Romans 13 & The Possibility of Civil Disobedience

I’ve posted this before on Iron Ink but I was having some problems accessing it so I post it again here for my own sake.

Romans 13:1b – For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.

Should we follow the idea that the presumption in the text, found 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.

We are going to 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 say that God does not appoint wicked governing authorities. Such an appointment by God of such wicked governing authorities may very well be God’s appointed punishment for a people’s sin. However, such God appointed authorities may themselves find themselves removed for other God appointed authorities by God’s people as they follow lesser magistrates that God raises up in blessing to His people.

Romans 13:2 – Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment upon themselves.

Taking into consideration the qualifiers from vs. 3-4, the point here is that those who resist a reasonable and just governing authority, which is not seeking to force God’s people into treason against Christ, are people that are resisting God. The text in no way countenances obedience to governing authorities appointed by God who are seeking to legislate sin or treason against Christ into the Christian’s life. Should a God appointed governing authority seek an obedience that would violate the Christians relationship to his Liege Lord Christ then at that point resistance to tyrants becomes submission to God.

The mentioning of resistance provides the opportunity for a brief rabbit trail.

First, we would say that resistance comes in different shapes and sizes. Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah from the book of Daniel reveal what is commonly called non-violent resistance. This kind of resistance seems to be the only option open to Christians when God has not yet seen fit to raise up a lesser magistrate to command their obedience in godly defense of Christ honoring order. The resistance here is characterized as being a resistance that is willing to pay the consequences of resistance in order to do what is right before God and man. It is needless to say that such resistance does not always end in being delivered from the blazing furnace. Often in these situations we see that the blood of the martyrs is indeed the seed of the Church.

Another interesting aspect of the resistance that we find in the book of Daniel is the ability for the individual resisters to keep working for the governing authority once the particular episode causing the resistance is resolved. In other words, even though there are times of resistance that we see in the book of Daniel, there is no indication that the pagan governing authority in question couldn’t be submitted to once the particular problem was removed. This is suggestive that Christians, when living under pagan governments, can both resist and at the same time support the overall governing authority structure should that governing authority structure relent from what is provoking the necessary Christian resistance. In short, all Christian resistance, whether individual and non-violent or corporate and armed, does not necessarily have overthrow as its goal. All because I cannot bow down to the King’s image (for example) doesn’t mean that the King’s rule should be capsized. It only means that the King has to quit expecting Christians to bow down to his image.

Secondly, large scale non-violent resistance that is almost certain to bring death upon those who are non-violently resisting needs eventually to take the 6th commandment under consideration. If non-violent resistors know, due to the King’s track record for dealing with such resistance, that taking a certain non-violent action will eventuate in their own death, then the non-violent resistors need to ask themselves whether or not the giving over of their lives is some form of self murder. It seems that if we are to honor the 6th commandment as it pertains to ourselves, Christians at some point in the kind of hypothetical situation we are describing must turn their non-violent resistance into the armed resistance of self-defense. We will return to the 6th commandment again later.

Thirdly, the examples that we opened with from the Old Testament Scriptures clearly teach that armed resistance, when led by lesser magistrates, can be a Biblical response to gross egregious disobedience of ungodly magistrates.

Romans 13:3 – 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.

Do what is good.

And of course our response is… “By what standard?”

Well, the Christian only has one standard by which he determines that which is good and that is God’s explicit law. How else can we determine what is good? So, we are to do what is good by God’s standard.

“The nations are bound to recognize the Bible as the supreme law of the land; as the standard of civil legislation. God’s law as recorded in the Bible, reaches all the possible relations of humanity; extends to every duty that can be performed, and fastens its claims on associated bodies of men, as well as upon individual persons. Were this not true, we should have this monstrous anomaly in Jehovah’s government, that while men, as individuals, are bound by the laws recorded in the Bible, in their congregated capacities, they may set these laws at defiance, and even contemn as citizens, what as Christians they are bound to honor and obey. If we admit that kings, as such, are not bound by the laws contained in the Bible, they commit no sin in acting contrary to them, while they act in their official capacity. The moral laws recorded in the Holy Scriptures, are but a fairer copy, and more full and explicit declaration of the eternal and immutable principles of righteousness, which are contained in the law of nature.”

–James R. Wilson — Presbyterian Minister

So, here it become obvious that the Apostle is not talking about Rulers who are tyrants and usurpers, for tyrants and usurpers most definitely are a terror to good works and are a friend to evil workers.  The call here to be subject to Magistrates here is a call that is circumscribed by the text’s definition of a Magistrate who is defined as someone who is God’s Minister to us for good. If he is a Minister to us for evil then he does not fall in the category of a Magistrate to whom we must be subject to.

The text limits who we are to be subject to by defining the person we are to be subject to. If he is not a terror to those who do evil but is instead a terror to those who do good he does not qualify as one to whom we must be subject to.

For example tyrants and usurpers are a friend to the evil workers who are abortion providers, as we saw again just this last week with the SCOTUS decision on “Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.” These kind of Magistrates we are not to be subject to for they are Ministers to us for evil.

