Does Romans 13 on submission contradict other portions of Scripture? By Jack Kettler
“For rulers are not a terror to good works, but 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.” (Romans 13:1, 3-4)
The purpose of this study is to provoke thought and debate. Many questions will be asked to accomplish this:
Is the state ruler always the minister of God for good? Also, does the ruler continually execute wrath upon him that does evil?
Some governments like China forcibly make women kill their unborn children through abortions. Other governments, like in America, teach damnable lies to young children about sex, genders, and practices.
Is it a contradiction to say that a government is doing good and opposing evil when it is practicing evil and persecuting good?
What does Isaiah say about this?
“Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20)
If Christians willingly submit to wicked lies, is not this a violation of Isaiah’s teaching? The astute reader should see the problem between Isaiah 5:20 and Paul’s understanding in Romans 13:1-4.
For example, consider a modern-day contemporary understanding of Romans 13:
According to Rev. John E. Warmuth, a Lutheran pastor from Wisconsin, in his online sermon, Romans 13:1-10 OUR ULTIMATE OBEDIENCE IS TO GOD:
“One of the oddities I find in all of this, concerns Adolf Hitler. He was certainly not a God-fearing man. Yet he had a favorite section of the Bible which happens to be our text, Romans 13:1-10. It may have been the only part of the Bible he liked. I think we can understand why, too. At first these verses appear to give validity to his totalitarian type of governing. Hitler read those words to mean the people of Germany owed him ultimate allegiance and obedience no matter what, and whatever peoples he conquered would owe him that, too.
What Hitler did not see in these words, however, is that they point out OUR ULTIMATE OBEDIENCEIS TO GOD. While it includes submission to governing authorities as well as love for our fellow man, the emphasis in these verses is that OUR ULTIMATE OBEDIENCE IS TO GOD. Notice the repeated phrases “authority. . . God has established,” “authorities. . . have been established by God,” “rebelling against what God has instituted,” and “he is God’s servant,” all of which point to God as the ultimate authority. All earthly authorities come from God the ruler of all. And the ultimate Authority says we owe obedience to the earthly authorities he allows to have authority here. Why?
First, it is simply because God says so. That should be reason enough. We want what God wants so we submit to them. Christians in the Roman Empire were to submit to the ungodly pagan Emperors and yes, the people of Germany were to submit to the authority of Hitler.”
Warmuth’s interpretation is typical of many contemporary interpretations of the subject, yet false. As will be seen, the section of Romans 13 on submission contains clear examples of exceptions to unlimited authority.
Romans 13:1, 3-4 teaches that believers submit to rulers who punish evil. Hitler was a promoter of evil deeds and persecuted the righteous. How can anyone maintain that Hitler punished evil as a minister of God? When Hitler had Christian pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer arrested and murdered, was he a minister of God for good? Was Hitler a minister of God for good when he had six million Jews murdered? These difficult questions cannot be brushed away.
Are believers unwittingly calling rulers who promote evil as good? Is an individual who says Hitler punished evil when he punished good in reality fall under the woe Isaiah 5:20?
Warmuth and others like him are trapped in a contradiction and violating Isaiah’s woe.
Paul says in Romans 13 because the magistrate does good and is a terror towards evil-doers, does one owe them obedience. Hitler did not meet the standards of Romans 3:1, 3-4. To call him a minister of God for good is outrageous. Good for what? Does keeping the trains running on time like his tyrannical Italian partner Mussolini make them good rulers?
The obedience to a magistrate is conditioned upon three things that are inescapable in the text:
· For [because] rulers are not a terror to good works, but the evil. (verse 1)
· For [because] he is the minister of God to thee for good. (verse 3)
· For [because] he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. (verse 4)
These three passages have conditions in them that qualify submission. How can a Christian say that Hitler was not a terror to good works or that he executed wrath on him that doeth evil when he murdered Jewish people in contradiction to verse 4?
As said, those advocating submission to Hitler based upon Romans 13 are caught in a contradiction with other portions of Scripture, namely, Isaiah 5:20.
