By: Luke D. D. Barbrick
In recent months, a divisive yet extremely important question has reemerged in many American churches, a question which our ancestors grappled with for centuries. The question is this: Are Christians called by God to follow every command from their government? During the last year, I encountered many believers in my own community who vehemently insisted, and still insist, that Christians are called to submit to leadership, regardless of the circumstances. Such Christians frequently rely on Romans 13 for their assertion.
1Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. 5 Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor (NKJV, Romans 13:1-7).
Admittedly, this argument appears convincing if one interprets “authority” as something inherent to or synonymous with persons in power. However, this overly literal interpretation of Romans 13 raises serious issues for the passage considering other Biblical texts. For example, in Acts 5, the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day, commanded the apostles to cease in preaching the Gospel to the people. Peter replied, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (NKJV, Acts 5:27-29). Should the apostles have kept silent according to the Pharisees’ wishes and thus disobeyed Jesus’ command to “[g]o into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature”? (NKJV, Mark 16:15). Was Rahab wrong to hide the Hebrew spies in defiance of her king? (NKJV, Joshua 2). Were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego wrong to defy the wishes of King Nebuchadnezzar, the greatest of all kings at the time, by refusing to worship his golden image? (NKJV, Daniel 3) Was Daniel wrong to disobey the edict of King Darius by refusing to worship him? (NKJV, Daniel 6). As the Word of God is infallible, the Word cannot contradict itself because the Word is God and God Himself is without flaw (NKJV, John 1:1; 2 Samuel 22:31). Therefore, we can only assume that the flaw lies within this interpretation of Romans 13.
At the heart of the submissionists’ interpretation lies the aforementioned confusion of persons in power (leadership) with authority. If these concepts are one and the same, Romans 13 inevitably commands Christians to blindly submit to their rulers, without hesitation and without question, as the passage makes it clear that Christians have no cause to rebel against authority. For the absolute submissionist Christian, rebellion against leadership constitutes a rebellion against God Himself. This interpretation holds serious moral and practical consequences for the Christian life. For example, it implicitly teaches that Christians should overlook the fact that they are citizens of a Constitutional Republic and, therefore, they have a greater allegiance to the laws of the land than to the rulers who remain bound by the same laws. A second problem with the submissionists’ interpretation is that it focuses solely on the Christian’s duty to the state and completely ignores the state’s duty to the citizens, Christian and non-Christian. In other words, this interpretation fails to examine the purpose for which God established government and completely ignores the question of how Christians should respond when their government acts beyond its God-given, lawful purpose and authority.
II. God Instituted Government for the Good of His People
To properly understand our duty to leadership in our capacity as citizens of two kingdoms, a heavenly and an earthly, we need to understand why God established governments over us in the first place. The famous Protestant theologian, Martin Luther, stated that God instituted government to restrain the “unchristian and wicked so that they are obliged to keep the peace outwardly” (qtd. in Amos 8). Likewise, John Calvin stated, “We see that some form of organization is necessary in all human society to foster the common peace and maintain accord” (qtd. in Amos 12). Romans 13 affirms both Calvin and Luther’s arguments in verses three and four which describe a governing authority or ruler as God’s “minister…for good” and as “an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (NKJV, Romans 13:3-4). John Locke, a student of Calvin’s writings, also agreed with Luther and Calvin’s assertions concerning the role of government in society. However, underlying the ruler’s duty to uphold the social order and to restrain the ungodly lies an equally important duty: To preserve the God-given rights of the people. In his Second Treatise of Government, which greatly influenced the American Founding, Locke observed,
[A]ll men are naturally in…a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man. A state also of equality…no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection (Locke 8).
Thus, for Locke, all human beings are equal in their humanity and in their right to be free. Initially humanity was born into a state of perfect equality wherein no person had official power over their fellow men and women and all individuals were equal in their right to pursue their own well-being and happiness in life. Locke further asserted that this “state of nature” had a “law of nature to govern it.” This law of nature or Natural Law informed, and still informs, every person, through both reason and conscience, that all human beings are “equal and independent,” and thus no one should harm the “life, health, liberty, or possessions” of another (Locke 9). In other words, “whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them” (NKJV, Matthew 7:12).
