One of my favorite questions to ask those adamant about calling government “God’s Authority” is “What defines legitimate government?” It’s when I ask that question that I receive so many different answers it almost sends a Chris Matthews’ shiver up my leg. I cannot tell you how many people’s worlds I have rocked by attacking this foundational stone. Why is this question so effective? Because it unearths the reality that everyone’s version of legitimate government is bought on an assumption adopted through indoctrination. Public schools, churches, parents, politicians and the media – all of these major influences continually propagate the idea that a country (America of topic) is a legitimate authority by its existence. That’s it. An authority is legitimate because it says so. Of course, the government workers and operators don’t want you to think that, so they tell you since childhood that you are part of a system, a system bigger than yourself that you “share” in. As we know from general observation, government’s version of “sharing” often comes in the form of regulating conduct, taking money and warring with other nations. Goods and services are also provided, but no different than how a milk cow is cared for on a farm. The cow provides sustenance for the masters, and the masters ensure that the milk is healthy by giving the cow a guarded pasture and some health checks. Productive workers make for productive reaping at tax season.
Moving back into the main, the American Christian is often the most deceived when it comes to political theory. American Christians have a unique sense of patriotism where they envision their government to be a product of this country’s Christian heritage, and so give “the powers that be” deference, only pausing occasionally to pray for leadership in hopes they “turn to God.” The Christian never reflects on whether or not the government he/she pays taxes to is his/her actual governing authority, or whether it is his/her obligation to follow. The Christian, by virtue of being born into the United States, thinks that this must be God’s perfect plan because it is a “democratic republic” and lots of people go to church on Sunday. No inquiry is made as to the validity of our modern government, nor is a question posed as to if this American authority is one that HAS to be obeyed. Christians simply follow because it is convenient and, when necessary, refer to Romans 13 to assuage any fears that the American government can be anything but God’s Country.
Romans 13 is a critical stumbling block to Christian political thought. It has been misunderstood, misinterpreted and misapplied so often, it has become an iconic reference much like the phrase “do not judge.” Romans 13 is a powerful analytical tool when used to define what government is because it considers wicked men as legitimate authority to be obeyed, causing a philosophical sting in the Christian mind.
Let us take a look at Romans 13 as our framework for thinking about what form of government is “legitimate.”
Romans 13 was written by Paul to the Christians in Rome. Some fun facts about Paul was that he was:
1. “A Pharisee, a son of Pharisees” (Acts. 23:6)
2. A persecutor of Christians until God intervened and turned him into an apostle. (Acts 8-9)
3. A Roman citizen
As you can see, Paul was definitely an authoritarian type. Paul, as a Pharisee, was a spiritual leader known for strict adherence to the law (and pride). Paul was used to exercising his authority to rip Christians from homes and throw them in jail. (Acts 8:3). He was a Roman citizen who apparently knew the laws of the land well enough to challenge a Roman commander. I give the excerpt from Acts 22 because of its import:
25But when they stretched him out with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?”
26When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and told him, saying, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman.”
27The commander came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman?” And he said, “Yes.”
28The commander answered, “I acquired this citizenship with a large sum of money.” And Paul said, “But I was actually born a citizen.”
29Therefore those who were about to examine him immediately let go of him; and the commander also was afraid when he found out that he was a Roman, and because he had put him in chains.
It is clear that Paul does not mind talking about his citizenship to get out of a sticky situation, and to use the law as leverage, making the centurions “follow the law” so they wouldn’t “break it” by beating him. It shows that he is a man who appreciates and takes to the Roman authority. (Such appreciation will give context to the language of Romans 13.)
So moving into the meat, the relevant portion is Romans 13:1-8. I break it up for discussion:
1Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities for there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.
This statement is where the inquiry begins because it uses the term “governing authorities” but has no definition of what those are. Just try announcing a standard as to what makes for a legitimate “governing authority.” It’s not easy. So how about we look at the contemporary, Roman governing authorities to see if we can find what makes someone a “subject.”
