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Romans 13 and Civil Disobedience

Monday, 6 October 2014  | Matt Anslow

In recent months, I have been involved with the #LoveMakesAWay sit-ins and prayer vigils in the offices of prominent Government and Opposition MPs. These actions have been the responses of Christians from a variety of denominations to the cruel asylum seeker policies of the Australian government. They have been intentional acts of civil disobedience.

In response to our actions some Christians have expressed disagreement with our methods, often citing Romans 13:1–7 as rationale for doing so. A “plain reading” of this passage, which counsels readers to “submit to the governing authorities,” seems to yield a clear and straightforward command that implies the prohibition of civil disobedience.

What follows is a brief attempt to address the question of whether Romans 13 does in fact prohibit the possibility of faithful Christian nonviolent civil disobedience. I hope what follows is a cause for discussion on this topic and, indirectly, an explanation of some of the thinking behind the methods of a movement like Love Makes a Way.

A note about consistency
Paul writes from within the Roman Empire, not a modern democracy. This is no trivial point for interpreting Romans 13 for a contemporary audience. We should not imagine that Paul’s teaching in Romans 13:1–7—a mere seven verses, and far from a comprehensive or systematic treatment of the relationship of church and state—can simply be transferred directly from the context of an ancient empire to a modern democracy. 

If we think Paul is positive about “the authorities,” then he is positive about them in the form he knows them, namely imperial dictatorship. We cannot use Romans 13 to legitimate our preferred governmental structure without, according to the same logic, accepting the implied divine legitimacy of dictatorships. Those of us who live in democracies will likely find such a suggestion unpalatable. It raises the question of whether God ordains particular authorities, or authority in general; if we opt for the first option, then we must wrestle with what that means for authorities in North Korea, or Apartheid South Africa, or Nazi Germany. Depending on where things land in coming months or years, such a view may also have implications for our views of the Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East.

Romans 13 in the context of the canon
The biblical canon contains episodes in which protagonists commit acts of what we might call ‘civil disobedience.’ The midwives’ noncompliance in the face of Pharaoh’s infanticidal command in Exodus 1 is one well-known example. The disobedience of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Daniel 3, and also Daniel in Daniel 6—both in light of idolatrous laws—are further examples. Jesus himself commits acts of what we would contemporarily call civil disobedience, mostly notably in his Sabbath healings and in the clearing of the Jerusalem Temple. There is also the well-known example in Acts 5 of the apostles’ disobedience in the face of the command not to teach in the name of Jesus—“We must obey God rather than men.”

We can also point to the more negative attitudes to the state represented in texts like Revelation, in which the Roman Empire is described as a Beast (ch. 13) and a Prostitute “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (Rev. 17:6). Revelation paints a wholly negative picture of the authorities, one that stands in tension with interpretations of Romans 13 that portray the authorities as servants of God.

Romans 13 in the context of Romans
Paul begins Romans 12 with a startling call to resist conformity to this age (12:1–2). He is speaking to people living in the midst of a powerful and ruthless empire. As such, these people might be tempted to believe that resisting conformity to this age equates to freedom from the need to obey the state at all, a point Paul will address in Romans 13. Before getting there, Paul exhorts his audience to love genuinely, to hate evil, and hold fast to what is good (12:9–13). Such encouragement to love applies not only to friends, but also to enemies, those who persecute (12:14). This call to subvert the common desire for retribution is repeated: 

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:17–21). 

A clear implication of the gospel that Paul has discussed throughout Romans is the need to love everyone, even enemies, and the refusal to do evil. Who are these enemies that have persecuted the community and must be “overcome” with good? Since Paul seamlessly launches into Romans 13:1–7, with its discussion of the authorities, it is clear that the enemies in view are these authorities. This section is followed by 13:8–14 which counsels the community to “owe no one anything, except to love one another” (13:8), a statement which should guide how we interpret Paul’s command to “pay to all what is due them” (13:7). Though the authorities are their enemies, the church must show love to the authorities because God has shown love to those who were still in rebellion (5:8). 

In 13:12, Paul alludes to his previous statement in 12:2 regarding the present age when he says,

the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.

That the section about the authorities (13:1–7) is bookended by such statements about not conforming to this dark age—“the night”—suggests that Paul’s command to submit to the authorities must be read in light of this command to nonconformity.

Read apart from its surrounding context Romans 13:1–7 certainly seems to express unmitigated support for the authorities. Read in this context, however, Paul’s comments take on a different flavour. What, then, might be the meaning of 13:1–7?

Romans 13:1–7 up close
Some have suggested that Romans 13:1–7 might be read ironically, the “classic ironic technique of blaming by apparent praise.”[1] In other words, Paul says what he doesn’t mean. While this is a possibility, I will assume that Paul is sincere since this is how most Christians read the passage; I hope to show that even a literal reading of the text allows for the possibility of civil disobedience. 

The first thing to note is that there is no authority except from (hupo) God (13:1). The Greek hupo is typically translated “from,” but it can also mean “under.” One’s choice of translation makes a significant difference as to the meaning of this phrase, since “no authority except from God” is a very different reality to there being “no authority except under God.” Whichever option we choose, however, it must be consistent with Paul’s assertion that “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 6:23; 10:9). Such a proclamation, as N.T. Wright says, is a “confrontation with the powers,”[2] a denial of ultimate loyalty to any lord other than Jesus, including the Caesars of the world who claim such a status. That the authorities are instituted by God (13:1) means that their authority is not self-generated, but exists only because the authorities have a legitimate place in the created order. In other words, the authority of the authorities is relativised under Jesus’ Lordship. Such a message would in itself have been subversive, “an undermining of pagan totalitarianism, not a reinforcement of it,”[3] and not what the authorities would have like to have heard. 