Whenever anyone transcends the self-evident Golden Rule of Nature, “the offender declares himself to live by another rule than that of reason and common equity, which is that measure God has set to the actions of men, for their mutual security.” (Locke 10). As this quotation suggests, not all people abide by the dictates of Natural Law. Consequently, early humanity found it extremely difficult to enjoy their God-given rights in a pure State of Nature, devoid of any political unity or protection. When all people are “kings” and devoid of governance and order, humanity’s enjoyment of their property remains “very unsafe, very unsecure.” For Locke, “The great and chief end…of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government” was and remains the “preservation of their lives, liberties, and estates” (Locke 67). Thus, for Locke, governments were founded to protect the sacred liberties of the citizens against infringement from sinister designs and persons. Government is a necessary product of human imperfection and therefore remains, as James Madison observed, the “greatest of all reflections on human nature” (Madison 288).
Regarding the type of government mankind ought to have, John Calvin observed, “Since such diversity exists in the customs of men, such variety in their minds, such conflicts in their judgements and dispositions, no organization is sufficiently strong unless constituted with definite laws” (qtd. in Amos 12). Calvin’s ideas went on to influence many prominent American Founders such as John Adams who advocated for “a government of laws, not of men” which is how he described the government of the United States (qtd. in Amos 44). Thus, for both Adams and Calvin, the best type of government is not one wherein the rulers govern through pure, unbridled will but through clear and precise laws. Consequently, our Founders sought to establish a republican form of government, headed by a national Constitution which would serve as the “supreme Law of the Land” (U.S. Constitution, art. VI). To avoid a “gradual concentration” of power into a single ruler, our Founders divided our nation’s federal government into “distinct and separate departments” and assigned specific powers of governance to each one (Madison 288-89).
III. The Hierarchy of Christian Allegiance to Government
The U.S. Constitution divides the power of the Federal government into three departments or branches: the Legislative (Congress), the Executive (the President), and the Judiciary (the courts). Simply put, the authority entrusted to these branches is as follows: Congress is responsible for making laws, the President enforces the laws made by Congress, and the courts, (including the Supreme Court), that interpret the laws of Congress and the actions of the President in accordance with the Constitution (U.S. Constitution, art. 1-3). Thus, neither the President nor the courts can make their own laws, nor can Congress enforce or interpret their own laws. Moreover, pursuant to the Tenth Amendment, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people” (U.S. Constitution, amend. 10). Since the U.S. Constitution’s drafting, the states too have adopted political systems governed by a separation of powers and checks and balances amongst their legislatures, governors, and supreme courts.
Therefore, if we apply Romans 13:1, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities” to our Constitutional Republic, our hierarchy of authority and our allegiance thereto remain as follows: Our foremost authorities are God and His Natural Law followed by the United States Constitution. Below the Constitution, we submit to Congress in matters of federal lawmaking, to the President in matters of federal law enforcement, and to the Supreme Court and all inferior courts in legal and judicial conflicts that fall within their lawful scope. Similarly, per the constitution of the State in which we are citizens, we submit to the legislature in matters of state lawmaking, to the governor in matters of state law enforcement, and to the state courts in matters of state judicial dispute. Any powers that do not fall under the constitutional authority of the federal or the state governments are reserved to local governments. Thus, in all official matters not governed by Federal or State law, we must submit to local authorities.
IV. We Submit to an Office of Authority, not the Office Holder
A common error of many citizens, Christian and otherwise, is that they mistake the persons holding power for the government and its authority. As previously stated, this view has contributed immensely to the submissionist interpretation of Romans 13. Yet, when one examines the history of our nation’s Founding and the writings of earlier generations who inspired the Founders, we find a very different argument. For example, in the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants), an anonymous Huguenot (French Calvinist) observed that “no one was ever born with a crown on his head and a scepter in his hand.” Moreover, “no man can be made a king by himself nor reign without people” (Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants 719). Because “the people choose and establish their kings, it follows that the whole body of the people is above the king.” Accordingly, “he who receives authority from another is less than he from whom he derives power.” The people are the true sovereigns. The author compares a country to “a ship” wherein the king or ruler “holds the place of the pilot.” The people are the “owners of the vessel, obeying the pilot while he is careful of the public good” (Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants 720). In other words, authority remains embedded within the office(s) of government per the consent of the people who establish and sustain the ruler. Authority is neither inherent nor synonymous to the person in power.
