Romans 13, Christian Resistance, and the Coming Tyranny


In a previous article I discussed the biblical principle of Christian resistance as it relates to the upcoming Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage. As was pointed out in that article, there are examples in the Bible of God’s people resisting direct commands by civil officials based on a very specific set of higher law principles.

Christian apologist Francis A. Schaeffer wrote, “Let us not forget why the Christians were killed. They were not killed because they worshipped Jesus… Nobody cared who worshipped whom as long as the worshipper did not disrupt the unity of the state, centered in the formal worship of Caesar. The reason Christians were killed was because they were rebels”1 and placed the god of the Bible over the claim that the State and its Caesars were gods. The proof?: “they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:7).

This is an old story that has a modern history. King James of the King James Bible wanted a translation that countered the notes in the 1559 Geneva Bible, the Bible of the Puritans and Pilgrims. “For example, the margin notes for Daniel 6:22 imply that the commands of kings are to be disobeyed if they conflict with the law of God: ‘For he [Daniel] disobeyed the king’s wicked commandment in order to obey God, and so he did no injury to the king, who ought to command nothing by which God would be dishonored.’”2

“Embarkation of the Pilgrims.”

Alister McGrath comments:

“Notice also how the Genevan notes  regularly use the word ‘tyrant’ to refer to kings; the King James Bible never uses this word—a fact noted with approval as much as relief by many royalists at this point.”3

It’s no wonder that King James “authorized a fresh translation of the Bible to undermine the republican implications of the Geneva Bible.”4

Because of its no exception tone, Romans 13 is seen as prohibiting all resistance to the law of the State: “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. . . (v. 1). The apostle lists no exceptions. Peter makes a similar statement: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13-14). Again, no exceptions. This is the same Peter who declared, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29; cf. 4:19-20). How do we reconcile the apparent contradiction?

Jonathan Mayhew (1720-1766) states the following in his 1750 sermon “Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers”:

Mayhew“Thus, upon a careful review of the apostle’s reasoning in this passage, it appears that his arguments to enforce submission, are of such a nature, as to conclude only in favor of submission to such rulers as he himself describes; i.e., such as rule for the good of society, which is the only end of their institution. Common tyrants, and public oppressors, are not entitled to obedience from their subjects, by virtue of anything here laid down by the inspired apostle.”

There are a number of places in Scripture where one verse speaks in absolute terms and other verses offer exceptions. This is not unusual. If I tell my grandchildren to go outside and play until dinner is ready, I have spoken in absolute terms. They are not to come into the house until they are called. No exceptions are given. What if it rains? What if a large dog enters the yard? Can they enter the house without violating my absolute and no exception command?

They would not be violating my “no exception” command because there are unspoken exceptions. They are assumed to be operating without them having to be repeated each time a new command is given. They have been told on previous occasions to “come in when it’s raining” and “do not get near stray dogs that wander into the yard.”

The Bible operates in the same manner. In one place Jesus says, “All those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Does this include the civil magistrate? What about the person who strikes an assailant in self-defense? Is this not an exception to Jesus’ “no exception” statement? Since the Bible already discusses self-defense (Ex. 22:2-3; Deut. 19:21) and the role of the civil magistrate (e.g., Gen. 9:6), there is no need to repeat the exceptions since Jesus’ hearers knew He has anarchy and revolution in mind (e.g., Lev. 19:18), not the just use of the sword. Romans 13:4 explains that it is the duty of the civil magistrate to use the sword in certain specified cases. Is this a contradiction? No.

So then, when we read passages like Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13-14, we must not neglect the rest of the Bible that is equally authoritative and more fully explains and qualifies these passages.

“Many general statements of Scripture must be open to admitting exceptions even those qualifications are not immediately spelled out. Why are so many generalizations stated without qualification? Because the exact conditions restricting their applicability are not known, or because the “accidental” or providential circumstances that render them inapplicable occur so seldom as to be practically negligible, or because such qualification has already been stipulated in another inscripturated context.”5

In summary, we must recognize that as the State becomes more tyrannical and non-Christian in its social and political policies, conflicts between church and State will multiply. That conflict may make it necessary for Christians to say no to statist laws that will force them to violate the laws of God.

There is an additional reason why Christians must understand the limits of civil jurisdiction and the limits of resistance. Because of a desire to see the current corruption in our own nation reversed, some Christians may take it upon themselves to bring about change by revolutionary means. This is an unbiblical agenda to pursue. There is no warrant in Scripture for a revolutionary spirit.

How Christians go about resisting is a question that needs to be answered in exacting detail. The fact that we have lesser magistrates – state governments, governors, and state constitutions – that can serve as legitimate governing authorities as a means to rebuff civil and judicial tyranny is a viable governing avenue for Christians to take.

  1. How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1976), 24. []
  2. Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 156. []
  3. Quoted in Mangalwadi, The Book That Made Your World, 156. []
  4. Mangalwadi, The Book That Made Your World, 156. []
  5. Jim West, “Rahab’s Justifiable Lie,” in Christianity and Civilization: The Theology of Christian Resistance, ed. Gary North (Tyler, TX: Geneva Divinity School Press, 1983), p. 68. Emphasis in original. []
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