This is part three of this series about Romans 13:1-7. In part two we’ve looked at the history around this passage. We’ve seen that it strongly depends on who is in charge how we interpret this text. It is also interesting to see that, as soon as the church gained political power or influence, smart people had to think about how to incorporate God’s word into that situation. If you did not see that video yet, I would recommend you to go and watch that one first. Its is absolutely an eye-opener, and you might understand the rest of this series better. You’ll find the link in the description below.
Now we are going to see what Romans 13:1-7 is not saying. It is not difficult to make a text to say what you want it to say. That’s what you in theology would call eisegesis. You put your own words into that of the text. But that’s not what we want. We want to do exegesis. We want the individual words being explained by the totality of God’s word.
Treatise on Government
Okay, first of all we cannot use this passage to explain how the government should function. I did hear people say that this text explains how the government ought to be. Some would even go as far as saying that with this text a government has the right to inflict the capital punishment.
Verse 4b “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
The fact that this text talks about a sword does not command a government to implement the death penalty.
Although there are hints in the Bible of how a government should rule, there are no absolute rules given. You could argue that the Theocracy in the Old Testament is the preferred model but this was meant to be for God’s people. It failed because the Israelites wanted to have a king. Not God as their king, no they wanted to be like the other nations (1 Samuel 8:10-22). The ideal form of government will come when Jesus returns we will live under His rule. He will set up the perfect model. A model we can’t even imagine how it is going to be.
The Bible is not advocating one government above another. Sure, we can say that democracy is the model advocated by the Bible. Many of us grew up in such an environment, so we are quick to say that it is almost perfect. However, when people start to decide what rules we should have—that’s what we do in a democracy because democracy means ‘rule by the people’—we quickly end up with rules that are opposite of those given by Christ. As Christians, we shouldn’t strive to live our lives according to the worldly rules. No, we should keep our eyes fixed on Christ and His coming. He will establish the most perfect, unblemished form of government, ruled by Him.
They are not Automatically Right
Politicians, kings, police, dictators and all other sorts of authorities are not automatically right because Romans 13 says that they are established by God. We are all allowed to breath, we are all given life. Does this make that we are always right? No of course not! We are sinners and so are the rulers. That’s what we do, sin. But God, in His wisdom and by His goodness, allows us to life our lives, but He does not agree with all our doings.
Also, just mirror the rulers against the ideal, the sermon on the mount. If you’re honest, you’ll see that our earthly governments are not always right. Far from it! They often go straight against God’s word. It is not for nothing that Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:1-6 that we, as Christians, shouldn’t go to earthly judges to sort out our problems. Apparently he did not have a high esteem of the authorities. No, better to solve the problems among each other because you share the heavenly kingdom values, as described in the sermon on the mount.
We can all come up with examples from the Bible were the ruling party didn’t do that great. Herod ordered all the little children in Bethlehem to be killed. Shall we vote and see who likes to have Herod as king? Or how about that king who wanted to have an extra garden. His wife gave him an excellent idea. Just order the rulers to falsely accuse the owner and let him be stoned to death. I’m pretty confident that we are against such behaviour. But also today, what to think about the legalised infanticide… Yes, abortion. Or that brilliant idea of authorise doctors to kill their patients, euthanasia. Should I go on or do you get the picture?
The Bible makes it clear that just because God allows certain people to be in a ruling position that doesn’t mean their always right.
The Rulers only Punish bad People
How often did I hear people say that this or that person must have done something wrong. Why else would the judge have him send to jail? I do understand that people read it like this.
3For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.
It does sound like the authorities only punish those who do wrong. However! Can we on the basis of this text say that this is a universal law? Is it true that we only have guilty people in jail? How about God’s own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible teaches that Jesus didn’t do anything wrong, He was without sin. And still He got executed by the government. Jesus was not commended for doing that what is right.
You want some more examples? How about the illegal execution of Stephen, the beheading of John the Baptist, Mary and Joseph who had to flee because of the infanticide. No, we can be pretty sure that Paul did not write this as a general rule. It looks like he wrote it as the ideal.
Thou Shalt not Criticise the Government
Wow! Tell this to your average Dutch person! We are known for our directness. The region where I grew up even more so. We are even considered to be rude by Dutch people from other places. Did the mayor do something dumb? Then there was a good change that you heard something like this: “Tjonge! Wat een domoor. Laat die gast ophoepelen en eerlijk werk zoeken.”
But now we are not allowed to criticise the mayor any more? What about that time that some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.” What did Jesus answer? “O thank you dearly I will go away at one’s” No, He said “Go and tell that fox, I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.”
It looks like Jesus didn’t really respect Herod too much, did He? Didn’t Jesus understand the Old Testament? Exodus 22:28 “Do not blaspheme God or curse the ruler of your people.”
We also have Peter and John in Acts 3 & 4. They were doing their thing and in between Peter healed, through the power of the Holy Spirit, a man who had been lame from birth. Wonderful right? Well, the priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees didn’t think so. They took both Peter and John and they put them in jail. Later, Peter and John were brought before the Sanhedrin and they began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?” Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “know this, you and all the people of Israel: it is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.”
And finally, what to think about Paul’s behaviour in Acts 23, when he stood before the Sanhedrin? The high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to hit him on the mouth. Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!”
