“A Man under Authority,” or, an examination of Romans 13

‘Reclaimer’ posts an excellent analysis of Romans 13 on the MVT Forum. I am copying his initial forum post into this blog; there are a series of comments and responses on the Forum.

For those of Faith, it is essential that you gain a proper understanding of the use of just force, particularly given where we are. You are not to blindly obey tyrannical government! This is a misrepresentation of what is written in Romans 13, and is an excuse for inaction.

Previous articles by ‘Reclaimer’ are:

“We are lesser sons, of greater Sires” or, the problem with Evangelicals.

The essence of Biblical Christianity

“A Man under Authority,” or, an examination of Romans 13

Hang on and sit tight folks, because this read is a long one.

Previous posts were intended to be reachable and understandable by people with little to no background in scripture, as a reminder of what Christians have been in the past. In examining a specific passage however, especially one so widely misunderstood and applied, it is necessary to do much more groundwork and analysis. In short, I must show, as well as tell. Thus, this post will be a bit longer and more detailed than the previous ones, since I am attempting to draw very clear but very fine lines. Even so I find such a comparatively short work insufficient, since entire volumes can and have been written on the subject, and are far more worthy than my submission. For an excellent and approachable work on Romans 13, I highly recommend “The Establishment and Limits of Civil Government” by James Wilson. Additionally, what I attempt in writing this is to teach the biblical concept of authority as a broader ideal so that we can properly apply not just Romans 13, but the rest of Scripture on the subject as well. To do so, I must post much larger blocks of Scripture than I have in the past, in order to analyze them accurately. I will keep the chunks as manageable as possible, but to do an accurate job with Romans 13, it is more important to be thorough than it is to be concise.

Romans 13 is one of the most widely misunderstood and misapplied scriptures by modern Christians. Part of this misunderstanding is a lack of groundwork laid before interpretation is attempted; Scripture was not written in a vacuum, so it cannot be interpreted in a vacuum, at least not accurately. The entire meaning of Romans 13 turns on the Biblical definition of authority; thus, to accurately interpret it, it is first necessary to look first at the larger context of Biblical authority in general before zooming in on the passage itself. In my previous posts I have simply referenced the larger concept and some of its principles, but here it will first be necessary to develop that concept scripturally, and then apply it to the passages in question. To that end, we must first ask, “what does Scripture mean by the word “authority?”

When examining scripture, it is first necessary to understand the rules by which we do so. First and foremost, we accept that Scripture means now what it meant by its author to its original audience and in its original context, and therefore man is not allowed to twist its interpretation by examining it according to modern language or modern perspective; though the meaning or implication of words may change, the original meaning of Scripture stays the same, and the original meaning is the one to be followed. Constitutional scholars call this principle “original intent.”

One of these “originalist” understandings is that authority is inherent only in God, and that while He sometimes gives some to Man, unless He does so it remains with Himself. Scripture teaches this, as will be demonstrated, but so does the vast majority of human history and opinion. In fact, the word itself reflects the concept; “authority” is derived from the Latin word auctor, which means “Master and Creator,” and from which we derive other words such as “author” and “actor.” The concept conveyed by auctor is simple – he who has made a thing has complete control over it. An author who creates a story has complete ability to do whatever he wants with his characters, and nobody can tell him what his characters should do; command flows from creation, and the creator retains command until it is given up.

The concept also conveys the idea that people moving on behalf of the auctor must do as they are told; in doing so, they become “actors,” and to do so well they must follow the roles as they are written, not however they please. Lastly, auctor provides us with a final word, auctoritatem, which refers to one who speaks or works at the behalf someone higher (the auctor). All of these derivative words imply that, in order to be authoritative, an authority must be moving or speaking on behalf of the creator, and according to his direction. Interestingly, a similar word in Latin, auctoritas, can mean “accountability,” and from which we infer a second ideal; authorities must be accountable to be valid. If this interpretation is true, then by definition, one who has not been given authority from the Creator, or who does not hold themselves accountable to the Creator, is not an authority. In fact, the idea that authority stems from creation and flows downwards from the Creator is echoed all over the place in ancient language and literature, and it is only in relatively modern times that such began to be disputed.