This understanding of authority and the ruler as distinct concepts was not unique to the adherents of John Calvin or the Protestant faith. Three hundred years before the Reformation, the Catholic barons of England forced their king, John, to sign the Magna Carta (The Great Charter) which placed limits on the power of the English monarchy. The Magna Carta proved a foundational cornerstone for the British Constitution and, most importantly, established the authority of the law as superior to that of the king (Amos 5, 18). One century after the Magna Carta, the leaders of England’s northern neighbor, Scotland, wrote a letter to the Pope which became known as the Declaration of Arbroath. In the letter, Scotland’s leaders explained how the English King, Edward I, through many barbarous acts of coercion, invasion, and mass murder, had cruelly attempted to subjugate the people of Scotland to his rule. Although Scotland had been liberated under the military and political leadership of her king, Robert the Bruce, the Scottish leaders warned,
[Should Robert the Bruce] give up what he has begun, and agree to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own rights and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King…. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself (Declaration of Arbroath).
Thus, for the Scots of the Middle Ages, a king holds power to one primary end: The protection of his people and the safeguarding of their freedom. Should the king fail in his duty, the people and nobles have the right and the duty to replace him with a more capable individual. In other words, the monarchy and the powers thereof are not inseparably bound to the person of the ruler. Moreover, the freedom of the people remains an absolute and therefore cannot be surrendered under any circumstances. Freedom is the end, and the king and his office are means to that end.
If we combine all these historical views concerning the relationship between the king, the law, and the nation, the result is this: The nation (the people) is the sovereign of the prince who, through the people’s consent, holds the reins of power for a time. A ruler can be replaced should he or she fail to protect the rights and liberties of the people. Moreover, the office of the leader is defined and limited by the law of the land which remains the greatest mechanism for the people to hold the ruler accountable. In conclusion then, leadership and authority, two terms so often confused, are not the same. A leader is but an ordinary person entrusted by God, through the people, with the authority and powers of a governing office which remains limited by the temporal laws of the land and the Natural Law of God. Therefore, as authority is inherent to the governing office, it is to the office, not the office holder, that citizens must submit.
Ironically, the Bible lends support to this historical distinction between the office and the officeholder. For example, in Matthew 22 Jesus said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Notice that Jesus does not name the reigning emperor by name but by the title of his office, “Caesar” (NKJV, Matthew 22:21). Moreover, Jesus does not command His followers to render absolute allegiance to Caesar but rather to give Caesar that which is his and God that which is His. Therefore, as Christians and as citizens of an earthly kingdom, our allegiance is to the office of the ruler, not to the person. Moreover, our allegiance to that office remains limited by our allegiance to God.
In his highly influential work, the Lex Rex (The Law and the King), Samuel Rutherford, an author of the famous Westminster Confessions (Amos 23), also describes the authority of kings and rulers as tied to their offices rather than to the persons holding power. Rutherford reminds his readers that a king would have no power had he not first formed a “covenant” with the people. Rutherford describes this covenant as “natural, tacit, and implicit” in nature, “tying the king, by the nature of his office” (Rutherford 149). The powers inherent to the ruler’s office permit him to do “no more than that which upon right and law he may do” (Rutherford 276). Referencing Romans 13:3-4, Rutherford further contends, “God’s word equally ties him [the ruler] to the place of a mere minister in doing good, as in executing wrath on evil doers” (Rutherford 279). As all rulers remain God’s “servants,” subject to His will, their positions and offices exist only to do His bidding, not their own. Therefore, no ruler can “draw the sword against the innocent, nor absolve the guilty” as such acts would be outside the realm of justice and therefore outside God’s will. When a ruler uses his office for evil, that ruler has acted outside God’s will and thus beyond the authority of his office (Rutherford 278-79). In the end, God has equipped all rulers, via their offices, with sufficient “power…to do good, not evil (Rutherford 288).” In other words, there is no such thing as an absolute earthly ruler (Rutherford 149). Therefore, no ruler is permitted to act beyond the authority or purpose entrusted him or her by God by doing evil. Such a person is no longer a legitimate ruler but a usurper.
Amazingly, this distinction between leadership and authority logically aligns with Romans 13. Verse three states, “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil” (NKJV, Romans 13:3). If the term “rulers” in this verse refers to the often-corrupt persons and desires of the office holders rather than to the offices in which they serve, then this verse essentially says that people in power are never a terror to good works. History, Scripture, and common sense reveal this assertion to be both naïve and blatantly false. If, however, the term “rulers” references the impersonal aspect of leadership, namely political authority in the form of a political office, then this verse makes perfect sense. The office of King or Emperor is never, in and of itself, a terror to good works any more than a car is a terror to pedestrians or a gun is a terror to human life. The true terror is the person who drives recklessly, who pulls the trigger, or who abuses political authority for personal gain while in office.
