Why you shouldn’t use Romans 13 to quell political dissent

I’ve been involved in my fair share of public demonstrations. I’ve protested against my government’s decisions on a number of issues. I’ve marched against war and in favor of Aboriginal reconciliation, climate change policy and nuclear disarmament. I’ve been arrested for refusing to vacate the Prime Minister’s office while praying for asylum seekers.

I’m a citizen of a modern liberal democracy and I have no compunction about expressing my resistance to my elected government’s policies.

And yet, at various points, I’ve had well-meaning Christian friends quote Romans 13 to me and tell me I should be acquiescent to those God puts in authority over me. You can read the whole chapter here, but this is how it begins,

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” (Rom 13:1)

Paul, the writer of Romans, then goes on to commend the church not to stir up trouble against their rulers. In fact, he’s quite adamant about it, compelling them, “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.” (Rom 13:3)

In other words, live a quiet, non-rebellious life and things will go well with you. Pay your taxes (v7), obey the law (v8), and behave decently (v13).

Okay, fair enough. Paul is pretty clear about what he wants from the church in Rome.

And I repeat, the church in Rome.

Remember, Paul wrote his letter to the Roman church during the early years of the reign of Emperor Nero, who had succeeded his great-uncle Claudius to the throne in AD54.

Nero was compulsive and corrupt, and his rule was characterized by tyranny and extravagance. He had his own mother executed and probably his stepbrother as well.

This is the guy who was said to have had Christians dipped in oil and set on fire to light his garden at night.

You’ve heard stories about him playing his fiddle while Rome burned. Well, that was much later in his reign. But even in his early days, people knew he was an impulsive despot.

It makes perfect sense that Paul would commend the fledgling church to keep its head down, to avoid rocking the boat, to submit quietly to the prevailing political winds. They had no choice. They lived under the authority of a dictator.

But we don’t.

We elect our leaders from among the citizenry.

Our presidents and prime ministers are accountable to us, the voters.

Does the advice Paul offers the Romans in the 13th chapter of his letter have anything much to say to us today? A few things, in fact.

Firstly, don’t use Romans 13 to silence dissent.

For the reasons I mention above, I don’t think we can use Romans 13 to shame those Christians who choose to protest against an elected government. When Paul says, “…for there is no authority except that which God has established,” (v1) he is stating the fact that they, the First-Century Christians, have no say in who rules them. Only God does.

But today we do have such a say. We elect people from among us to do the job of administering government for the good of all. The president isn’t an emperor. The prime minister isn’t a king. She or he is answerable to us. For that reason alone, we have every right – indeed, I would say, obligation – to hold them accountable to the task to which we elected them.

 

Secondly, that doesn’t mean we don’t trust in the providence of God.

We have to agree with Paul that God is sovereign and that all political power is subject to God’s ultimate purposes. This doesn’t mean God endorses all elected governments and everything they do. Hitler was duly elected. As was Mugabe and apartheid era South African presidents. But we can breathe a sigh of relief with Paul that God’s plans are not finally thwarted by earthly powers.

 

Thirdly, if we protest, let it be that we also do good.

The primary gist of Romans 13 isn’t to quell political dissent, but to promote godly living. Here’s how Paul says you should respond to the oppression of a cruel and vindictive regime that’s persecuting you:

Love your neighbors (vs9-10); Live as light-bearers (v12); Avoid carousing and drunkenness (v13); Avoid sexual immorality and debauchery (v13); Avoid dissension and jealousy (v13).

In other words, live exactly unlike the way everyone else in Rome lives.

If we protest against our elected government it should not be in some childish, passive way, demanding our government merely do our bidding.

Instead, we should be resolved to enflesh the values of God’s kingdom, to out-love our society, to serve the least, to love the lost, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. We must embody the very values we demand our government should embrace.

As Stanley Hauerwas writes, “To be a Christian does not mean that we are to change the world, but rather that we must live as witnesses to the world that God has changed. We should not be surprised, therefore, if the way we live makes the change visible.”

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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17 thoughts on “Why you shouldn’t use Romans 13 to quell political dissent

  1. Thanks for the blog as this has been the same encounter that has have been voiced in opposition of current non-violent civil disobedience.
    Much of local churches are shielding themselves from state, federal or global dialogue through non-participation.

