Romans 13:1f … Then and Now

I intend to misbehave this morning… at least by today’s standards. Over the years I have taken to the habit, when intending to misbehave to stand in the shadows of the Church Fathers who misbehaved before me so that if people are going to condemn and pillory me they must condemn and pillory the misbehaving Fathers as well. If they are going to get angry at me they are going to be required to be angry at the greater Church Fathers of which I am but a theological runt. As such there is going to be a great deal of quoting this morning for the express purpose of communicating that I am not not being novel. I want to express communicate two purposes. First, I intend to demonstrate that I am standing in the longstanding, great and rich tradition of Biblical Christianity. I am not being novel. Second, I intend to demonstrate how far off track our modern clergy has gone askew in their transmogrifying of Romans 13 into some kind of ugly beast. From all our quoting we will turn to the reason the Church Father’s said what they said. We will turn to the Scriptures (Romans 13) from which they drew their convictions and their wisdom.

Allow me to say at the outset that everything that is about to be said this morning is premised on the following statement as drawn from the necessary implication of the 1st commandment.


“No Magistrate, no Husband, no Father, no Employer, no Minister, is owed unconditional obedience by the Man of God. Only God is owed unconditional obedience. Magistrates, as Covenant heads who viciously and continually violate the charters and covenant documents of a Nation, are no longer to be considered Magistrates, but instead are to be considered the Devil’s spawn and so are to be resisted when opportunity arises and the possibility of success is good.”

If we are to have no other God but God before us then this statement must govern how we understand all issues of hierarchy and obedience to that hierarchy including citizens to Magistrates.

Having said that before we start quoting the past Divines let us start by quoting a couple of contemporary wannabees which will inform us why there is a need to revisit Romans 13 and how it is that Romans 13 has been transmogrified.

“To some people, evangelical Christianity was a proper justification for the American Revolution. They believe we had every right to load up our guns and kill Englishmen for the sake of our religious freedom…. The truth is, the United States was born out of a violation of Romans 13:1-7 in the name of Christian freedom.”

John MacArthur

Allow me to just say here that this is a profoundly stupid thing for a Christian minister to say. The rest of the Sermon will demonstrate how errant Johnny Mac is.

“(Romans 13) It means then we are to view then even the most iniquitous tyrants as occupying the place which God has appointed to them. After all, who is the Supreme King and ruler over all the earth? So that means people who are in position of authority are there that institution has been put in place under the sovereign plan of God.”

Allister Begg

Now we quite agree that all that happens happens by God’s appointment. However, that God’s appointment might be to put a Stalin or Mao on the throne does not mean that God’s appointment might not just as well be that a Stalin or a Mao be overthrown by Christians because Stalin or Mao did not rule as God’s Magistrate.

The next time someone throws Romans 13 at you, in this way, as proof that all authorities are God’s authorities and must be unquestioningly obeyed you throw back

Hosea 8:4 “They have set up kings, but not by me: they have made princes, and I knew [it] not: of their silver and their gold have they made them idols, that they may be cut off. “

We must make the distinction between all things happening happen by God’s sovereign decree and all things that happen that do not have God’s sanction per God’s precept / command. We can say that a Stalin was God’s will in terms of His secret decree of ordination but we can say at the same time that a Stalin was not in keeping with God’s revealed precepts (as Hosea 8:4 articulates). A magistrate who sits as a magistrate who violates God’s ruling order is a magistrate that does not have the cloak of God’s protection as magistrate. After all, it is Lex Rex and not Rex Lex.

These two quotes from Johnny Mac and Begg I think represent much of what we get anymore in the Christian world. We even have a shorthand pejorative for these types. We call them “The Romans 13 crowd.” We use that phrase as a shorthand to describe Christians who, when it comes to Church State relations, believe that when wicked Magistrates puts us under house arrest the Christians’s immediate response is “is it ok to go to the Kitchen?”

