Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Given the growing level of civil unrest in the United States, it’s unsurprising that American Christians are increasingly talking about Paul’s instructions in Roman’s 13. These verses are usually summarized in a single imperative: Christians must obey the government. And I don’t think that’s an entirely unfair way to summarize Paul’s point. The Church has not been given the mission of overthrowing the civil authorities. Civil government is a gift of God for the sake of retraining our sinfulness. As sinners, Christians should support that gift by respecting it’s God-given authority, by obeying its laws, and by participating in its requirements (e.g. paying taxes and so forth.) In most circumstances, “obey the government” describes all this adequately.
But even a fair summary is still just a summary. It has limitations. In particular, we must avoid taking a summary and lazily turning it into it’s own moral absolute. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I’m seeing some Christians do in their own exhortations and deliberations. Scripture does not allow us to do that, for the Bible makes it clear that there are legitimate exceptions to submitting to government.
The first exception, of course, is the one that most Christians will readily acknowledge: “We must obey God rather than man.” The Apostles–the writer of Romans 13 included–weren’t at all shy about disobeying their governments when it came to proclaiming the Gospel. Neither was the early Church, which is why so many of them were martyred by the governing authorities. When government commands what God forbids or forbids what God commands, we obey the higher Authority and reject those dictates of the government. We may argue quite passionately about exactly what God has commanded in specific circumstances, but we all agree that His Word trumps civil government’s.
There is, however, another nuance that we don’t talk about very much even though it’s right there in Romans 13: obedience during transitional periods.
It’s a brute fact of history that governments transition from time to time. One set of governing authorities loses it’s authority while another gains it. This can happen in any number of ways. Sometimes it happens during routine transitions of power when one individual in authority is succeeded by another according to the laws and customs of that nation (by inheritance, by election, etc.) Since they are routine, these transitions pose little difficulty to Christians trying to follow Romans 13.
There are other transitions, however, which pose a greater ethical difficulty. Sometimes one governing authority is overthrown by another–often violently–apart from the laws and customs of that nation. This can happen through conquest, through revolution, through secession, through civil war, through collapse, and so forth. All of these involve competing and/or disappearing claims to the authority in question. These transitions can be trickier for the Christian to navigate because although they are very common throughout human history, we don’t typically spend most of our lives in the midst of them. Your mileage on that may vary on that depending on where and when you’ve lived, but such circumstances are fairly alien to the typical American Christian discussing the subject today. In such times, the Christian may have some degree of difficulty answering the question: Who is my governing authority?
As I said, this difficulty is right there in Romans 13 when Paul writes, “There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” And yet, many of those that exist have come about through the messy kind of transitions–including the Roman government under which Paul wrote. American Christians themselves live in one of them, for the United States government is a result of a revolution in which we declared independence from a former governing authority instituted by God and did violence against it to make that declaration a reality. And yet, this authority that now exists is also instituted by God. It presents us with a rather interesting paradox. What, then, does obedience to the governing authorities require in those kinds of situation?
I would contend that these situations present Christians with same exception as the first one that we all acknowledge: When there is a conflict between authorities, we obey the higher authority.
The higher authority isn’t the one with the biggest stick, for history has seen many upsets when the weak overpower the strong and are instituted as the governing authority. Likewise, the higher authority isn’t the one making the biggest claims, for anyone could claim to be king of the world, and we would all rightly ignore it. Odd as it may sound, the higher authority isn’t the one with the greatest moral authority either. Not only are there many righteous causes which ultimately fail, there are instances in the Old Testament in which God subjects His own people to far worse authorities as a way of disciplining them. That same fact carries with it another odd conclusion: when it comes to our deliberations over which authority to choose, we can’t simply “obey God rather than man” because much of the time, we may not actually know which “side” God is on (or if He is on any side at all, or on both.) As Luther put it, God often uses one knave to punish another.
So how can we solve this puzzle? As usual, most of a Christian’s ethical questions can be resolved by a proper understanding of vocation.
Even in times of chaotic transition, there is always a higher authority which we can be absolutely certain is there: the father’s authority over his household. We know it’s there because it’s explicitly established by God in the 4th Commandment. As I’ve pointed out before:
In Luther’s analysis of the Fourth Commandment, all temporal authority penultimately proceeds from parents by way of God’s explicit command to honor our fathers and mothers. And, of course, though we loathe to think of it in our feminist culture, that parental authority is most properly paternal authority—for God has explicitly established the husband as head of the wife and instructs the wife to be submissive to her husband. So in sum, whatever governing institutions we may be under, they exist because somewhere along the line, our forefathers delegated their own authority over their households to others in order to assist them with specific tasks.
