Romans Thirteen and Christian Resistance to Evil Rulers
by Stuart DiNenno
Contrary to what is commonly taught in today’s churches, Christians are not biblically required to submit to a wicked government, because such a government is not ordained of God.
“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. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.” (Romans 13:1-5)
“The state is God’s minister and Christians must never rebel against it.”
The statement above expresses the typical view taught in the churches today about Christian submission to civil authorities, and it is almost always claimed to be based on the teaching of Romans 13. But it is actually a perversion of what the passage teaches. Romans 13 does not teach that “the state” — that is, every government holding power over a nation — is always God’s minister. At the root of this misinterpretation is an isolation of the first verse from the rest of the passage, and a misunderstanding of the meaning of the word “power” as it is used in verse 1 and other places in the same chapter. Verse 1 reads: “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.”
When interpreting this verse, and especially the phrase “ordained of God,” we have to be careful not to confuse, on the one hand, what is “ordained of God” in the sense that He allows or determines it to come to pass, with, on the other hand, what is “ordained of God” in the sense that He has declared it to be lawful and has expressed His will for men to do it. The Lord has allowed, many times throughout history, evil men and evil governments to come to power. And some of them have come to power by illegitimate means. We have examples of this in the Bible when a legitimate king of Israel is murdered or a rightful heir is prevented from taking power and is replaced by a usurper. And one example outside of biblical history is the Jewish Communists murdering the Christian czar and his family at the start of the revolution in Russia during 1917. These usurpations, quite obviously, violate God’s laws revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures, and so in that sense they are not “ordained of God.” But there is also a sense in which we can say that they are “ordained of God” because God let them to come to pass.
A government may be permitted, in God’s providence, to obtain power over a nation for a time, even though it is wicked and in rebellion to God’s commandments. This is the case in a time of apostasy in any society. God, it may be said, gives a nation rulers that are a reflection of the people. Generally speaking, when the people in a nation are godly, they are blessed with godly rulers, and the people willingly submit to them; and when the people in a nation are wicked, they are punished with wicked rulers, and the people are forced to submit to them.
Now if we were to isolate the first verse of Romans 13 out of context and ignore the rest of the passage, and also fail to understand that there is a difference between what is “ordained of God” in that He has purposed it to come to pass for a time, and what is “ordained of God” because it is righteous according to His law, then we could easily fall into the error of believing that everyone, or every faction, that obtains authority over a nation, must be recognized as valid by Christians because God has ordained it. And believing so would necessitate that we submit to every revolutionary and every tyrant who seizes power. For instance, returning to our example of the 1917 revolution in Russia, if we held to this error, then we would have to say that as soon as the Communists murdered the czar and seized control of the government, then every Christian should have immediately submitted to them and not fought against their rule. And, in accordance with this belief, to have opposed the Communist seizure of power after that point and have attempted to overturn it, would have been to resist the authority of God. God has ordained this to come pass and put these people in power over us, the thinking goes, and so we must submit to their rule.
But if we look at the rest of the Romans 13 passage, we see it is not referring to a government that is “ordained of God” in the sense that He allows it to come to power despite the fact that it is evil. It is speaking of a government that is “ordained of God” in the sense that it is lawfully ruling in accordance with biblical principles of righteousness. And it is not teaching that every government having power over us is a lawful government — the mere assumption of power, even if it is obtained by non-violent means or with the approval of the majority of men in a nation, does not make for a government lawfully ordained by God, according to this passage. On the contrary, Romans 13 specifically delineates for us what a government must do to be lawful in the eyes of God. It teaches that the civil authority is to be “the minister of God to thee for good” (Romans 13:4), that it must be the “minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Romans 13:4), that lawful rulers must be “not a terror to good works, but to the evil” (Romans 13:3), and that if we “do that which is good,” we “shalt have praise of the same” (Romans 13:3). This is the lawful type of government to which we “must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake” (Romans 13:5). A lawful government, “ordained of God”, must promote righteousness and reward the righteous, while suppressing wickedness and punishing the wicked. And, of course, only the law of God in the Holy Scriptures can be used as a measure of what is righteous and what is wicked.
And so if the aforementioned things expressly stated in Romans 13 are what a lawful government is to be practicing, then it is quite obvious that a government failing to do these things is not a lawful government. When the civil government becomes anti-Christian and defends all manner of wickedness, even to the point of enshrining evil in the form of laws, while it actively suppresses righteousness and persecutes the godly, then it quite obviously is no longer “the minister of God to thee for good.” It is not a “minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” We shall not have “praise of the same” if we “do that which is good.” And it has become “a terror to good works” rather than “to the evil.” In other words, it has become the complete opposite of the entity of which we are told that we “must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.” God has established civil government for the good of mankind so as to suppress lawlessness and promote righteousness in every nation but, at this point, the civil government has become nothing more than a criminal enterprise in rebellion to God.
