13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. (Rom. 13:1 (ESV)
I often get asked about this chapter in Romans. For many it seems to prohibit any political activism whatsoever. They think that Christians under the Third Reich were subjected with such verses from the Bible. Or they think that Christians are not allowed to offer any opposition to the governing authorities whatsoever, and thus the Revolutionary War shouldn’t be celebrated on the Fourth of July, except that then we wouldn’t be honoring our current governing authorities.
Currently I’m using this post as more or less a place holder. I’ve been translating Bo Giertz’s commentary on Romans as I work my way through this book and have not had a chance to do that this last week as I got swamped with various things. Yet, I want to get something up here on this subject. But I have given this some thought. One, this isn’t the only thing Paul or the Bible has to say about governing authorities, and there is the command that we must obey God rather than man, sometimes that will lead a Christian to oppose the governing authorities even with violence. Not that the Christian should ever be working to establish a theocracy, this was actually written in regard to a pagan government. There is some question as to whether Paul would have written this even twenty years later. Paul comes to Rome in chains a subject of Rome, but with high hopes and confidence that he will be acquitted before Nero. He is, but later he is beheaded by the same government. Perhaps that is somewhat an esoteric discussion. Paul wrote this as he did under the inspiration of the Spirit, and so we recognize that the Holy Spirit meant for it to be written as it is.
The real question comes in, as to what are governing authorities? Romans 13 is hardly a political treatise determining how people should be governed once and for all, or examining different forms of government. This is not something a dictator could use to justify putting himself above the law. In actuality this is hardly even dealing with the big questions of political power and governance, but more just an admonition to Christians to pay their taxes and keep their noses clean. Don’t engage in banditry etc. The accusation that Lutheran Theology would use this to justify quietism, such as is found in the “Shirer Myth” is crazy, and fails to take into account even the Lutheran Reformation, Luther himself before Charles V, and the resistance of men like Phillip of Hesse, Fredrik the Wise, or the Theology of the Magdeburg Confession which paved the way even for the American Revolution.
There is large question to be asked concerning what happens when the governing authorities don’t obey the governing authorities. Was the senate of Rome justified in the murder of Caesar? A Lutheran could argue that they were, in that they as governing authorities were working in the best interest of their subjects and preserving the governing authority, the Republic of Rome. Government by its very nature has checks and balances through which God works to bring about, preserve and secure good government for all people, even all evil people.