The authority about the time of Jesus was Herod the Great – the guy that murdered all the babies in Bethlehem, beheaded John the Baptist and executed several members of his own family, including his wife Mariamne. Paul’s contemporary was Nero, who was the governing authority of Rome from 54-68 a.d., the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. He was known for his great tyranny in maintaining power, killing his mother and torturing Christians with those famous “coliseum games.”
Sounds great right? Well, maybe a legitimate governing authority excludes these types? Let’s look at the next few verses.
2Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.
3For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same;
4for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.
5Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.
As you can see, there is no caveat to not obey an authority for being murderous. There is no definition saying that a person who gets and maintains power through violence and murder is illegitimate. If taken at face value, Paul is saying to obey these governing authorities without any qualification. The rulers are even given deference, saying that “rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil.” I’m sure that a Christian thrown to the lions for talking about Jesus felt like they were deserving of this “just” punishment (sarcasm).
Obviously, this is not the full context of the passage as even the notion of “obeying God over man” is not explicit.
So if we give these scriptures a little context, we can better understand them and apply their meaning.
UNDERSTANDING ROMANS 13
The first part to contextualizing Romans 13 is to see it as a generality. God’s control over the universe means that he uses every instrument to accomplish His plan. Even Satan and sin, in their wicked instrumentalities, can be used for God to carry out His plans for ultimate good. So while persecution drives perseverance of the saints, it does not moralize or legitimize its practice. A good historical example of this is Job, where God allowed Satan to test Job as a proof of His righteousness. While Satan was acting wickedly, God was not condoning Satan’s works, He was using Satan’s evil works to demonstrate that persecution is not limited to those who need a spiritual spanking – it can rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Likewise, God’s permissive will in allowing nations to form and kings to rule is to carry out His ultimate purpose. While we may not know all of the details, Romans 8 emphasizes that God knows what will happen in the end and will use our shortcomings for His redemptive work.
With this in mind, it becomes apparent that rulers are allowed to exist on this planet in-as-much as sin is allowed to exist. And, just like sin, we don’t have to let it affect us if we don’t want to.
Logically, if all it takes for a person to become an authority is to assert themselves through violence, then who is to say that a person cannot assert themselves through peace? There is no definition or indication that a man cannot make himself a sovereign, start his own nation, or take to himself as his own “nation.” Just as there are no bounds on the authority of a ruler listed in the Bible, there are no bounds listed as to what rulers get what pieces of land. Historically, land is fought over and won in the nation-building sense with the blood of patriots and serfs. Why isn’t the president of the United States also the president of China? Why isn’t the prime minister of England the Emperor of Japan? Once we unveil the propagated lies that government is some magical entity that floats down from heaven to be made subject to, we can see the self-sovereign principle emerge.
The only thing to fear from a ruler is the threat of death. That is why nations do or don’t go to war- the fear losing. As Christians, we should be the last people to fear death. If a Christian desires to make himself or herself sovereign, there is no difference between him/her and the leader of a nation/clan/tribe or other collective group. It’s just that a Christian ought not to use violence or tactics that undermine the gospel message.
One might try to say that a democratic republic cannot be rebelled against because you have subscribed to the authority. That is a fallacy. The past establishment of tyranny does not ground ultimate power. This planet has been through so much war and national shift that no leader can be a true primogenitor. A democratic republic, which often forces a member into its folds with birth citizenship, is a just another type of governing structure from which one can separate and start anew – like Abram leaving Haran and starting a new nation. Even the United States was created out of rebellion. Given the criteria of Romans 13, the colonists were wrong for their rebellion in not obeying the crown. So why don’t Christians support going back to it? It is for the same reason we have different nations all over the world – men war for greed and power, and the rest will be silent and calm if they achieve a benefit. If after a war is fought, the people are generally content, then a nation “forms.” It is not a matter of God’s righteous “nation approval process,” it is just a willingness to continue fighting. This is the modern model, to be distinguished from when God acted in a theocracy.
