Summary: When Paul wrote Romans chapter 13, did he have in mind total obedience and surrender to a totalitarian government? "If the civil power commands us to violate the law of God, we must obey God before man" (Wuest).
This morning, I am going to begin our message with an illustration from a 2018 CNN article written by Thomas Weber: “On March 21, 1933, Germany was in turmoil. Less than two months after the Nazi seizure of power, even people with pro-regime leanings felt disquieted about the draconian measures instituted since the end of January. It was in this context that Protestant theologian Otto Dibelius invoked the biblical passage Romans 13 to urge Germans to support Hitler . . .”
Weber continues to say, “Throughout the lifetime of the Third Reich, in tens of thousands of sermons up and down the country, pro-Nazi Protestant pastors quoted from Romans 13: ‘The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.’ In short, as the Nazi regime imprisoned its opponents and wrought havoc across the world, Romans 13 became one of the glues that held the Third Reich together.”(1)
So, when Paul wrote Romans chapter 13, did he have in mind total obedience and surrender to a totalitarian government? Many unbelievers in recent days have quoted this passage at Christians, telling them to obey the government and stop complaining about the harsh measures. In an attempt to keep us from repeating the mistakes of history, I feel compelled this morning to do an in-depth exposition of Romans chapter 13. And when I say in-depth, what I mean is that I am going to be quoting from multiple commentaries. So, let’s go ahead and get started in Romans chapter 13, beginning with verses 1-6.
Do Your Best to Obey the Law (vv. 1-6)
1 Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. 5 Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’s sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing.
So, what do we make of this passage, and why did Paul write these particular words? Commentator A. T. Robertson in Word Pictures in the New Testament, published in 1931, says that in this passage that, “Paul is not arguing for the divine right of kings or for any special form of government, but [simply] for government and order. Nor does he oppose here revolution for a change of government, but he does oppose all lawlessness and disorder.”(2)
You see, Paul wrote this passage to address civil disobedience. “The Jews were notoriously rebellious . . . The zealots [for example] were convinced that there was no king to the Jews but God; and that no tribute must be paid to anyone but God . . . [The zealots] were sworn and pledged to a career of murder and assassination. Their aim was to make any civil government impossible. They were known as the dagger-bearers. They were fanatical nationalist sworn to terrorist methods. Not only did they use terrorism towards the Roman government; they also wrecked the houses and burned the crops, and assassinated the families of their own fellow-Jews who paid tribute to the Roman government. In this, Paul saw no point at all. It was, in fact, the direct negation of all Christian conduct.”(3)
The first thing that Paul tells us here is that governing authorities exist by the appointment of God. It’s easy to view this verse as speaking about the appointment of specific individuals that hold public office, but this is not what the text means. Verse 1 is speaking about the “institution” as a whole, not a specific king, ruler, prime minister, president, or governor. Just as certain organizations are considered to be institutions, such as schools and hospitals, the government is an institution; and this passage is talking about the institution of government, or the institution of a body of leaders.
Commentator Kenneth Wuest in his Word Studies from the New Testament, written in 1955, says, “Human government is a permanent institution brought into being by God for the regulation of human affairs. The powers or authorities here are seen, not in their individual personalities, but as office[es] . . . That is, the various offices of civil authority are appointed by God. The structure of government and the laws connected with it are appointed by God as a means of promoting law and order on earth.” He emphasizes that, “the incumbents in those offices are not always ordained of God.”(4) But whether the individuals in those offices are appointed by God or not, we should obey the laws they enact to the best of our ability, and so long as they do not contradict our most sacred spiritual convictions.