Fathers have a responsibility to care for their wives and children in every way. Other members of that household take on roles within the scope of that responsibility to assist in that task. This responsibility gives rise to authority. As different families cooperate with one another, they naturally create institutions to whom they delegate some measure of that authority. When those institutions fail–as all earthly institutions do eventually–the authority does not disappear, but returns to the fathers who delegated it in the first place. When fathers reassert that authority over and against failed institutions, it is not a violation of Roman’s 13, but a fulfillment of it. It is part of their vocation through which God establishes governing authorities in the first place.
In addition to the authority of fathers (which is universal across cultures,) there are places where citizens are actually authorized to offer some measure of resistance by the governing institutions themselves. This is can happen on a small scale, as is often the case with self-defense. In America, however, this was done on a larger scale (unsurprisingly as our founders were revolutionaries themselves.) The First and Second Amendments to our Constitution were both provided so that citizens themselves would be able to serve as a check against failed government. The First allows us to oppose government with words, while the Second was intended in large part as a failsafe that facilitates an organized armed resistance. We must not forget the way America’s highest civil authority, the Constitution, empowers Americans in relatively unique ways.
So when the governing authorities recede and abandon their responsibility and authority to punish wrongdoers and commend right-doers, it falls to fathers and sometimes citizens to pick up the slack for the sake of their families and neighbors. Likewise, when different governing authorities are in conflict, it falls to fathers to choose which of them (if any) to support for the sake of their families. In some extreme cases, it may ever fall to fathers to forcibly reclaim their authority from institutions that are abusing it. None of these are to be the norm for Christians, as such times are the exceptions rather than the rule. But in exceptional times, Christians need more than just the summary of Romans 13. We need the whole of it.
So are we living in one of those transitional periods? If Americans are not now, then we probably will be soon.
In many of our cities, the local authorities have currently chosen to relinquish their authority and give rioters free reign. Is this a temporary lapse in judgment or a failure of the institutions? That’s a judgment call which I cannot make; I don’t even live in such a city. But as the chaos increases, I’m in no way inclined to condemn those who do live in such a situation if they come to believe their families need them to step up. Romans 13 does not require Christian men to cower inertly and hope it all passes by just because that’s the course chosen by the governing authorities. On the contrary, their vocations require them to find the best way they can to protect their households and livelihoods. It’s entirely possible that picking up your rifle to defend your neighborhood may be the right call sometimes.
There’s also a strong possibility that we’ll find ourselves facing a revolution in which different governing authorities will be openly and violently contend against one another at the highest levels. Progressives never really accepted the 2016 election as a way of resolving our differences for the subsequent 4 years. In other words, a huge swath of America is already rejecting the laws and customs under which government transitions peacefully. This time around, they’re openly floating the idea of a violent coup when President Trump wins the election. If that happens, American Christians must not be under the impression that Romans 13 requires them to sit by and do nothing. On the contrary, we all have a responsibility to contend for our families according to our best judgment–even if that requires us to take up arms one set of governing authorities.
To be clear, this is not a call to intemperance, to violence, or to revolution. Replacing a governing authority is costly in a way that’s beyond the comprehension of most of us. It’s not usually the best way of caring for one’s family–especially if you have no plan with a reasonable chance of success. And let’s face it, those of us who loathe what’s happening to our nation have no real plan or organization. Nevertheless, there is a cost to keeping a failed government as well, and I don’t think we truly grasp what we are in for should we do nothing.
Christians living in exceptional times must not labor under the delusion that they’re being godly by refusing to contend for their family in such circumstances. Romans 13 must not become the excuse of the timid for their inaction. We must all regard God’s thou-shalt-not’s, but we must do so without dismissing His thou-shalt’s. The servant who buried his talent out of fear was not commended by his Lord.
American Christians: Be wise. Be vigilant. Be prepared. Pray for God’s guidance. Remember the ones for whom you are responsible. The time will come when you’ll need to make a hard choice. Make the best choice you can according to the wisdom given to you, and lean on Christ’s forgiveness for the rest.