One cannot rely on our constitution as a guide to legitamacy. A “democratic republic” is not a popular model of history. It wasn’t the model at the time of Jesus or Paul. The real model was often the rich ruling the poor, with merchants and nobles forming alliances for economic might. Over time, the rich discovered they could force peasants to pay them money, as is highlighted in Romans 13:
6For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing.
7 Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.
8Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.
Paul says to pay taxes to rulers who are “servants of God,” giving all “what is due them.” They key here is “what is due them.” The idea that you “owe” a human being money for existing is folly. You ought to render money to those whom you do owe money to, but if you choose to be a sovereign, you owe them nothing. You are no different than a Chinese citizen who visits the United States. The visitor benefits from being here and pays some monies in taxes (like sales tax), but owes nothing otherwise. Why shy away from this permissible distinction?
BUT WHAT ABOUT TRADITION?
Some will contend that government is a collection of traditions and values from a people which is embodied in the ruling class. What is most disturbing about this definition is how easy it is to manipulate people into serving the ruling class. The manipulation often starts with a smooth-talking, power-hungry man bent on control. He convinces his friends and family to make him ruler and then exercises violence to create his throne and his “tradition” of rule. That model is the early stage of the government power structure.
The Bible provides a clear example of how this original model worked.
In Judges chapter 9, Abimelech, son of Jerubbaal, decides he wants to rule over his family. He is apparently not content that his family is spread out and living peacefully in clans. Abimelech approaches his mother’s relatives saying,
“’Which is better for you, that seventy men, all the sons of Jerubbaal, rule over you, or that one man rule over you?’ Also, remember that I am your bone and your flesh.” (vs. 2)
With this propisition, his relatives melt like a bunch of liberals hearing the words “change” and “hope” repeatedly from a hip Illinois sentator. The heart strings were pulled taught.
3And his mother’s relatives spoke all these words on his behalf in the hearing of all the leaders of Shechem; and they were inclined to follow Abimelech, for they said, “He is our relative.”
4They gave him seventy pieces of silver from the house of Baal-berith…
So what happens next? Is the world a better place now that there is a central government? Are rainbows and flowers popping out like a Skittles ad? Well…
4…Abimelech hired worthless and reckless fellows, and they followed him.
5Then he went to his father’s house at Ophrah and killed his brothers the sons of Jerubbaal, seventy men, on one stone. But Jotham the youngest son of Jerubbaal was left, for he hid himself.
GREAT JOB ON SECURING POWER ABE! (He even got to rule for 3 years.) (vs. 22)
While a little scant on the political campaign, (I’m sure it’s not as invigorating as a Trump speech), Abimelech foists on his family the original political crime of lying to constituents for gaining power and then turning his back on them to secure it. Even worse, he murders his own family right off the bat. These days, it takes years before someone puts their family into the car of a drunk limo driver for political gain.
What this passage demonstrates is what politics and government is really all about. When we strip away the fancy parades, campaigns and “helping the people” lingo, we start to see that there is no real purpose behind the leadership’s presence save to gain power. The occasional righteous men only arrive after a rebellion against the wicked men, who created a throne where one was lacking. (I will post a piece later showing that God’s chosen leaders were never politicians or men looking for gain.)
To summarize, Romans 13 leaves us with a definitional cavity that poses problems if not filled. While obeying authorities is good if you don’t won’t to get brutalized (obviously), there is no moral command that restricts you from becoming a sovereign or starting your own nation. Given this, one could obey the governing authorities for consciousness sake as Paul says, or he or she could make themselves a sovereign. Of course, if you choose self-sovereignty, expect the same treatment as you would two separate nations. This is not inherently immoral, it is just a warning of the consequences.
Chances are though, if you are a Christian and are spreading the gospel as fervently as Christ, you would be in jail already. Mull that one around a bit. ( :