In his epistle to the Romans, consistent with his letter to Titus (v 3:1) and in his first of two to Timothy (v 2:1-2), and of one accord in the Spirit with Peter in his first letter to God's 'elect' (v 2:13-14), the Apostle Paul writes on a timely topic:
"Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same. For he is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject not only because of wrath but also for conscience's sake. For because of this you also pay taxes for they are God's ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor." Romans 13:1-7
Paul wrote to the 'beloved of God, called saints' (v 1:7), followers of 'The Way' in Rome. In contrast to his other letters, this one was not to a particular church (i.e., 'the church at Rome'), of which there were likely many. Whatever his intent, this preempted misunderstanding that he might have meant it only for the denominational sect who took that very name centuries later. Rather, he wrote to all disciples of Jesus. And by Divine preservation in the Cannon, his correspondence was to us here and now.
At the time of his letter, 57 or 58AD, the Apostle had not yet visited Rome. He had learned of their mutual faith not from them, but through the testimony of others (v 1:8)! Yet in his concluding paragraphs it is obvious that they knew many people in common. While he did not necessarily respond to specific questions or problems of theirs, he was not unfamiliar with their situation hence he wrote on multiple topics. Unlike in Judea and across Asia Minor, Paul also knew these disciples, many of them Jews gathered from throughout the Empire likely since the first Pentecost in Jerusalem some 25 years prior, had no shepherding fathers-in-the-faith. Peter, whom Paul would have acknowledged, quite clearly was not in Rome. Hence Paul greatly desired to write so as to 'impart a spiritual gift that they would be established' (v 1:11). That gift is the exposition of the Gospel. For by it they had received salvation from sin, as well as from God's judgment upon it and all who practice it, through repentance and faith in Jesus (v 1:15-17), the promise God extended to every person, Jew and Gentile alike (v 3:29-30).
Having fully expounded that Gospel in the first half of his letter, Paul writes at length of the righteous characteristics exhibited in lives since transformed by God's grace through faith (v 12:1-15:13). This includes our proof text (v 13:1-7). For in his other writings, Paul reveals that the disciples' transformation also involves a translation - we are literally removed from the kingdom of this present darkness and placed as sons and daughters into God's kingdom. However, although the believer's citizenship is in heaven, while we remain on earth, we are admonished to be subject to - and not in any way to ignore or disdain - institutions and ordinances of civil government. So Paul dispenses with heresy promulgating false separations of what are considered sacred (spiritual) from secular (physical). Everything is spiritual or has spiritual context. In other words, Paul argues that though we are spiritual beings we are to be subject to earthly institutions.
Some contend that Paul wrote this text to allay external fears that Jesus' followers were subversives or that he intended to demand that Christians conform to civil standards so as to countermand the Jews' salacious assertion that this sect had 'turned the world upside-down'. Clearly his letter was to no audience external to the churches regardless of their concerns. Nor is there evidence that the disturbances and riots the Jews had caused throughout the eastern empire so as to invoke imperial wrath to crush 'The Way' had been brought by them into Rome. And the careful reader will understand that the Gospel caused its adherents to first turn their own lives inside out in order to point the world right-side up. These contentions are therefore groundless.
Paul wrote to Romans under the rule of Nero, arguably the most despotic of the emperors. Even casual perusal of Nero's biography, however, reveals that he came to the throne at age 17 and was but a youth of 20 or 21 when this epistle was penned. It would further show that under his guardian's direction, Nero performed acts beneficial to the empire and viewed himself more an artist than aristocrat. His true reign of terror, perhaps caused by madness hardened from prolonged debauchery, did not fully evidence itself until 62-64 AD, culminating with the burning of Rome, a scant 1 or 2 years prior to Paul's martyrdom reportedly at his hand. Rather, it was shortly after writing this epistle that Paul appealed as a Roman citizen to Caesar's personal judgment in vindicating his defense against the Jews' false charges. From that point on he was under Roman arrest and his destiny set. It is ridiculous to consider that Paul would have appealed for fair trial to one known to be criminally insane - so much so that he would, within 3 years afterward, commit suicide rather than be murdered by people united against him in rebellion. Our text then has been a favorite passage of all who would require every Christian always to fully yield to the direst of tyrannies having become the source of doctrine known as the 'Divine Right of Kings'. So invoking a tyrant's reputation to promote total submission under every arbitrary absolute power is deceitful and self-serving.
At the outset it is critical to realize that Paul does not specify, thus God does not require or favor, any particular form of government, whether democracy, republic, aristocracy or monarchy, for any nation or empire. Nor does Nature demand one over another. Rather, governments are designed and implemented - or at least allowed to continue in force - by the people whom they govern. They come about as a product of human reason and action; or its opposite. Its authorities are then appointed by means commensurate with their form and then vested pursuant to their function. What is vital to note: once established, God adopts such governance as if it were His own (v 13:1-2, 4).
As to whichever government is constituted in a particular circumstance, Paul outlines what are to be its purpose, boundaries, and limitations.