V. The Original Greek Also Distinguishes Authority and Leadership
Even in its original Greek, Romans 13 distinguishes leadership from authority. In the Greek, the word “ἐξουσίαις” (“exousiais”) which translates as “to the authorities” (Greek Concordance: ἐξουσίαις) identifies to whom or what Christians owe their allegiance in government. (Romans 13:1 Greek Text Analysis). The Greek term for “authority” used in Romans 13:1, “εξουσια” (“exousia”), also translates as the “power to act.” (Strong’s Greek: 1849. εξουσια). Thus “ἐξουσίαις” literally translates as to the powers to act. Notice that the verse does not use the Greek term for rulers, “ἄρχοντες” (“archontes”) when defining authority. Therefore, in the original Greek, Christians are not ultimately called to submit to governing persons but to the powers held by those persons (Greek Concordance: ἄρχοντες). The limits of the rulers’ powers are defined by their purpose, to be “a terror…to evil.” (NKJV, Romans 13:3). Therefore, rulers are persons empowered to one end alone: To be a force for good. When a ruler becomes a force for evil, he or she is no longer acting in accordance with his or her legitimate, God-given powers or within the boundaries of authority. The King James Version offers a translation very similar to the original Greek.
1Let 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 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 (KJV, Romans 13:1-7).
According to the King James Version and the Greek, the Bible commands Christians to submit to authority which is defined simply as power or “higher powers.” In both versions, authority remains something impersonal in nature. Moreover, the Greek uses two distinct words for rulers and authority and thus treats them as distinct concepts. Authority is simply the power to act towards a specified end. As the source of that authority, God has clearly defined that end in His Word: To be “a terror…to evil.” (NKJV, Romans 13:3). Thus, our allegiance to rulers remains rooted in our allegiance to the “higher powers” (authority) and our allegiance to the “higher powers” remains rooted in our allegiance to God (KJV, Romans 13:1).
VI. Historic Examples
If we understand leadership and authority as distinct concepts, the question then becomes whether and when Christians ought to peacefully rebel against either. If we understand authority as something impersonal, and not as something inherent to the person to whom it has been entrusted, Christians cannot rebel against authority. That which is impersonal, including power, is never a “terror” to good works in and of itself (NKJV, Romans 13:3). Only persons, including rulers, prove such terrors. Therefore, situations may arise when Christians are called to take a stand for what we believe in. This simple truth has led to some of the most remarkable and profound historic events of the last 380 years.
A. The English Civil War
In the middle of the 17th Century in England, there arose a bitter division regarding the authority of the King in relation to the authority of England’s legislative branch of government, Parliament. The English King, Charles I, stated, “Remember, I am your king, your lawful king…. I have a trust committed to me by God, by old and lawful descent: I will not betray it to answer to an unlawful authority” (qtd. in Amos 26). Charles’ argument, otherwise known as the Divine Right of Kings theory, stated that since all authority comes from God, people have no choice but to render absolute allegiance to their rulers lest they join in rebellion against God. On the other hand, the Parliamentarians contended that the king remained bound by the laws of England, such as the Magna Carta, and therefore he could not rule by pure royal will. Through his writings, Samuel Rutherford became one of the most eloquent spokesmen for the Parliamentarian view. In his Lex Rex, Rutherford argued, “If the king be made absolutely, it is contrary to Scripture and to the nature of his office.” Like his Huguenot brethren, Rutherford fervently contended that the king remained bound by the powers and purpose of his office and by his “contract” with the people. Moreover, such a contract between a sovereign and his subjects provides a “co-active power to the king and the people to compel each other” (Rutherford 149). By duty, the king serves as a check on the excesses of the people while the people serve as a check on the excesses of the king. Unfortunately, Charles I refused to heed the voice of his people’s representatives in Parliament. After a bloody civil war which claimed the lives of thousands, the king was tried and subsequently executed for treason.
B. The Glorious Revolution
Rutherford’s belief in the people’s duty to hold the king accountable to his contract and to his lawful authority proved essential a few decades following Charles I’s execution. In 1685, a new monarch, James II, ascended the English throne. As a staunch Catholic and a firm believer in the Divine Right of Kings, James proved an oppressive ruler, especially to his Protestant subjects in both Britain and America. Weary of the king’s abuses, Parliament invited the Dutch prince, William of Orange, to be England’s new king. In a bloodless revolution, Parliament and William deposed James and, in 1689, William and his wife, Mary, were proclaimed King and Queen of England (Amos 35-37). However, during the coronation, the leaders of Parliament read a list of rights, the English Bill of Rights, outlining the conditions and principles under which rulers would be allowed to occupy the throne (English Bill of Rights). After years of turmoil, the people and their representatives in Parliament successfully forced the English monarchy to acknowledge Parliament’s lawful sovereignty as Britain’s lawmaking body. Moreover, the king finally acknowledged the Crown’s inferiority to the English Constitution and the Common Law. Not least of all, the events of the Glorious Revolution vindicated and established the right and duty of the people to remove a king who had lowered himself to the level of a tyrant, bent on subverting the God-given rights of his subjects.