  2. Thanks Mike – I love this – especially that you quoted Hauerwas at the end!
    I wish more christian people were talking & writing about this stuff.

    It reminded me of a little snippet of Hauerwas I saw where he was on a panel on at Duke Uni discussing religious speech in public discourse – the extract focuses most specifically on pacifism but obviously applies more broadly than that:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSw3tL-VkuI
    The full panel – all 1hr58mins is here:

    1. Thanks for that, David. Brilliant. And thank you for being such a faithful reader. Means a lot.

      1. Hi Mike,
        No worries – always love getting a note to say there’s something new to read!
        Peace
        Dave

  3. THANK YOU. Just, thank you.

    Was becoming so disheartened this week. I felt like vomiting every time I saw Rom 13 thrown around.

    This piece articulates so well the unease I felt every time I saw this chapter quoted.

    Keep fighting the good fight Mike. There’s a lot of us listening.

    1. I think as Christians we have an obligation to stand for the truth, and in the US one of the ways we can do that is to vote for laws that align with God’s word. That being said the implication that Romans 13 doesn’t apply to us because it was written to the church in Rome is a dangerous way to look at scripture. Paul wrote the Corinthian letters to the church in Corinth, all his letters were written to specifically to churches in Asia so do none of those apply?
      All authority comes from God. That is what Romans 13 says. Regardless of our right to vote authority comes from Him. We need to respect that. That doesn’t mean we go along with things that are immoral or against scripture. But it does mean we should speak about people in authority in a respectful way whether we agree with them or not. You absolutely can tell someone they are wrong and still be respectful.
      And remember Romans 12:8 says so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with ALL men.
      Our goal should not be starting fights. Just standing firmly for the truth.

  4. Your reasoning is faulty. You say that the reason that Paul wrote Romans 13 was to tell the Christians,” to pull their heads in”. ( your words). You imply that we as Christians need to pull our heads in if we are in jeopardy as under Hitler, Iddy Amin, or Nero but not if we are under elected leaders. This is nonsense. You are twisting scripture. We need to stand up for what we believe is scripturally right no matter who reigns on earth. Demonstrating would be ok but we need to accept the will of the people for it still stands that scripture tells us that there is no leader who is not appointed by God. I don’t fully understand how this works because God is without fault or error. We need the whole counsell of God not isolated texts where we accept some wisdom but not other wisdom from Gods word.

    1. For future reference, rather than opening with “Your reasoning is faulty”, you’d get a lot further if you start with, “I think I disagree with you for the following reasons…” Other than that, I’m not sure how to respond to you since I can’t fully follow your argument.

  5. Campolo told a story where he said, based on Rom 13, that civil disobedience was normally inappropriate. A black preacher responded by describing what the apostles did in Acts in terms of the US civil rights campaign.

  6. Good post, I came here from the rogue one article. So political dissent is permissible as long as it’s lawful and hand in hand with good living?

    Is it permissible or ever obligatory to be unlawful in dissent?

    1. It’s permissible to engage in civil disobedience as long as you’re willing to submit to the legal process. I have been arrested for refusing to vacate our Prime Minister’s office while a number of us were praying for asylum seekers being victimized by our government. I disobeyed the directive to move, but submitted when arrested and went along without violence. Look up the phrase Non Violent Direct Action for more information. And thanks for visiting.

  7. Thank you for this good word. Please note how Romans 13 was used here to defend a morally abhorrent policy:

    https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/immigration/sessions-cites-bible-defense-breaking-families-blames-migrant-parents-n883296

  8. […] scholar Mike Frost wrote in 2016 that Romans 13 should not be used to quell dissent because it comes from a period when […]

  9. […] scholar Mike Frost wrote in 2016 that Romans 13 should not be used to quell dissent because it comes from a period when Christians […]

  10. […] scholar Mike Frost wrote in 2016 that Romans 13 should not be used to quell dissent because it comes from a period when […]

  11. […] Why you shouldn’t use Romans 13 to quell political dissent […]

  12. […] scholar Mike Frost wrote in 2016 that Romans 13 should not be used to quell dissent because it comes from a period when Christians […]

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