Government Authority and Freedom (Romans 13:1-5)
In 2008, I moved to a small town in Virginia. I purchased a nice home on 1 ½ acres. About ¾’s of an acre needed regular mowing. Fortunately, I had a Garden Tractor to assist me with the work. To enjoy myself while mowing, I bought headphones that not only protected my aging ears but also provided me with radio entertainment; very nice indeed! One afternoon while enjoying a pleasant mowing experience, I turned the radio dial on my headset to a talk station. The well-known pastor, John MacArthur, whom I greatly respect, was giving a talk about the source of authority and the Christian’s responsibility to that authority. I listened with anticipation for his discussion on Romans 13:1-5. His conclusion surprised me: Christians should obey and respect every government that God has placed in authority, no matter its conduct. Shockingly, he also concluded that the American Revolution was an affront to God and an act of disobedience against a divinely chosen authority, King George of England. Having served in the military for 23 years and being a degreed theologian and a non-degreed historian (avid student of history without school recognition), I believed that his interpretation of Romans 13 was both biblically and historically incorrect and dangerous. Believing throughout my adult years that God had blest the world with the founding and development of a uniquely American nation, the principles of which are based on Judeo-Christian mores and morals, I found the diminution of the sacrifice of founding patriots, and so many other patriots over the years, to be quite disconcerting at least, but mostly offensive.
At the end of the radio transmission, being a bit put-off, I immediately turned off my mowing machine and went inside hopeful to find a way to respond directly to Dr. MacArthur. Having found an email address, I wrote him a letter expressing my apprehension with regard to the radio broadcast. I never received a response.
The following is my interpretation and application of Romans 13:1-5. I hope you find it helpful. Let’s read the first two verses.
1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. 2 Therefore, whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.
These two verses, apart from what immediately follows, could be understood to say that all authority, just or unjust, is given by God and, therefore, must be obeyed. Those who resist that God-given authority should and must be disciplined in whatever manner the authority deems necessary to maintain control. This interpretation naturally argues that the Pharoah who enslaved Israel, Tiglath Pelizar, Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander the Great, Mohammed, King Henry VIII, King George III, Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao Si Tung, Pol Pot and so many other despicable authorities were to be respected and obeyed by those who were their subjects and victims. I find this conclusion barbaric and unjust and in direct opposition to the authority and character of God.
I concur that all authority is given and “established” by God and that all of those who are given authority in this world (past, present, and future) are required to rule in a manner consistent with the will of God and, therefore, they are directly responsible to God for the manner in which they use HIS authority. No human being has authority apart from God! There is no authority apart from God. Should they abuse, usurp or refuse God’s authority, the rulers, leaders, etc., need to be and indeed should be replaced, and if necessary, their governments dissolved. In this world, there is to be but one authority: God’s! Those who challenge divine authority, by imposing their own policies and dictates, will be judged by God in any way and at any time that He deems practicable by means of death, revolution, or electoral means, and ultimately by the return of the King of Kings, Jesus Christ—God Himself who will rule lovingly, justly and righteously upon the earth. The Lord will once and for all restore divine authority upon the earth.
If one wonders why America has been so blest throughout its history, think no further than its founding documents, which clearly base their authority in the God of Christian and Judeo Protestant Christian values (See Samuel Huntington: Who Are We?) One can confidently believe that America will fall if she continues to embrace progressive socialism’s humanly constructed utopia (actually, dystopia). History is replete with rogue nations in ruins—nations that rebel against the autonomous authority of God does not survive. The Almighty will not tolerate His authority being continually and arrogantly undermined and usurped. Our good is not up for grabs in the mind of God. This interpretation is based on eschatological Scriptures as well as the text found in Romans 13:3-5.
3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; 4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.