However, since this argument is intended to be a scriptural one, then it is scripture and not Latin which must form the foundation for it. Unsurprisingly however, the Hebrew words for “authority” convey the same meaning as their Latin counterparts, and the passages regarding authority support the ideal; for example, Colossians 1:15-20 clearly identifies the authority of God through creation, and Jesus’ last words before He ascended were of His supreme authority over all the earth (Matthew 28:18). The sum of all of this leads to the first and second principles of authority: that Authority is inherent in God alone, and it remains in Him until it is delegated.

Thankfully, delegations are often easy to spot and clearly delineated. The first delegation comes immediately after Man’s creation:

And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food…but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 1:28-30, 2:16-17).

First of all, notice that the delegation comes in the form of a command; Man is given a task to do (fill the earth and subdue it) and thus, the right to carry it out. In short, authority and responsibility are shown to be two halves of the same coin – you cannot have the one without the other, and you cannot claim authority unless you are willing to claim the command that necessitates it. Second, the delegation contains inherent limitations; in telling Man that the plants are theirs for food, God reserves to Himself everything else, meaning eating meat is forbidden. Furthermore, he also does not here give Man authority over other men, only over animals, plants, and the earth, meaning authority over men is also reserved. Lastly, even of the plants God reserves some for Himself, forbidding Man to eat from one of the trees. In eating of that tree, then, Man violated God’s reserved authority, and as a result was expelled from his former position; a first indication of the consequences of attempting to usurp authority that has not been granted. Thus, the next two principles of authority are reveled here: that authority comes with responsibility, including the responsibility to remain within delegated bounds, and that deliberately exceeding such delegated bounds is a violation of authority, deserving of removal.

Another delegation of authority occurs some generations later, in Genesis chapter 9. Prior to this, man had been filled with increasing wickedness, resulting in God flooding the earth and sparing only Noah and his family. When they come out of the ark, God gives another decree, like the dominion mandate, but with some changes:

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image. And you, be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it.” Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” (Genesis 9:1-11)

In this passage, man is once more granted authority, but also given a set of rules by which he must exercise it. He is now given not just the plants for food, but the animals as well. Importantly though, the authority to eat meat extends only so far- man is forbidden to eat the blood. The authority pattern is clear in this; mankind may kill animals for food (delegated authority) but the blood belongs to God (reserved authority) so Man must drain the blood before eating it (responsibility). All elements must coexist in the exercise of authority for it to be valid. As a second alteration, man is now, for the first time, given authority over other men. Furthermore, it is not for the sake of “order” or “protection” that such delegation occurs, but for the sake of the Image of God, which is so sacred that Justice demands retribution for it when it is desecrated. This is why the flood had to come in the first place; the sin of Man was so great that Justice was demanded, and God, having not delegated that responsibility, was the only one with the authority to enforce it.

In promising not to bring another flood, then, God passes the responsibility of enforcing the sanctity of the Image unto Man. In effect, God says “I will no longer judge the earth; therefore, you must do so yourself.” Once again, this is not a voluntary command; it is something Man is required to do whether he wants to or not. Important to note is that God says that He will demand an account from men on their enforcement, not leave men to enforce what and how they see fit. In doing so, He indicates that the standard for Justice has not changed. Just as God once enforced Justice on men, now Man must exercise Justice on men, on God’s behalf but for men’s sake. Much like the eating of meat, authority has been delegated, but it comes with rules that must be followed for the delegation to be valid. Later in scripture, additional rules are also given that elaborate the means by which man may and may not enforce Justice. An example of these rules is one that forbids putting a man to death on the testimony of a single witness (Deuteronomy 19:15). When taken together, these rules effectively become the law of creating governments and empowering the magistrate; what is to be forbidden and rewarded, and what is to be punished or tolerated. God does not prescribe a specific type of government that man is to form, (monarchy, republic, confederation, etc.,) but He does give rules that governments of any form are required to follow in order to be valid. In this delegation then, two more principles are taught: that man is responsible to God for enforcing Justice and must do so where commanded, and that failing to exercise Justice is a violation of authority. Additionally, a guiding principle is given for the others; that the sanctity of the Image of God is the ultimate basis for men exercising authority over other men. To that end, any authority which ceases to enforce the sanctity of the Image becomes invalid.

