Freedom loving Christians are always called out by evangelicals to be in contempt of scripture, Romans 13: 1-7 being the passage referenced. Classically the evangelical community has interpreted this passage to mean that the structure of government and the leader have been hand picked by God and need to be obeyed and respected as such. Looking at history or even at our recent and current presidents this can not be an accurate interpretation of this collection of verses. If you take extreme examples such as Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, or even the milder examples like the US government, and apply this classic interpretation, Romans 13 would be contradictory of the rest of scripture as these governments committed heinous crimes. So if this interpretation is wrong, then how should we read this?
I will present my interpretation using the ESV translation.
Romans 13:1a - Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.
Right of the bat we need to ask one basic question. Who are the governing authorities? As I am located in the US the governing authorities are those that are operating within the constraints of the constitution. Any power the government claims beyond what is allowed to them by the constitution is unlawful and therefore not recognized by God.
Romans 13:1b – For there is no authority except from God.
God is the ultimate and perfect authority. No earthly authority can claim to have power that defies God’s law nor claim unlawful power. We already covered what unlawful power is.
Romans 13:1c – Those that exist have been instituted by God.
It is true that God instituted a way for humans to manage themselves and deal with transgressions, this has taken the form of government in most places. God has handed down the authority to punish wrong doing to us. He made us the governing authorities. He left the choice of how with institute this power up to us. He did not set up modern day governments nor did he put specific people in power, we have done that. Personally I believe this authority was meant to take the form of the Non-Aggression Principle. I believe this is the case because of the context of Romans 13. The passage under scrutiny is sandwiched by passages about love. The Non-Aggression Principle allows for the most love, while formal government allows for the least.
Romans 13:2a – Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed.
Remember, God gave the governing authorities, us, limited power. The power to punish transgressions. Resisting that is resisting what God has appointed.
Romans 13:2b – Those who resist will incur judgement.
If the authority is legitimate it is punishing a trespass against another person, sin. You will be held to account for your sins one way or another.
Romans 13:3-5 – For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no dear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of the conscience.
Here is what I mentioned earlier, the purpose of government. To punish the wrongdoer. Or to manage transgressions. I think this is where a lot of the confusion comes in as to the power government is allowed. Wrong doing has been misinterpreted to include personal, or as I would say, moral sins. I do not believe this is the case. Wrong doing here references a grievance committed against another person. Moral sins are between you and God. To support this theory let us look at the authority we in the US are subject to, the form we set up with the power given to us. We established earlier that this authority is the constitution. The constitution does not permit the federal government to enforce moral behavior.
Romans 13:6-7 – For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom they are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Money is required for a government to function. Taxes are how governments get money. If we are going to exercise the authority given to us to punish wrong doing through a form of government then taxes come along with that.
I believe this to be a more accurate interpretation as when history is taken into account Romans 13 remains inline with the rest of scripture. From this interpretation we are also given an understanding as to the limits God has placed on governments. This is something Dietrich Bonhoeffer realized when he said, and I am paraphrasing, that the Church’s job is to keep government in check.