The Protestant Reformation would never have happened, given the interpretation of submission to wicked rulers advocated like Warmuth. Warmuth did say that the ultimate authority of obedience is to God. God raised Pharaoh up and had Moses and Israel resist him. How can the example of Pharaoh and Moses in the book of Exodus be brought into harmony with Romans 13?
How does a Hitler-like ruler get into power?
“And he changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up kings: he giveth wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding.” (Daniel 2:21)
It is indeed true that it is God who places a Hitler-like ruler in power. God has His reasons, and without knowing the mind of God, man cannot know, see (Deuteronomy 29:29).
A Biblical pattern of resistance to ungodly rulers:
In the book of Judges, God allowed enemies of Israel to reign over them due to their unfaithfulness. Then God would raise up a judge to deliver His people from having to submit to ungodly rulers like the Philistines.
The question that needs to be asked:
Is the pattern seen in the book of Judges contradictory to modern-day interpretations of Romans 13? Because of Israel’s unfaithfulness, God brought foreign tyrants to oppress His people in order to bring them to repentance. Then God raised up His judges to resist, not submit to the Philistines and others.
Are there contradictions in Scripture? God forbid, absolutely not! Therefore, modern-day interpretations of Romans 13 that call for submission to a Hitler-like figure are false given the pattern in the book of Judges and Pharaoh and Moses’ account. Therefore, it can be said that particular individual magistrates can be resisted if violating the conditional clauses in Romans 13:1, 3-4.
Moreover, to call a Hitler-like ruler good would be in violation of Isaiah’s woe in 5:20. Paul and Isaiah do not contradict one another? The examples are seen in the book of Judges also do not contradict Paul in Romans 13. That is where the virtually unlimited submission view of Romans 13 ends up contradicting other Scriptures.
Today God raises pastors up instead of the Old Testament judges to call wicked magistrates to repent from political lies and other forms of wickedness.
A contemporary example of Godly resistance:
In California, John MacArthur, Grace Community Church pastor, refused to submit to government lies about the China virus scam-demic and opened God’s Church from the lockdown mandate.
Christians are not to submit to political lies any more than theological lies. A lie is a lie and must be resisted and rebuked.
Hypothetical question with echoes of reality:
A criminal gang seizes the government’s control by taking over the White House and murdering everyone in it. Subsequently, the criminal gang declares themselves to be the government. In this scenario, does a Christian, according to Romans 13, have to submit? If so, would the actual legitimate government have to submit, or could they plan to retake the government? If the legitimate government, after its overthrow, be allowed to resist, why should Christians be forced to submit to a lawless criminal gang that declared themselves to be a government?
As a necessary brief aside:
Today, Christians in America, the people find themselves at the precipice in light of the wicked gang of globalists that have overthrown the legitimate government. Under the form of government enjoyed in America is a social contract form of government, which involves the consent of governed. The consent of the governed hinges upon free and fair elections. Under the contract theory, if the government cannot guarantee this, no longer is obedience required.
More importantly, the Bill of Rights is understood to mean that “Rights” come from God and are inalienable and cannot be taken or rescinded. Under the Constitution of the United States, sovereignty resides in the people as the ultimate authority. The people contracted with their elected representatives to preserve this agreement. Under this system, rulers who attempt to revoke God-given rights are tyrants and to be resisted.
Therefore, “…That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness….” Thomas Jefferson
Back to the theological issue at hand, consider John Calvin’s view on rulers:
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.’”
Is Calvin, when saying, “…it behooves us to spit upon their heads than to obey them,” in violation of Romans 13? Not at all. Calvin’s view of the separation of powers is also seen in his view of the Church government, which likewise separates Church power from the state.
Does a Christian always have to submit to a church? No, but some conditions must be met before a church membership covenant or civil social contact may be dissolved.
The Marks of a True Church:
1. The gospel is preached
2. The sacraments are administered biblically
3. Church discipline practiced
Marks of the God-ordained State:
1. God’s ministers are ordained and not a terror to good works.
2. Continual executing wrath against evil-doers.
3. Because of fear of God’s ministers, evil is deterred.
In God’s plan of redemption, which entity is higher, the church or state?