These rules are binding on all people at all times, and scripture gives many examples where people try to exceed their authority, often through unlawful exercise of power, and are subsequently removed from their positions as a result. I have mentioned already the death of the sons of Aaron and the removal of King Saul, but there are more. Multiple kings of Israel and Judah were removed by God for failing to be proper authorities, and even pagan kings are dealt with the same way – the book of Daniel has at least two accounts of God removing Babylonian kings for overstepping their bounds, and the later books of the Old Testament are full of such pronouncements. The reason for doing so should be obvious; the people are accountable to God to enforce Justice, and if a magistrate refuses to do so he is not only disobedient himself, but is also a barrier to the people’s obedience. Thus, the teaching is clear; unjust rulers are not to remain rulers, and to exceed one’s bounds is to ask for both removal and for the installation of a more just leader. While there are metering commands which teach us not to immediately default to removal, Scripture is clear that there are two ways Man can fail his duty towards government; to follow an unjust leader into sin, and to rebel against a just leader who is properly exercising his authority. Man is not given leave to flee from one mistake into the other, we are commanded to flee from both. As such, another principle is shown; that men are responsible to hold the magistrate accountable for both doing what he is commanded (proper commission) and not doing what he is forbidden (proper omission). If the magistrate will not let themselves be held to account, either regarding excess or deficiency, he is subject to removal. In short, would-be authorities that violate Justice violate the delegation itself, and therefore they are invalid; they have “cut the rope off above their hands,” so to speak, by sidestepping the commands that created them.

The principles of authority described so far were not foreign to Paul, Jesus, or any other of the biblical authors. In fact, they were so widespread that and so prominent that even the Romans knew of them and they reference it to Jesus. In fact, one of the cleanest and most succinct examples of the Biblical concept of authority comes from a Roman centurion’s mouth:

When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith! I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment. (Matthew 8:5-13)

There is more going on here than many realize. When the centurion (a Roman officer of some importance) says, “I am a man under authority” he acknowledges that he answers to someone higher than himself, and when he says “with soldiers under me” he acknowledges that others answer to him. Essentially, he is highlighting his position in the chain of command flowing from Caesar to his men. As such, his men obey him, since he is acting and ordering on the behalf of someone higher. In saying this to Jesus, he is recognizing that Jesus is in the same position; in the chain of authority flowing from God to the rest of the world, such that even scientific law will bend to His word. The centurion recognizes that authority necessarily points to something higher than itself until it has reached its highest point, which he understood to be God. This recognition of God’s supremacy over everything, and his willingness to trust it implicitly, is why he is commended for his faith. Jesus’ other interactions with Roman authority were not so complimentary, such as when the Jewish legal scholars try to trap Him:

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22).

This is not as simple a passage as many Christians believe. Notice that the Pharisees considered this a difficult question, one that would trap Jesus no mattered what He answered, which indicates that a simple answer in favor of or against Roman authority would contradict Biblical teaching. Notice also that Jesus does not simply say “yes, if Rome demands taxes then pay them.” What He does say, however, is to give to the authority that which they are owed; this implies that some things are owed, but others are not, and therefore not to be given. Furthermore, Jesus does not end at saying “render under Caesar what is Caesars” but adds that some things are reserved to God. In asking whose image the coin bore, Jesus subtly asks the people to ask themselves whose Image they bear. The meaning is clear – Caesar can take the money bearing his image; Men, bearing the Image of God, belong to God. Since the Image forms the basis for human government and authority, Jesus is making a bold statement: that men should submit to Caesar in the proper areas, but not in everything, and that full allegiance belongs to God, not to men.