But it was not always as Johnny Mac and Allister Begg speak. For centuries Christians … and especially Biblical Christians had a much different understanding of Church State relations as seen in the following quotes.

“He is a king who governs his people justly; if he does otherwise, he shall be king no longer.”

St. Isidore
Church Council — 4th Council of Toledo
633 AD

“… when he who is chosen to defend the good and hold the evil in check himself begins to cherish wickedness … is it not clear that he justly forfeits the dignity conceded to him and the people stand free of his rule and subjection, since it is evident that he was first to violate the compact on account of which he was made ruler? … It is one thing to rule another to act the tyrant in a realm. For as faith and reverence ought to be rendered to emperors and kings for the sake of safeguarding … the realm …if these rulers break out into tyranny, it is no breach of faith or piety that no fealty or reverence is paid to them.

11th century Church Spokesman

… For many (men) would be [19] more than preposterously wise, whilst, under pretext of due submission, they obey the wicked will of kings in opposition to justice and right, being in some cases the ministers of avarice and rapacity, in others of cruelty; yea, to gratify the transitory kings of earth, they take no account of God; and thus, which is worst of all, they designedly oppose pure religion with fire and sword. It only makes their effrontery more detestable, that whilst they knowingly and willingly crucify Christ in his members, they plead the frivolous excuse, that they obey their princes according to the word of God; as if he, in ordaining princes, had resigned his rights to them; and as if every earthly power, which exalts itself against heaven, ought not rather most justly to be made to give way.”

~ John Calvin commentary on Exodus 1:17.
Mid-wives disobeying Pharaoh

…”The Holy Scripture doth teach, that God reigns by His own proper authority, and kings by derivation … That God hath a jurisdiction proper, kings are His delegates. It follows then, that the jurisdiction of God hath no limits, that of kings [is] bounded …kings should acknowledge that, after God, they hold their sovereignty and power from the people… let them remember and know that they are of the same mould and condition as others, raised from the earth by voice and acclimation … it is from God, but by the people’s sake they do reign…There is ever; and in all places, a mutual and reciprocal obligation between the people and the prince … if the Prince fail in his promise, the people are exempt from obedience, the contract is made void, the rights of obligation of no force.

Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos
Published – 1579

When kings or rulers become blasphemers of God, oppressors and murderers of their subjects, they ought no more to be accounted kings or lawful magistrates, but as private men to be examined, accused, condemned and punished by the law of God, and being condemned and punished by the law of God, it is not man’s by God’s doing … When magistrates cease to do their duty, the people are as it were w/o magistrates…If princes do right and keep promise w/ you, then do you owe them all humble obedience. If not, ye are discharged and your study ought to be how ye may dispose & punish according to the law such rebels against God and oppressors of their country.”

Christopher Goodman – 16th Century Reformed English Puritan
How Superior Powers ought to be obeyed of their subjects; and wherein they may lawfully by God’s word be disobeyed and resisted.

A prince is appointed by God to cherish his subjects, even as a shepherd to guard his sheep. When, therefore, the prince does not fulfill his duty as protector, when he oppresses his subjects, destroys their ancient liberties and treats them as slaves, he is to be considered not a prince, but a tyrant. As such, the estates of the land may lawfully and reasonably depose him, and elect another in his room.”Dutch Act of Abjuration – 1581 “… The origin of every monarchy, lay in election. The people, give their consent to the king’s authority only with the clear understanding that there are certain reciprocal conditions, which neither king nor people can violate with impunity … a monarch who pretends to rule by any other title might be forced to relinquish his throne whenever there is sufficient force to compel his abdication.”

Sir Edwin Sandys – 17th Century Puritan
Speech given in the English House of Commons – 1614

In 1643, Pastor Samuel Rutherford wrote Lex, Rex, or the Law and the Prince in which he commented on Romans 13:3-4:

The ruler, as the ruler, and the nature and intrinsical end of the office is, that he bear God’s sword as an avenger to execute wrath on him that doth evil, and so cannot be resisted without sin. But the man who is the ruler, and commandeth things unlawful, and killeth the innocent, carrieth the … sword to execute, not the righteous judgment of the Lord upon the ill-doer, but his own private revenge upon him that doth well; therefore, the man may be resisted….6

6. Samuel Rutherford, 
Lex, Rex, or The Law and the Prince (Originally printed in London for John Field, October 7, 1644) (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1982) p. 145.