C. The Revolutionary War
The principles discovered and validated by the Glorious Revolution found their greatest expression in 1776, when Thomas Jefferson and his fellow delegates drafted their unanimous Declaration of Independence. In this remarkable document, the members of the Continental Congress said it was a “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” including “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” For the protection of these rights, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” (Declaration of Independence 5). Drawing on the ideas of Rutherford, Locke, and the Huguenots, the Founders recognized the relationship between the government and the people as contractual and not as a mere exertion of the ruler’s will or pleasure.
When a government becomes “destructive” of the people’s sacred rights, it becomes “the Right of the People to alter or abolish” their old government and “to institute new [g]overnment.” Jefferson and his fellow drafters warned that “Governments long established should not be changed for light or transient causes.” Nevertheless, “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government and to provide new Guards for their future security” (Declaration of Independence 5-6). Thus, the people should dissolve their government only when that government’s abuses have grown so intolerable that freedom’s last line of defense becomes a total and irrevocable separation of the subjects from the sovereign. Moreover, when such abuses occur, the people have not merely a right, but a duty to rebel. When all else fails, the people are the last line of defense of their God-given, “unalienable” rights (Declaration of Independence 5).
According to the Declaration, the Americans did not throw off the heavy yoke of British rule lightly or without just cause. The English Bill of Rights, which the king was lawfully bound to uphold, stated that a primary function of Parliament entails the “vindicating and asserting” of the people’s “ancient rights and liberties” (English Bill of Rights). Against this principle of representative government, the British monarch, George III, had “dissolved the Representative Houses” of the colonies “for opposing his invasions on the rights of the people” (Declaration of Independence 6). Moreover, the king and his government had repeatedly “impos[ed] taxes” on the colonists without allowing them representation in Parliament and therefore without the colonists’ “consent.” When the colonial leaders attempted to petition the king for redress of these grievous acts, their “repeated [p]etitions” were answered “only by repeated injury.” (Declaration of Independence 7-8). According to the English Bill of Rights, “[I]t is the right of the subjects to petition the king and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal” (English Bill of Rights). In other words, George III had wrongfully punished the Americans for exercising their lawful right to petition their government.
The Declaration goes on to list many other abuses on the part of the king, all of which constituted a violation of the principles stated within the British Constitution and those of Natural Law. Together, these acts proved to the colonial leaders an obvious design on the part of George III’s government to establish an “absolute Tyranny” over the colonies (Declaration of Independence 6). George III, like James II and Charles I, had degraded himself to the level of a “Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant” and therefore was “unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” For these reasons, the American Founders declared that “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown” (Declaration of Independence 8).
In summary, the Americans, like their British forebearers, were not acting out of a spirit of disobedience to the king’s authority, but out of obedience to the higher authorities that reigned over both them and the king. These authorities included God, Natural Law, the British Constitution and the Common Law of England. George III was the true rebel and therefore, if the Americans submitted or remained silent to the king’s usurpations, they would stand guilty as accomplices to the king’s lawlessness. Ultimately, the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, and the American Revolution all had this in common: They were initiated and fought, not to overthrow authority, but to maintain it by taking a stand against those leaders who persistently acted beyond their lawful, God-given powers.
VII. The Consequences of Equating Leadership with Authority
Ultimately, the submissionist interpretation of Romans 13 constitutes a 21st century reincarnation of the old Divine Right of Kings mindset. Simply put, this viewpoint asserts that all authority comes from God and therefore Christians are not permitted to challenge leaders lest they also rebel against God. Again, this view assumes that leadership and authority are one and the same. To their credit, some modern adherents of this view have acknowledged the need for limits to their very broad rule of absolute submission. Unfortunately, such individuals often fail to explain at what point Christian submission to leadership should cease. Instead, they argue that we should focus our time and efforts on preparing for the so-called big battles and not focus on relatively minor issues such as the government requiring Christians to wear masks during worship or limiting church attendance. They classify such intrusions as mere inconveniences, beneath our notice. Such Christians would do well to heed the voice of Pastor Martin Niemoller who lived in Germany during the reign of Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) party.
