Understanding Romans 13
Many professing Christians over the centuries have supported, participated in, and helped to enable the kingdoms of this world to carry out deeds that are antithetical to the purposes of the Kingdom of God. Because of the misuse of Paul’s words in Romans 13:1-7, many professing Christians have trusted more in the political power of the State than they have the power of Christ through his churches. What is the State? It is not merely an institution of social service as some claim, it is the systemization of control over a given territory and the people within that territory. The State does not produce and provide, it takes the production of others through coercive measures, convinces them it is for their own good, and then uses the people for its own interests. It survives by exploiting and using violence against the people. God’s legitimate authority structures are undermined by the State, and in some cases attacked.
The Bible depicts the rulers and kingdoms of this world as being hostile to God (Psalm 2). Knowing this, and knowing the pain and misery that rulers and Heads of State have heaped upon earthly citizens, including Christians, and in some instances specifically Christians, and that they have been far from agents of “good” (even in Paul’s day as he wrote this), we must interpret Paul’s words accordingly. If Paul was making the claim that we are required to submit to State officials and policies, as some claim, this means that the Egyptian midwives should have obeyed Pharaoh and killed all the Hebrew males at their birth, that Rahab should not have hidden the Hebrew spies from the city officials that were looking for them, that the apostles should have stopped preaching that Jesus Christ is Lord, that German Christians were obligated to participate in the holocaust, and that today’s Christians are obligated to yield to the State when it comes to the murder of humans in the womb, war, injustices, the definition of marriage, the forced redistribution of wages, and more. In the first three biblical examples, we see God specifically bless the individuals because of their actions – actions that defied State authority.
Though statists have done so, it is a mistake to take this passage to mean that God has placed all earthly rulers such as Kings, Emperors, Presidents, or State governing bodies into their positions, and that we are obligated to obey them. The people of Israel rejected liberty under God and demanded a King to rule over them. God told his prophet that the people had rejected him, then he told the people about the suffering they would endure under an earthly ruler (1 Samuel 8). Submission to a totalitarian State was not God’s will for his people. There is legitimate authority that has been ordained by God, or higher powers, such as family authority, Church authority, and civil authority that follows God’s moral principles, and we are to submit to these. Nowhere in the Bible are we told that we are to cede any of these to an illegitimate authority such as a Nebuchadnezzar, a Pharaoh, a Caesar, or an authoritarian State.