Tower_of_Babel_cropped_squareOn Easter Sunday, I joined a Facebook thread where the role of government and Romans 13 were discussed. A number of points about the Christian’s relation to government were aired, including citations of Leo Tolstoy, and a major theme was the idea of Christian anarchism. When this happens, of course, Romans 13 is invariably brought to the table. It seems to me, though, that this is not a good starting point for discussion of statism in the Bible.

Romans 13 is not a shortcut to being right about government. People like sound bytes, quick ways of responding to scenarios – and that is basically the way most Christians attempt to treat Romans 13. However, you absolutely cannot discern the whole of what the Bible says about the state by Romans 13. It sounds good, but it won’t work.

A major problem we encounter in Romans 13 is the definition of “submission.” It is a tricky word to understand at times. For instance, Paul says in Ephesians that we should “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Then he says “wives submit to your husbands.” James 4:7 calls us to “Submit [yourselves] to God.” Obviously, we do not believe that “submission” in these verses means the same thing as Romans 13. Indeed, we repeatedly see great men and women of the Bible – Jesus, Paul, Peter, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, David, Elijah, Elisha – defying the State.

Understanding submission in the context of a Biblical theology of the State is what matters. Thus, what the Bible has to say about the State, its nature, its origin, its destiny, and its relation to God is prior to understanding what submission means.

Enter Genesis, 1 Samuel, the Gospels, and Revelation. I will quickly overview some key points from these selections, although each of these could all be additional studies in and of themselves and there is much more to study than just these four.

Exhibit A: The Tower of Babel (Gen. 11) is the “origin story” of the state. We learn here that the State is organized as an opposition against God. The State is rebellious and idolatrous, and desires to become/replace God.

Exhibit B: 1 Samuel 8 is the incident where Israel asks for a king (i.e., organized monarchy / primitive “State”). God speaks through Samuel and lets him know what this government is going to do… and you know the rest of the story. Besides the “glory years” of David and Solomon, Israel was a complete disaster.

Exhibit C: The Gospels, especially Matthew, are very clear that the Kingdom of God is nothing like an earthly kingdom (read: State), and that the Kingdom of God repeatedly conflicts with the kingdoms of earth.

Exhibit D: The symbols of Revelation, if we are to give them any global meaning in the physical world, must first be interpreted in light of the Roman Empire in conflict with the coming Kingdom of God. Since there really were not any other significant States to consider at the time of the writing of Revelation, our extension of the symbols into present meaning can and should include present States, unnamed but there in principle. We discern that the destiny of the State is destruction.

Now, we can turn back to Romans 13 and wonder what the proper “submission” response entails to an entity that is:

  1. rebellious and idolatrous
  2. abusive toward people
  3. constantly in opposition to the real King and the real Kingdom
  4. destined for destruction

The answer has to be that submission to the coercive power of the State is first and foremost prudential. Don’t be stupid, don’t compromise the church or your family, don’t blow your witness to the world. However, you don’t have to settle for the status quo either. I have written about this more extensively in my exegesis of Romans 13:1-7.

In the words of many of the the American founders, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” But we don’t even need to pick up a sword to do it. The State’s legitimacy rests on tacit consent of the people (Etienne de la Boetie), and thus our greatest weapons are to renew our own minds and then in turn to help renew others (hat tip to Hayek a la St. Paul). Turning people’s minds away from the State and back to the King of Kings is the goal.

Dr. Norman Horn

Norman founded and the Libertarian Christian Institute, and currently serves as its President and Editor-in-Chief. He holds a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from the Austin Graduate School of Theology. He currently is a Postdoctoral researcher in Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Christiana Horn

    This is an amazing and wonderful post. Too often, Christians want to “soundbite” an issue with a single verse and therefore, do not consider the entire counsel of God by investigating the whole Scripture. Well done

  • Christiana Horn

    Norm, you need to fix this so that when it is shared on Facebook, it shows what it really is.

  • Norm,
    I haven’t followed the facebook debate but I have read a few of your posts re Rom13. I’m still unclear where you stand on the State. Do you see that it was invented by men is only and always evil? Has God in fact only ordained two institutions: The church and the family? If the State is not ordained by God, how do you propose, for example, private property rights are administered? Private property is Biblical considering “The laborer is worthy of his wages” and “Thou shall not steal”. Call it what you want but some sort of institution must exist where some men are appointed to judge the affairs of other men (Dut 16:18-20). Would you agree?
    Your arguments against the State seem to be pragmatic. All states that have ever existed have perpetrated some evil, therefore, it can’t be ordained by God. But can you point to a perfect church? Or a perfect family? Maybe I’m attacking a straw man since I don’t know your stance.
    I am fully supportive of the view that Christ’s Kingdom is in our hearts and is not earthly. We should stop trying top-down reform as that is how the Devil structures his kingdom. But there is strong evidence, from the history of America, that supports the concept that when people properly apply the scriptures to their lives and to the way the State is structured that a non-tyrannical institution to govern the affairs of men can exist and will aid in a flourishing church, family, and economy. Christ invades our hearts and that is the wellspring of a fountain of light for the world. The candle in the window lights the house that lights the city that lights the world.
    Can you clarify your views on government? Is it instituted by God in any way? Does it have any role in God’s creation?

