Christians and Government: Romans 13

In our previous article on Christians, the tea-party, and Libertarianism (prompted by Reverend Jim Wallis’ article disparaging the tea-party movement) one area left un-discussed was the issue of Christians and Romans 13. Since it can be used it to justify particular actions by government, it’s time to take a look to see what it says in context. First, Mr. Wallis’ argument.

In Romans 13, the apostle Paul (not the Kentucky Senate candidate) describes the role and vocation of government; in addition to the church, government also plays a role in God’s plan and purposes. Preserving the social order, punishing evil and rewarding good, and protecting the common good are all prescribed; we are even instructed to pay taxes for those purposes!
http://blog.sojo.net/2010/05/27/how-christian-is-tea-party-libertarianism/

Wallis attempts to Biblically justify his particular brand of government as blessed by God (and we should enthusiastically pay taxes for), and then using Romans 13 have everyone bow down to it. But let’s review Romans 13.

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same. For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also; for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues; tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. (Romans 13:1–7)

What government did Paul refer to? Who was in power? Rome — and their stance toward Christianity at the time wasn’t exactly friendly. Wallis seems to imply government acts like a “good guy” helping God doing His work; an interpretation which doesn’t mesh with the time Paul wrote.

Wallis’ attempt to misuse Romans 13 to promote specific government actions as “God’s approved plan” distorts the text; later in the article he also says:

… let me just say that private charity is simply not enough to satisfy the demands of either fairness or justice, let alone compassion. When the system is designed to protect the privileges of the already strong and make the weak even more defenseless and vulnerable, something is wrong with the system.

Where does the Bible state government should forcefully impose their view of charity on the country (“social justice”)? And what does Mr. Wallis desire by his idea of social justice?

Those can be loaded words (and require definition), meaning a range of anything from traditional private charity to forced government redistribution (socialism/communism). We’d be interested in further words from Mr. Wallis on this, as if he refers to private charity as Jesus spoke, he’s on solid ground and we’d agree, but if more of the second (as it appears), he’s wandered into areas totally lacking any Biblical support whatsoever.

We’ll agree God’s plan uses government (that government can be good or evil), just as every person, every situation, and every atom of the cosmos does. But Wallis’ mistake comes from applying it to state Christians should follow particular government action as “God’s approved plan”.

A difference exists between God allowing an act, and God approving it; Wallis fails to express the distinction.

Wallis’ idea makes no sense when considered in light of the times Paul wrote. Did Paul really mean to state Christians should get behind and support Rome and the persecution? Of course not; Wallis’ conclusion is wrong.

Wallis’ argument isn’t new, in the 1770’s as the colonies struggled with separating from England many made the same argument — it’s called “Divine Rule of Kings” theology. Simply put, it’s a misapplication of Romans 13 to imply any government action must be supported by Christians and not opposed, lest they oppose God.

Naturally, it’s supported anytime the government wants to take action they like, but those same fade into silence when government takes action they don’t like. Did Mr. Wallis (who appears to lie on the liberal site of the spectrum) use the same idea to support President Bush’s policies?

In any event, the issue isn’t new, as the colonies struggled with the same question; what did the Founders proclaim?

Even John Dickinson (not only a signer of the Constitution and the Governor of Pennsylvania, but also a devout Quaker and thus a member of a denomination favorably disposed toward the King) recognize the spiritual basis for the position taken by the Americans:

We claim them [rights] from a higher source—from the King of kings, and Lord of all the earth. They are not annexed to us by parchments and seals. They are created in us by the decrees of Providence, which establish the laws of our nature. They are born with us; exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power without taking our lives.
“Original Intent-The Courts, the Constitution, & Religion” David Barton, page 92–93

What happened during the colonies struggle against England for Independence? Hear the words from the past…

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Rights don’t come from government, they come from our Creator. We can’t say it any better than the Declaration of Independence — governments exist to secure and protect those rights only, not grant them.

So what does Romans 13 state? After all the discussion, it’s rather simple. Christians should follow the law, unless that law violates Biblical principles.

Peter said in Acts 5 “We ought to obey God rather than men”. Romans 13 in proper context means Christians should follow government law unless it violates God’s law (a point Mr. Wallis didn’t mention). It does not mean government should not be changed, nor that all actions taken by the government are correct. Simply put, Christians should follow the law (or change it) unless it conflicts with God’s law, at which point it must be discarded, or as the Founders said:

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

The issue was settled long ago (not in favor of Mr. Wallis’ view). Read the Declaration of Independence as it’s a perfect rebuttal of using Romans 13 to justify specific government, or the idea Christians should unconditionally support all government without question. Such a government ends in tyranny and oppression of its people.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

In short, any attempt to use Romans 13 to justify a particular brand of social justice (government should step in and forcefully take from some people to give to others as it sees fit, instead of charity being a private matter) is woefully misguided, and stems from a misunderstanding of Romans 13.

Christians should (must?) be involved in political matters. From the founding of the country, Christians formed the basis of government; today we have a heritage and a responsibility Christians largely ignore. As Paul reminded us, stewards must be faithful.

Yet some don’t like to be involved because politics exists in a cesspool of corruption. We certainly agree, but we’ve been passed a great legacy, and it is required in stewards that they be faithful. Don’t let a renegade interpretation of Romans 13 prevent you from standing up for Biblical principles in government, working to change those that aren’t.

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years.

Great nations rise and fall. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage.
Attributed to many people, but commonly Sir Alex Fraser Tytler, the “Tytler Circle”

The Founders took us from bondage through spiritual truth, courage, and liberty. We soon found abundance, but in the last 50 years moved to selfishness and complacency. How close are we to moving to the last stages? And the bigger question: can the circle run in reverse, back to liberty and courage?

As Chuck Missler says, ask people what presents the bigger problem in the country: ignorance or apathy and you’ll get the response “I don’t know, and I don’t care”.

It’s time for Christians to stand up. Whatever your political leanings, all Christians can agree standing up for the Biblical principles the country was founded on remains correct. Don’t let anyone tell you the country was not founded on Christian principles.

For almost 200 years since the founding of the country, those principles existed and flourished. It’s a recent development groups desire to change what the founders left us into something they’d never recognize. Change may be the popular political buzzword of the day, but that doesn’t make it right.

Even a casual study of Romans 13 in the context of the time written completely destroys the idea Christians must blindly support whatever government exists without question; if you’re interested in studying this further, begin with these resources:

  • Our commentary on Daniel 9; begin with repentance.
  • Get the book on Daniel from Amazon to see where we’re going.
  • Find out what separation of church and state really means—very few people understand it in proper historical context (freedom to, not freedom from).
  • Read David Barton’s book “Original Intent”. Much of this you will have never heard of, if all you’ve experienced is history class in school.

If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14 KJV)

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