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What Romans 13:1-7 Really Means
He who bears the sword should do so to promote order and righteousness
If you’ve been around in American religious circles for very long, you’ve probably run across one particular kind of Evangelical. These are the ones who are very, very interested in fitting in with the progressive social and political powerbrokers in our society. One of the best examples of this type of “Big Evangelical” is David French, who routinely tries to burnish his sterling evangelical credibility by shilling for Drag Queen Story Hour when he’s not condemning Christians who actually care about their own country. However, he’s certainly not the only one who has sold out to serve as propaganda mouthpieces for the Regime.
One of the favourite arguments used by these folks when trying to convince credulous believers to sit down, shut up, and support Joe Biden (or at least oppose Donald Trump) is to appeal to a well-known passage of Scripture, Romans 13:1-7,
“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.
“For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.
“Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.”
Now the Big Evangelical types LOVE this passage - or at least part of it. The first two verses are a go to for Evangelical mouthpieces trying to tamp down Christian opposition to various progressive and Democratic measures. I mean, it says right there that you’re supposed to be subject to the government because God has ordained everything and everyone in government and opposing what the government does is to oppose God Himself! If a government wants to turn your kid into a trannie without your consent, then who do you think you are to oppose the obvious ordinance of God? It used to be that at least people who interpreted this passage this way would make certain exceptions for glaringly obvious hot button social issues with clear cut scriptural guidance, but very few of them are even willing to do this anymore.
Of course, this is not actually what this passage is saying in full and in context, and its use by Big Evangelicals is basically just cynical twisting of Scripture. In fact, a full understanding of this portion of Scripture (as well as certain others cognate with it) does not at all command a blind blanket obedience to any and all government or government commandments. This much should be obvious simply from reading it.
What we see taking place in this portion of Scripture is actually a definition and a distinction. Verses 3 and 4 describe the type of government that rightly received our allegiance and obedience. It is one which punishes the evil and advances the good. It is one which promotes righteousness and discourages wickedness. In other words, it is one which fulfills the actual, scriptural role and purposes of government. By necessity, governments which do not do these things do not meet these standards.
If we wish to discuss what the Bible says about government, we have to go back to the beginning, to its institution after the Flood in Genesis 9,
“And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” (Genesis 9:5-6)
Often pointed to as the scriptural justification for capital punishment (which it is), this passage goes deeper though. What we’re seeing here is the legitimisation of that which God elsewhere denies to individuals, which is the right to take vengeance upon wrongdoers, as exemplified by those who perpetrate the most extreme form of violence - murder. Not much earlier, God had already marked Cain (Genesis 4:15) with the intention of discouraging anyone from killing him (presumably in retaliation for his murder of Abel). We then see Lamech - presented as a rebel against God - issuing a challenge to anyone who might try to do something about him taking some vengeance of his own for having “…slain a man to my wounding” (i.e. an unjustifiable act of vengeance, Gen. 4:23-24). Christians are commanded to refrain from taking vengeance after the fact against those who have wronged them (Romans 12:19, Hebrews 10:30) because vengeance is something that belongs to God as He executes His perfect and righteous wrath (Psalm 58:10, 94:1; Isaiah 61:2, etc.). And yet, by man shall man’s blood be shed for murder, which clearly indicates the establishment of an institution for upholding righteousness, even to the extent of exacting the ultimate penalty. This institution, then, is one which exercises its authority under the greater authority of God Himself.
The Proverbs describe in great detail the conduct of good rulers,
“A divine sentence is in the lips of the king: his mouth transgresseth not in judgment.” (Proverbs 16:10)
“A king that sitteth in the throne of judgment scattereth away all evil with his eyes.” (Proverbs 20:8)
“A wise king scattereth the wicked, and bringeth the wheel over them.” (Proverbs 20:26)
“He that loveth pureness of heart, for the grace of his lips the king shall be his friend.” (Proverbs 22:11)
“The king by judgment establisheth the land: but he that receiveth gifts overthroweth it.” (Proverbs 29:4)
“The king that faithfully judgeth the poor, his throne shall be established for ever.” (Proverbs 29:14)
And so forth.
In many circles (not strictly limited to Big Evangelicalism), there seems to exist a lot of confusion as to what constitutes “good government.” Mostly, this involves defining it subjectively as “one that does things I agree with.” As Scripture seems to indicate, however, there are some rather more objective elements involved. A good government is one which maintains order, promotes the welfare of its people, and protects its citizens from external threats. As defined in the Word of God, the ideal government is that which exists for the promotion of righteousness and the good of its people, even though they should not directly participate in that governance.