First, they came for the socialists and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me (Niemoller).
With every small victory achieved, tyranny and usurpation grow in power. If we ignore our responsibilities as both Christians and citizens and turn a blind eye to lawless government oppression, when the time comes to fight the so-called decisive battle, our churches will be so weak and compromised that there will be little to anything left worth defending. Think well on this. If a government can regulate the number of people who receive the Word every Sabbath and whether or not they should wear masks while receiving the Word, what is to prevent them from eventually mandating how or whether the Word itself is preached? Nevertheless, if we hold with a Divine Right of Kings interpretation of Romans 13, such intrusions into the churches will prove the unintended, yet inevitable consequence. People often forget that the most sinister and successful type of tyranny is not one born out of foreign conquest, but that which arises internally from the people’s gradual surrender of their freedom for a fantasy of security. God forbid that such a regime should take hold in this country or that our nation of laws should descend into a nation of men.
VIII. The Consequences of Separating Leadership from Authority
However, if we understand leadership and authority as distinct concepts, our interpretation of Romans 13 will differ radically as will the consequences for the Christian. As previously stated, Christians are called to submit to leadership when the leaders act within the boundaries of their powers or authority. If we understand authority in an impersonal light rather than as something magically tied to the life and will of the person, authority can also include powers entrusted to constitutions and laws, whether federal, state, or local. Our allegiance to such impersonal forms of leadership, since they too come from God, should be at least as great as our allegiance to persons in power. However, in a nation of laws like ours, we have a greater allegiance to the laws of the land than to the persons empowered and sustained by God through those laws.
For example, should a state executive leader, such as a governor, attempt to make law via a series of executive order contrary to that state’s constitution, that governor stands in violation of both state law and authority. Unless and until that governor has retracted his or her overreach of power or until the matter has been legally resolved by the legislative or judicial branches, the citizens of that state, including Christians, cannot remain silent in the face of such abuse. Additionally, in disputes over laws or lawmaking between the executive and the legislative branches, the citizens have a duty to submit to the legislature (the lawmakers), not to the governor, unless some law expressly authorizes executive action or until the matter is resolved by the judiciary against the legislature. To do otherwise would constitute a violation of the law and therefore of authority.
However, this does not mean that Christians should blindly accept constitutions and laws as unflawed. For example, should the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Law of the Land, become corrupted by sinister political interests and persons, citizens must turn to the one type of law which remains incorruptible and universally applicable to all humanity, Natural Law. To understand the concept of Natural Law, it is necessary to briefly return to the ideas of Martin Luther and John Calvin. For Luther and Calvin, the Christian’s life remains divided into two, distinct realms: The natural and the spiritual. The former deals with a person’s life and citizenship in civil society while the latter deals with a person’s spiritual life (Amos 7). The former realm is governed by the Laws of Nature or Natural Law which includes the physical laws governing the universe and the moral laws governing the human conscience (Amos 8). Edward Coke, an English Puritan whose works greatly influenced Thomas Jefferson, stated, “The law of nature is that which God at the time of creation of the nature of man infused into his heart, for his preservation and direction; and this is lex aeterna [the eternal law]” (Amos 129). Coke further asserted that Natural Law was “infused into the heart of the creature at the time of his creation” and therefore takes precedence over all manmade laws and remains open to people of all faiths and creeds. The Apostle Paul confirmed Coke’s sentiments when he said, “[F]or when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law…show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness” (NKJV, Romans 2:14-15).
Drawing on the ideas of Edward Coke and John Locke, Jefferson asserted in the Declaration that “all men are created equal.” This truth is “self-evident” because it remains embedded in the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” which He has made known to all. The most effective laws and constitutions are those established on such self-evident truths. As the King and Parliament refused to protect the rights of their American subjects, the British Constitution and the Rule of Law had been rendered ineffective as safeguards of freedom. Therefore, the Americans had no choice but to appeal to a higher, eternal authority (Natural Law) to justify their resistance to British oppression. Likewise, should the U.S. Constitution ever be altered or amended to include an immoral provision, we must submit to Natural Law as dictated by our consciences. For example, should Congress amend the Constitution to require the euthanization of all elderly citizens above a certain age, we cannot submit in good conscience. Such a provision would obviously violate the self-evident truth that all men and women are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” including “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” (Declaration of Independence 5). As God informs all people of His eternal, Natural Law through the dictates of their consciences, we need not rely on any official law or document to inform us that such a provision is wrong. Such things are written on our minds and hearts. Yes, we must honor the Constitution as the Supreme Law of the Land and all inferior laws passed thereunder but only when they accord with the “self-evident” truths of Natural Law. Our submission to the Constitution, like our submission to rulers, must be rooted in submission to a Higher Authority.
