Given the way I grew up, it is unlikely that I would want anti-government sentiments tempered. I grew up with a deep distrust of the government, and I still have some suspicions. But I do think that the anti-government sentiments among the political right need to be tempered. Perhaps even more shocking is that I reached this conclusion from studying the Bible.
Some political commentators suspect that the frustration toward and hatred of the government has increased over the last few years. I don’t have an strong opinion on this, but recent events certainly make it appear that the frustrations have increased.
For example, on January 2, 2016, Ammon Bundy and a group of protestors occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Though part of the dispute centers on the jailing of a father and son –– both ranchers who live near the refuge –– Bundy and the protesters are demanding that the federal government returns land it owns to locals. Those who occupied the refuge’s headquarters were armed, and they occupied it for forty days. Almost all of the militants were arrested, with two militants still at large and one killed while being arrested. (See Wikipedia’s article for a good overview of this case.)
This occupation highlights an interesting tension within the conservative movement: a tension of ideological commitments held by many within the movement. In the U.S., many Christians have some type of allegiance to Christianity. But the conservative movement is also characterized by frustration and vitriol directed toward the government. In fact, I know Christians who were actually supportive of those who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
This attitude toward the government seems at odds with the New Testament. Christians are told to submit and to honor our government. The New Testament is clear about that (1 Peter 2:13-17). So how should politically conservative Christians — those who see the government as too large and overreaching its boundaries and so violating people’s rights — view the government? Should their frustrations lead to the type of anger and rhetoric that we see in some corners of political conservatism?
For most of my life, I have been around people who were extremely frustrated with the government. I have almost always seen the government as a major cause of our problems. Throughout the last twelve years, I have moved around a broad spectrum of libertarian and conservative political beliefs. So I don’t want a big government, and I have never been convinced that our government has to be as intrusive and expensive as it is. And most of my friends and family have similar political leanings.
Therefore, I am not unaware of or unsympathetic to a mindset that is hostile to or overly suspicious of the government. I understand that mindset, largely because I have inhabited that mindset on and off throughout my adult life. But as a Christian, I have to look to the Bible to form my political beliefs. No, this doesn’t mean that the Bible explains how high tax rates should be or even what form of government we should have. But it does mean that my first question when thinking about politics should be “How does my faith shape my political views?”
But the political views of many Christian conservatives don’t come from the Bible. Instead, the vitriol and hatred against the government comes from views about property rights and personal rights that come from political theories rather than the Bible itself.
But the anger, hatred, and rhetoric that comes from some conservatives conflicts with what Paul’s says of government in Romans 13:1-7. So in this article, I want to discuss three fairly non-controversial implications of what Paul says in this passage.
Let me clarify one thing before any politically conservative readers scoff at my main point and stop reading: I am not saying that political conservatism — specifically, the view that government should be smaller, more limited in scope and power, and cheaper than it currently is — is inconsistent with the teachings of the Bible. I am politically conservative, and whatever some people might think about my intellectual abilities, I am not so inconsistent as to be a Christian conservative who thinks the Bible condemns conservatism.
It’s not the conservative ideology, but the attitude and extremism, that I’m concerned about.
Paul writes in Romans 13:1-7 (I’m quoting from the NIV):
1Let 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.2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 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. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
A Contested Passage
It would be misleading if I pretended that this passage isn’t controversial. Scholars debate the implications of this passage and how to reconcile its positive depictions of the government with the harsher depiction in Revelation. Is Paul talking in more idealistic terms due to the “good” years of Nero’s early reign? Also, it’s not clear how Paul’s statements apply in a nation where the government is “of the people, by the people, for the people”? And how does this passage apply when Christians have such an impact on the government?
