16 May Romans 13: Is God a Statist?
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
– Romans 13:1 (KJV)
Jesus Christ serves as an exemplar of peace. Holding ultimate authority and command of a large number of men, he allowed himself to be arrested, tortured and killed. Many of his followers did likewise, allowing themselves to be martyred by the powers that were rather than fighting to protect themselves. Indeed, the entire 13th chapter Paul’s letter to the Romans is dedicated to the idea that Christians should submit to legitimate authority and allow Caesar to maintain peace and prosperity in the Roman empire.
It’s difficult, therefore, to reconcile opposition to government with Christian faith. On one hand, we say that The State does evil and that we ought to oppose its advances strongly. On the other hand, we have Paul telling us that God has ordained the powers that be, and that we ought not to stand against them.
One of the great difficulties facing all sorts of scholars is the importance of context. Religious scholars are particularly hard-pressed by this; centuries of history and human interpretation and seemingly contradictory directions from on high mean that reading a single verse or passage of a religious work is unlikely to give a clear picture of the author’s intent. If we read John 11:35, “Jesus wept,” and nothing else, does that mean that Christ’s example is to cry endlessly and openly? certainly not.
The context of Paul’s letter to the Romans, and the 13th chapter in particular, is important to understanding its meaning. Indeed, in the 12th chapter, Paul writes:
Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
– Romans 12:17-21
So Paul recognizes that there are evil men in the world, and that Christians can have enemies. But he advocates peaceful, non-violent resolutions to conflict. He recognizes the best method to “heap coals of fire upon” the enemy’s head: to do kindness despite persecution.
Furthermore, Romans 13 imposes duties upon Caesar, upon states and governments:
For rulers are not a cause of fear to good conduct, but to evil. Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good and you will receive approval from it, for it is a servant of God for your good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer. Therefore, it is necessary to be subject not only because of the wrath but also because of conscience. This is why you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, devoting themselves to this very thing.
– Romans 13:3-6
And God frequently strikes down kings and nations throughout the course of the Bible. The Babylonians, Ahab, Saul, and the Beasts in Revelation are all recognized authorities, ordained by God, and they are all brought low by Him. Indeed, just before the establishment of the Hebrew monarchy, Samuel warns the children of Israel:
And Samuel told all the words of the LORD unto the people that asked of him a king. And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day.
– 1 Samuel 8:10-18
Overall, I think it safe to say that God is not a statist. Paul is not advocating the existence or the actions of Caesar’s office or his empire: he is denouncing violence as the solution. Paul is advocating a peaceful church, not a complacent church. A Christian Anarchist is not a contradiction in terms, unless he engages in violence.