of government is a relatively recent phenomenon in the US, it is not new. Many first century Jews rejected Christ based on Isaiah 9:6-7. The interpretation of the word government in the “government will be on his shoulders” clause of verse six in terms of civil authority was a stumbling block to them. A broader interpretation of this passage encompassing the four governments brings Christ’s kingship into sharp focus. When His delegated subordinate authorities are obeying biblical mandates for administrating the government units under their jurisdiction then the government is on His shoulders. He sits on the throne through His chosen representative. Consequently, as promised in verse seven, peace, justice and righteousness increase. God promises that His zeal will accomplish this! What a comfort this great hope is!

However, diligence is required because a logical implication of the broader interpretation of government is that usurpers can assume improper authority. They then work to remove rightful representatives and even to dethrone Christ Himself. In order to recognize when a usurper has assumed an undelegated authority, we must first have an understanding that God has a plan for all of the governments that He has designated for us. God’s plan for family, church and civil government consists of a limited, de-centralized authority under self-governed leadership. A negative example of God’s plan is illustrated in Genesis 11. Verse four makes it clear that the people of Babel are not interested in glorifying God but in making “…a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” Their desire is the same as all of mankind since the fall, when the serpent convinced Eve that she would “be like God, knowing good and evil.” The stated purpose of the people of Babel is the aggrandizement of themselves, the accumulation of power in a centralized location and denial of the need for God. God knew their intent and the danger to man inherent in the situation. The men of Babel were working in concert, suppressing individual delegated authority in favor of an unlawful collective authority. They spoke a single language, which greatly enhanced their ability to co-operate for evil. God confused their language and scattered them across the earth, essentially to save them from themselves and for Himself.

Now that we know what God doesn’t want we will examine the Bible for what God’s plan for government is. Exodus 18:13-26 is one of the most succinct explanations of what God demands from those He appoints to leadership. There are several salient points in this important passage. Verse 19 explains that God’s government is representative government. All of the designated governments are designed this way. In family government, the father represents God and Christ to the mother and children and vice versa. The mother represents the father to the children and vice versa (1Cor 11:3 states the hierarchy within family government very clearly). In the church, the pastor represents the leadership of God to the deacons and the congregation and vice versa. The deacons represent the pastor to the congregation and vice versa. Moses represented the people to God and represented God to the people. Verse twenty-one makes it clear that Moses was to “…look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe…” Furthermore, he was to “[21]…place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. [22] And let them judge the people at all times…” God’s plan, as presented to Moses by Jethro, is that He be represented by a de-centralized authority delegated to self-governed, impeccably honest men who know Him and His laws and fear Him.

God further declares his displeasure with centralized authority and warns us of the consequences of adopting that form in 1 Sam. 8:4-9. The elders of Israel demanded that Samuel appoint a king “…to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” At first glance, this looks innocuous. However, consider that the neighbor nations the elders refer to are empires. The elders are demanding an emperor to lead them in conquest, a course that God has not mandated. God tells Samuel that he has not been rejected but that it is God who has been rejected as king. God is stating that if His people follow His law then a powerful centralized authority is not necessary. He then tells Samuel to relay the judgment that awaits the nation of Israel for their sin. The prophecy God gives Samuel of plunder and slavery is a perfect picture describing unrestrained power in the hands of a man not governing himself as directed by God through Christ via the Holy Spirit. It is a clear warning about the central authority usurping the God-given jurisdictional authority of the individual over himself and his family. God also warns Samuel that once this course is chosen, He will not intervene to remove the king the elders have asked for. The king appointed by God was, of course, Saul. Saul lost his kingdom and his life for wantonly disobeying God and usurping the authority of the individual, the church and even attempting to usurp the authority of God. Any detailed examination of the bad leaders of the bible will show that the root of their problem is lack of self-government and failure to submit to the will of God. Pharaoh, Saul, Ahab, Uzziah, Caiaphas, etc. all had the same problem. That is, exaltation of the self and denial of God’s will; no self-government. All good government is de-centralized and limited in its jurisdiction.

One of the most important factors in interpreting Romans 13 correctly is understanding the language that Paul used in writing it. Repeatedly, Paul uses the phrase “God’s servant” (“minister” in the King James Version. The definition of a minister is a servant). This indicates that good government is ministerial in nature; it is a ministry built on the servanthood of God’s chosen leader. God is very clear about how we are to govern our families and ourselves. He is also very clear about the characteristics of those who are permitted to serve in church leadership. Since we have shown that all good government is ministerial, we can logically assume that civil government dictates are virtually the same. An excellent passage for an understanding of the requirements of ministry is 1 Tim. 3:1-13. The parallels this passage has with the requirements for ministry listed in Exodus 18 are striking. Paul gives a more detailed explanation of the characteristics of godly leadership than does Moses, specifying acceptable personal behavior especially taking care to mention that a godly leader is successfully in charge of his own family, first and foremost. The prophet Hosea makes it clear that the wrong people can work their way into positions of leadership against God’s wishes. “[Hos 8:4] They made kings, but not through me. They set up princes, but I knew it not. With their silver and gold they made idols for their own destruction.”

All good government of God is marked by certain very specific characteristics. Each division of government has boundaries and limits of authority. One who fails to govern himself cannot be God’s first choice for His minister in any form of government. He will be a usurper bent on dishonest gain, personal exaltation and violation of the other governments authority, including God’s. God has many inherent characteristics, one of which is justice. The usurper will be unable to act in a just manner because of his denial of God’s sovereign authority. Therefore, while he will be used by God he cannot be a legitimate servant of God.


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