Reformed Baptist pastor David Dykstra’s series on Church & State is worth listening to, particularly the historic overviews of the reformation and American eras.
In Part 4, Dykstra explains that Romans 13 describes how Christians should relate to a government that is doing its job. It does not say how Christians should relate to a government that has become tyrannical. He quotes from Isaac Backus’ diary explaining how he preached in the time leading up to the American Revolution (April 23, 1775 – Backus was a prominent New England baptist pastor who testified before the Continental Congress and other political bodies lobbying for religious liberty. Scholars note he has a place beside Jefferson in the shaping of America).
“I noted that in Romans 13, the powers that be were required to submit to were ministers of God to the people for good.”
Backus would argue that Romans 13 could not be pressed into service by tyrants for use. He’s saying this passage only deals with a situation where a Christian is under a government that for the most part is doing a decent job of rewarding good and punishing evil. It does not give us specific directions as to what to do in those situations where a government, instead of rewarding good and punishing evil, rewards evil and punishes good. You see his point? He was saying that’s the kind of government the New Testament requires us to submit to, not to governments that are tyrannical!
But yet, over the centuries, tyrants made use of this passage of Scripture in Romans 13 to brow-beat people into submission. Tyrannical husbands have made use of Romans 13 to brow-beat wives into submission. Tyrannical parents have made use of Romans 13 to brow-beat children into submission. Tyrannical elders of churches have made use of Romans 13 to brow-beat their people into submission. But none of these passages deal with that specific problem as to what to do when you live under an authority is tyrannical. And the essence of a tyrannical authority is an authority who says “I am not subject to law.”
As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, this was not eisegesis on the part of an American Revolutionary. It was the historic reformed interpretation of the passage. But if that’s not what Romans 13 is addressing, then what is it addressing?
Why was it necessary to say to the Christian people at the time, “Listen, be obedient citizens. Obey the laws of the state. Be exemplary in how you live.” Why did they have to write that way?
- Jewish leaders in Paul’s day rebelled against the very notion they were subject to Rome and that they were not free… John 8:31-33…
- Jewish leaders questioned Rome’s right to tax them. Matt 22:15-17…
- Some Jewish leaders had risen up in rebellion against Rome. Acts 5:34-37… Here were Jews that rose up in rebellion against Rome. Here were leaders that rebellion – official, organized rebellion against Rome. This is one of the reasons Paul had to write as he did to the Christians. You are not to live that way. You are to be God’s different people in your life in the world. Israel was a difficult province for Rome to rule. Armed conflict was a fact of life between Roman forces and the Jewish zealots, predictably. Remember how in Luke 13:1… Barabbas…
So there were reasons for Paul to write as he did, for Peter to write as he did, because these were difficult times. The danger posed to the church was this – and I think you can appreciate it with just a little bit of thought – that Rome might not be able to discern between Jews and Jewish Christians at this early date. And Paul and the other Apostles wanted Christians to be exemplary in their conduct in relation to Roman authority… Matthew 5:41
In other words, these words of Paul and Peter arose from the fact that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, unlike the earthly kingdom of Israel. God’s direct reign as the king over the kingdom of Israel, sitting on his thrown in the temple (see here) meant that any foreign ruler was a usurper who had no authority over Israel. That’s why the history of Israel is God raising up men to overthrow foreign rulers again and again and again. It was called “salvation” (1 Sam. 11:13; 1 Chron 16:35; 2 Chron 20:17). Not so with the kingdom of Christ, which was inward, spiritual, and not of this world. Paul’s point is that earthly, unbelieving rulers still have authority over Christians, insofar as they rule lawfully (as Paul explains).
Starting with John the Baptist and continuing throughout Jesus’ ministry, the Jews were warned of the coming end of the Old Covenant when God would pour out the full wrath of the covenant on those who had broken it. The only refuge was to flee to Jesus, as Jesus explained in John 15:1-6 (a passage about Old Covenant curse, not about church membership). This looming judgment was still imminent when Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans (56-57AD – note, this was before Nero began persecuting Christians, thus Paul is not addressing that. In Part 5, Dykstra notes “At the time, it was still good government. 30 years from the time he wrote this, no New Testament writer would have been able to write this way. In 30 years from when this letter was written, the good government that was Rome would be the evil beast rising from the earth and the sea of Revelation 13 and Revelation 13 becomes almost the mirror image of Romans 13.”). Paul wrote to Jewish and Gentile Christians living in the capital city. Things were heating up between Jews and Rome and Paul wrote to clarify how Christians in the New Covenant should relate to Roman authority.
Luke 21:20-22 “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, know that the time of your judgment has come.” And what are you, as my people, supposed to do at that time when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies? You are to flee into the mountains. Do not become a part of this Jewish rebellion. Don’t get involved in this insurrection, this rebellion against Rome. Don’t go even back into the city. When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, don’t take part in that. You get out. And thankfully Christians did. And in the Jewish war of rebellion that began in 66AD and was utterly and finally squashed by Rome in 70AD, the Christians were spared because they listened to their Lord.
[I would not necessarily agree with Dykstra’s concluding applications in Part 4, nor the points in Parts 5-8.]
Dykstra also has a more recent two-part series on rebellion.