“The clearest majority may only exercise that power within the limits prescribed for it by the constitution, and when it exceeds these limits, the will of the majority is no more the righteous rule for the citizen than the howling wind.”

Robert L. Dabney
Discussions Secular – pg. 308

“A ruler in the possession of power, but misusing it by woefully harming the common good, is not a ‘helpmate of God’ (leitourgos theou) and has no claim to obedience. It can even be argued that power, well established and entrenched, claiming to authority and to obedience. It can even be argued that power, well established and entrenched, claiming authority but methodically destroying the values of the common good, is diabolic in character. The satanic aspects of such government, combining power (a divine attribute) with wickedness and irrationality are usually underscored by a quality of confusion; it rarely opposes the common good on all scores and in every respect, though its positive actions are often means to nefarious ends: for example, even maternity wards, recreational institutions and places of learning established by the state can be designed to build up armies intended for aggressive warfare.”

Liberty or Equality — pg. 169
Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn

“For when any institution of human character or composition trespasses or exceeds the limits of God-given authority, then we are not under obligation to obey. (The violation of a law humanly imposed, and not the legitimate exercise of God-given authority, does not involve sin.) Nothing is sin except that which involves the violation of a divine obligation. There is only one Lawgiver. If the ordinances of men require us to violate the law of God, then we must obey God rather than men, and must violate the human ordinance. If human ordinances do not require us to sin but are in excess of divinely authorized prerogative, then compliance is to be determined by expediency in relation to all the circumstances of the situation.”

Dr. John Murray
– “The Nature of Sin,” Collected Writings of John Murray. Vol. #2.
The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, p. 79

[ Scott ] So we have to really and truly start acting like free people. We have to say the minute some official gets out of line we have to punish him.

[ Blumenfeld ] Yes.

[ Scott ] And they are all cowards.

[ Scott ] Well, the whole system is out of line, but we have to start someplace.

[ Blumenfeld ] I know. I would agree with you.

[ Scott ] Lectures will not do it. Physical actions sooner or later has to come into the picture.

029 – From the Easy Chair – Audio – RR161CY188.mp3
From the Easy Chair
Many Consequences of Educational Anomalies

What I have given here is just a Whitman’s sampler… a pu pu platter … just a taste of what could be reproduced from the Church Fathers. From the earliest times forward the Church has not believed that the Magistrate cannot be second guessed. Christians … and especially Reformed Christians have not embraced the whole ancient thesis of the divine rights of Kings, much to the chagrin of tyrannical Kings.

Now, we have to ask why all these men and hosts more like them,

“So foolishly fond are men to put themselves in the place of God, and usurp a jurisdiction over men’s consciences: and to presume that laws made against the interest and command of God, must be of more force than the laws of God’s enacting.”

Stephen Charnock

held convictions that are so contrary to today’s Romans 13 crowd who teach that Romans 13 gives license for the Magistrate to shear the sheep and that the sheep’s response should be to just shut up and enjoy the shearing.

This is a monumental issue. If one is familiar with the 20th century one is aware how often the 20th century has been characterized by wickedness in high places. Indeed, more judicially innocent blood has been spilled by the Governments of the 20th century than all the blood spilled prior to the 20th century by Governments. So, as this is characteristic of Government we better be well aware of what God’s Word has to say regarding such maniacal institutions.

And so we turn to Romans 13… the very passage that so many have appealed to sit down and shut up we appeal to in order to learn the very opposite principle. We turn here to learn how God speaks about Magistrates and our response to wicked magistrates.

Romans 13:1-4 – 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.

