Romans 13 and the Limits of submission to the Church or State by Jack Kettler
The following essay will touch on the issue of submission to the State or Church. It will be argued that there are limits to submission to both entities in the created order. Are the Church co-equal in God’s created order? Is the State above the Church or visa versa?
In Scripture, there are commands to submit to the State, (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14), and Church (Matthew 18:15–17; 1 Timothy 5:19; Hebrews 13:17).
Are these commands absolute?
Starting with the Church:
In Hebrews, 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them…” Church membership vows show the seriousness of this.
For example, in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) membership vow number five says:
“Do you submit yourself to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?”
The Marks of a True Church:
- The gospel is preached
- The sacraments are administered biblically
- Church discipline practiced
If the Church fails in these three, Church members must follow the process outlined in Matthew 18:15-17 to resolve disputes. If the Church’s is unfaithful to the above bullet points, members are freed from their vows and can conclude that the said Church is no longer the Church, and may depart.
On a much larger scale, this is what happened in the Protestant Reformation. Therefore, it must be admitted that there are limits to submission to a Church. The Church may cease to be the Church because of apostasy. For example, there is the Church of Thyatira that tolerated apostasy in Revelation 2:18-29.
Now to consider the State:
Principally, Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14 are the key texts that require submission to State authority.
Considering the Romans 13 text:
“1 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. 2 Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 3 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: 4 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. 5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. 6 For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.” (Romans 13:1-7)
God ordains the State like the Church, and submission is required. Does this section in Romans 13 require Christians to submit to totalitarian Nazi-like governments? If so, does this mean Christians must turn their Jewish neighbors over to the authorities? If the passage teaches this, it seems to end up in contradiction to other passages like “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself” (Mark 12:31). Turning a neighbor over to psychotic Nazi Gestapo killers is not loving them. If a representative of the State rapes or murders someone, are these same representatives immune from prosecution?
In Romans 13:7 of the text, it says “all their dues…” Is the word “due” a subtle qualifier? Were Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot “due” honor? These named leaders came into power via revolution and political subterfuge. It is true that no one rules without God’s providential control. It is also true that even a corrupt government is better than complete anarchy.
Is this section of Romans a complete treatise on civil government? Does this passage allow for the development of democratic forms of government influenced by the whole orb of biblical teaching and mechanisms that hold representatives of the State accountable and liable to prosecution for crimes committed by them? Does the development of theology stop at this point in redemptive history? This question is not about an open canon. It is about the application of Scripture-based upon a more excellent knowledge of the whole of Scripture.
In verse 4 of Romans 13, the duties of the State are seen, namely “to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” Verse 6 says, “…for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.”
Marks of the God-ordained State:
- God’s ministers are ordained and not a terror to good works.
- Continual executing wrath against evildoers.
- Because of fear of God’s ministers, evil is deterred.
Evil must be defined biblically, or the word evil is arbitrary has no meaning. In the present-day, are representatives of a State a terror to good works or not? Is the State continually attending to executing wrath against evildoers? Is evil dissuaded or encouraged by these rulers. Have State representatives become a terror to good works? If Romans 13:1-7 teach unlimited submission to the State, this is a perfect proof text for the divine right of Kings.
What if the State stops executing wrath against evildoers and turns its guns on the Church becoming a terror to Christ’s Church, verse 3? Verses four and six spell out specific duties of government ministers. It must be concluded that Roman 13:1-7 does not require unlimited to the State any more than to the Church. The bullet points of the State’s responsibility are qualifiers like those that the Church has.
State power is not unlimited any more than Church power is:
Can the State fail like a Church? If so, does this free a citizen from a pledge of unlimited submission? If the State can fail like an apostate Church, a citizen, and more importantly, a true Church of Christ must have recourse to address or ignore a Statist decree when the State is no longer fulfilling its duty as a punisher of evildoers. If a Statist decree is based upon a provable lie, must a Christian submit? If living under a monarchy, waiting for the next election will not work.
There are tensions and potential conflicts between Romans 13:1-7 and Acts 5:29. As asked previously, is Romans 13:1-7 absolute and a treatise on Church, State, and the individual’s relations with the State? In chapter three, Daniel and his friends chose God over the Babylonian tyrants. Do these texts from Daniel and Acts contradict Roman 13? If not, then there is biblical precedent for rejecting the unlimited submission view to the State.
