Romans 13: Exegesis and Application (Specifically to those living in a Representative Republic)

One of the candidates currently running for governor has repeatedly used the Bible, mainly Romans 13, to insist that citizens, especially Christians, must always submit to government – even when that government is mandating evils such as the murder of the unborn by means of abortion.  To be fair, he is not the only person who has made this claim. The argument generally goes something like this: “The Bible says we must submit to government, so when the state government, federal government, or the U.S. Supreme Court speaks, we have no choice but to submit and it is a sin not to do so.”

Sadly, politicians and, regrettably, many preachers/pastors have been shackling the people for years with this flawed interpretation of Rom 13 – especially as it applies to the form of government we have in these United States.  Consequently, the people have generally come to believe that they would be sinning if they ever defied the government, no matter how evil it may have become. They mistakenly believe that they, especially if they are Christians, owe slavish, unlimited submission to all authorities.  Is this actually what Paul was teaching in Rom 13?

Oddly enough, the Bible actually provides numerous examples of committed believers not only defying governmental authority but also receiving the approval of God in the process.  Consider these examples:

  • The Hebrew midwives defying the command of Pharaoh by saving the Jewish baby boys – including Moses’s parents saving him (Ex 1:15-21, 2:1-10)
  • Moses refusing Pharaoh and siding with the Jews (Heb 11:27)
  • Queen Esther approaching the king uninvited in order to save the Jewish people from annihilation (Est 4:10-16)
  • Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego refusing to bow to the golden image of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:1-23)
  • Daniel defying the king by refusing to stop praying to the God of Israel (Daniel 6:1-13)
  • Jesus refusing to abide by the Jewish Sabbath laws (Matt 12:1-14, Jn 18:31)
  • The apostles and early Christians refusing to stop preaching the Gospel (Acts 5:27-29, 12:1-4, 16:19-24)
  • Believers throughout the ages defying ungodly authorities (Heb 11:35-38)

Even more perplexing, I have heard many of the same preachers and politicians who believe that Rom 13 requires unlimited submission, applaud the above- mentioned biblical heroes for their courage to defy the evil authorities of their day – and I suspect that some of my competitors running for governor have done the same.  But how do they justify this apparent contradiction in their thinking? Obviously, they cannot have it both ways – either the Bible requires unlimited submission to governmental authority, thus making the likes of Daniel and the apostles sinful rebels, or there must be something wrong with the generally accepted unlimited submission understanding of passages like Rom 13.

So, were men like Daniel sinning when they defied the evil authorities of their day?  Certainly the Bible does not condemn them. Was Jesus sinning when He defied Jewish laws, laws that were just as authoritative as those of the Romans?  Of course not – at least not if He was the sinless Son of God.  To even suggest that Jesus sinned is itself heresy.  (Passages such as 2 Cor 5:21, Heb 4:15, 9:14, and 1 Pet 1:19, among others, clearly teach that Jesus was sinless.)  There must be some reasonable way to make sense out of what appears to be a glaring contradiction in God’s Word.

The solution must begin with our admission that the ways of God are beyond our limited ability to completely understand.  The book of Isaiah actually says this:

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.”  (Is 55:8-9, NKJV)

God sometimes works in ways that baffle the wisest among us.  Although He never contradicts Himself or acts against His own holy nature, He does, at times, use evil men and disasters to further His eternal plan – though He may not have elevated those men to their lofty positions or have caused those disasters to occur.  The honest fact is God sometimes allows evil men and governments to rule and good people to sometimes suffer in the process. In the midst of this, God promises to care for those who love and serve Him – regardless of whether we understand it. The ways of God are often mystical to us at best.  

Footnotes:
1. Jefferson, Thomas, Kentucky Resolution, 1798.
2. Washington, George, “Farwell Address, Sept. 19, 1796,” University of Virginia, The Washington Papers, http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/documents_gw/farewell/transcript.html
3. John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856), Vol. 9. Chapter: To the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts.
4. Franklin, Benjamin, The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. 9, (Macmillan, 1906), p. 569, Letter: To Messrs. The Abbes Chalut and Arnaud, Philadelphia, April 1787.
5. Baldwin, Alice M. The New England Clergy and the American Revolution. (New York: F. Ungar Pub., 1958, chapter 12, p. 169.
6. Lathrop, Joseph, “A Sermon On A Day Appointed For Publick Thanksgiving,” Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era: 1730-1805, 2 vols, Foreword by Ellis Sandoz (2nd ed. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998). Vol. 1. Chapter: 29.
7. Goodrich, Elizur, “The Principles of Civil Union and Happiness Considered and Recommended,” preached in Hartford, CN, 1787, Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era: 1730-1805, 2 vols, Foreword by Ellis Sandoz (2nd ed. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998). Vol. 1.
8. Mayhew, Jonathan, 1749-50 multi-discourse sermon, “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission And Non-Resistance To The Higher Powers”, Thornton, John Wingate (1860). The pulpit of the American revolution: Or, The political sermons of the period of 1776 With a historical introduction, notes, and illustrations (Boston: Gould and Lincoln), pp. 39-104.
9. West, Samuel, election sermon, “Discourse VI,” preached to the Massachusetts Legislature in Boston, MA, on May 29, 1776, Thornton, John Wingate (1860). The pulpit of the American revolution: Or, The political sermons of the period of 1776 With a historical introduction, notes, and illustrations (Boston: Gould and Lincoln), pp 259-322.