Romans 13:1-2 states: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.” (Source: NRSV)
This passage of Scripture has been pulled out recently by certain pastors to defend the policies of the current administration. These same pastors wouldn’t have been caught dead citing this same passage of Scripture four years ago when another administration was in office and implementing policies that they don’t like or agree with.
Romans 13:1-2 isn’t a biblical excuse for government to do whatever it wants to do. Romans 13:1-2 isn’t a kind of godly blank check or a get out of free jail card. When Romans 13:1-2 is used in this way, it turns from the Word of God into a weapon that is used to attempt to destroy or silence people. It is nothing more than a proof-text designed to support one’s beliefs, instead of God’s Word designed to change us and bring about the Kingdom of God. When Scripture is abused in this way, it becomes a tool for humans in an attempt to control God and what God is allowed to talk about, rather than God’s Word designed to bring us into alignment with the unfolding of God’s kingdom.
Romans 13:1-2 only makes sense when it is read in context with Romans 12 and with the entirety of what Paul is writing to Christians in Rome. Here’s the context – Paul is writing this letter to Christians who live at the very heart of the Roman empire – the capitol. It is dangerous for these Christians to openly practice their faith in the heart of an empire that doesn’t welcome the Christian God (to put it mildly). Following Jesus in the heart of the empire meant rejecting the Roman gods and the Roman culture. It meant declaring that Jesus was Lord and Caesar was not – right in the heart of the empire none the less. This would have very real consequences for followers of Jesus. It would impact what work they could do, if they could obtain food and/or housing, how they were seen in society and who they interacted with.
It was most likely that Nero was the Roman emperor when Paul writes this letter. (The other possibility was Claudius, who was not much better – he forced Jews to leave Rome around 50 CE). If you know anything about Nero, it should be this – he was an anti-Christ figure, as most caesars were. He lived his life in complete opposition to everything that the Gospel of Jesus stood for and what Paul wrote about in his letter to the Roman church. Nero was selfish (most likely a narcissist), sexually abusive and exploitive, greedy, and violent (Historians agree that he killed his mother and his first wife. Historians are split on whether he killed his second wife) and more. The Christians of Rome would feel Nero’s wrath in the 60’s when Nero would blame Christians for the burning of Rome, and a year later he would have Paul executed.
When we look at Romans 12:9-21, we read Paul’s words that come immediately before Romans 13:1-2. Romans 12:9-21 sets the stage for the meaning of Romans 13:1-2. Here’s what he wrote:
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
When you read these passages you start to understand the context of Romans 13:1-2 differently. Paul isn’t arguing that we have unquestioning allegiance and loyalty to the government. Instead, Paul has just written a couple of paragraphs on how we are to live as Christians. Paul isn’t arguing that the Roman government is worthy of being obeyed because everything they do is godly. Rather he is arguing that the way of Christ is not to fight so that one side wins and one side loses, but rather to live differently so that all sides may be freed from the bondage of violence and death and sin. Paul is arguing to live a Christian life, in defiance to the Roman way of living, and to accept whatever punishment they deal out for living as a disciple of Jesus. Paul would embody this himself in his imprisonments and ultimately his own death.
Connect what Paul writes “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all,” in Romans 12:17, to what he writes just a few sentences later in Romans 13:1-2, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.”
Romans 13:1-2 has been used and abused as a weapon for governmental abuses and injustice for centuries. The problem with the argument that we are to obey the government no matter what is that this argument falls apart rather quickly when it is applied to specific situations of history.
I have a specific question to pastors who use Romans 13:1-2 in this way – Using your line of reasoning, should the US have been at war with Nazi Germany? Everything the Nazi’s did was legal, they passed laws. Would you argue that the Nazis and Hitler were ordained by God? They were the legal authorities of Germany. Should we have gotten in their way on their quest to dominate the world, and kill those who were impure?
Was Martin Luther King, Jr. wrong when he did illegal activities (was arrested for breaking the law) in his effort to have civil rights laws changed? After all, he did things that resisted authorities that had been instituted by God, supposedly.
Was it wrong for people to assist slaves in going to freedom from the South prior to and during the Civil War (before the Emancipation Proclamation)? There were laws that stated that anyone who assisted a slave, instead of turning them in, was breaking the law.
In short, using Romans 13:1-2 as a weapon to silence dissent over unjust policies is irresponsible for a pastor, is poor exegetical analysis, and is a misuse of Scripture.