Apologeet.nlRomans 13 — Thou Shalt Obey…
Throughout History of Romans 13:1-7
Let’s dive into the history and see what Christians throughout the ages made of this text. As I said in the introduction Romans 13 seems almost always be invoked by oppressing groups or governments. It is not often that you hear the ‘normal’ people say that we need to obey whatever the rulers want you to do. These normal people usually suspect that there is more behind this text.
When we look at the early church we see a diverse reaction. Many early Christians expected the return of Christ pretty soon. It seems that many of them just laid low and tried to make the best out of life. Paul was writing to Christians, some of whom were Jews, in the capital of the Roman Empire. Claudius, the previous emperor, had expelled the Jews from Rome a few years before because he viewed them as dangerous (Acts 18:2).
The Jews hated being under Roman rule. The Romans often viewed Christians as a Jewish sect, so that suspicion of revolution was always a concern in the minds of the rulers. Also, Christians easily could have taken Jesus’ teaching about the coming kingdom of God to mean that they should work for the overthrow of the secular, morally corrupt government in order to help bring in Christ’s kingdom. In fact, when Paul wrote Romans, Nero, one of the most evil rulers of all time, was on the throne. What a time for a revolution! I mean, living under Nero wasn’t fun at all. Most people that resisted this absolute dictatorship ended up dead. We can see what happened when the Jews started to resist in 70 AD. They got slaughtered and the temple ended as a pile of rubble. Nope, with the usual exception, most Christians just tried to obey and hoped that Christ’s return would be soon.
Now that last statement is a bit misleading. I say that the Christians ‘tried’ to obey. That this didn’t work in many cases seems obvious when we see how many got executed. Sometimes we tend to think you were just thrown in front of the wild animals for not reason, but that is too simplistic. No, the Roman Empire had no problem with people of other religions. If you wanted to worship Zeus or Wotan, by all means, go ahead, as long as you bow to the emperor. Not bowing to the emperor was seen as a matter of state, it was obligatory. Didn’t you bow? Then you were considered to be dangerous to the state. Many more of this kind of rules made it pretty difficult for Christians to obey.
But it started to look like Jesus wasn’t coming back as soon as many wanted Him to come back. So we move on in time, and in the fourth century we see emperor Constantine who became the first emperor of who is said that he accepted Christ. Under him and Theodosius (347 – 395) we see that Christianity started to become the accepted religion. This meant that the church fathers had to develop, what you call, a theology of the state. This basically means they had to think about how Christians and the Christian faith had to deal with government issues.
In this time we see the church father Augustine coming to the scene. Augustine wrote a thesis which is known under the title ‘City of God’. This thesis talks about two cities. One is the earthly city or city of men and the other is the city with true believers. The latter is mostly concerned with Godly issues and in the first one, people are mostly busy with their own traditions. Augustine said that these two cities will always be in conflict. He explained that a righteous government could restrain the impulses of the city of men. Some say that Augustine wasn’t afraid to say that the city of God could even use violence to keep the city of men under control… But that last statement is debated among scholars.
Not long after we see that the church starts to appoint popes to rule the entire universal church. Now it became interesting because the theology around the pope was that he is the representative of Christ on earth. So, if he is that powerful shouldn’t other rulers just listen to him. Can the pope declare who becomes king and what the kings or emperors can do and what not? The theology that comes out of this situation is called the ‘two sword theology’. One sword is spiritual and the other is the natural sword. Both are from God, but the spiritual sword has more authority and can tell the other what to do. Well, you might imagine that this caused some trouble between rulers and the church.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)
Aquinas was a very smart man who became not older than 49. I am always a bit shocked when I do the calculations… Anyway, Aquinas was a pragmatic man. He was the one who came up with the idea of ‘just war’. Oh! I would love to talk about that idea for a while, but I will restrain myself.
He looked at the world and saw that there was a sort of universal law. Everything needs to listen to this law. This law comes directly from God, and it talks about things like life, how we should treat one and other, and things like property. However, next to these universal laws he sees that there are also laws that are there because rulers put them in place. Many of these laws are obvious and righteous. Don’t murder, don’t steel, rape, lie etc.
He also sees some rules that are more or less relative. You know, they seem to be depending on the culture and time. He says that these rules are not necessarily wrong and the Christian shouldn’t make too much fuss about them. In modern day Holland we could say that the compulsory permit to build something is such a law. Personally I wouldn’t battle too much over this idea.
On the other hand, there might be a government that gives some hideous law. A law that goes against the universal given law. Aquinas’ idea is that a Christian should obey God above all. Aquinas sounds much like what we say today and with that he actually set an example for many who came after him.
Now we jump to the time of the famous reformers. Luther (1483-1546) kind of liked the idea of separation of church and state. He did teach that Christians should obey the government, but he thought that the government should not interfere with church business. That was a very good idea, but we have seen that whenever the governing parties wanted more power they actually started to break with this idea. They’re idea was often that when the controlled the church, the controlled the people. Hitler quickly made sure that he had allies in all influential churches of Germany. He simply dismissed the critical pastors and replaced them with pastors who shared his ideas.
When we look at Calvin(1509-1564) we see that he mostly agreed with Luther. He said that Christians should obey both the church and government. He took it a little further by teaching that the state should enforce the Biblical values. By doing so, the state would set an example for the world around. Calvin, did not directly protest when the state punished people for having heretical ideas.
