With the political manipulation of the Covid virus we have heard much mention of Romans 13, particularly the first ten verses. With a few welcome exceptions, the explanations lack a strong exegesis, a solid conclusion and a practical application.
The most simplistic version sounds something like this: “God established government and ordains all government officials regardless of their claim to authority and the rightness of their decrees”. This is an appeal to deism that dwarfs the deism that is often (and largely falsely) attributed to America’s founders. It sets humans above God’s Word and leaves little earthly hope for the subjects of tyrants. And of course it ignores the point of the text: that ALL are subject to God’s authority, which would include government officials.
Recognizing the rank humanism of this approach, some attempt to take the edge off by suggesting that God has commanded us to obey anyone who claims power in every order except one that commands us to specifically commit sin. Curiously, the definition of sin has recently been set to accommodate the closing of churches for weeks on end, but that’s for another discussion. Have to move out of your lifelong home because the taxes have risen to half your income? Too bad, that must be what God ordained, because the godless school board decreed it. “I don’t drink, smoke, dance, or play cards, as long as they don’t order me to do those things I’ll obey”. Sad.
There are some other minor variations, but have you noticed that each one leaves us stuck with no clear definition or path of action or solid option of how to deal with tyranny? Dietrich Bonhoeffer dealt with this in Nazi Germany, when the church almost unanimously used these poor interpretations of Romans 13 and other passages to advocate submission to the Nazi regime, and to detract from his valiant pleas for people to oppose the Nazi government. Their churches must have been as comfortable as ours. German Bishop Joachim Hossenfelder preached Romans 13 as a proof text for uniting the German church under Hitler. Here you can see recorded footage of one of his meetings.
“The Apostle Paul teaches us in Romans 13 that we should always obey the government”. Really? The Apostle Paul wrote Romans 13 while he was in prison. So much for that. The problem here is rather simple. It is that the Romans passage as well as a few others are taken out of context and used as proof texts to justify inaction and submission to tyranny. The context is the entire Bible, which chronicles many positive examples of God’s people acting in disobedience to ungodly governments.
The examples are numerous, but let’s focus on one that is most familiar as well as delightful: Hebrews 11, the “Hall of Faith”. Read the entire chapter for context; for brevity we will focus on the most applicable verses.
[Heb 11:23-27 KJV] By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid three months of his parents, because they saw [he was] a proper child; and they were not afraid of the king’s commandment. By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward. By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible.
[Heb 11:31 KJV] By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace.
Notice that Moses, his parents, the Hebrew midwives, as well as Rahab are all specifically given to us as examples of Godliness and faith because they disobeyed, and deceived godless magistrates.
To address the claim that we should obey as long as an order does not specifically require us to sin, consider Daniel. He could easily have avoided offending the King’s decree by closing his window and continuing to pray. No sin there. But God blessed him greatly for his open defiance of continuing to pray in full view, an act obviously designed to make the statement that the King had no legitimate authority to issue the decree that he did.
History bears out the legitimacy of this biblical practice of defying tyrants. The Bible supports it. So let’s be done with the poorly exegeted sermons on Romans 13, and be wise and discerning regarding ungodly laws or decrees from ungodly politicians and tyrants.
– Jim Mogel