Romans 13 Not the Pro-Government Passage Statists Claim It to Be

June 24, 2015—There’s been an abundance of excellent comments and questions regarding VOL’s Christian-themed articles. Here, I want to address one commenter’s question in particular: Why is a libertarian site posting articles on Christianity?

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There are two Malczewski_Jacek_Grosz_czynszowyvery good reasons. One, because Christianity has been perversely used as a mechanism to assault liberty for centuries and it’s still being used against all of us today. And two, because as we have already seen, the teachings of Jesus Christ intersect libertarianism. They are in no way anti-liberty. Nor do they advocate obedience to the State. Jesus was opposed to force – he was not a socialist. So here, let’s examine the reasons behind reason one.

Many Christians believe the Bible advocates obedience to the State. This is a problem for liberty because the State necessarily crushes liberty. It’s also a problem for Christianity in that the belief in obedience to the State subverts the message of Jesus, which in short, is the Golden Rule – the law of love.

The foundation of libertarianism is simple: the Nonaggression Principle (NAP), which stresses nonaggression against person or property. This is similar to the rule of reciprocity, of which there are two versions: the Silver and Golden Rules.

The Silver Rule is the root of the world’s systems of justice: do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you. Why do human beings need justice? Says Cicero: “The primary function of justice is to ensure that no one harms his neighbour unless he has himself been unjustly attacked.” This extends to a corollary expression of the Silver Rule: Give to others their due.

The Golden Rule is the law of love: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Golden Rule — the law of love — is the law of Christ. It’s the root of the world’s systems of ethics.

Writes Gary Wills of Jesus and the Apostle Paul:

“They saw only two basic moral duties, love of God and love of the neighbour. Both were liberators, not imprisoners – so they were imprisoned. So they were killed. Paul meant what Jesus meant, that love is the only law.”

Who killed the “liberators” Jesus and Paul? The State. The State always and everywhere necessarily violates the Golden Rule because the State does to others whatever it wants with impunity, as the State holds a monopoly on the (alleged) legitimate use of force and violence. But said Christ: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law of the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

Again, the problem for liberty – and Jesus’s Golden Rule — arises in other passages of the Bible which indeed seem to suggest obedience to the State. Paul is responsible for many of them (even though scholars such as Wills insist that Paul advocated what Jesus did: the law of love). This brings us to Paul’s Book of Romans, chapter 13, verses 1-7. Writes Wilfred Parsons:

“For the first 1,250 years of the Christian era, the thought of the Catholic Church about the power of the secular state was largely conditioned by two passages in the New Testament. The first of these is found in Matthew 22 and is the famous saying of Christ about God and Caesar. The second was the passage in Saint Paul to the Romans, 13, 1-7.”

We’ve already examined Joachim_Wtewael_-_The_Tribute_Money_-_WGA25913Jesus’s point on God and Caesar here. So let’s look at Romans 13: 1-7, which has made a far deeper impact on Christian thought in regards to the political authority of the State. The Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul notes that “the official church since Constantine has consistently based almost its entire ‘theology of the state’ on Romans 13 and parallel texts in Peter’s epistles.” Augustine, foreshadowing Madison (“If men were angels no government would be necessary”), uses Romans 13 as the foundation for his endorsement of the State as a mechanism to control sin and promote virtue. And R.W. Carlyle writes:

“This passage, which is of the greatest importance throughout the whole course of medieval political thought, being indeed constantly quoted from the second century onwards, is indeed pregnant and significant in the highest degree.”

Without further ado, here is Romans 13: 1-7:

“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.”

Seems pretty clear on the surface. But again, it’s Paul writing here, not Jesus. Paul often lacks the clarity of Jesus as he seemingly contradicts himself at many points throughout the Bible. Why? Perhaps because Paul wanted to be “all things to all people.” He was willing to compromise the message:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians: 9-19)

In this, many assert that Paul betrayed Jesus far more than Judas, subverting Jesus’s message for the ages. To be “all things to all people,” Paul compromised the law of love. His words were subsequently twisted and distorted to justify all manner of tyranny, oppression, and destruction since. Bernard Shaw noted that “it would have been better for the world if Paul would have never been born” and that “there has never been a more monstrous imposition perpetrated than the imposition of the limitations of Paul’s soul upon the soul of Jesus.” Thomas Jefferson wrote of Paul as “the first corruptor of the doctrines of Jesus.” In The Antichrist Nietzsche referred to Paul as “the Dysangelist,” adding that Paul “had a genius for hatred.” Indeed, Paul’s words have been used to justify countless wars and attacks on Jews, homosexuals, and women for millennia. This indeed amounts to an assault on both love and liberty.

Now, here are some more brief points to consider about Romans 13:1-7:

• Many versions of the Bible read closer to “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities” to head off Romans 13. The early Greek text does not. It reads: “Let every soul be subject to the superior powers.” Since Paul in Romans is addressing how to live a Christian life, not a secular life, is he not referring to the “governing” and “superior” authorities in the Body of Christ – in the church, not the secular governing authorities of the State? After all, just prior, in Romans 12: 2, Paul instructs: “Do not be conformed to this world.”

• Scholars such as R.W. Carlyle have noted the “anarchical tendencies” of early Christians. Does this explain Paul’s preaching of obedience to the “superior powers” of church leaders?

• In the context of the times, was Paul intentionally vague in his letters, to avoid Roman persecution in the case his letters were intercepted by Roman authorities? Remember Paul as “all things to all people” in 1st Corinthians: 9-19.

• And what of the secular “governing authorities” Paul allegedly instructs Christians to submit to? Gerard Casey frames it best:

“Let us recall some to the things done by the secular authorities that some interpreters believe Romans 1-7 would have us obey: the killing of all the male children in Bethlehem under two (Matthew 2: 16); the judicial murder of John the Baptist (Matthew 14: 10); the slaughter of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices (Luke 13: 1); the arrest and scourging of the apostles for preaching the gospel (Acts 4: 3 and 5:40); the execution of James and arrest of Peter by Herod (Acts 12:2-3); the beating of Paul and Silas with rods and their imprisonment (Acts 16:19-24). In 2 Corinthians, St Paul speaks of ‘far more imprisonments with countless beatings and often near death. Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned’ (23-25), and recounts how he fled from the governor at Damascus (32). Tradition holds that Peter and Paul were judicially executed and there is no reason to doubt that the tradition is valid. And last, and very much by no means least, we have the arraignment of Jesus by the Jewish authorities, and his judicial torture and execution by the Roman Procurator, despite Pilate’s not being able to find any case against him.

After all this, are we seriously to believe that St Paul in Romans is demanding that we obey the secular authorities in any matter in which they care to command us? Surely not!”

• Casey also points out that arkhones is the word translated into “rulers” in Romans 13. Everywhere else in the New Testament it refers to Jewish religious leaders, but in Romans 13 are we to believe it refers to secular leaders?

So what do you think? Does this make the case why Romans 13 is not the pro-government passage Statists claim it to be?

All in all, the greater point here is this: there are no two things that cause as much heartache and suffering when compromised as love and liberty. But if we simply aimed at one in the present– liberty — we’d certainly have a much greater chance of getting the other thrown-in in the future.

In closing, let’s allow Casey to remind us of additional, pertinent Scripture:

“They have set up kings, but not by me: they have made princes, and I knew it not.” – Hosea, 8:4.

“Put not your trust in princes…in whom there is no help.” — Psalm 146:3

Do you think Romans 13 commands Christians to always do as the state tells them? Comment below!

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