In the Old Testament, there was the prophet, priest, and king. These offices were combined and fulfilled in the person of Lord Jesus Christ. God’s governing power was separated in the Old Testament. In the New Testament revelation, the Church of Christ is given far more prominence than the State. Nevertheless, based upon one section of Scripture in Romans 13, the State is elevated above the Church, and the Church is to submit without question. This could be described as the superiority of the State over the Church doctrine. If this is true, what happened to the crown rights of the Lord Jesus Christ?
Examples from history:
In Scotland, John Knox challenged the civil authorities’ who were influenced by the corrupt Church of his day by holding services on weekdays to counter what the Romanist priests spoke about on Sundays. His rebuke to England in (1554) led to the development in theology known as resistance to tyrants. He defended the right and duty of the common people to resist if State officials ruled contrary to Scripture. Knox even said, “Resistance to tyranny is a duty to God.” It seems that Knox is in conflict with Romans 13 if an unlimited view of submission to the government is taken. If there are limits on the application to Romans 13, then Knox was justified. If not, then Knox is wrong and must be judged as misinterpreting Scripture.
The Calvinist Connection by David Kopel,” from the Independence Institute:
“In the American colonies, the hotbed of revolution was New England, where the people were mainly Congregationalists–descendants of the Calvinist English Puritans. The Presbyterians, a Calvinist sect, which originated in Scotland, were spread all of the colonies, and the network of Presbyterian ministers provided links among them. The Congregationalist and Presbyterian ministers played an indispensible role in inciting the American Revolution.
To understand why they were so comfortable with revolution, it helps to look at the origins of Calvinist resistance theory, from its tentative beginnings with Calvin himself, to its full development a few decades later.
Born in 1509, John Calvin was a small child in France when the Reformation began. By 1541, he had been invited to take permanent refuge in Geneva, which provided a safe haven for the rest of his life. Geneva was a walled city, and constantly threatened by the Catholic Duke of Savoy and others. Pacifism was never a realistic option for Calvin, or any of the Swiss Protestants.
Calvin always believed that governments should be chosen by the people. He described the Hebrews as extremely foolish for jettisoning their free government and replacing it with a hereditary monarchy. He also came to believe that kings and princes were bound to their people by covenant, such as those that one sees in the Old Testament.
In Calvin’s view, which was based on Romans 13, the governmental duties of “inferior magistrates” (government officials, such as mayor or governors, in an intermediate level between the king and the people) required them to protect the people against oppression from above. Calvinism readily adopted the Lutheran theory of resistance by such magistrates.
In a commentary on the Book of Daniel, Calvin observed that contemporary monarchs pretend to reign “by the grace of God,” but the pretense was “a mere cheat” so that they could “reign without control.” He believed that “Earthly princes depose themselves while they rise up against God,” so ‘it behooves us to spit upon their heads than to obey them.’”
See the link below for Kopel’s complete essay.
Is Calvin, when saying, “…it behooves us to spit upon their heads than to obey them” in violation of Romans 13? Calvin must be understood in the context of this saying his doctrine of the civil magistrates and separation of powers of the magistrates. Calvin’s view of the separation of powers is also seen in his view of the Church government, which likewise separates Church power.
The Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights, theologically, are historical examples of God-given rights that the individual possesses recognized by the State.
From the Library of Congress:
“[The] Magna Carta exercised a strong influence both on the United States Constitution and on the constitutions of the various states. However, its influence was shaped by what eighteenth-century Americans believed Magna Carta to signify. Magna Carta was widely held to be the people’s reassertion of rights against an oppressive ruler, a legacy that captured American distrust of concentrated political power. In part because of this tradition, most of the state constitutions included declarations of rights intended to guarantee individual citizens a list of protections and immunities from the state government. The United States also adopted the Bill of Rights, in part, due to this political conviction.”
Despite this development in the area of civil rights, according to some and their interpretation of Romans 13, the Magna Carta, American War for Independence, and the Bill of Rights never should have happened or only did so in violation of Romans 13.
“Sphere Sovereignty” a solution:
Sphere sovereignty (Dutch: souvereiniteit in eigen kring), also known as differentiated responsibility, is the concept that each sphere (or sector) of life has its own distinct responsibilities and authority or competence, and stands equal to other spheres of life. – Wikipedia
Is Abraham Kuyper’s “Sphere Sovereignty,” which involves a separate sphere for the Church, State, Family, and Work Biblical? If so, can “sphere sovereignty,” resolve the conflict between present-day God-ordained institutions?