Tyrants and Usurpers show their friendship with evil workers by taking money from those who do what is good to give to these evil workers, which is exactly what happens as the IRS takes from Christ honoring people and redistributes it to those doing evil.

Indeed, we would say that usurpers can be identified by their propensity to not be a terror to evil works but to good.

Dr. Greg Bahnsen offers here that

“When such service (to the Christian’s Lord) is repudiated by the King (or other ruling authority) and is violently and persistently transgressed, so that good citizens are terrorized by the ruler and evil men tolerated or exalted, the Christian must not comply with the tyrant’s policy but rather work for reform in the name of the Lord and divine standards of public justice.”

Romans 13:4 – 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.

Do not rush by the fact that the Magistrate is called here “God’s minister.”  In the Greek the word is the same word from which we get the word Deacon. It is most often used in the Scriptures to define those who minister the word or for those who fulfill the set office of deacon in the Church. Here the Magistrate is called God’s Minister, which should predispose us to thinking that the Magistrate referenced here is a Magistrate that does God’s revealed bidding. It is why Paul can say the Magistrate in question is to us for good.

If Paul had desired to say that the Magistrate was an agent of the Devil to us for good he could have said, as Paul said concerning his “thorn in the flesh,” that the Magistrate was a Messenger of Satan. But Paul doesn’t say that. Paul writes that the Magistrate is God’s Minister which inclines us to believe that the Magistrate is to be operating in accord with God’s revealed justice.

Now a word on the sword here that the Magistrate, as God’s Minister bears. The sword is a symbol of Justice. The Magistrate therefore, as God’s Minister is to be the agent of God’s justice for a people.

Now, how is the Magistrate to know what what Justice is? How is he to define Justice? The only way that the Magistrate can define Justice and so be a good to the people is to look to God’s Word as his authority for defining justice.

Listen to John Knox as he talks about the Sword of Justice,

“The Sword of Justice, Madam, is God’s, and is given to princes and rulers for one end. If they fail in their duty and spare the wicked, then those who intervene and deal out the requisite punishment will not offend God. Nor are those who restrain kings from striking innocent men committing any sin, as numerous Biblical example demonstrate. In Scotland, judges are empowered by Act of Parliament to seek out and punish those who celebrate Mass, and it is your duty, Madam, to support them. Ye should therefore consider what it is that your subjects expect from you, and what it is that ye ought to do unto them by mutual contract. They are bound to obey you and that not but in God. Ye are bound to keep laws unto them. Ye crave of them service: they crave of you protection and defence against wicked doers. Now, Madam, if ye shall deny your duty unto them…think ye to receive full obedience of them? I fear, Madam, ye shall not.”

John Knox
Interview w/ Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots
Teaching us on the proper disposition to Magistrates

The fact that the sword of Justice is to be handled in keeping with God’s revelation was a point made by Greg Bahnsen,

“The civil magistrate cannot function without some ethical guidance, without some standard of good and evil. If that standard is not to be the revealed law of God… then what will it be? In some form or expression it will have to be the law of man (or men) – the standard of self-law or autonomy. And when autonomous laws come to govern a commonwealth, the sword is certainly wielded in vain, for it represents simply the brute force of some men’s will against the will of other men.”

Bahnsen was merely echoing a long exegetical history as seen in this comment by Samuel Rutherford, Lex Rex, p.34

”Tyranny being a work of Satan, is not from God, because sin, either habitual or actual, is not from God: the power that is, must be from God; the magistrate, as magistrate, is good in nature of office, and the intrinsic end of his office, (Rom. xiii. 4) for he is the minister of God for thy good; and, therefore, a power ethical, politic, or moral, to oppress, is not from God, and is not a power, but a licentious deviation of a power; and is no more from God, but from sinful nature and the old serpent….”

Here we quote from Jonathan Mayhew’s Sermon entitled, ‘On The Right Of Revolution.’

“Here the apostle argues from the nature and end of magistracy, that such as did evil (and such only) had reason to be afraid of the higher powers; it being part of their office to punish evil doers, no less than to defend and encourage such as do well. But if magistrates are unrighteous; if they are respecters of persons; if they are partial in their administration of justice; then those who do well have as much reason to be afraid, as those who do evil: there can be no safety for the good, nor any peculiar ground of terror to the unruly and injurious. So that, in this case, the main end of civil government will be frustrated. And what reason is there for submitting to that government, which does by no means answer the design of government?”

And now Knox

“Let a thing here be noted, that the prophet of God sometimes may teach treason against kings, and yet neither he nor such as obey the word, spoken in the Lord’s name by him, offend God.”

John Knox

Romans 13:7 – Render therefore to all their due; taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.

The Holy Spirit summarizes his argumentation by calling on his listeners to give to those what is their due. Given all that we have said thus far it is clear that which is due to magistrates is dependent in some degree upon the proper due they give to the one whom has appointed them to their position and whom they themselves are subject.

