A homeschooling parent emailed me this past summer asking for recommendations on Christian resources to work into her student’s government curriculum. She specifically asked about applying Romans 13 to thinking about government and politics. After replying to the email with some book recommendations, I found myself stuck on that perception of Romans 13. Why do we keep going back to this passage as the seminal biblical passage on the relationship of Christians to the state? In some cases, it may be the only passage that gets cited in discussions on Christian participation in the political space. However, the more I thought about Romans 13 as the starting point for a political theology the less I liked the idea and the more I realized why: it’s too easy a proof-text.

At best, it creates contradictory applications (see progressive calls to submit to COVID-19 restrictions while opposing enforcement of border security), and at worst promotes a view of blind compliance with the state (see former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s comments to pastors) that is totally at odds with Paul and indeed the whole of Scripture. I acknowledge this mostly as a corrective to myself, because I know I’ve often started discussions with students on thinking Christianly about politics with Romans 13. However, I’ve now come to the conclusion that this passage is not the place to start a discussion on Christians and politics. An overemphasis on Romans 13 as the linchpin of our political theology obscures the broader context of Romans and Paul’s life, draws the wrong parallels between Paul’s time and our, and creates a false model of citizenship for Christians in liberal democracies.

Paul and the limits of compliance

The political theology of Paul does not start in Romans 13, but in Romans 1. Paul’s treatment of the depth of man’s sinfulness in Romans 1 indicates that associations of humans were part of God’s created order, but were subsequently corrupted by the Fall. For example, Paul’s references to collective man in Romans 1:18-23 demonstrate that the fall from grace was a collective action. As Paul develops his argument about God’s salvific plan (Romans 4-8), though, he doesn’t do away with human associations as beyond redemption, indeed, in Christ it is redeemed. Paul doesn’t talk of an atomistic individual in Romans 8 as being “more than conquerors,” he refers to a community. In other words, human society and presumably the governing entities that organize them are not necessary evils to restrain a corrupt humanity, but integral to humanity realizing its cultural mandate to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1: 26-28). The broader context of Romans thus indicates that Paul’s admonition to submit to authorities rests on several critical assumptions that recast submission not as base compliance, but as a glorious partnership. Romans 13 could be reframed thusly:

  • God’s moral law has authority over civil authorities.
  • God institutes civil authority (including the power to tax) for the common good.
  • What is good can be known and acted on.
  • Government has a duty to do and defend this good (that’s the only way its use of the sword is legitimate).
  • We have a duty to work towards, encourage and fulfill that good in as, and in cooperation with, civil authorities.

All of these ideas are presented as being assumed to be true in Romans 13, meaning Paul either outlined them earlier in Romans and/or is referencing other Scripture. It is beyond the scope of this essay to detail all the references, but it’s enough to say that Romans 13 is something of a summary statement on a biblical theology of politics and that we should probably take a similar “all of Scripture” approach when thinking about the state and our relationship to it. 

Suffice to say, Paul is not suggesting that his readers be doormats. Indeed, his own life bears witness to the idea that submission and compliance are not the same thing. Indeed, just a few verses earlier in Romans 12:18, Paul commands his readers to “live peaceably with all,” but with the oft-overlooked qualifier: “as much as it depends on you.” This implies that there will be times when one can’t live peaceably with all no matter how hard one tries. In the realm of relationship with the state, then, this would suggest the possibility of an antagonistic relationship, which raises the question, “What then?” If Paul’s example is one to follow as being consistent with his theology, then the short answer would be noncompliance, but not just passive noncompliance. In his own life, Paul frequently bucked civil magistrates like when he refused to comply with requests to quietly leave prison after being unjustly jailed in Acts 16. In Acts 26, Paul also appealed to and leveraged his status as a Roman citizen to do end runs around subordinate and competing authority structures; and he used his own understanding of political contexts to sow discord among his opponents (Acts 23:6-10). Injustice did not warrant mere noncompliance, but led Paul to actively oppose and undermine the governing entities enacting the injustice.

Reframing Christian citizenship

Such a claim sounds dangerous to contemporary American Christians concerned about political violence. They wonder if such oppositional behavior should be normative for contemporary Christians in an American democracy? No, of course not, but it shouldn’t be abnormal either. It’s a tool in our toolbox that requires wisdom in its use as we seek to fulfill the Great Commission. Determining the time, place, and method of opposition to civil authority is a weighty matter that should not be undertaken lightly, the more so considering that we don’t live in a strictly hierarchical, authoritarian system like Paul did, but in an egalitarian, democratic system. In a centralized hierarchy like Rome, Paul and Peter called Christians to pray and live peaceably in anticipation of Jesus’ return. In a world of (very) limited citizenship this is actually a much higher standard of civic engagement than would have been typically expected of the Roman Empire’s non-citizens who made up the bulk of Paul’s audience. This “high” standard in a Roman context of limited civic duty forms the foundation for a higher standard of citizenship in our own time. 

To reframe the question, for the American context, how do we submit ourselves to the governing authorities, when it is “we the people” who govern? 

“We (Christians), the people”

In a decentralized democracy like the US, praying and living peaceably with our neighbors forms the foundation of an engaged citizenry who must be ready and willing to serve in the state apparatus as wielders of that sword that punishes evil and protects good, doing all under the moral law of God. In other words, we have duties that both participate in the advancement of Christ’s kingdom and anticipate God’s future judgment in the “already and not yet” reality that characterizes our dual citizenship in the City of God and the City of Man. 

Romans 13 certainly gives us a framework for understanding how governments function in God’s economy of common grace, and can point us in the direction of civil service and civic responsibility. What we certainly do not have in Romans 13, is an excuse for passive compliance and laissez faire non-participation.