26 April 2011

Romans 13 and the State

John Cobin explains the link between Satan and the state:
How then can the Bible say that states are “ordained” or “appointed” by God to be his “ministers” (Romans 13:1-2, 4, 6)? Briefly, divine appointment to God’s service does not imply that the person or institution appointed is holy or godly. After all, Satan himself is ordained by God, and his actions are bounded by Providence (e.g., as the Bible describes in Job’s trials and the protecting of Peter from being sifted “as wheat” by the devil in Luke 22:31). The state is ordained by God but the Bible indicates that its most intimate relationship is with the devil (Revelation 18:9), and the state has generally served Satan’s evil designs throughout history, even if God ultimately directs the state and disposes of it as He wills.
For some reason, many Christians have difficulty properly applying the teaching found in Romans 13. I suspect the reason why this is the case is because many people neglect to include Romans 8 in their study of Romans 13. As hard as it may be to believe, Romans 13 is not a standalone argument, but is actually an application drawn from the preceding arguments made in the book.

In order to better understand Romans 13, it is necessary to first read Romans 8:28-39 (NKJV):
And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written:
For Your sake we are killed all day long;
We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter
Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Paul’s argument here in Romans 8 is that there is nothing that can circumvent or undermine God’s will. No man, nation, power, principality, spirit, or any such can separate man from God, if that is God’s will. In essence, God is absolutely sovereign.

(On a tangential note, Vox Day has addressed someone who has problems understanding God’s sovereignty. In regards to this, it is necessary to point out that God’s sovereignty has two components: Purposed Will and Permissive Will. Romans chapter 8 and 13 both speak to the former. Reality speaks to the latter. Quite simply, there are things God permits as a matter of course, due to having given Man free will. Of course, this is a discussion for a different post.)

The key phrase to pay attention to in this passage is “all things work together for good.” Paul is claiming, by inspiration, that everything that happens in this world will at some point be used for good. This claim is fairly straightforward, especially in light of the argument found in chapter 11. The evil that that befell Israel in the wilderness was used for good. The numerous times the Israelites were in captivity was used for good (provoking the Israelites to repentance). The book of Judges, Obadiah, and other prophets all speak to God’s willingness to use evil nations as a way of punishing the evil of other nations. Thus, even though a nation may be evil, it doesn’t stand to reason that said nation cannot operate on behalf of God.

Understanding this is necessary to understanding Romans 13:1-7, which states (NKJV):
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
When the divinely inspired Paul claims that the authority is “God’s minister to [us] for good,” it is important to note that he is not claiming that the authority itself is good. Rather, he is stating that the authority exists for good. Since God has claimed to use evil rulers and nations for good, it would be ludicrous to claim that someone who brings about good on God’s behalf is necessarily good.

Paul’s claim that “the authorities that exist are appointed by God,” then, is best understood as an application of the argument that was made in chapter 8: namely, that all things that happen in this world are within God’s sovereignty. Or, to state it negatively, there is nothing any worldly authority can do that is outside of God’s sovereignty. Paul’s statement can be seen as a form of comfort, especially in light of the persecution that Christians in Rome would soon be enduring at the hands of the state. The Christians in Rome could rest assured that, even in the face of persecution, God was still sovereign and that there was nothing the state could do to thwart his will.

Paul’s claim that “whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God” can best be understood as warning that Christians’ purpose in life is not violent revolution. A Christian not expected to rebel against evil governments, for a Christian is expected to concern himself with spiritual things, which are considerably more important the political concerns of this temporal realm. Of course, submission to the government is tempered by submission to God (cf. Acts 5:29).

The phrase “for he does not bear the sword in vain” also seems to give some Christians fits. Many interpret this claim to mean that the government is given the authority to use capital punishment. However, this could also mean that God uses nations to execute judgment on other nations. The sword was used both for punishment and warfare in first century Rome, so it makes sense to interpret this claim in both manners. Since it is fairly obvious that the government has often failed to punish people who were clearly deserving of such punishment, it is more prudent to say that this passage refers to God’s tendency to use one nation to punish another nation, particularly in light of the ambiguity of God’s providence (cf. Philemon 15). This would strike fear into the hearts of evil doers, for it is well known that those who live by the sword will die by the sword (cf. Matt. 26:52)

Additionally, note that Paul nowhere claims that the state is inherently moral or necessary. Given that states often commit evil which God then punishes by another state, it would be ludicrous to suggest that the state itself is a moral entity. It can bring about God’s will, but Biblical history suggests that many states have brought about God’s will quite unwittingly. In fact, many have brought about God’s will by committing evil. It is thus strange to say that the state is an inherently moral entity when history tells us it is not.

In keeping with this observation, note the phrase “the authorities that exist are appointed by God.” There is nothing in this phrase that would indicate that any state must exist. The only conclusion that can be properly drawn from this is simply a reinforcement of Paul’s argument five chapters earlier: there is no state (or any other entity) that exists outside the scope of God’s authority. If no state existed, God would still be sovereign. The existence of a given state has no impact on God’s sovereignty and authority. Therefore, the existence of a state is not necessary to maintain God’s sovereignty or authority.

As it stands, God’s sovereignty is not impacted one whit by the state. God does not need the state, nor does he command its existence. In fact, given the evils perpetrated by the state and its close association with Satan, it would be wise for Christians to disassociate themselves with the state to the greatest extent possible.


  1. Excellent, well-reasoned post. For what it's worth, here's a different, and unorthodox, take on that passage:


  2. Enjoyed reading your thoughts on this topic. Here's a bit of our take on Romans 13:


  3. @Practicing Resurrection- It astonishes me that so few Christians fail to consider the implication of Jesus' implicit acceptance of Satan's assertion in Luke 4. Of course, if they will ignore Romans 8 when reading Romans 13, it is not surprising that they do the same with Luke 4.

    @Steven and Debra- I hadn't considered I Sam. 8 when writing this post, but it makes a good passage to reference. That said, Romans is clear enough on the subject of government that one need only apply logic to the scriptures in order to understand it properly.

  4. The Authority post was relevant to this discussion, but what I meant to link instead was this one:


  5. That's also an interesting interpretation, although I wouldn't say that I necessarily agree with it. I'll have to study the Greek to see if the conditional language is warranted.

  6. If you have not already seen it, you may find the BBC blog post titled Was Jesus an anarchist? interesting.