Now that we have looked at the entirety of Romans 13:1-5, let us return to the first verse to examine it more closely. Again, verse 1 reads “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.” To have a right understanding of Romans 13:1, it is necessary to have an understanding of the word “power” or “powers” which is used three times in this one verse. In all three examples it is the same Greek word “exousia.” This word is translated “power” 69 times in the King James Bible, and translated “authority” 29 times.
In modern English, we usually do not think of “power” and “authority” as being synonymous terms. If a man has a gun, we might say that he has the “power” to detain people who are unarmed, but we would not say that he has the “authority” to do so, if he is acting unlawfully. But this is not the case with the word “power” (“exousia”) as it is used in Romans 13:1. According to Strong’s Greek Dictionary, one of the meanings of “exousia” is “delegated influence: authority.” And this is the sense in which the word is used in Romans 13 — one of a delegated authority, and not an arrogated power. The “authorities” or “powers” spoken of here are God’s delegates. They have no power or authority in and of themselves, but are only subordinate representatives of God. As such, they only have power or authority as far as they are commanding things that are in accord with the law of God. This is the meaning of “power” (“exousia”) as it is used in Romans 13 and this is obvious because verses 3-5, as shown in a previous paragraph above, clearly express the fact that “the powers that be” must protect the righteous and punish the evil in order to fit the definition of “God’s ministers.”
Some will object and say, “The epistle to the Romans was given in a time when the Roman government was in power and refers to that government. The Romans were very evil and degenerate, yet Paul is telling the Christians that they must submit to their authority. And we are compelled to do the same by submitting to evil governments in our time.”
The answer: It may be necessary, convenient, or even beneficial, at times, to obey an evil power, and we may certainly do so when it requires actions of us that are not violations of God’s law. And oftentimes Christians are a small minority in an ungodly nation without the means to overturn a wicked government, and so they have no choice but to submit. This was the case with the early Christians in the Roman Empire at the time the epistle to the Romans was written. But Romans 13 does not teach, nor does any other biblical passage teach, that we have a requirement from the Lord to recognize the legitimacy of a Satanic monstrosity that calls evil good and good evil, or that we must obey all of its decrees in order to remain in the good favor of God. On the contrary, we are free to, and ought to, oppose it and seek its destruction in any way that we are able to do so without violating the law of God.
Another objection might be: “The Israelites never rebelled against any of their kings, no matter how wicked they became.”
The answer: There is no indication that the Israelites did anything but follow a wicked king into the same wickedness that he exemplified. It is true that we see no uprising against an ungodly king but we also hear of no discontent among the people for his ungodliness. Earlier in this article, it was mentioned that God gives nations rulers that are a reflection of the people. It seems that this was invariably the case with the Israelites. Certainly, there must have been godly men within Israel who were grieved by the apostasy around them but, as in our own time, there were too few to rise up and forcefully change things for the better.
The doctrine expressed in the preceding paragraphs agrees with that commonly taught by the 16th century Protestant Reformers. John Calvin rightly expressed the fact that God-dishonoring governments have no authority over us when he said, “If princes demand that we turn from honor of God, if they force us into idolatry or superstition, then they have no more authority over us than frogs and lice do.” And we are in agreement with John Knox that not all civil laws are actually lawful, and rebellion against wicked rulers is not always treason against God. As he said, “But hereof be assured, that all is not lawful nor just that is statute by civil laws; neither yet is everything sin before God, which ungodly persons allege to be treason.” And again, “Let a thing here be noted, that the prophet of God [“prophet” meaning preacher, in this instance] sometimes may teach treason against kings, and yet neither he, nor such as obey the word spoken in the Lord’s name by him, offend God.” Christopher Goodman, who was John Knox’s co-pastor in Geneva during the Reformation of the 1500’s, said: “When kings or rulers become blasphemers of God, oppressors and murderers of their subjects, they ought no more to be accounted kings or lawful magistrates, but as private men to be examined, accused, condemned, and punished by the law of God.” And again, “If princes do right and keep promise with you, then do you owe all humble obedience. If not, ye are discharged, and your study ought to be in this case how ye may depose and punish according to law such rebels against God and oppressors of their country.”
In conclusion, God allows evil rulers to have power over nations at times, but, as we have seen, they do not fit the definition of “God’s ministers” as given in Romans 13 and they are not lawfully “ordained of God”. And it cannot be said of anyone who rebels against an anti-Christian government, that he is one who “resisteth the power” and “resisteth the ordinance of God.” Furthermore, it is not God’s will that ungoldy governments remain in power to oppress the righteous and reward the wicked, and so it is not against His will for godly men to overthrow an evil government and seize control of their own nation.