It is beyond the scope of this passage to work through these questions. The text does seem to command submission to the government with no exceptions made. And, as Douglas Moo writes:
“It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the history of the interpretation of Rom. 13:1-7 is the history of attempts to avoid what seems to be its plain meaning. At first glance, and taken on its own, this passage seems to require that Christians always, in whatever situation, obey whatever their governmental leaders tell them to do.” (*The Epistle to the Romans*, p. 806)
But when the passage is put into the broader NT context and its implications thought through, it’s clear that qualifications must be made. For this essay’s purpose, though, it is sufficient to quote Moo’s conclusion to his discussion of the different interpretive options. He write in his commentary on Romans:
“Balance is needed. On the one hand, we must not obscure the teaching of Rom. 13:1-7 in a flood of qualifications. Paul makes clear that government is ordained by God — indeed, that every particular governmental authority is ordained by God — and that the Christian must recognize and respond to this fact with an attitude of ‘submission.’ Government is more than a nuisance to be put up with; it is an institution established by God to accomplish some of his purposes on earth (cf. vv. 3-4). On the other hand, we must not read Rom. 13:1-7 out of its broad NT context and put government in a position relative to the Christian that only God can hold. Christians should give thans for government as an institution of God; we should pray regularly for our leaders (cf. 1 Tim. 2:1-2); and we should be prepared to follow the orders of our government. But we should also refuse to give to government any absolute rights and should evalute all its demands in the light of the gospel.” (*The Epistle to the Romans*, pp. 809-10)
Some Insights From Romans 13
I don’t think we have to work out these details for this passage to challenge much of the vitriol that comes from the political right.
First, Christians still have to obey an morally and legally imperfect government. Perhaps the scholars are correct who think that Paul’s view of government in Romans 13 is overly rosy because the Emperor Nero hadn’t turned crazy and tyrannical. But the government still had problems. Whatever Paul means by submitting to the government and not rebelling, he certainly doesn’t mean that one should submit to the government only if you agree with what it is doing. Such submission isn’t actually submission.
Second, Christians can’t dishonor the government or rebel just because you believe the government has overreached its appropriate boundaries. According to the commentators I consulted on this passage, many in the Roman Empire felt that taxes had become burdensome. Many people wanted the direct and indirect taxes decreased. There was even a bit of a political movement in Rome that clamored for lower taxes. But Paul still tells Christians to submit to the government. And he tells the Christians to pay their taxes. He is even careful, according to the scholars, to tell the Roman Christians to pay both the direct and indirect taxes. Even though the Roman government was overreaching (from a conservative viewpoint), the Roman Christians still had to submit to the government and pay its taxes.
Third, Christians should respect the rule of law. Paul writes that God has put governments and rulers in place for justice. In other words, God planned for government to foster a well-ordered society. At minimum, Christians should have a tremendous respect for the rule of law. God’s intended order is for the government to impose peace and justice throughout a society; throughout history we have seen that the rule of law is crucial to a society having peace and justice. I see no reason to think that an armed occupation of federal property is consistent with the rule of law. Christians should not support people flouting the rule of law, even if we sympathize with their frustrations! Likewise, And Christians should not be given to rhetoric that threatens to rebel against the government. As unjust as the Roman government would have been, Paul still tells the Christians to honor and submit to the government. So I see no reason to think that our current government has reached a point where the command to submit to and honor no longer applies.
So Christians should not be characterized by vitriol against the government. No government is perfect. And no government in history has perfectly advanced Christian values. Anger and vitriol against the government should not be present among Christians. Romans 13:1-7 prohibits Christians from dishonoring the government. It is obvious that some Christians feel completely comfortable — and not just comfortable, but entitled to — dishonoring the government. But if our Christian values shape our political commitments, then we won’t be characterized by this. As conservatives, we might disagree with the current state of our government. But we have to work against this without dishonoring or rebelling against the government that God has instituted –– even if that doesn’t make the best political soundbite.
Join other dedicated readers of Thinking and Believing and subscribe to the email list. You'll receive every new post in your inbox, so you never have to worry about missing a post. Click here to subscribe.