The preceding verses candidly and concisely describe the proper and only role of authority, which is to be epitomized in the lives of parents, teachers, professors, pastors, doctors, lawyers, coaches, employers, employees, and local, state and national governments (politicians). Authority’s sole responsibility is to promote and preserve good while preventing and punishing evil. The phrase “it is a minister of God,” used twice in verse 4, incontestably instructs and reminds the reader that authority is a reflection of the character and will of God on the earth. For this reason alone, human beings (God’s unique creation) should be/must be in subjection to their authority figures. Being willingly subject to authority is directly tied to the authority being willingly subject to the Creator. In this relationship alone, human beings discover the divine good/morality (the conscience of God) and the freedom (from evil) that makes people both productive and happy in the fullest sense (Galatians 5:13-26).
But what should Christians and freedom-loving Americans do when an authority defies God and assumes His authority as their own? Should they submit to and obey such authority or speak up and work to prevent the growth of philosophies and behaviors that are extremely detrimental to human wellbeing? In America, people can peacefully protest their authority. We can resist peacefully and often without great consequence, that is unless we fail to resist when we have the right to do so. Submitting to or remaining silent in the face of corruption when the risk is low is utter folly. Silence in the face of corruption only emboldens corruption to expand and become evil and, therefore, deadly. Therefore, believers must use this freedom to resist ideas that are in conflict with human well-being. To stay silent (submissive) is to betray faithfulness and to be complicit in future and more destructive societal depredations.
The Apostle Paul broke the laws of the Pharisees and the Romans and went to prison. He wrote the Book of Romans, the contents of which were in direct opposition to the will of the Roman Caesar. Roman Christians illegally met in the catacombs of Rome and throughout the Roman Empire, which was civil disobedience. Should William Tyndale have obeyed his King and refrain from translating the Scripture into the English language simply because his King was opposed to such Protestant efforts? Should have Martin Luther and John Calvin bowed to the dictates of the Papacy? They helped to bring the Scriptures and their teachings directly to the people. Chinese Christians disobey their dictator in order to assemble together and worship the Lord. Should they cease? Christians in the Middle East and in Africa hide from their Muslim overlords so that they can teach their children about Christ. Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrong to stand up to the Nazis? Did my parents’ generation disobey God by not allowing Hitler to become lord of the earth? John MacArthur and others seem to suggest that they should have conceded to England rather than resist an authority that was clearly godless. They certainly thought it was proper for King George of England to spread his power around the globe by any means he thought necessary.
Like all of us, the Founders of this nation were not perfect, but they were, for the most part, people of faith who believed in the God of Scripture and knew that He was the only Giver and Taker of Rights, having no human rival. If a people lose God (and with Him, His authority), they lose goodness, justice, righteousness, peace, unconditional love, morality, purpose, freedom, and happiness. The qualities for which human beings long and need are lost without submission to the true and only God. A world without God is Hell on earth.
I live in Pennsylvania. Governor Wolf and his gender-confused health secretary have placed Covid-19 positive senior citizens into Nursing Homes; a decision that has ended the lives of around 3000 persons at this time. The health secretary secretively removed his/her mother from one of these nursing homes. When this blazon hypocrisy was discovered, he/she gave a lame excuse for the removal. Should we not resist such evil and incompetence, especially in a country that constitutionally gives its people the freedom to resist. Governor Wolf is inappropriately deciding whose jobs are essential and whose are not—a decision that will have dire consequences for thousands of Pennsylvanians both now and into the future. Godless authorities that defy divine precepts are inept when it comes to love, justice, and righteousness. If decent people submit to such barbarity, a worse sort of barbarity will ensue. It is the obligation of moral people to wisely rise up against what is over-reaching, destructive, and godless, despite the potential consequence. Human authority, without regular checks and occasional dissent, will, in time, always fail and become ruthless the more it rejects and forgets the God of Scripture. Only in the authority of God the Father, Son, and Spirit can His blessings be bestowed and His promises fulfilled. This is the message and intent of Romans 13:1-5. It is not a call for Christian silence or subjugation to incompetent authorities. What happens when good people do nothing? FREEDOM DIES and pastors, like John MacArthur, are no longer free to write articles and preach sermons.