Romans 13:1-2, 4-5
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 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…
These verses seem to indicate we are to do whatever our governmental leaders tell us, and if we don’t, or if we resist it, it is like we are disobeying or resisting God. If only it were that simple. A few quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” muddy the waters quite quickly:
I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal”
In fact, the majority of Dr. King’s letter dealt with this tricky biblical subject as he faced the brutal oppression of “legal” Jim Crow laws, which most white Christians argued must be followed based on Romans 13:1-5. This was no different than white Christians justifying slavery a century earlier for the same reason.
Yet, there has always been Christian resistance to these legal movements. Christians who saw the governmental law in stark contrast to God’s law in the Scriptures; they saw it as the sin it was and would not let themselves be complicit in it.
Christians who harbored Jews in Nazi Germany.
Christians who helped run The Underground Railroad.
Christians like Dr. King who led the Civil Rights Movement.
Not the mention the modern day global Christians living in countries where it is illegal to be a Christian, to attend church, to own a Bible, etc.
Or consider this Scriptural wrench from Acts 4 thrown into the engine of the Romans 13 argument:
Acts 4:3 They seized Peter and John and, because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day.
Acts 4:8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! 9 If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, 10 then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed…”
17 “…But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn them to speak no longer to anyone in this name.”
Acts 4:18 Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! 20 As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
“Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him?
Peter and John were clearly not submitting to the governing authorities here. So what gives?
We need some humility in approaching Romans 13. It’s a confusing text, but thankfully the rest of the passage sheds further light on our question.
It must be remembered that the chapter and verse markers are not part of authoritative Scripture; they were added much later as a way to easily navigate the texts. When Paul wrote Romans, the last several verses of Romans 12 would have seamlessly led into the first few verses of Romans 13.
Romans 12:17-21 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Rom. 12:21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Does this help us bring a fuller application to “submit to the governing authorities”? I put that out there as an open question to you the reader. Pause for a moment and read Romans 12:17-21 again and ask what the main point God is commanding here.
I believe if one looks at Romans 12:17-21 honestly, they find clear contradictions to the understanding that “be subject to the governing authorities” must mean we obey them at all times. What if the law requires we repay someone evil for evil? Or to not live at peace? Or to not respond to evil with good? There are clearly many laws that would require these contradictions of us. So what are we to do? What I love about the Bible is that it is right in the text:
We are to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21), and that is a direct command from God!
The verses immediately following the “submit to the governing authorities” passages are almost identical to the ones that preceded it:
Romans 13:8-10 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments…are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
The summation of the entire law, both biblical and legislative law (as the text does not distinguish and these verses come in the context of both), is to love your neighbor as yourself. If you want to obey the law, you love. And love does no harm to neighbor.
I want to lay that out again because it’s so profound and it’s straight from the Word of God: If you want to obey the law, you love. And love does no harm to neighbor.
So what if the governing authority tells you to do something that would bring harm to your neighbor?
You don’t do it! And you don’t support your government doing it!
You are commanded to overcome evil with good and you are commanded to not bring harm to your neighbor. Actually you’re commanded to obey the law, which brings no harm to your neighbor.
So while verses 1-5 tell us the governing authorities are there to punish evil, when they aren’t doing their job, we have a higher Judge and Legislator who is always doing His job (that’s God). We are to obey him.
Or as church father Augustine said, “An unjust law is no law at all.”
What’s so unique about American law is that we live in a democracy. What this means is that, in theory, the power to create laws lies with the people, not with a dictator, a Caesar, or even a President or Congress. And thus the people should be held accountable for the laws on our books as we have the real power to change them. It’s what Dr. King and the abolitionists before him did.
The challenge is, we are often brainwashed into our political parties’ ideologies where we subconsiously can’t actually hear from Scripture anymore. Our pride gets the better of us as we want our party to “win” like we do our favorite sports team, and we tune God out rather than face the truth that He disagrees with certain things our party does. We put the Republican or Democratic values above the values of Scripture without even realizing it. If you find yourself only and always toeing your party line and thinking Scripture lines up perfectly with your party line, you’ve probably slid into this camp.
So whenever something comes up that our political party disagrees with, like immigration for example, we quote Romans 13:1-5 and say we have to submit to the governing authorities. Meanwhile, staying with this hypothetical, we protest and cry out against abortion, something that is legal, yet we say is unjust and needs to be changed. These are just “big ticket” examples. Any given person could easily have those two issues swapped (someone who is fighting for immigrant rights but not for the unborn), or substituted with any number of other issues that conflict with Scripture. But I think the example of how Christian Republicans will push to change the unjust law of abortion is a great example and teaching opportunity. Just as Romans 13:1-5 doesn’t mean we have to happily accept abortion laws as if they are from God, it also doesn’t apply to other laws that are in direct contradiction to God’s commands to not do harm to our neighbor, such as our nation’s immigration and refugees policies. We have the power to protest unjust laws and when we stand before God, I believe we will held accountable to how we used that power.
What does “be subject to the governing authorities” mean to us? It means the same thing it meant to the first century Christians: pay your taxes, don’t physically attack your governing officials, don’t rebel against them, don’t do any violence toward them whatsoever, don’t repay their evil with evil, do what they say when it doesn’t cause you to sin and even when you obey God instead of them, make sure you are aren’t living in rebellion of your government, and above all else, always make sure that in your following of the law, you are not harming neighbor. As soon as you harm your neighbor, you are no longer fulfilling the law.
And if your neighbor is being harmed in a democracy, you’d better do something about it!
That’s as relevant today as any time in history. And it’s all in the wonderful book of God’s Word, the Bible.
If a governmental law goes against God’s law, you don’t follow it.
I needed a HUGE education on immigration and refugee issues. I got it from Jenny Yang and Matthew Soerens of World Relief. If you need this education as well, please take the time to listen to this interview with Matthew:
In a nutshell, you will learn that there is no current legal way for undocumented immigrants to become documented. There is no “line” to wait in and there is no legal way for them (from Central American or Mexico) to enter our country, which is incredibly unjust, especially for people fleeing fatal poverty. The law is completely different now than it was back in the Ellis Island days. You will also learn that there has never been an inside-job terrorist attack committed by a refugee (and we have millions and millions of refugees) and that our refugees go through the most stringent of vetting processes.