Present-day Church/State relations:
Currently, there is a purported virus pandemic. In the United States, some individual states have locked down Churches from holding worship services and placed stringent rules to be followed subject to threats of fines and imprisonment.
Under the guise of the pandemic, the State has moved against the Church in an unprecedented way in some of these United States to restrict the Church from its activities, including weddings, funerals, communion services, and baptisms. In some States, congregants are urged to wear masks and not get to close to each other. Unknown unelected faceless health experts limit the number of congregants permitted to attend Church.
If John Calvin’s view of differing levels and separation of powers in the magistrates is right, Christians can dispute a lower magistrate by appealing to a higher power. In States that have overreached into Church affairs, legal action should be taken against the State. The application of these alleged pandemic rules vary from State to State, are inconsistent and discriminatory. In Colorado, for example, Pot shops were deemed essential, and Church services were not. Pot shops remained open, and Church services were canceled.
Are there limits on the local State and Federal State?
Can a State tax the Church? Does Romans 13:1-7 sanction a tax by the State upon the Church? Can a State ban particular food like pork from a Church dinner under the guise of good health or not offending Muslims? Can a State prohibit congregants from carrying concealed firearms to Church? Can a State forbid the Church to teach that homosexuality is a sin? Can a State require congregants to dress in clown costumes at Church because people wearing clown costumes have not contracted a yearly virus or flue at the same rate as others in society?
Romans 13:1-7 is not an end-all debate treatise on the power of the State. The passage allows for doctrinal impute from other Scriptures. This means that the doctrine of accountability or liability applies to the State as well as the Church. Both the State and the Church can fail.
There is not unlimited immunity for either sphere. A priest who molests a child can be prosecuted, as well as a civil magistrate who commits the same crime, can also be. The examples of John Knox and John Calvin cannot be ignored. If Knox was justified in his description of Queen Mary as a monstrous woman tyrant, it could be concluded that a civil magistrate may also be.
Romans 13:1-7 cannot be interpreted in isolation; it must be qualified in some sense. The Exegesis of Romans 13:1-7 must not be apart from the totality of Scripture. As will be seen, there are other Scriptural considerations that limit the divine right of Kings’ interpretation of Romans 13. In light of the totality of Scripture, the believer is not required such absolute submission to the State, and neither is the Church.
Francis Schaeffer: A Christian Manifesto; Chapter 7: The Limits of Civil Obedience
Thinking to the bottom line:
- What is the final relationship to the state on the part of anyone whose base is the existence of God? Those in our present material-energy, chance oriented generation have no reason to obey the state except that the state has the guns and has the patronage.
- Has God set up an authority in the state that is autonomous from Himself?
God has ordained the state as a delegated authority; it is not autonomous. Romans 13:1-4; 1 Peter 2:13-17 [Comment: Sovereignty (ultimate authority) is an inescapable concept. Autonomy is the view that man is either above the law or lives apart from it.]
Historical examples of civil disobedience by Christians:
- William Tyndale, the English translator of the Bible, was condemned as a heretic, tried and executed in 1536.
- John Bunyan, a Nonconformist clergyman who was arrested for preaching without a license and failing to attend the Church of England, wrote Pilgrim’s Progress in his jail cell.
In almost every place where the Reformation had success, there was some form of civil disobedience or armed rebellion:
- Spanish Netherlands: Battle of Leyden, 1574 [The Dutch led by William the Silent won their independence as the United States of the Netherlands].
- Sweden: Gustavus Vasa broke Sweden off from Denmark and established the Lutheran church in 1527.
- Denmark: The Protestant party of the nobility overthrew the Catholic dynasty in 1536.
- Germany: Martin Luther was protected by the Duke of Saxony against the political and military power of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. The Peace of Augsburg of 1555 established the ruler’s religion in the German states. The Counter-Reformation led to the Thirty Years War. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) ratified the Peace of Augsburg.
- Switzerland: Cantons established Protestantism by vote of the community.
- Scotland: John Knox openly defied the authorities by holding services on weekdays to refute what the priests preached on Sundays. His Admonition to England (1554) developed a theology of resistance to tyranny. He upheld the right and duty of the common people to resist if state officials ruled contrary to the Bible. [“Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God”] (1)
The notes in the 1559 Geneva Bible said Kings were not to be obeyed if they violated God’s law.