This verse should be read in conjunction with Jesus’ command to ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars and render unto God the things that are Gods.’ (Matthew 22:21)

The giving of what is due to magistrates (Romans 13:7) or the rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesars must be measured by some standard that is beyond and above whatever the magistrate or the Caesar determines. Any Christian people who would allow a wicked Caesar or magistrate to determine on their own what is their due or what should be rendered to them would quickly become an enslaved people. Any glance of history will reveal that there are times when the magistrate has wanted taxes that were not his due. Any glance of history reveals that there have been times when the magistrate desired a fear and/or honor that were not his to command due to his disobedience to God. There are times when it is conceivable that dishonor, as the magistrate counts it, would be done out of honor to God.

Kyle and Johnson summarizing John Knox on this

What if the state merely supports the idolatrous practices of the church? Then the people must resist. Even lowly individuals — if they speak as God’s ambassadors — have the authority to rebuke princes for their transgressions…. the real treason was not to oppose idolatrous monarchs to the death.

Kyle & Johnson 
John Knox; An Introduction to his Life and Work — pg. 102

1.) Romans 13, when read against the rest of Scripture does not negate the possibility of armed resistance to wicked rulers. This has been noted time and time again throughout history by people of the Reformed Faith,

“For earthly princes lay aside their power when they rise up against God, and are unworthy to be reckoned among the number of mankind. We ought, rather, to spit upon their heads than to obey them.”

John Calvin 
Daniel Commentary

“The nature of wicked princes is much like to warthogs, which if they be suffered to have their snouts in the ground, and be not forthwith expelled, will suddenly have their snouts in all the body; So they if they be obeyed in any evil thing be it ever so little will be obeyed in all at length.”

John Ponet
Magisterial Reformer

“Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

John Knox

”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…. When magistrates cease to do their duty, the people are as it were, without magistrates … If Princes do right and keep promise with you, then do you owe all humble obedience. If not ye are discharged from and your study ought to be in this case how ye may depose and punish according to law such rebels against God and oppressors of their country.”

Christopher Goodman
Puritan / Co-pastor with John Knox in Geneva

Romans 13 is not to be understood, as if magistrates were above the laws, and had a lawless power to do as they will without opposition; for they are under the law, and liable to the penalty of it, in case of disobedience, as others; and when they make their own will a law, or exercise a lawless tyrannical power, in defiance of the laws of God, and of the land, to the endangering of the lives, liberties, and properties of subjects, they may be resisted.

John Gill

“If there is no final place for civil disobedience, then the Government has been made autonomous, and as such, it has been put in the place of the living God.”

2.) Lesser magistrates in the OT included the office of Priests (Jehoiada) and Prophets (Elijah). Is this suggestive that the office of ‘Pastor’ might therefore be considered a office that constitutes a magistrate who, even though in another jurisdictional realm, God could hypothetically raise up to lead God’s people against Tyranny in the Civil Realm ?

Consider how unlikely it is that a lesser magistrate under a supreme magistrate would ever rise up to bite the hand that has put him in that position. Is there no place to look for lesser magistrates to lead against tyranny besides those who come from the King’s house? Why not look for leadership of others magistrates that come from the house of the other jurisdictional Spheres as we see exemplified by Elijah the Prophet and Jehoida the Priest as they acted as representatives from other jurisdictional Spheres against the civil jurisdictional Sphere? If we hold that the doctrine of interposition is valid for the State in other Spheres (as in the plea to enter into the Family Sphere to the rescue of Terri Schiavo) why would not the doctrine of interposition be valid for the Church Sphere against a rampaging disobedience in the Civil Sphere?

If there are people who can answer this in a way that leans against the expected answer of the rhetorical question I would love to hear it.

3.) Non-violent resistance might be a violation of the 6th commandment depending on what is known regarding the outcome of non-violent resistance.

4.) Readings of Romans 13 that lead to the advocacy of civil disobedience for every picayune or imagined slight against the Christian faith or readings that lead to the conclusion that it is never ever right no matter what for Christians to be involved in civil disobedience are to be eschewed.

The former attitude cannot be justified by the Biblical call that we should pursue peace with all men. The latter attitude can not be justified if we are serious about avoiding the sin of idolatry. Francis Schaeffer put it this way in his Christian Manifesto,

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.

3 thoughts on “Romans 13 & The Possibility of Civil Disobedience”

  1. A quick questions:

    Even if a county dog-catcher could successfully rise up against the POTUS for the right reasons (i.e., the POTUS seeks an obedience that would violate the Christian’s relationship to Christ), does the dog-catcher’s office bear the kind of *weight* that would legitimize a new regime?

    1. Andrew,

      You will have to be more specific w/ your question. Either your question doesn’t make sense as written or the drugs I’m taking for my back are blocking my
      ability to make heads or tails of your question.

      1. Sorry, Pastor Brett, I forgot to check back earlier. I guess my question breaks down to : what constitutes a lesser magistrate competent to establish a new (legitimate) order? Thanks for your thoughts.

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