This made the people very angry. Why? Well, the graves were often whitewashed, but only contained dry bones inside. Paul’s insult was severe. They said: “How dare you insult God’s high priest!” Paul replied, “Brothers, I did not realise that he was the high priest; for it is written: Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people.”
Do you think that Jesus, Paul, Peter and John all got it wrong? Was it a slip of the tongue when they criticised the ruling parties? If you take Romans 13 to mean that you are not allowed to criticise the rulers, or for that matter, if you take the word ‘curse’ in Exodus 22:28 and think it means ‘Thou shalt not criticise’, than you should also say these men were sinning against God’s word… Well, Paul, Peter and John might have sinned, they were merely humans after all, but to say that Jesus sinned… Hmmm, tricky business.
Not Everyone can just Claim to be the Boss
When we read this passage without any context, we might say that whoever seizes power is the authority set by God. That is going to be awkward. I’ll use an example from the second world war. When the Nazi army had to withdraw from the Netherlands, because the allies were winning, who was the authority at that moment? One half of the Netherlands was liberated, while the German soldiers were still in charge in the other half. So, one day you obey the occupier and that would have meant that you’ve helped them with all their wicked ideas, right? Then, the next day, you’re cheering and are welcoming the Canadian and American troops. Or, you are still trapped in that occupied part and a Canadian paratrooper comes to your house and is begging you to hide him… But, the Germans ordered complete compliance. Are you going to disobey and hide the soldier? Where lies your loyalty?
You see, authority is a very complicated matter. If we only look at history we have to come to the conclusion that we can not read this text as straightforward as some would like you to read it. Authority is not a synonym of goodness. Many rulers, throughout history, were just plain vicious.
You are not Allowed to Disobey
This ties in with another thing this text cannot mean. It cannot mean that you are not allowed to disobey the ruling party. Whatever the government says goes!
People who say you have to obey forget the limitation clauses Paul has build into this text. Paul makes it clear in verses 3 and 4 that the authority has to reward those who do good and punish who do wrong. But when the rulers start to deviate these rules, and start to punish or limit those who do good, and reward the wrongdoers, we have the duty and right to obey God instead of the ruling party.
Let’s look at the three basic governments as given directly by the hand of God. The government of the family (Matthew 19:4-6), the civil government (Romans 13:1-5) and the government of the church (Ephesians 2:20-21). I hope we all understand that the authority in the family, as given by God, is not unlimited. In Ephesians 1 we read that children need to obey their parents. We don’t find any limitations here, but we all understand that a child should not obey when his father or mother tells him to rob someone.
Likewise, the churches. Hebrews 13:17 says we have to obey our leaders and submit to them. Again, not limitation clauses to be found. But here also, we all automatically understand that this submission can’t mean to be unlimited. When a church leader misbehaves horribly and tells you in the process that you can’t tell the others, we all understand that it is no sin to discuss the matter with the other leaders.
But, as soon as we arrive at the civil authorities, where we clearly do find limitations, many tend to think we always have to obey. This is simply a misrepresentation of the text in Romans 13. It is an interpretation that has been read into the text. That what we in theology call eisegesis, your reading something into the text that is not there. It cannot be found in Romans 13 nor in 1 Peter 2:13-14 or that matter. In both texts we find the clear limitations. Both texts state that the rulers are there to punish evildoers and to reward those who do good.
Hermeneutics is the study of the Bible as a whole. You’re doing it wrong when you isolate one verse or even one chapter. Good biblical hermeneutics dictates that we should always study the text in light of the other texts. In other words, Scripture interpret scripture. So, scripture with the small ‘s’, these are the single verses or chapters, are to be interpreted by Scripture, with the capital S, which is God’s complete word, the Bible.
When we do this, we will find that nowhere the Bible is actually teaching us that we always have to obey the governing powers. No, quit the opposite. We see time and again that the people of God, I mean those who truly love Him, constantly disregard the rules of the Kings and other rulers. As soon as it goes against God’s higher laws, they will set aside the man-made rules and sometimes by doing so they have to face horrible consequences.
Let’s look at Daniel in the book, Daniel 6:6-10. Nobody was allowed to pray to God. They had to pray to the king. Daniel openly defied this law. He sat down at the window, which was open. He knelt down, so nobody could have mistaken about what he was doing. He did this three time a day! Everybody could see him, there was no mistake. So, like Daniel, at some point you might even have to be clear in your disobedience of the ruling power.
In the end
Now, some will say that, even though they read this text in a literal rock solid straightforward way, they also acknowledge that we should obey God more than the government. But, we do not see this escape in this text. It does not say ‘obey… unless’. We do not see any allowances in this text. You can’t have both. Either you read this text literally en wrestle your way through the rest of the Bible, or you allow yourself to be a bit more nuanced and try to find out what is really behind this text.
In the next video we will look at what Romans 13 might mean. Yes, that does sound vague, doesn’t it. But because we want to approach this text open-minded I would like to look at the possibilities this text gives.
Please allow me some time to dive into the next episode… I actually have other work to do as well you know. In the meantime, let me know what you think about this episode. Do you know of other things, that has been said about this text, that fail the test of sound biblical hermeneutics and exegesis.
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Thank you for watching, and we’ll see each other next time, God bless you.