Romans 13:1-5 is trotted out in many churches for patriotic occasions, to remind us to submit to our government:
1Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
It’s easy enough to submit to our government; despite the views of the few, it is generally a great place to live and be free. But clearly the United States is an exception; most governments are tyrannies, petty, and great. So why should a Christian be so deferential to government, and why would God allow tyrannies?
The late John Howard Yoder, has one answer. Yoder, a Mennonite, was a pacifist who based his views on Christ Jesus. In his seminal work, The Politics of Jesus, Yoder argued that Christians owe allegiance only to the Kingdom of God through Christ, and not to any worldly power. His thesis is that Romans 13 was a redaction of Paul’s original epistle to the Romans, added to be pleasing to the then-all powerful Roman empire. Or, if not pleasing, at least not threatening of Caeser’s authority.
Yoder is supported in Scripture by Acts 5:29:
But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”
Yoder’s perspective is one of a principled pacifist, who resists our government’s call to arms. That is is his right in a free society. He mightn’t have been so lucky under the ancient Romans.
Yoder wrote to justify not serving in America’s wars. It’s nice he had the luxury of others willing to serve, and die, in defense of his right to be principled. He was wrong, and selfish. I think we must accept Romans 13 at its face value, since it is supported rather well elsewhere, for instance Paul’s letter to the Collosians, Chapter 1:
6 For by him [Christ] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him.
This is plain enough. God instituted governments, not all of them good. To say the least. But then, Christians should know that we were not put on this earth to be entertained or coddled. We suffer often, usually in fact, in solidarity with the Christ. So are we really prepared to think that God somehow doesn’t know what He’s doing when he sends us tyrants? Tyrants, as well as just rulers, all owe their existence to God.
Let me put this concept differently. In the over-used passage in Matthew 22:21:
They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
This passage is often quoted to justify giving obedience to the ruler, however tyrannical. I’d ask this, however: what on this earth, or in this universe, exactly, is not belonging to God? My take is that Jesus simply put one over on the hypocrites, told them that they should render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, without adding what should be obvious: all things owe their being to God.
So we should not give blind obedience to any secular ruler. God, in fact, has also inspired us to not just accept tyranny. A ruler, to retain God’s blessing, must be just (see, for example, 2 Samuel 23:3). This is the context for Romans 13 — not blind obedience to any ruler (can anyone say “Nazis”?), but obedience to authorities who rule justly. In fact, one of the greatest churchmen of the Reformation, William Tyndale, is quoted as saying “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God!”, and of course he is correct.
Writing this simply, of course, does not mean I think that it is ever a simple thing to assess whether a given ruler is just in the eyes of God. As Christians, the best we can do is focus on the Kingdom of God, prepare for His return, and in the meantime, resist tyranny where we find it, and understand that just governments derive their true authority from Almighty God.