IX. The Duties of Christians as Citizens of a Constitutional Republic
The distinction of leadership and authority places great responsibilities on Christians within a republic like ours wherein the U.S. Constitution and all lesser laws reign supreme. First, as citizens within such a political setting, Christians are called to select leaders who will uphold the authorities that their Maker has placed over them, including the Constitution and all other laws of the land. Additionally, they must select leaders who will make and enforce laws for the general good and not for personal gain. This requires no small amount of political research and, in some situations, activism on the part of the individual Christian. Note that this duty does not entail the Christianization of society, the establishment of a state church, or the dictation of official policy to the State on the part of the Church. On the contrary, such attempts would constitute a violation of the First Amendment and would run afoul of the lessons of Scripture and history (U.S. Constitution, amend. 1). As Martin Luther observed,
This is what commonly happens: The temporal lords want to rule the church, and conversely, the theologians want to play the lord in the town hall…. [T]his is ruling very badly…. Noblemen and young lords want to rule conscience and issue commands in the church. And someday, when the theologians get back on their feet, they will again take the sword from the temporal authorities (qtd. in Amos 8).
For the integrity of both institutions, the Church and the State must be kept separate and independent. However, this does not mean that the Church cannot make unofficial recommendations to the State and vice versa, nor does it mean that individual Christians cannot be involved in the affairs of the State as activists or as elected officials. On the contrary, history shows that the State benefits greatly from such Christian involvement as does society as a whole.
Second, Christians must know who and what their authority is. This requires a basic understanding of the Constitution and the separation of powers stated therein. While this may suggest the need for Christians to become experts in constitutional law, this assumption is false. Given the relatively simple framework of our Constitution’s separation of powers and checks and balances, the average citizen does not need a law degree to understand the basic functionalities and boundaries of the governing branches. It does not take a legal expert to recognize that a president or governor attempting to make their own laws fundamentally violates the U.S. Constitution and most, if not all, state constitutions. It does not require a brilliant legal mind to recognize that an infringement into a church’s affairs constitutes a violation of the First Amendment. Granted, not all constitutional disputes and violations are so straightforward. In more complex situations, Christians should follow in the footsteps of their fellow citizens and seek counsel from reputable lawyers and constitutional scholars.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, as citizens of a Constitutional Republic, Christians have a duty to hold government accountable to its contract. Knowing how and when to perform this duty can be challenging and dangerous at times. Fortunately, our own history provided an ideal blueprint for us to follow. When challenging a government abuse, our first step should always entail seeking solutions through the law. This may entail petitioning the government to rescind its unlawful actions, requesting our elected representatives to stand up for their constituents’ interests, or both. If all lawful attempts fail, the people must look to means outside the temporal laws, though never outside natural law. Such attempts must be handled with great care and prudence. For example, if the government forces its citizens to pay an illegal tax, the first stage of rebellion should be a peaceful course of action, such as refusing to pay the tax, while simultaneously negotiating with government officials towards some reconciliation. Ultimately the severity of the people’s response to their leaders depends on the severity and level of lawlessness within their leaders’ actions.
In many ways, this hypothetical follows the same process of our nation’s Founding. George III continually allowed laws and taxes passed without the consent of the people and abused the Americans for standing up for their lawful rights. Moreover, the king denied his American subjects their right to representation in government, both at home and abroad. Nevertheless, the Americans initially sought relatively peaceful solutions to the Crown’s abuses. True, when one examines certain events of the time, such as the Boston Massacre, it becomes clear that not all Americans sought peaceful solutions in their disputes with Britain. Regardless, for nearly a decade, many Americans nobly endured the harshness of British rule and pursued reconciliation with the mother country via petitions and means within the law. In the end, it was the king’s troops, not the Americans, who initiated the bloodshed when redcoats attempted to seize colonial arms at Concord. Even after the first blood had been shed, it took a whole year before the American leaders voted to separate from Britain.