Now, we come at Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531). This is a very interesting man. I actually examined his life and work during my theology study. Zwingli said that the church had to order the state what to do. Not only that, he believed that the church had to be fully involved in state matters, even if that meant they had to use violence. What I admire about Zwingli is that he wasn’t an ivory tower pastor. No, he walked the talk. He did what he preached. He was prepared to get his feet dirty. He went as far as leading his church into battle against the Roman Catholics. Now, mind you! I am not saying that I agree with everything he said and did. Let that be clear. Zwingli died. Yes, so does everybody right? But Huldrych Zwingli died in battle, fully convinced about the task he thought the church had, namely ruling over secular institutes.
You might ask whether there was any conflict between these reformers. Well, let me cite Luther when he heard that Zwingli died in battle:
They say that Zwingli recently died thus; if his error had prevailed, we would have perished, and our church with us. It was a judgment of God. That was always a proud people. The others, the papists, will probably also be dealt with by our Lord God.i
Although Luther’s dislike of Zwingli’s theology was mostly about the way both interpreted the meaning of the bread and wine during the Eucharist, it is clear that they weren’t the best buddies.
In this period, I am talking about the 17th and 18th centuries, the idea was mostly to keep the state out of church business and the other way around. The thought is older, but the expression ‘separation of church and state’ comes from ‘wall of separation between church and state’, a term coined by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). John Locke (1632–1704), one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers, already promoted this idea.ii
Locke said that the government lacked authority in the realm of individual conscience, as this was something rational people could not hand over to the government for it or others to control. For Locke, this created a natural right in the liberty of conscience, which he said must therefore remain protected from any government authority. In other words: The separation was meant to protect the church. People just didn’t see any advantage of a state telling the Christians how to understand their theology. Still, the Christians believed that their faith could be influential in state affairs. But the role as law enforcer was to be a typical state matter. Only the state could use violence and violence could not be induced by the church. The decision to use violence could never be on the shoulders of the one who had to carry it out. In other words, it is not the soldier that makes the decision, but it is the soldier who carries it out.
Okay, let’s go to modern time. I already said we’re not going to discuss the Hitler regime so let’s see what happened after the war.
Things seem to become more quite in Western Europe. Well, not everywhere of course. We still had the problem in East-Germany, the Democratische Deutsche Republiek. There wasn’t much democratic stuff going on there. And there were also the other dictators who all made life miserable for many people. The fascist dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco, controlled the country until the mid-1970s. We also had Antonio Salazar and later Marcelo Caetano who both ruled Portugal with an iron fist up until 1975.
Maybe I should say, it became relatively quite in the Netherlands … Yes, that is more safe to say.
Democracy seemed to flourish, and we’ve seen many political parties that originated out of Christian groups. Many of the politicians were very well-behaved, so it seemed. The either went to church every Sunday or they were quick to say that they treasured the Christian morals.
You see that nice man who our prime minister? He is a Christian, so he will do what is good for us. In such an environment not many Christians doubted whether to obey the government on the basis of Romans 13 or not.
In this phase it wasn’t hard for the politicians to get people on board. As time moved on, they refined their narrative in such a way that even the liberal Christians and many of the unbelievers joined them as well.
Depending on the Leader
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities […] For the one in authority is God’s servant […] They are God’s servants.”
It strongly depends on whose name you fill in. If you say “let everyone be subject to Nero because he is God’s servant”, you obviously get a different taste of this passage.
While, at least in the Netherlands, I made sense to obey the government just after the second world-war. It might not make as much sense now. Of course, I know Christians who don’t want to hear anything bad or doubtful about certain politicians. Why not? Well isn’t that clear. He is a Christian! Why else would he be a member of this or that party? Be that as it may, doesn’t the Bible also teach us that we recognise the tree by its fruits? And going back to the introduction of this series, don’t you think weird stuff is going on right now?
Why would a politician of a Christian party wants to take away certain basic rights? Why this talk about compulsory tests, vaccines and quarantines? Why pushing away politicians who try to investigate certain ‘misunderstandings’? Why flat out lying about stuff you just said on public television… No, I can’t recall I’ve ever said that.
You see, in this last period only, enough weird stuff is going on to make us think that Romans 13 might be about something else than face value read. Is Paul talking about something else?
And I know, I take the crisis around the virus as an example while there is so much more going on. But hey! Where would we be without real life examples, right? However, it does explain the rise of several political parties who all want to do it better. In Holland, we have a fairly new party that isn’t primarily Christian, but their speech is. They clearly vocalise that they want to return to the Judeo-Christian values on which our country was once established. And I know of many Christians who voted on them. Why? Well, reading Romans 13 on face value becomes so much easier when the governing power lives out the Christians values. It is as simple as that. And I can relate to that feeling. Life becomes easier when you don’t have to worry about your rulers all the time. Hold on! I am not saying that I agree or disagree with the idea of trying to get a ruling position, so we can form a government that doesn’t disturb our view on this passage. No, I merely try to give an outline about the things that are going on.
In the end
Anyway, this was an outline of the history. I hope you tasted a bit of how difficult it has been throughout the ages to interpret Romans 13. We see that Christians throughout the ages have been defying the rules and at the same time they tried to obey them. They tried to be compliant, but they didn’t always succeed. If you struggle with this passage… or maybe you never wrestled with it until now. Don’t think you’re the only one. Many of the most smart people in history have wrestled with Paul’s words. In other words, you are not strange by suspecting that there might be more going on than just the brick solid straightforward read of this passage.
i Luther Works Tabletalk No. 94: God’s Punishment of the Godless (Early November 1531).