If the authorities have a legitimate place in the created order, then God’s people are to be subject to them. Again, scholarly debate goes on as to the nature of this subjection, but two things guide our interpretation. The first is the aforementioned disobedience of Paul—whatever Paul meant by subjection, it almost certainly did not entail unquestioning obedience because he did not act this way. The second interpretive aid is Paul’s claim in 13:2 that “whoever resists (antitassomai) authority resists (anthistēmi) what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” Paul’s use of antitassomai and anthistēmi, words that denote organised and/or violent opposition, suggests a reference not to resistance generally, but rather to violent resistance—to revolt. Paul’s teaching here is to refrain from violent resistance against the authorities. For Paul, both unquestioning obedience and violent revolt are improper responses to the authorities. On the one hand the authorities must not be obeyed when they are not acting as God’s servants; on the other hand violent revolt does not fall into the category of overcoming evil with love (12:21).

From 13:3 onwards Paul’s picture of the authorities becomes more conditional. He says, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good.” The issue here is that this picture did not always ring true, even for Paul. The truth is, according to Paul, that the authorities should be feared (13:7) because they bear the sword (and they will use it)—not exactly an enthusiastic appraisal! In other words, don’t be naïve about the violence that the authorities are capable of, and give them no reason for such violence. 

But Paul’s audience are not to let this reality be the final arbiter of how they live their lives. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (13:8) Love is the ethic of the community of God (as opposed to the potential violence of the authorities). Love must be shown, even to the persecutor, even when this requires that the one who loves must suffer as a result of their loving response to evil. 

Christians should certainly be subject to the authorities for the good ordering of society, but when those authorities step well outside the realm of God’s will there may be times when Christians must choose between obedience to God over obedience to Caesar. So John Calvin:

The Lord … is the King of Kings, who, when he has opened his sacred mouth, must alone be heard, before all and above all men [sic]; next to him we are subject to those men who are in authority over us, but only in him. If they command anything against him, let it go unesteemed.[4]

In such times, violence is not an option for followers of Jesus, according to Paul, for love is the ethic of the church.

Nonviolent civil disobedience does not constitute, at least in my view, the refusal to submit to the authorities as per Romans 13. Such a statement is controversial, no doubt. But we must remember that Paul’s concern is that his audience does not violently revolt against the state. By defending civil disobedience I am advocating no such thing. Inasmuch as the authorities are themselves meant to submit to God, calling them back to their purpose is indeed a form of faithfulness to the will of God. 

It could even be argued that acting in civil disobedience and accepting the consequences of such action is, in a way, a kind of submission to the authorities. Principled civil disobedience, in seeking to call the authorities back to their God-ordained purpose, does not seek to escape the consequences of its action. On the contrary, the one who engages in principled civil disobedience is willing to accept the legal consequences of their actions. Martin Luther King Jr. suggests such a person is “in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”[5]

Matthew Anslow works for an Australian international development NGO, is a PhD candidate in theology at Charles Sturt University, and is a supporter of the #LoveMakesAWay movement. You can follow him on Twitter. 

A more detailed version of this article will appear on-line in
Crucible in October and in print in Zadok Perspectives issue on 'The Demise of Democracy' in December.

[1] Timothy Carter, “Commentary: The Irony of Romans 13:1–8,” Third Way 28 (2005): 21.

[2] N.T. Wright, “The New Testament and the 'State,'Themelios 16/1 (1990): 14.

[3] N.T. Wright, “Paul and Caesar: A New Reading of Romans,” in A Royal Priesthood: The Use of the Bible Ethically and Politically (ed. C. Bartholemew; Carlisle: Paternoster, 2002), 190.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, (ed. J.T. McNeill; trans. F.L. Battles; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), IV.20.32.

[5] Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.


Peter Dixon
October 6, 2014, 10:35PM
Accepting the consequences is the key to submission, according to the pattern lived by the apostles. Well said and well practised.
Byron Smith
October 8, 2014, 11:38PM
Does accepting the consequences mean accepting any consequences, or accepting legally valid consequences? In other words, if, as a result of engaging in non-violent civil disobedience out of love for neighbour and respect for God, under whom all authority resides, one finds oneself being persecuted by the political authorities in ways that do not conform to their own legal standards, is it wrong to seek to hold those authorities to their own standard? Or should the faithful believer accept whatever punishment is meted out, regardless of its legality?
Richard Glover
October 10, 2014, 10:55AM
Thanks Matt – well put. Looking forward to the longer version.

Byron, I think Matt has already answered your question! From the last paragraph: 'the one who engages in principled civil disobedience is willing to accept the legal consequences of their actions.'
Julie Mauger
October 11, 2014, 10:20PM
A very well-constructed argument for Christian's God-given mandate to oppose government policy when it directly contravenes Judeo-Christian ethics, values and commandments. It frustrates me when Christians say they won't get involved in politics. William Wiberforce got slavery in England abolished. Dietrich Bonhoeffer opposed and was killed by the Nazis. Desmond Tutu helped end apartheid. Corrie Ten Boom was a people smuggler. Martin Luther King opposed the Vietnam war and racism and was assassinated for his efforts. Christians need to stand up and be counted when the situation calls for it.

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