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The Misuse of Romans 13

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that 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. For 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 he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

(Romans 13:1-7, NIV)

Romans 13 has often been used to justify Christian support for war. The argument runs like this: as Christians, we are commanded in Romans 13 to obey our government. So if our government declares or supports a war, we are bound to support our government too.

There are at least three fallacies in that argument.

The first reason is that God's laws override man's laws. This principle is clearly declared in Acts 5:29: "We must obey the laws of God, not men".

In view of that teaching, it becomes clear that Romans 13 is only applicable in areas of morality which are neutral. If God has nothing specific to say on an issue, then we are commanded to obey the state.

So Romans 13, by itself, can never be used to justify any action. We must first look elsewhere to see if an action is prohibited by God. If it is not prohibited, then we are called to obey our government. But we must first look elsewhere to determine whether an action is morally correct. Romans 13 never helps us to determine the morality of an action.

This reasoning is supported by my second argument: the context of Romans 13 is the payment of taxes. If we look back to verse 6, Paul applies his teaching by saying, "That is also why you pay taxes". In fact, most commentators agree that Paul wrote Romans 13:1-7 to refute suggestions that Christians should not pay taxes. Clearly there is no divine law on what is the ideal level of taxation. So instead, Christians are commanded to obey the tax laws set by their government. But it does not follow that they should obey their government when it tells them to do something that goes against the teachings of Jesus.

The third fallacy is Paul's given reason for obeying governments. He says in verse 1, "The authorities that exist have been established by God."

Now the pro-war argument runs: "God has placed this government over us, so disobeying the government is disobeying God." But there is a problem when applying this to war: when we fight a war, we fight against another country. But according to Romans 13:1, that other government was established by God too! So the argument ("obeying the government is obeying God") is automatically negated when we fight to overthrow another government - because we are fighting against a God-ordained government!

I do however offer one rider: one can invoke the "God ordained this government" argument to justify fighting in self-defence, so long as self-defence is limited to protecting one's own country and not bringing down another country.

But supposing your country loses the war and is overrun. What action should be taken now? I would suggest, in view of Romans 13, that the new government should be accepted and obeyed (as far as that obedience is compatible with living as a Christian). So there is no place for continued violent resistance movements once a country has been defeated. By all means work peacefully for change, but within a framework which accepts the current government - however illegitimately power was obtained. Why? Because Jesus calls us to shun violence and love our enemies.

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