While many today debate the purpose of government, Paul states that those in authority are so placed to do good, that is, bring benefit, praising those that do good, and delivering wrath to evil-doers - those that perform mischief and cause harm (v 13:3-4). Though other functions might be instilled, or may be developed in support of this purpose, all must accomplish this minimum goal to be legitimate. Whatever else a particular government might undertake, its results must be weighed against this standard. In execution of that purpose, God ordains use of the sword for enforcement. This encompasses both corporal as well as capital penalties for evil-doers. No other purposes are authorized or required of civil government; its jurisdiction and role are thus codified.
Now the basis upon which doers of good are differentiated from evil-doers is behavior in specific circumstance. This confines authority to exercise itself in the realm only of actions and consequences. Thought and speech, regardless of content, are to be exempt from external restraint. Further, authority is bounded to respect every individual as fully accountable and solely responsible for their own actions, regardless of provocation. Similarly, authority is corrective, not preventive; it is precluded from administering correction in advance of evil behavior based upon mere supposition. Finally, consistent with human nature, correction is to be punitive, never rehabilitative, thus use of the sword must not only deter evil but recompense and therefore eliminate it.
Paul's main argument is this: people subject to their inner constraints require little to no need of external constraints, and vice versa.
Authority must have a stable framework for its exercise. That framework is the law. Without written law, whether applied internally by people unto themselves or externally upon others, transgression cannot be addressed. Law must be established in advance of behaviors they are to govern; for this reason ex post facto laws are illegitimate. The law does not bring about evil nor is it evil in itself; rather, it exposes evil. The law is good but is powerless to make people do good; at best its adherents can only experience self-righteousness. Hence, good behavior does not invalidate the law; it fulfills the law.
Law must isolate evil behavior. To do so it must be based on a moral code; i.e., a discrimination between right and wrong. Morality, in turn, requires a source. There are but three choices: people under law, the ministers of that law, or a Power above both.
The people as well as the ministers can dictate law. But each would do so in their own self-interests - which would necessarily conflict - based upon their own morality. Those moralities would be as fluid and dynamic as the composition - and most likely as the majority - of each group changed. Such situational morality being relative would prove unstable and unpredictable, rendering it ineffective as a legal foundation. A house divided cannot stand.
A further complication of vesting the authorities with determining morality establishes a conflict of interest, one that would guarantee their aggregation of power to themselves without restraint and therefore without limit. Authorities so vested as morality's keeper could lead people anywhere for any purpose.
The third choice as the source of morality undergirding the law is a higher Power, one above both the authorities and the people governed. Some look to an international or a supranational body as this Power. However, this would be no different than the previous case with equally disastrous results. Rather, a free society can only exist within a framework of law based on an absolute morality; ageless, changeless, perfect. Only one Power is capable of providing that, He of whom Paul wrote. God is the only legitimate source of morality.
Paul states that the limitation of all government is at once its end: the clear conscience of those who do good (v 13:5). In other words, government must enact laws that when obeyed result in the support of those doing good as God defines it. Clear conscience comes not from obedience itself, but from the good that results. The reason for that is clear: obeying any law is equivalent to obeying the moral code supporting it; obeying any moral code is tantamount to obeying its provider.
While fear may spark minimal, begrudging compliance, Paul calls the Christian to obey laws to maintain conscience free of guilt. There is nothing taught by Christ - or Paul - that can legitimately be made illegal. However, only individuals whose conscience is ingrained with and attuned to the underlying moral code (good) can discern legitimate from illegitimate law - whether they be making, executing, or deciding cases of law, or in simply obeying them. It follows, then, that obedience to any law resulting in violation of the moral individual's conscience is illegitimate. Likewise any authority forcing the moral individual to obey illegitimate law is immoral.
Now to the crux of Paul's revelation: God establishes all authority including that of every civil government (v 13:1-2). There is no authority apart from God; that is, no agent whether moral or immoral, can wield authority without the direct authorization of God. In His sovereignty, God decides which earthly powers rise and which fall, when and how, down to the specific appointments.
Why then, would God, who is always good, sanction immoral governments that produce illegitimate laws? Though not His purpose, God has allowed evil into the world for one reason: to preserve our free will. He created men, not robots, for fellowship. He had to give us a choice: good or evil. God uses the nations at His sole discretion to reward those who do good as well as to punish those who do evil. He holds every nation fully accountable to the consequences of their moral choices, whether blessing or cursing.
Paul also bounds the alternative condition: whosoever resists the authority resists God and so brings judgment on themselves (v 13:2). Those who resist, withstand or oppose the established civil authority are subject to His judgment, that is, punishment unto damnation. God always stands against the rebel.
Here we find an apparent dilemma for the moral individual under illegitimate law: God's approval in a clear conscience requires disobedience but resistance brings God's judgment! The dilemma, however, is only apparent because the choice, though at times seemingly very real, is a false one for two reasons.
First, moral individuals should have done all in their power to avoid falling under or to at least having corrected an immoral authority before reaching such a condition of extremis. This, however, is not always possible. Nevertheless every moral individual has the responsibility to implement each and every means within their legal authority to choose and maintain a moral government. History notes that those who have failed to do so have been required to pay dearly. The worst enemy of a free society is more often than not its domestic authority. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance - of ourselves first, then all whom we would make into authorities over us.
