No, Romans 13 is not about obeying the governing authorities
“Historically, the most terrible things: war, genocide and slavery,
have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.” - Howard Zinn
If I ever get to meet the Apostle Paul, I’m hoping to have a little chat about some of the things he wrote.
It’s not that I disagree with him. It’s just that I wish Paul had been a little clearer at times. Especially when he wrote the original King James version of the Bible ;)
Take Romans 13. This chapter is one of those classic clobber passages, used to make sure we are all being obedient citizens, which historically has led Christians into all KINDS of problems:
“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities...” (Romans 13:1)
His fellow Bible-writer, Peter, wrote something very similar:
“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority…” (1 Peter 2:13)
I call these clobber passages because they are too often used to crush dissent, stifle protest and discourage civil disobedience.
But we live in times where dissent is more important than ever. All around the world we are witnessing the rise of the “strongman” – brutal leaders like Putin, Erdoğan, Duterte and yes, Trump. These are hard-line men who rule with an iron fist and with little regard for justice or the downtrodden.
I’m concerned that if we don’t get this right, we could easily find ourselves treading the path of the German church under Hitler’s Nazi government.
In those days, too many good citizens – good Christians! - stood by, while their vulnerable neighbours were crushed by the governing authorities.
So, let’s take a closer look at these passages.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, King Herod got super mad and arrested some of the believers, including James and Peter, and put them on public trial. The night before the trial, an angel of the Lord woke Peter up, removed his chains, opened the prison doors and led him out the main gate of the prison.
Yet after escaping from jail, where he had been imprisoned for breaking the law, Peter went on to write in a letter:
“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to the governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.”
And similarly, while Paul was in Damascus, he escaped from a strongman city governor who was trying to arrest him, by concealing himself in a wicker basket and having himself lowered down the city wall through a window.
Then after reaching safety, Paul wrote a surprising letter:
“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities which exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
So are Peter and Paul hypocrites, asking Christians to do as they say, but not as they do?
Though these passages have been used to maintain the status quo (ever since the Emperor Constantine became a Christian and made it the official religion of the Empire), there is a BIG disconnect between Peter and Paul’s actions and the way we have traditionally interpreted their words.
The key to undertanding is in the word "submit". Take a look at this. The Greek word hupo-tasso, which has been translated as “submit” or “be subject,” literally means to arrange stuff respectfully in an "orderly manner underneath".
This simple meaning of "social orderliness" would have been understood by original readers, but it is a little obscured in our English translation.
This word is used in Ephesians 5:22 to encourage husbands and wives to submit to one another, and it reflects God’s concern for order and respect.
Here’s the main point – Paul and Peter believed that governing authorities are necessary for keeping the peace. God is a God of order – not anarchy or chaos.
But here’s where we go wrong. There’s ANOTHER word, hupo-kouo, which is best translated as “obey,” which literally means to conform, to follow a command, or to kowtow to an authority as a subordinate.
Peter and Paul could have used this word, "obey," but they chose not to.
Used twenty-one times in the New Testament, hupo-kouo always suggests a hierarchical context, as in the relationship between children or slaves and their parents or masters (Eph 6:1 and 6:5).
And so here’s the most important thing to remember - in the New Testament Greek, to submit does not always mean to obey! They are two separate actions or postures.
Though Paul, Peter and other followers of Jesus deliberately disobeyed laws that were in conflict with God’s commands, they still submitted to the authorities by accepting the legal consequences of their actions.
I’m proud to be friends with a bunch of clergy, activists and other serious Christian types who are willing to pursue justice in costly ways.
Some of them stage hippie sit-ins on the floor of their local government representative’s office to protest unjust treatment of refugees. Others chain themselves to bulldozers to protest environmental injustice.
I won’t mention everything online, but suffice to say, many of them are willing to break laws that are wrong and unjust.
This is nothing particularly new. As far back as the book of Exodus, the Hebrew midwives refused to carry out the Pharoah’s repugnant order to murder newborn babies.
The first people who sought to worship Jesus, a trio of spiritual gurus from Asia, deliberately disobeyed the orders of King Herod, a criminal offence punishable by death (the first recorded act of civil disobedience in the New Testament). Many of the disciples ended up in prison.
As Christians, the law cannot be our ultimate moral guide. Slavery was lawful. The holocaust was legal. Segregation and apartheid were legally sanctioned. Many of today's laws are created to protect corporations rather than people.
Simply put, the law does not dictate our ethics. God does.
But when my radical clergy friends break unjust laws you won’t see them struggling to avoid arrest. You won’t see them acting violently or promoting chaos. In fact, they gladly submit to the legal consequences of their actions.
They show us the way to interpret Romans 13 as Peter and Paul meant - if we break an unjust law to highlight and protest its injustice, we should be willing to submit to the punishment for breaking such laws, so that we demonstrate our respect for the role of government in general.
We do not follow a God of chaos, each doing whatever we want. But a God of order and respect for one another and the governing authorities.
There are times when we, as followers of Christ, will be called upon to stand up with a holy ‘NO!’ in the face of evil and injustice.
Romans 13 does not undermine that posture - it informs it.