As our Founders stated in the Declaration, people are not permitted to rebel against their government whenever it does something the majority disagrees with. Doing so would only end in a state of anarchy, the very thing that government has been commissioned by God through the people to counter. Therefore, such a reaction to unpopular government action would be outside the confines of legitimate authority. For example, when the government issues a tax within the proper constitutional and legal channels, the rulers have acted within their lawful authority and therefore, we have no choice but to pay the tax for the time being. When the time comes, we can always elect new leadership more sensitive to our sentiments and needs. But whenever a government acts outside the law, whether it be Natural Law, the Constitution, or any lower law, we have no choice but to remain loyal to the law by holding government accountable. However, we must always keep in mind that any kind of resistance to leadership, even passive disobedience, is a very grave undertaking. In the end, we resist leadership only when leadership acts outside authority, whether accidentally or intentionally, in the hopes that our leaders will see the error of their ways and restore peace and order for the common good. Thus, resistance to leadership should always be conducted out of compassion for leadership and for our fellow citizens.
X. Summary and Conclusion
In summary, the kind of power the absolute submissionist believers seek to grant their rulers is power that no mortal ruler could ever hope to wield. On a practical level, it is impossible for a single mind, no matter how enlightened or knowledgeable, to comprehend, let alone govern, the vast resources and complexities of society in a truly efficient manner. The growing complexity of modern society arguably makes such governance even more impractical. On a moral level, such Christians forget that all human leaders are just that, human, and therefore imperfect by nature. It has been said that “[a]ll power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely” (qtd. in Moreell). Even the noblest Christian rulers are not immune from this unpleasant reality. Absolute power corrupts even the kindest of hearts and the best of intentions. Most concerning of all, the kind of power that the submissionists seek to grant their rulers is the kind that God Himself has not entrusted them with. Even rulers who claim to hold absolute power remain limited by God’s Law, which, in His wisdom and grace, He wrote on the minds and hearts of all Adam’s sons and daughters, Christian and non-Christian.
Without Natural Law, humanity would have no sense of right or wrong upon which to forge societies or offices of authority. Without Natural Law, humanity could form neither constitutions nor laws to hold persons in power accountable to their purpose of being a force for good rather than evil. Beyond such limits, a ruler has no authority. Thus, as Samuel Rutherford rightly observed, there is no such thing as a legitimate absolute ruler or tyrant. There is only one King worthy to wield absolute power, Jesus Christ, the Man who never knew sin. Therefore, it is to Him alone that we render absolute allegiance. Whenever any earthly ruler demands such submission from us, as Christians, our allegiance to our Savior demands that we submit to His rule, not to man’s.
In conclusion then, there are only two ways to interpret Romans 13:1-7. If authority and leadership are the same, the wording of the passage gives us no choice but to render absolute submission to our leaders as we must submit without question to all authority. Consequently, all impersonal rulers, including laws and constitutions, are ultimately meaningless; the people have no rights beyond the will of their rulers; verses like Acts 5:29 are false; and our nation’s entire Founding remains established upon lies (Declaration of Independence 5).
The only alternative interpretation rests on the assertion that authority and leadership are distinct concepts. Within such an interpretation, the notion of an absolute leader is but a myth and our rightful submission to leadership remains limited, not absolute. If this view of Romans 13 is correct, we submit to leadership only when our leaders act within the lawful confines and powers of their offices. Whenever a ruler steps outside the authority God has entrusted to him or her, we can neither submit nor remain silent lest we join in their rebellion against authority and against God. In the Constitutional Republic of the United States, our Christian allegiance to authority is as follows: First we submit to God and His Natural Law; second, to the U.S. Constitution and state constitutions; third, to the laws of the land (federal, state, and local); and fourth, to all ruling persons.
Whenever any ruler violates this God-given hierarchy of authority either by violating or corrupting the U.S. Constitution or any other temporal law or by violating Natural Law, peaceful resistance on the part of the citizens, including Christians, becomes an unfortunate but necessary duty. The question therefore is not whether Christians have a right to peacefully rebel against leadership, but when. The answer is both simple and profound. Christian rebellion against leadership becomes permissible only when it becomes necessary. Rebellion only becomes necessary when rulers usurp power beyond their lawful limits as established by God via higher authorities. In the end, all justified rebellions against leadership remain rooted in allegiance to God, the one true Absolute Ruler. Without authority, there are no rulers and without God, there is no authority.
Please note that this article is not, in any way, intended to encourage presently disgruntled citizens to take up arms against their leaders. One way or another, such an undertaking would inevitably lead to tragedy for all concerned. Rather, it is an attempt to instruct my readers on a more historically and biblically accurate understanding of the fundamental relationship between leadership and authority. Like it or not, this distinction remains deeply embedded in America’s founding principles; in its laws and institutions; in its rich Judeo-Christian heritage; and in our proud heritage as citizens of this great nation.
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