What about those moral individuals inextricably under the boot of an immoral government, particularly through no fault of their own, and with no ability to escape? There are some who advocate rebellion by moral individuals against an immoral government, or at least against one that enforces illegitimate laws. They base this advocacy on several premises. First, they hold that such an authority is the one in rebellion against God's people and therefore against God Himself. As a result, opposition would not be contrary to God's will but the fulfilling of it. They argue that the end result of such a government is always evil and indeed it is; that the thefts, murders and destructions which ensue do the work of Satan and that the moral individual's primary responsibility to himself as well as to others and to God is to resist him, his workers and his works. Similarly, since the First Law of Nature is self-defense, a right to which every creature is entitled and has been since before the formation of any civil government, then opposition to such a government is a God-given right. Their argument ultimately hinges upon the assumption as to Paul's logic: by stating only the positive aspect of obedience to the good, he was requiring our inference that opposition to evil was understood, expected and sanctioned. However, his words, which the Christian believes to be the complete, inerrant Word of God, do not say that. Opposition, even in self-defense, therefore risks God's judgment.
Second, there is another alternative to resolve this apparent dilemma: moral individuals can appeal to God for their deliverance from oppression. The question is, will they? Will they recognize their predicament in time to take action? Will they seek Him through repentance and humility until His pity is aroused to action? But now we are brought by God full circle! For wasn't that to have been the initial basis for the establishment of the government in the first place? Only a moral God can produce a moral government and it is up to moral people to request it, receive it and maintain it. The bold reality: if they fail to do so God will not automatically deliver them from their own choices.
Every moral individual under an immoral government will sooner or later be faced with obeying - or not - an illegitimate law. In such cases Scripture is clear: it is better to obey God than men. Paul demonstrated throughout his writings that maintaining a clear conscience was critical to keeping the faith! Everyone named a 'saint' must therefore continually evaluate every law. Cases of disobedience even to maintain a clear conscience, however, will at least initially be specific and individual, and in no way constitute opposition to or rebellion against the governing authorities. Nevertheless, there will be consequences and those God may or may not choose to mitigate.
The first and most commonly exercised consequence of such disobedience is persecution. The Lord told the disciples repeatedly that they were not greater than He and that they were guaranteed to experience shame for association with Him. Those who seek to live moral lives, particularly as society grows increasingly immoral, will be singled out and ridiculed, ostracized, and denigrated for their faith. Jesus said blessed are you who suffer for Him.
The second stage of consequence is prosecution. As laws become increasingly illegitimate, they become a tool of immoral government to not only preclude good behavior but to promote what is evil. Literally, what is evil is called good, what is good, evil. The consequence for disobedience of illegitimate law is most often forfeiture of property and liberty, often as examples to any who do not compromise their integrity and conform to the new status quo.
The final stage of consequence for disobedience is the most severe: execution. Save for all those who have made themselves devoid of conscience, the immoral find the very existence of the moral brings them jealousy, shame and guilt until it cannot be borne. While the moral need never enforce morality by violence, the immoral have no such restraint enforcing immorality. Morality need never be propagated by violence, but both passive and aggressive violence are choice methods for propagating immorality. History has repeatedly proven that immoral governments ultimately dissolve under reigns of self-destruction.
The defining battle of western civilization since Magna Carta has raged over the balance between government and individual liberties. 'Rex Lex' - the king is the law; men rule men or 'Lex Rex' - the law rules the king and all men. That these two are at the extreme ends of human existence since its beginning is without question. After 800 years, the former ruling principle is once again in the ascendency, particularly in the United States, the latter now verging on extinction. What has become the increasingly pressing and urgent question is what should the moral, that is Christian, citizen under an immoral government do based on God's word. This paper has attempted to address that thought with practical reasoning and suggested course of action.
Many look for solutions in the political, economic, or social realms as these all manifest this conflict. These efforts are doomed to fail because the conflict is a clash of world views which have at their core radically opposing moral codes. In other words, the conflict between government and individual liberties is a spiritual battle, not between flesh and blood, but between principalities and powers: God on one side, the Ruler of this world on the other, mankind betwixt.
What, then, can the Christian do in an increasingly unchristian world? First, hold fast the world view - the truth - God has revealed; confidently repudiate the lies required to prop up a godless universe. Second, purpose to maintain a clear conscience to keep the faith. Third, separate where possible from immoral government and/or illegitimate law; seek to establish and exercise religious freedom which cannot exist in the absence of civil liberty. Fourth, where it is not possible to separate, implement all lawful and peaceable means of creating or at least maintaining a moral government and precluding the enactment of illegitimate law. Fifth, and most important, call upon the Lord fervently and with a pure heart that He would intervene. Sixth, choose wisely which law(s) if any to disobey, never seeking opposition in the collective or vindication, let alone revenge, personally. Seventh, prepare to accept the consequences of disobedience with gladness and perseverance, always ready to help others who likewise become partakers with us, that we might together receive our Crown.