Monday, October 27, 2008


When I have taught the book of Romans, one of my favorite questions I’d ask students on Romans 13:1-7 was, “Could you have signed the Declaration of Independence?”

Answers were always varied; some were very confused; some students gave a tentative “No”; some gave a positive “Yes.” I found that many of us really aren’t sure what to do with this passage.

Romans 13:17:
1. Every person should submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been appointed by God. 2. So then, the one who resists the authority has resisted God’s appointment, and those who resist will receive judgment on themselves. 3. For rulers are not a cause of fear for the good work, but for the evil. Do you want to not be afraid of the authority? Do good and you will have praise from it, 4. for it is God’s servant to you for good. But if you do evil be afraid, for it does not bear the sword for no purpose, for it is God’s servant, an avenger for wrath to the one who practices evil.
5. So then it is necessary to submit, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’s sake. 6. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s religious servants, devoting themselves to this very thing. 7. Pay to all what they are owed: tax to whom tax is due; tribute to whom tribute is due; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.

It seems pretty clear and straight-forward, until we consider our own national history. Or until we compare it with other passages of Scripture, or biblical examples. Or until we attempt to apply it in our own lives.

What bothers me lately about this passage is how it is being used as a sort of mantra in situations where I don’t believe it has a direct application. Two uses in particular trouble me, both by friends of mine – evangelical Christians.

One was used in a blog condemning those who oppose the current (or any) war. My friend rages against (among others) conscientious objectors. He said, “To those who may be conscientiously objecting to bearing arms, I say, ‘Study God’s Word here in Romans 13,’” and then paraphrased a portion of it.

My comment was “ … weren’t Peter and John conscientious objectors when they said, ‘We ought to obey God rather than Men’ (Acts 5:29)? I believe there will be times when those who follow Christ will have to conscientiously object to those in authority over us.” I went on to tell about some personal experiences that Uni and I have gone through, when we had to refuse to do something we were told to do by someone in authority.

Apparently because these authorities were employers and not governmental he saw no connection. He also told me that Peter and John were disobeying a command to refrain from preaching, so that is the only proper application.
The second use of Romans 13 was by a friend of mine in response to my post STRANGERS AND ALIENS. According to him, Romans 13, trumps all this about loving the stranger. If the “stranger” is an illegal alien he is breaking the law; he is not submitting to the governing authorities. Though my friend didn’t say so, he apparently felt that our obligation to love is therefore cancelled.

So does this passage take preeminence in all of our ethical discussions? I think not?

This passage is one of many passages in the New Testament commanding the believer to submit:
We are to submit to those who labor in the ministry (Romans 16:15, 16).
We are to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21).
Wives are to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22, 24; Colossians 3:18; 1 Peter 3:15).
We are to submit to all those in authority (1 Timothy 3:1).
We are to submit to every human institution (1 Peter 3:1).
Servants are to submit to their masters (1 Peter 3:18).
Younger men are to submit to the elders (1 Peter 5:5).
Of course, the overarching command is to submit to God (James 4:7).

We’re told that we are to submit to those whom God has set in positions in authority over us for a number of reasons. The first is that God has established these authorities – ALL authorities. These passages do not make distinctions between good or bad ones. Both Paul and Peter wrote when Nero was emperor of Rome. Their readers were soon to suffer persecution under this authority (1 Peter 4:12). Paul and Peter themselves were going to be martyred under Nero. Many would die because they refused to submit to imperial commands to confess Caesar as lord. Were they disobeying the injunction of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 3? Whether they were or not, when are we ever allowed to refuse to submit to authority? Is this some sort of ethical dilemma?

I believe the answer is much simpler than all our theorizing and theologizing. Look at those passages in Acts where Peter and John are commanded to stop preaching in the Name of Jesus. Their reply was clear.

“Whether it’s right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than God, you be the judges, for we’re not able not to speak of what we’ve seen and heard” (Acts 4:19, 20).

“We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

I believe that they are giving a general principle that goes way beyond the context: What God commands supersedes what man commands. We are obligated to obey God, whether or not man’s commands agree with His.

Understanding this helps us to understand Romans 13. God has clearly revealed His will on many matters. Our ethics must be in line with His commands. Where God has not spoken we are obligated to submit to human authority. This authority can only demand and expect submission in two areas. First, in areas where government agrees with God: laws against murder, theft, etc. Secondly, in areas that would be considered amoral: speed limits, building codes, etc. When government legislates in these areas they take on a moral tone simply because God has commanded us to submit.

There is another area that needs to be considered: the commands given in these passages are given to followers of Christ; they are not there for our use against those who do not know Christ. Our obligation to those who do not belong to Christ is to win them to Christ, not to pass judgment on them. (Cf. 1 Corinthians 5:9-12; See SIN, POLITICS AND RELIGION.)

So then in the matter of illegal immigrants (See previous post. Danny Carroll prefers to call them “undocumented”.) my obligation is not to condemn, but to love. To see them as people in need of Christ, sometimes in need of material care.

There are many people who are in need who are in disobedience to the laws of the U.S. our responsibility, toward them, as toward all others, is to obey the Law of Love, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s quite simple, though it may not always be easy.

Bill Ball


XLT said...

Bill, this is a good point, I think about for most people, this is very obviously the political realm determining their hermeneutic approach...

I think I understand what you are saying here...but is there a distinction to be drawn then? If we can't hold them accountable for obeying the laws of the land as it pertains to immigration, how are we to hold them to the laws of the same land in regards to other crimes? I am not objecting to your position, in fact I am in agreement with it...but I have seen at least one church have a "minor" split over this issue in San Antonio...and this comes up.

Is there a line to be drawn between those things and where?

Sorry if that doesn't make sense... :)


Bill Ball said...

thanx Josh. I have a few thoughts on that, but I need to sort them out. more later.

XLT said...

I'll be waiting! :)

c said...

bill, i'm thrilled to have found your blog. this one touches on topics that are very near and dear to me. i'm continually unimpressed with jim dobson and others who clamor so loudly for pagans to follow biblical rules. the life of daniel is a great example of obedience to God in a pagan world. unless his life experiences have been lessened significantly in the book bearing his name, he only found reason to disobey/not submit a few times in his long life. how does this fit with a christian society that screams for rights as if the country is supposed to submit to them vs. us/them submitting to the law of the land? prayer in school, the ten commandments, 'choice' - all areas where it would seem that our submission is required by romans 13. if daniel had successfully fought his 'prayer' battle we wouldn't have the story of the lion's den.
sorry this was such a long comment.
kelly stephens

Bill Ball said...

Thanx. I appreciate your comments. feel free to question me or disagree any time.