  • At Odds

    Yeah, whenever I discuss about how Christians and people in general should be against government and all that. Often times I get two responses. 1. They somehow get the idea that I’m talking about some violent insurrection and 2. they tell me that we should submit to the God ordained authority via Romans 13:1-2. Minus verse 3. When they bring up Romans 13:1-2, I often remind them of 3 because verse 3 and our current government do not match up at all. Our government does not put the fear in evildoers but good people. The only response I get is that they ignore what I said of verse 3. As for the insurrection misunderstanding (give them the benefit of the doubt), they get confused if we somehow divert the conversation to the 2nd Amendment. They somehow only see rebellion as violent action.

    It’s been interesting talking to various Christians with this view of Romans 13. Not all are of the same mindset. A lot of them are liberal who believe in peace at all cost. Yet, when it comes down to it, all they really are talking about is being peaceful as citizens but rely on the military/police state for the violence. Not realizing that the state is the reason to rebel. If no action is taken (non-violent), then the violence that is cause first and second hand by the state is going to get worst. Then, there are people like John MacArthur, who says no matter who it is even if it is Hitler or Lenin, be subject to them.

    Though, I understand and agree what Mr. Horn said about God’s Kingdom not of this world. But since they are proposing that we are to be subjected to a human government, my question to these folks would be what human government are we to be subjected to? The one that has the 1st and 2nd Amendments that is sort of a flawed contract with natural or higher law so that we can take out the command to subdue the Earth? Or, the one that bypasses any sort of contract with higher law and produces fiat laws including a monetary system. Which, ironically, a monetary system that is derived from an evolutionary thinking – “fiat” – something from nothing. Something that conservative pastors, like MacArthur, vehemently denounces.

  • Well written, I’m in agreement.

  • Floccina

    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.

    I had friend who argued that the governing authorities he was refering to where the church leaders. That is Apostles, Pastors, Deacons, bishops etc.

  • Floccina

    BTW the verse before Romans 13:1 is “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

    In that context it I think that submit is in order to overcome.

  • Ephraiyim

    here is a good article on Rom 13 that I have found useful in debates about this with other believers:
    I do not agree with everything on the site but his insight into this is pretty good.

  • Another great post Norman! I am always amazed at how many people will begin with Romans 13 and they fail to acknowledge Rom. 12.

  • So true. It often ends up that interpreters read Romans 13:1-7 as if it were in a total vacuum, then they end up justifying whatever particular state form they prefer — totally sickening. What’s bizarre is that you see even some of the BEST commentators doing exactly this, as though they just throw half their brain out the window.

  • Hi Scott, it’s nice to hear from you again! Let me attempt to answer your questions as clearly as I can…

    *Do you see that it was invented by men is only and always evil?* To the first point, yes the State is an invention of man. Is it only and always evil? There is a spectrum, of course, of less bad and more bad. However, the State is fundamentally aggressive — men must commit aggression in order for the State to come into existence, and men must commit aggression to continue its existence. If governance occurs by voluntary consent rather than aggression, then I would say that does not constitute “statism.” I admit this could be construed as a “by definition” argument — but the background of what I’m saying is that aggression is wrong whether committed by an individual or a group.

    *Has God in fact only ordained two institutions: The church and the family?* What I like to say here is that the “ordination” of the state is of a different “type” than the church and family. I describe this in more detail here:

    *If the State is not ordained by God, how do you propose, for example,
    private property rights are administered?* There is a lot of literature out there describing how property rights, law, etc. are administered much better in the absence of statism. For instance:
    Also, Ed Stringham’s book “Anarchy and the Law” is a great resource.

    Does that help? I have to run now…

  • Dennis F

    A couple of comments in response to your article:

    1. “A major problem we encounter in Romans 13 is the definition of “submission.””

    Submission entails two kinds of response to authority:

    Obey: actively comply with the commands of the authority;

    Defer: avoid activity that would interfere with achievement of the
    goals of the authority. That is, don’t do anything that would hinder
    what the authority is attempting to accomplish.

