Theology of Human Authority and Civil Government Part 3

Thanks for stopping by. This post is the third part in a 4 part series on a Biblical Theology of Human Authority and Civil Government. I really do not recommend reading this post without first coming to grips with what I have said in previous posts, so please check them out.

In Part 1, I laid a foundation for the discussion, noting that my opponents and I share critical common ground and that we need to properly contextualize Romans 13 if we are to understand what it means to us as we stand in the place of the civil magistrate in the voting booth.

In Part 2, I discussed the foundational principle of human ethics: that each individual person is made by God and for God and in his image, which means that each individual person has inherent human dignity and the right to his life, liberty and property.

It is with those things in mind that in today’s post we turn our attention to Romans 13.

Romans 13

Now we get to Romans 13. For starters, here’s the text of Romans 13:1-7. As you read this, lets’ remind ourselves what perspective we are reading this from. We are not reading this as citizens under the authority of government. We are reading this as civil magistrates casting our votes for how the government will rule. We must ask ourselves, what does Romans 13 reveal about how God wants me to govern?

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. (2) Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (3) For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his  approval, (4) 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. (5) Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. (6) For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. (7) Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

Certainly I must be stretching the text to say that it contains commands that must be obeyed by the civil magistrate! I have been accused of such. It simply tells us to submit! Indeed we stand in a strange in-between world in which we are both citizens and magistrates. In our normal every day lives, we are citizens who ought to submit to our governing authorities. In that context, this passage calls us to obey the law, even if it is unjust. It is the law! If you resist, you will be judged. This is sobering.

But remember, our interest for this discussion is not to know what it says to the citizen, but what it says to the magistrate. Surely I stretch the text! I do not believe that I do. Let us examine Paul’s argument. His instruction here is to submit to the governing authorities, and he gives some theology to back it up. His theology is that God has ordained civil government (v1), that God has given the civil magistrate a job to do (v4, 6), that the law-abiding citizen should have no fear of terror from the government (v3) and that God will hold the civil magistrate accountable for how well he does his job (Chapter 12:19). What will God hold the magistrate accountable to? Fulfilling the role that God describes in verses 4 and 6. He is “God’s servant.”

If that isn’t convincing enough, then perhaps we can draw a bigger theological understanding by comparing Scripture with Scripture. What is striking to me is that there are several similarities between this passage and Ephesians 5:22-6:9. In each segment of Romans 13 and Ephesians 5-6, we see a discussion of divinely ordained human authority with some purpose statements, some duties and some limitations given.

In Ephesians, God has ordained marriage with the husband as the head and the wife in submission (5:22). This relationship serves a greater theological purpose (v23-24, 32). The husband is to serve his wife in a self sacrificial way, loving her as his own body (v25-29).

God has also ordained the parents in authority over their children (6:1-4). Children are to obey their parents in the Lord (v1). Children are to honor their parents (v2-3). Fathers are not to provoke their children to wrath (v4). Fathers are to raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (v4).

God has also ordained masters over their servants (6:4-9). We can understand this in a number of different ways when it comes to the issue of slavery, but for now, let’s simply focus on what the text says. Servants are to submit to their masters as though they are really slaves to Christ, and are therefore to obey from a heart desire to please God (v4-6). Servants can expect to be rewarded by God for the good they do their master (v8). Masters are not to threaten their servants! (v9). The master’s master is the Lord! (v9). The Masters and servants stand on equal footing before God! (v9).

Am I stretching Romans 13 by mingling it with Ephesians 5 and 6? Not at all! For I believe that by comparing Scripture with Scripture in this way, we get a better picture of the Theology of Human Authority. Not every specific point is included in the prescriptions for each specific relationship, but I believe the dots are clear enough to connect and derive the following picture:

  • God has ordained certain human authorities
  • We are to submit to, honor, and obey our human authorities as unto the Lord.
    • This means we obey them not for their sake, but because they represent God’s authority in our life, and we are therefore obeying God by obeying them.
    • AND that if they command us to disobey God, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29)
  • God has prescribed certain duties for the authority.
  • God has given human authorities specific constraints on their authority
    • Husbands must love their wives self-sacrificially (Ephesians 5:25-29)
    • Fathers must not provoke their children to wrath (Ephesians 6:4)
    • Masters must not threaten their servants (Ephesians 6:9)
    • Civil Magistrates must not be a terror to good conduct! (Romans 13:3).
  • The one in the human role of authority will answer to God for how well he fulfilled his duty and stayed within the constraints he was given.
  • The one in authority and the one in submission stand on equal footing before God, and will both be held to account for obedience and disobedience to his law.

So what does this have to do with our discussion? As I’ve already stated, when we stand in the voting booth and we advocate support for certain politicians, parties, and policies, we are acting as the civil magistrate. As such, we are standing as the one in human authority and must be concerned with what the duties and constraints of our authority are, because we will answer to God for them!

So this begs two questions. What must the civil magistrate do? What must the civil magistrate NOT do?

What must the civil magistrate do?

The civil magistrate must punish criminals. It says in verse 3 that he is a terror to bad conduct. In verse 4 it says that he is “the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” In verse 6 it says that he is the “[minister] of God, attending to this very thing.”

So the civil magistrate must punish those who commit civil crimes. I will leave for later a discussion of what constitutes a civil crime. I will merely point out here, that Paul doesn’t go into detail. There is a lot up for debate, and this is where the Theonomists inject the Law of Moses. Nevertheless, I hope that they will acknowledge that what they are really doing is not trying to say that the civil government has another duty other than to punish criminals, but rather trying to define what constitutes criminality in a certain way. I happen to disagree with them for other reasons, but that is a debate for another day.