When the state, like the church, loses the marks of legitimacy, the believer is free from submission and may seek a church that is faithful to Scripture. Likewise, a citizen is free from statist authority when that authority becomes an agent of evil. The state, like a church, can lose its authority.
Consider Presbyterian founder John Knox and the state:
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 common people’s right and duty to resist if State officials ruled contrary to Scripture. Knox even said, “Resistance to tyranny is a duty to God.” It seems that Knox contradicts 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.
Thankfully, Knox saw that obedience in Romans 13 is conditioned. John Knox made this clear in his tirade against tyrants. See, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Knox believed in resistance to wicked rulers. Would Knox have worn a mask in worship if Queen Mary had decreed it? It is commonly known that Knox was an opponent and antagonist of the Queen. If John Knox was in violation of Romans 13, should he be excommunicated by the Presbyterians in absentia, a Latin term for absent?
Would the Protestant Reformation ever have happened given certain interpretations of Romans 13?
Martin Luther opposed the Pope of Rome and the worldly princes who carried out the Pope of Rome’s wishes. Was Luther in violation of Romans 13? If consistent, modern-day interpreters like Warmuth would have condemned to founding father of America and submitted to and backed King George.
Reformation-era Scotsman George Buchanan has a solution to the proper interpretation of Romans 13:
“Paul, then, is not concerned here with those who act as magistrates but with magistracy itself, that is, with the function and duty of those who are set over others; and he is not concerned with any particular type of magistracy, but with the form of every lawful magistracy. His argument is not with those who think that bad magistrates ought to be restrained, but with those who reject the authority of all magistrates….In order to refute their error Paul showed that magistracy is not only good but also sacred, the ordinance of God, indeed, expressly established to hold groups and communities of men together in such a way that would recognise the blessings of God towards them and refrain from injuring one another.” (1)
The idea that Paul is speaking of is how the magistracy should be, not how a magistrate may be. God ordains the magistracy. This does not mean that a wicked ruler like Hitler cannot be resisted.
Buchanan’s understanding of Romans 13 absolves itself of contradictions with other Scriptures.
Historical examples of civil disobedience by Christians:
1. William Tyndale, the English translator of the Bible, was condemned as a heretic, tried and executed in 1536.
2. 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:
1. Spanish Netherlands: Battle of Leyden, 1574 [The Dutch led by William the Silent won their independence as the United States of the Netherlands].
2. Sweden: Gustavus Vasa broke Sweden off from Denmark and established the Lutheran church in 1527.
3. Denmark: The Protestant party of the nobility overthrew the Catholic dynasty in 1536.
4. 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.
5. Switzerland: Cantons established Protestantism by vote of the community.
6. 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”] (2)
Does the reader agree with or reject these examples?
Romans 13:1-4 properly understood does not command virtually absolute obedience to wicked rulers by contradictorily saying that, for example, in the case of Hitler, he was a minister for good.
Romans 13:1, 3-4, and Isaiah 5:20 are not contradictory. Paul’s argument in Romans 13 is qualified. Paul’s qualification can be understood that a magistrate who does evil and does not execute wrath against evil-doers is doing good would fall under Isaiah’s woe. Hopefully, Christians will rethink erroneous ideas about submission to wicked rulers.
The common person and Christian pastors can call ungodly rulers to repentance and resist unlawful decrees.
“For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet.” (1 Corinthians 15:25)
Christ is reigning now. How can Christ’s progressive reign be completed when believers are to remain subjugated to wicked magistrates? The thunder of John Knox is needed!
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)
1. George Buchanan, A Dialogue on the Law of Kingship Among the Scots, ed. Roger Mason, p. 113; 121.
2. Francis Schaeffer: Vol. 5, A Christian Manifesto; Chapter 7: The Limits of Civil Obedience, (Westchester, Illinois, Crossway Books), pp. 467-474. 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