In writing Romans 13 then, Paul had a host of teachings and principles, given by God one by one since the time of Adam, all the way though the resurrection of Christ. Paul is renowned for basing his arguments on prior scripture, so it should be expected that his argument in Romans will reflect the principles of authority taught there. Many of them have already been covered here:
1. Ultimate Authority remains in God alone
2. It remains with God until it is delegated.
3. Delegated authority comes with responsibility, including the responsibility to remain within delegated bounds.
4. To exceed delegated bounds willingly is to violate authority, and deserves being removed from position.
5. The basis for man’s authority over other men is the Image of God.
6. Man is responsible to God for enforcing Justice and must do so where commanded.
7. Failing to exercise Justice is a violation of authority.
8. A magistrate who refuses to do their duty must be removed, and the office filled with someone more worthy.
9. There are two ways Man can fail his duty towards government; to follow an unjust leader into sin, and to rebel against a just leader who is properly exercising his authority.
Having established that this is Paul’s groundwork, an accurate interpretation of Romans 13 can now be attempted.

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
Romans 13:1-7.

Paul describes authority as from God, and the magistrate’s purpose to exercise God’s authority at His command, terrorizing bad but commending good conduct as a servant to the Almighty. Therefore, he teaches, we are to render the authority obedience in the exercise of his duty, because if we resist, we are resisting God Himself, and God has given the Sword to the magistrate for those who resist unlawfully. Paul is contradicting the notion that the earthly magistrates were “secular” and not worthy of obedience, but he is not setting the magistrate up as the ultimate authority either. Remember principle 9; Paul is reminding the Church of the second half, but he is not negating the first half to do so. Notice Paul also quotes Jesus’ comments about paying taxes, reminding the Church of the lesson that Jesus taught, and with a similar implication contained therein; there are people to whom respect and honor are owed, and people to whom respect and honor are not owed. In short, Paul teaches pretty much exactly what had already been established in other parts of scripture. Such is a good indication that this interpretation is correct.

The Book of Romans, including Romans 13, does not exist as a new teaching, but rather a logical, legal argument about why it is the Christians needed to follow the essence of what had already been taught for centuries. Paul does not give new commands here, but is exhorting the Roman Church to follow the old commands, and is reminding them of why such was required of them. Romans is effectively a distillation of Christian doctrine written as a legal argument. In fact, Romans is argued in such a legal fashion that at one point all American Law schools, Christian and non-Christian alike, taught it to their first-year students as an example of how to craft an airtight legal presentation. The Book of Romans is Paul presenting old arguments in a new light and in a way that the new Christians could understand them. Since, like a lawyer, Paul does not exert his own authority here but relies entirely on other scripture to support his claims, any conclusion reached with Romans should be reachable (albeit with more difficulty) without having to rely on Romans to support it. This is a “check” of sorts; a way to verify that our logic is sound, and if the conclusion fails the check, it is probably wrong. Since it is difficult (if not impossible) to support a doctrine of non-resistance to any governing authority based entirely on preceding scriptures, such is probably not the correct interpretation.

The doctrines presented in Romans 13 had been taught for thousands of years; that all true authority was from God, and therefore, man is required to obey the magistrate in any command it is authorized to give. Paul did not, in so doing, indicate that all people in power were always to be obeyed. As has been demonstrated here, such would be a blatant contradiction of the rest of the Bible. To the contrary, he teaches that authority is to be followed so long as it is doing what it is created to do. Again, I will hasten to add that Romans does not specify how an unlawful magistrate is to be removed, or when, and scripture does give metering commands which forbid men from immediately defaulting to the highest tier of resistance. How such commands are to be followed is a post for another time, since the focus here is the Romans passage. It has been demonstrated that authority is limited to acting by God’s command on His behalf, and that when such is violated by a magistrate, the magistrate’s position becomes invalid, and he no longer remains an authority. As such, the claim that Romans 13 commands obedience to an unlawful magistrate is disproven.