For example, the margin notes for Daniel 6:22 imply that the King’s commands 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)
If the State, by its actions, declares itself God, is submission (Romans 13:1-7) still required? If so, would not submission be breaking the commandment against worshiping false gods?
“If there is no final place for civil disobedience, then the government has been made autonomous, and as such, it has been put in the place of the living God.” – Francis A. Schaeffer
The Ninth Commandment:
How is law broken? Those who conceal the truth or openly lie, who formulate a conspiracy, or who spin the truth violate this commandment.
The Westminster larger catechism:
- 145. What are the sins forbidden in the ninth commandment?
- The sins forbidden in the ninth commandment are, all prejudicing the truth, and the good name of our neighbours, as well as our own,especially in public judicature;giving false evidence,suborning false witnesses, wittingly appearing and pleading for an evil cause, outfacing and overbearing the truth; passing unjust sentence, calling evil good, and good evil; rewarding the wicked according to the work of the righteous, and the righteous according to the work of the wicked;forgery, concealing the truth, undue silence in a just cause, and holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either a reproof from ourselves, or complaint to others; speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end, or perverting it to a wrong meaning, or in doubtful and equivocal expressions, to the prejudice of truth or justice; speaking untruth, lying, slandering, backbiting, detracting, tale bearing, whispering, scoffing, reviling,rash, harsh, and partial censuring; misconstructing intentions, words, and actions; flattering, vain-glorious boasting; thinking or speaking too highly or too meanly of ourselves or others; denying the gifts and graces of God; aggravating smaller faults; hiding, excusing, or extenuating of sins, when called to a free confession; unnecessary discovering of infirmities; raising false rumors, receiving and countenancing evil reports, and stopping our ears against just defense; evil suspicion; envying or grieving at the deserved credit of any, endeavoring or desiring to impair it, rejoicing in their disgrace and infamy;scornful contempt, fond admiration; breach of lawful promises; neglecting such things as are of good report, and practicing, or not avoiding ourselves, or not hindering what we can in others, such things as procure an ill name.
Believing a lie is a sin. God says, “I hate and detest falsehood.” (Psalm 119:163) The catechism speaks of “receiving and countenancing evil reports.” Receiving or believing a lie is a violation of the commandment and applies to both theological and political lies.
Theological and Political lies:
Teaching the Arian or Polytheism doctrines, which are lies, is sin. Believing these lies is sinful also. Politicians routinely speak lies when advocating the redistributing income from one group of citizens to another or promoting sexual deviancy in government indoctrination centers, i.e., public schools.
Not only is it a sin to teach and speak political lies, but it is also a sin to believe political heresies under the ninth commandment. Lies are lies. Teaching and believing lies are breaking the commandment. The ninth commandment has both a positive and a negative aspect to it.
“Thou shall not lie,” the ninth commandment and “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29)
This means when wicked rulers commanded believers to violate God’s law, believers must follow God and are free from unlimited submission. In addition, with the Bible in their hand, believers can call political leaders to repentance.
Theological lies and political lies are both lies. The elders of the Church must protect the flock from lies from arising within the Church, and State. Exposing theological lies can be technical. The same is true with political lies like stealing from your neighbors or the advocacy of baby killing, i.e., abortion. The standard for exposing lies are the Scriptures.
Therefore, Church leaders, just as well as Political leaders, are not due unlimited submission.
If this is not true, then be the first on your block to turn in your Jewish or other politically incorrect neighbors. Stop homeschooling your children. Turn them over to the State for indoctrination into abominable sexual practices. Be sure to line up your children to get the latest vaccines derived from aborted fetal stem cell lines along with a good combination of toxic metals. If absolute submission were what must be followed, many of our fellow citizens would still be slaves according to race.
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)
- Francis Schaeffer: Vol. 5, A Christian Manifesto; Chapter 7: The Limits of Civil Obedience, (Westchester, Illinois, Crossway Books), pp. 467-474.
- Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization, (Nashville, TN, Thomas Nelson), 156.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For more study:
Romans 13: Reading an Abused Text of Scripture Rightly https://www.joshuapsteele.com/romans-13/
The Biblical Doctrine of Government by R. J. Rushdoony https://chalcedon.edu/magazine/the-biblical-doctrine-of-government
The Calvinist Connection by Dave Kopel http://davekopel.org/Religion/Calvinism.htm
The Calvinist Connection by Dave Kopel http://davekopel.org/Religion/Calvinism.htm