All in all, we see that Romans 13 commands the civil magistrate to punish criminals. As a note to the other side of the aisle: I submit this as a Biblical argument for Minarchy. Though, I’m sure I’ll get a rebuttal from CJay on this.

So what must the civil magistrate NOT do?

Are there limits on his authority? Provided that he is punishing criminals, are there other good things that he can accomplish? Well there is a clear constraint here. It’s not stated quite as explicitly as “Thou shalt not,” yet I believe it is black and white. Verse 3 says, “rulers are not a terror to good conduct…”

Now there are three ways to interpret this. The first way is to say that rulers are not to punish people in response to them doing good. The second is to say that rulers ought not to terrorize people into doing good. The third is to say that rulers ought to leave people alone unless they are doing wrong. I think that all three interpretations are valid applications of the statement in different ways. Government is to visit terror on people who are doing wrong, not those who are doing good. Paul presents this as an either/or. Either you are doing wrong, or you are not. Paul’s instruction is that the way to escape fear of the government is to do good. What does he mean by do good? He means obeying the law. So the government is not to visit terror on people who are not criminals.

But am I stretching the text here to say that this is a command that ought to be obeyed by the magistrate? Here again, I may be accused of taking this to mean more than it should! I think I am not.

Consider again the broader theology of human authority. As enumerated previously, this fits right into the pattern from Ephesians 6 with Fathers who are not to provoke their children to wrath and masters who are not to threaten their servants. Authority is not supposed to be a terror based activity whereby the one in authority intimidates and bullies his underlings into submission!

Also, consider that Paul’s argument is founded on the notion that this authority is ordained by God with certain parameters and that the one in authority will answer to God for how well he stays within those parameters. The purpose of the civil magistrate bearing the sword is not to control people, but to provide that just retribution for wrongs done by one man against his neighbor. He is a servant of God and of the people in this respect, not a tyrannical overlord. He is the impartial minster of justice acting on behalf of God and the victim to bring the appropriate penalty on the criminal. He ought not be a tyrant out to empower himself and enslave his people by abusing his power.

This whole section follows right on the heels of Romans 12:19, “Vengeance is mine. I will repay.” In other words, Paul is reassuring the Romans who were or were about to be enduring the Neronic persecution that God has decreed limits on who Caesar may terrorize and that his terrorizing Christians who do good will not go unnoticed.

Surely I read into the text!? I think not! I’ll concede that it’s a matter of speculation to consider how much Paul knew or intended with respect to Nero, but I assert with confidence that the Holy Spirit, the letter’s true author, knew what was going to happen! In fact, I think it is safe to say that a copy of this letter most probably ended up in Nero’s hands. Read this section again as though you were Nero and tell me you are not gripped with fear over the impending judgment of God!

The Holy Spirit is clearly not making a mere “is” statement here! Every tyrannical government in history would make him a liar! Imagine if the Roman church understood this to be an is statement rather than an ought statement as they endured persecution. They would either be extremely delusional about what was going on around them, or they would have cause to lose faith in the authority of God’s Word! No, instead, they would have understood this as an ought statement and found hope in the fact that God has promised to visit vengeance upon Nero’s head! Indeed Nero is burning in hell right now for what he has done!

This must be foundational to our understanding of this text, for discerning the original meaning the Holy Spirit was communicating to the original audience is the first step of the Historical-Grammatical method of hermenutics. And that meaning is this: Submit to government no matter how tyrannical he is, but know that God has given him boundaries on his authority and he will answer to God for trespassing them. The lesson for us as magistrates is clearly: Don’t trespass those boundaries! Don’t terrorize good conduct!

But in case you’re still not quite convinced that these are commands to be obeyed by the magistrate and not simply descriptions, I merely observe that nobody in the Roman church was involved in civil government at that time. I fully expect that, had they been, Paul would have included a similar counter paragraph in Romans addressing the civil magistrates specifically in which he probably would have probably been stated, “Do not be a terror to good conduct.” Am I adding to Scripture? I don’t think so, because I base this on Paul’s pattern in Ephesians 6 and on what he actually said in Romans 13:3.

Therefore, I conclude that there is a God-given limit on the authority of civil government. The sword of government is not to be against those who are not criminals! Thus, the government may not steal from, enslave or kill peaceful citizens who are not committing crimes. When Libertarians say, “may not initiate force against a person’s life, liberty or property,” this is simply different terminology being used to say, “may not be a terror to good conduct.”

Indeed it would be a terror to good conduct to initiate force against a peaceful, law-abiding citizen’s life, liberty or property. I further hold that the government may not pass laws that give it permission to violate the universal ethical parameters that God has placed on human interactions. The civil magistrate may not, by mere fiat, declare it legal for him to steal, kill or enslave. It may not, by mere fiat, declare to be criminal the peaceful actions of private citizens which God does not declare criminal. This is a violation of his God-given constraint, for it would be a terror to good conduct! Laws are not to be grounded on government say-so, but on the universal law of God.

Thus, the civil magistrate may not steal, kill or enslave. When the civil magistrate taxes, he is stealing. When the civil magistrate arrests individuals who did not harm anyone else, he is kidnapping and enslaving. When the civil magistrate wages unjust wars and uses drones to assassinate, he is murdering. It is manifestly my belief that the US Government has long since overstepped these bounds.

Final Thoughts

Again, I thank you for sticking with me so far. You have shown yourself to be open-minded at the very least. I would urge you to please stick around for Part 4, in which I will deal with an objection, discuss some additional considerations, and finally lay out my conclusion, which probably won’t shock anyone who’s read the preceding posts.

Stay tuned.

Part 4 may be found here.

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