Here St. Paul inspired by the Spirit has a word to say to the Christians in Romans regarding Magistrates. Here we must say we cannot understand vs. 1-2 without considering 3-4 at the same time.

First he calls for subjection to governing authorities and says that the governing authorities he is speaking of a appointed by God. The fact that these governing authorities are appointed by God is our first clue that the Holy Spirit is speaking about a specific kind of authority. They are authorities appointed by God. In vs. 4 these governing authorities are described as “God’s ministers.” The word for “ministers” is the same word used for “Deacons” in the Church. These governing authorities are God’s servants. This kind of specification tells us that the governing authorities that are being spoken of here are a very precise kind of men. What is not being referred to are governing authorities who are in rebellion to God. The governing authorities being referenced here are those doing God’s work in keeping with God’s standards. These are the kind of governing authorities we are not to resist. How do we know this? The text tells us.

The governing authorities we are to submit to are governing authorities who are a terror to evil workers and not a terror to good workers.

And I think I could make a case that there is an implication in the text that as we are not to resist the kind of authority that is God’s minister who are properly a terror to evil workers and not a terror to the workers of good, we are to resist the kind of authority that is not God’s minister who are improperly a terror to the workers of good and not a terror to the workers of evil.

The Magistrate who is a terror to the worker of good should be the one who should be afraid.

Should we follow the idea that the presumption in the text, as explicated in vs. 3-4 that the governing authorities that are to be submitted to are governing authorities that are not ruling in such a way as to force the Christian to violate the Christians higher allegiance to Christ then we must conclude that it is those kind of governing authorities alone to which we owe our obedience. It is those authorities we are not to resist and if we were to resist them we would be violating the ordinance of God.

So, we find that Romans 13 does not allow Christians to check their moral compass at the door of the local magistrate. Romans 13 will not allow us to say “We were just following orders,” or “we were just obeying the law.”

Of course, this is not to deny that God places wicked governing authorities in their place. Such placing by God of such wicked governing authorities may very well be God’s appointed punishment for a people’s sin (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28). However, such God placed authorities may themselves find themselves removed for other God appointed authorities by God’s people as they follow the Interposition of lesser magistrates that God raises up in blessing to His people.

Author: jetbrane

I am a Pastor of a small Church in Mid-Michigan who delights in my family, my congregation and my calling. I am postmillennial in my eschatology. Paedo-Calvinist Covenantal in my Christianity Reformed in my Soteriology Presuppositional in my apologetics Familialist in my family theology Agrarian in my regional community social order belief Christianity creates culture and so Christendom in my national social order belief Mythic-Poetic / Grammatical Historical in my Hermeneutic Pre-modern, Medieval, & Feudal before Enlightenment, modernity, & postmodern Reconstructionist / Theonomic in my Worldview One part paleo-conservative / one part micro Libertarian in my politics Systematic and Biblical theology need one another but Systematics has pride of place Some of my favorite authors, Augustine, Turretin, Calvin, Tolkien, Chesterton, Nock, Tozer, Dabney, Bavinck, Wodehouse, Rushdoony, Bahnsen, Schaeffer, C. Van Til, H. Van Til, G. H. Clark, C. Dawson, H. Berman, R. Nash, C. G. Singer, R. Kipling, G. North, J. Edwards, S. Foote, F. Hayek, O. Guiness, J. Witte, M. Rothbard, Clyde Wilson, Mencken, Lasch, Postman, Gatto, T. Boston, Thomas Brooks, Terry Brooks, C. Hodge, J. Calhoun, Llyod-Jones, T. Sowell, A. McClaren, M. Muggeridge, C. F. H. Henry, F. Swarz, M. Henry, G. Marten, P. Schaff, T. S. Elliott, K. Van Hoozer, K. Gentry, etc. My passion is to write in such a way that the Lord Christ might be pleased. It is my hope that people will be challenged to reconsider what are considered the givens of the current culture. Your biggest help to me dear reader will be to often remind me that God is Sovereign and that all that is, is because it pleases him.

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