Romans 13 and Unjust Government

For a while I’ve been struggling to understand Romans 13:

13 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.Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

A casual reading of it seems to say that we simply submit to the authorities above us, and indeed verse 2 says, “The authorities that exist have been established by God” and verse 4 even says, “… for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason”.

I’ve struggled with this because governments have so often been unjust. I’ll even ignore what I perceive to be injustices in our own government for the moment, and instead focus on a far more dramatic example: Nazi Germany.

Nazi Germany was clearly an unjust government in nearly every fashion. The atrocities committed need not be detailed here, as I’m sure that we are all aware. But, according to the passage in question, Hitler was established by God, whoever rebelled against him was rebelling against God, and that he didn’t bear the sword for no reason. Naturally, I find this concept rather hard to accept. I suppose it could be argued that the unjust government must be submitted to so long as it isn’t requiring you to renounce or go against your faith, as this passage is usually interpreted. However, what should be do about verse 2? Are evil rulers really established by God? Were the evil rulers of Nazi Germany “…God’s servant for [our] good?”

When Romans was written, Nero was emperor of Rome, and he persecuted Christians ruthlessly. So was he bearing the sword justly in persecuting Christians? Surely not.

What about a Christian that unwittingly finds themselves in the midst of a revolution? Which government do they submit to, the old or the new?

Now, I am by no means a biblical scholar, and I have no formal training in this area at all. I’m merely sharing my thoughts on the subject, so please feel free to disagree, but I can’t help but think that the principle here is not blind submission. Instead, it seems to me that Paul could be making a more general statement, not an absolutist one. Could Paul be saying that we should submit to government as long as it doesn’t violate our conscience (v. 5)?

I don’t have answers to these questions. I bring them up to provoke deeper thought. Feel free to share any thoughts you may have.

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3 responses to “Romans 13 and Unjust Government”

  1. The Dandler says :

    I believe Paul meant it unequivocally. There are a few subjects to consider. NOTHING is black and white, especially God. I’ll try to keep it simple. I probably wont succeed.

    1) God always and un-apologetically takes responsibility for good and evil. In Isaiah, he declares that he created both good and evil, and that basically, since He’s like 6 trillion times smarter than we are, we should accept this. A father’s “because I said so” response might make sense here. God is not just an anthropomorphism. He is the permeating force and mind that sustains the whole Universe and controls all things and is moving all things towards a final end. The scriptures in the Old Testament say He establishes all nations and leaders, exalting those men He wishes to and destroying those men who have finished serving His purposes. Look at Pharaoh in Egypt. “For this purpose, you were raised up, that I might display my power.” He also SIMULTANEOUSLY raised up Assyria and Babylon to be a vessel of punishment against Israel and yet promises to punish those very same empires for what they do to His people. (Insert questions here about how God could justify making someone do something and then punishing them for it.)

    But there’s more

    2) God is always, always good – and it is constantly stated that He does not delight in evil, nor does He make people DO evil EVEN THOUGH He’s responsible for it. So this is significant, because these seemingly contradictory statements are often written by the same writer/prophet.

    So how is this great Mind both the creator of evil and yet not one who makes persons do evil? Free will is the only logical bridge. By virtue of creating an environment where free will exists both for the angels and for humans, He creates the possibility for evil – and since evil came about, the “fault” lies with God ultimately. He takes responsibility. But He allows free will because it is the greatest good and the greatest reflection within the created realm (both spiritual and physical) of His character and will. He thinks it’s worth the evil that comes by it. In fact, since free will is the only way it could have been, since it is the way God made it (and everything He does is exactly how it should be), then evil has to exist for the greatest good to be done.It literally could not have happened any other way. And so, He allows evil because only He can make all things right IN THE END, and pay back everyone and everything whatever was lost because of evil.

    A theologian once said, God can kill because only God can bring the very people He kills back from the dead. And He’ll do just that. Consider death only a temporary inconvenience…

    So yes, God allowed and empowered Hitler, Stalin, Assyria, Babylon, the Caesars and He declared the boundaries of their nations and their tyranny. And yet the Devil was also at work within them, wreaking havoc and destroying the innocent. The power and authority that went amok ultimately led to God destroying them and replacing them, but He deemed it worth keeping them there for a time for His purposes to be accomplished, for the greater good. Some say the greatest good that came out of the Holocaust was that the Jews who survived regained their land and country after almost 2,000 years and that the prophecies were being fulfilled because of it. I could see this. Yes, it took extraordinary evil to accomplish it – evil that God did not do, or make anyone do, or delight in. But God allowed it and used it (flipped it) for the greater good, and promises to exact justice: both to bring back to life the dead and to do to those who committed the evil exactly what was done to their victims. And this is why we can say that God is responsible for establishing every authority, good or evil, that exists on earth. If the authority runs amok, we need not rebel, only know that God will destroy it when their time is up.

    I contend that ideally, the governments of the earth exist to restrain evil and punish wrong doing – for example, in Rome, all traitors, thieves, murderers, etc., were punished by their laws. And this is good. And this is from God, not from the Devil (who would never encourage justice for wrongdoing). And yet, many laws were unjust and were punishments for doing good. This could not have been from God. And so you have a government, given “the sword” for the purpose of punishing evil, which has, in some ways, run amok and is using the sword for punishing good. Both can, in a society, happen simultaneously. In other passages, Paul actually talks about allowing ourselves to suffer and be punished for doing good, because this is to our credit, rather than suffering under the law for actual crimes. I think in this way we submit to the government in ALL ways: in ways that it expresses the will of God “Don’t do evil…or else” we submit and be good citizens, following and submitting tot he laws themselves. In ways that it does not express the will of God “Dont’ be a Christian…or else” we submit to the punishment decreed by the government for breaking the law. We allow ourselves (rather than resisting) to receive the punishment the government doles out. And we do so with the knowledge that God will take vengeance on the government for weilding the sword in an unjust manner.

    Anyways, yeah. I knew I’d rant for a long time….see? I told you it’s not a black and white answer.

  2. The Existential Christian says :

    Wow, that was great! I don’t think I have anything to add except… Amen!

  3. Johnd360 says :

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