In the Christian era, while many early Christians refused to assist the Roman government in persecuting the Faith or by joining the legions, there was still a general understanding as to the right roles of government as an institution. This carried over into the later, Christianised Empire. One of the most prolific writers on the subject was Augustine. His general views may be summarised as such,
“From the Augustinian view the primary function of government is to maintain the internal good order of society, to protect against external enemies, and thereby enable men to order their own lives with tranquility and predictability.”
Augustine understood the fallen nature of man, and thus understood that men’s governments would not be perfect. Certainly he felt that it was best for the ruler to be both one who keeps order and who exhibits personal piety toward God. However, even pagan governments - and even ones that persecuted Christians - could still fulfill the basic functions of proper government for their people.
As such, a government like Rome’s - which (as Big Evas are quick to remind us) Paul indeed never said to revolt against - can be considered “good” in the sense that it did indeed tend towards the maintenance of right order and made the effort to protect its people. Obviously it was not perfect in this and had its share of reprobate and wicked Emperors. Yet, it did tend more often than not to suppress wicked and lewd behaviour at the demotic level and made good faith efforts to promote order.
Now governments in power will differ - often to a great degree - as to whether they meet the criteria given above for being “good government.” At different times and in different places, some kings and rulers may meet these standards while others do not. Those which do deserve the support of their people. Those which do not do not deserve that support and if they persist in disorderly and unrighteous behaviour can be said (to borrow a phrase from the Chinese) to have lost the Mandate of Heaven and may be replaced.
More to the point for our situation today, it should be obvious that the current Regime in Washington DC, as well as many of its associated progressive regimes at the state and local levels, do not meet the qualifications for good government and do not deserve the support or obedience of good people who desire to do right. They cannot be said to be rightly representing God’s overarching authority through their exercise of any derivative authority.
From the top down, these regimes not only don’t maintain good order, but they actively work to undermine it. They legitimise criminals. They’re hobbling those agents of government who are tasked with maintaining order. They’re subverting longstanding elements within our justice systems (such as juries) for the purpose of freeing wrongdoers.
Further, these progressives are discouraging righteousness and promoting wickedness with practically every law and policy they implement. They aren’t even protecting their people from external threats but are instead importing millions of aliens who refuse to obey our laws and who contribute to even greater disorder and danger to our citizens.
Indeed, from the Regime in DC on down, progressive governments barely qualify for the term “government” at all. Instead, they are literal revolutionaries against legitimate government, people whom Christians are actually commanded to eschew and oppose: “My son, fear thou the LORD and the king: and meddle not with them that are given to change.” (Proverbs 24:21). Under no credible definition can these progressive regimes be considered “good” governments and should instead be considered to be totally illegitimate usurpers. As revolutionaries, they are rebels against God and against His ordinance for government, and opposition to them is in fact counterrevolutionary, an act which seeks the restoration of genuine good and legitimate government.
If I may appeal to him again, Augustine also weighed in on this facet,
“It seems to me that an unjust law is no law at all.”
“In the absence of justice, what is sovereignty but organised robbery?”
This last term is an interesting one. We often hear progressives appeal to it using qualifiers such as “social” or “racial.” These qualifiers are used to completely subvert actual justice. As defined in Scripture, justice is the upholding of righteous laws that are in accord with God’s will and good order for society among men. Progressivism perverts this by casting “justice” as involving retribution for imagined sins of the past, exacted against those who were not even alive when these supposed injustices happened. Thus, progressive forms of “justice” are as illegitimate as progressive usurpations of government and deserve just as much credence and obedience.
Thus, when they support progressive regimes and try to browbeat Christians into supporting progressive policies, Big Evangelical wolves in sheep’s clothing like David French, Russell Moore, and others are really and actually encouraging Christians to revolt against God’s scripturally meaning for good government as defined in Romans 13. Certainly, they should not receive the ear of faithful Christian believers (or anyone else, for that matter). I believe they invite God’s judgment against themselves for leading souls into error. Most definitely we should look beyond their superficial and childish interpretation of this passage to a deeper and more intertextual understanding of God’s purposes, plans, and descriptions of truly good government.