Romans 13 as a Justification for Authoritarian Violence
I often see this passage used by Christians to not only endorse the necessity of human authority, but also to justify such things as capital punishment and warfare.
I have often argued that the traditional interpretation of the chapter cannot possibly make sense given that it follows on directly from Romans 12, which seemingly offers a far different perspective on human existence (ie, that of returning hate with love, overcoming evil with good, and striving to live in peace with all people). However, I realise that this sort of extrapolation can be subjective, and that the passage in question nonetheless does seem problematic. It might be helpful to consult other scripture on the matter.
First of all, I feel that if Paul really is affirming the divine instatement of governing authority as a tool for God’s operation on earth, then I would have to wonder what Paul was thinking of when he speaks of the authorities in manners such as these:
1 Corinthians 2:6-9
Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”
Paul’s usage of wording here is actually pretty harsh… Not only does Paul reprimand the ruling authorities for having misunderstood God’s revelation in Christ and thus having crucified Him, he also says that they are “doomed to pass away.” The NIV translation reads as “being brought to nothing.” The conclusion in this train of thought is that what God has hidden from the authorities, He has graciously revealed to the Christian community – the church is therefore wiser than the ruling authorities because of this, even in spite of the illusion that they somehow hold wisdom over the general populus through coercive order. Later on in the letter, Paul revisits this belief of his when speaking of the resurrection from the dead:
1 Corinthians 15:24-25
Then comes the end, when [Christ] delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
Not only does Paul say here that that the powers are to be destroyed, but he goes so far as to say that each one is actually an enemy of God. In the equality of the resurrection, there can be no form of coercion and subordination.
Consider Paul’s idea that the material world is actually “ruled” by Satan:
2 Corinthians 4:3-4
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
Elsewhere in NT scripture, Satan is also referred to as “the ruler of this age.” In fact, in the passage from 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul speaks of the destruction of governmental authority, he is actually speaking of both earthly and satanic rule, thereby making no distinction between the two.
Also, the notion that Paul endorsed the good rule of governing powers is in stark contrast with this most famous piece of scripture:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him.
And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
The implicit meaning of this text might not be readily apparent to the casual reader, but understood in its setting, it is actually a powerfully subversive proclamation. In a way that is almost the antithesis of modern interpretations of Romans 13, Paul affirms that it is Christ, not the authorities, who establishes order in the world, and who orders things for Himself. Rather than saying that the rulers are in place by the election of God, the text almost outright states that each one is usurped under the supreme authority of Christ. Notice also the end of this passage, where Paul states clearly that Christ has “made peace by the blood of the cross.” Like many other empires before and after them, Rome proclaimed a “great peace” that existed under their rule; propaganda, of course, to veil the magnitude of its violence. The “peace” that Rome established, it did so by the sword. Colossians gives a stark contrast to this: Christ’s peace with humanity is established by the cross, a symbol of defeat, revealing a victory made possible through sacrifice rather than sword.
This is the heart of other greatly subversive language in the New Testament: Christ is proclaimed “Lord” because Caesar has the title of “Lord.” We say He establishes a “Kingdom” because Rome was considered to be the supreme “kingdom.” We call Christ “the Son of God,” because Caesar himself was proclaimed as “son of the gods.” With each integral component of the Gospel, all of the qualities for which the Emperor was renowned are immediately brought to nothing. The chances are that if you were a 1st Century Christian hearing the Colossians hymn uttered for the first time, you would be nervously looking around you to wonder if a member of the imperial army had intercepted the meeting.
Also, one of the Bible’s most famous books, Revelation, stands as one of the most devastating criticisms of government (I will be exploring more on the nature of Apocalyptic Literature such as Revelation in future posts). For within its pages, the Roman Empire is consistently equated with the rule of Satan. In fact, many commentators have gone as far as to say that “Babylon the Great” is actually an eternal metpahor for every single concentration of power that has ever existed and will ever exist.
Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying,
“So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence,
and will be found no more…
And in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints,
and of all who have been slain on earth.”
Babylon, as a metaphor for governing rule, is here shown to be brought to nothing at the hands of divine authority. She is also blamed not only for the blood of holy people, but also “of all who have been slain on earth.” The implication is a powerful one: Babylon, as the great authority in whom all authorities are found, is responsible for the deaths of all on earth who have been killed by violence. Again, we see the dual nature of earthly rule and satanic rule intertwined in a devestating denunciation of their reign.
Something else interesting to note is the terrifying imagery in Revelation 13, during the time with the dragon and his beast have taken up authority:
Let anyone who has an ear listen:
If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go;
if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed.
Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.
This brings to mind the divine law given in Genesis 9:6, where God demands that blood be shed for those who have shed blood; this as well, is another scripture used by Christians to justify violence mandated by governing authorities. Revelation, however, completely overturns this previous understanding and now shifts such a mandate over to satan himself: with the authorities under his wing, this is a demand required of darkness, not of the divine.
Now herein lies a great cosmic paradox: Though Revelation is often used by Christians to affirm the necessity of warfare, the book is actually an epic call for the Christian community to stand firm in faith rather than give into the causes of violence, which is exacted by earthly rulers as a result of them not understanding the Gospel. The great victor in Revelation is not an army that God calls together, nor does it come from the returned violence of the church, nor does it come from any form of the sword. Instead, it comes from “the lamb who was slain.” Reminiscient of Colossians, scripture once again informs us that the divine mystery revealed to us is that of the victorious nature of what the world would consider defeat. Though the authorities subject their subordinates by violence, it is compassionate sacrifice, as exemplified by Christ, which truly wins the eternal battles of good versus evil.
I submit, therefore, that Paul’s words in Romans 13 would have sounded to its First Century audience somewhat like this improvised paraphrasing (actual Biblical text italicised):
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.
“Everyone ought to live peaceably with the governing authorities, knowing that God’s power has usurped them, and that they only hold together in His authority and by His mercy.”
Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
“Those who rebel in the same vain of violence the authority uses will ultimately be rebelling against God Himself.”
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.
“If you live in peace with these authorities as I have encouraged you to do toward all people, and inasmuch as it depends upon you to do so, then you will have nothing to fear from them.”
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.
“For remember that you answer to God above these powers. If you go out of your way to incur their wrath, then beware: the sword does not lie idle in his hand, and he does not bear it for nothing. More seriously, you will be incurring God’s wrath upon yourself through the terror they bring upon you.”
Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.
“We must remember to love our enemies and return all evil with compassion, even against these oppressive systems who lie in false power over us, because Christ commanded this.”
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.
“This is also why you pay taxes. ‘Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s,’ so as to follow our Lord’s example. For the authorities are only held in place and in order by God, and are answerable to Him.”