    Submission to worldly government therefore consists largely of
    non-interference (deference), though in the case of active obedience,
    it is an obedience to God’s law that coincides with what is acceptable
    to the ruler. In not violating such human laws, the Christian is not
    legitimizing their human source of authority but instead recognizes
    the legitimate origin of law as being from God. To maintain political
    stability, evil rulers often unwittingly uphold God’s law, though they
    do not recognize it as such. Though sometimes reflected in human
    law-making, all authoritative law for the Christian is given by God
    and not by those who write, pass, or decree laws as their own.

    2. “In the words of many of the the American founders, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.””

    This quote is taken from the ‏first proposal for a Seal of the United States which illustrates an event based on Exodus 14:19-27. The saying quoted on the seal has its origin not in any biblical text but is, in the words of Tupper Saussy (Rulers of Evil, 1999, p. 205) “the cornerstone of Bellarminian liberation theology.” The only Israelite shown to rule with a seal was Ahab, a wicked king, apparently appropriated from pagan tradition through his wife Jezebel. In contrast to such graven images (2 Timothy 2:19), “The foundation of God stands sure, having this seal: The Lord knows his own; and let Christ’s faithful depart from iniquity.” The Great Seal that was accepted for the U.S. was even worse, tracing back to Babylon. (See Saussy’s book for the details.)

  • Problem with people is when they fail to remember historical contexts or eschatology.Eschatology is end time beliefs.The apostles thought that Christ would return soon & the world would soon end soon. Paul knew that adversaries taught that Christians hailed Jesus king & would return.Enemies hailed this as a threat to Cesare(would Christ return with a army to cause war ?)Paul had to over emphasize obedience & respect because any sign that Christians were a threat could be dealt harshly. if Paul lived & preached in a liberal democracy,words 7 actions would be different

  • Paul Maitrejean

    A governing system obtains it power by one of two ways: Either it forces itself on the governed, or the governed submit to its rule. Jesus said that while the nations ruled it over each other, it would not be so in His kingdom. So for Paul to advocate submission to a coercive government would be contradictory to Jesus’ declaration. A legitimate authority, according to God’s standards, is one that derives its authority from the voluntary submission of the people, rather than one that demands fealty. The judges of ancient Israel are a good example of this.

    I also think it important to note that the word translated “governing” in “governing authorities” is the Greek huperecho, which indicates superiority in the sense of being excellent or good. So when Paul advocates submission in Romans 13, he is advocating submission to authorities that are good and excellent. Those who are not good or excellent are not of God, and thus are not owed our submission. Just realizing this case of mistranslation makes this whole passage become much clearer.

    I find it ironic that the passage statists constantly use in support of the State is in actuality a strong argument against it.

  • If aggression is always evil, then how can we justify the actions that established Israel after the exodus? Recall, God gave specific commandments to lay seige to towns. He even required that all property, livestock, and inhabitants be destroyed for certain locales. Is this not aggressive?

  • Just to be clear, you are coming at this as a Christian, correct?

    If so, then you would presumably believe that God does not do anything unjustly. Thus, when God punishes a nation, he is not committing aggression but meting out justice.

    Besides, it is well established that those who wished to leave evil nations and become part of the nation of Israel were always accepted. We can be confident that no one innocent was unjustly punished.

  • Michael Snow

    Remember that Paul wrote a letter, not chapters [these were added a thousand years later]. Read it in context:

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  • Andrew Patton

    That is true, but incomplete. It refers to both Church and State leaders. Our first duty is to obey God, and then to obey the authorities appointed over us, insofar as doing so does not conflict with our duty to God.

  • Andrew Patton

    You’re sidestepping the question. God did not rain down fire from Heaven upon those wicked nations, but rather ordained that they should be put to death by men, and likewise ordained that the judges should mete out the death penalty to them that are convicted of capital crimes. In short, God established Israel as a State, with all the powers attributed thereto: of making war and of law enforcement. This was in accordance with what He decreed in Genesis 9, that murderers should be put to death by men. Therefore, it is not the State as such that is rebellious, but rather men who ordain unholy things. The State itself is an agent of God’s wrath against them that do violence, and God will judge the agents of the State on how they wielded this authority. For this reason, Jesus said to Pilate, “You would have no authority over Me were it not given to you from above.”

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  • Wesley

    the key to the 13th chapter of Romans is the end of the 12th chapter.

    Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore
    “If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    If he is thirsty, give him a drink;
    For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.”
    Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:19-21
    St. Paul continues into what is known as the 13th chapter telling the Roman church how God was going to accomplish his vengeance.