It’s time to wrap up our observations on Romans 13:1-7, though we’re in for a lifetime of application. Some of the next few months might feel like a “lifetime.” I don’t really expect to answer *all* the questions about our relationship to civil authorities, partly because it takes a lifetime of “constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). That said, we can keep working to develop our discernment powers.
We’ve outlined the whole paragraph over three previous messages. Verse 1 calls every person to submit himself to governing authorities because all governing authority has been instituted by God. Verse 2 concludes that resisting authorities whom God has appointed will result in God-approved judgment. Verses 3-4 profile the purpose of governing authorities, namely that they’ve been delegated to promote good conduct and punish bad conduct, even to the death penalty. Verse 5 clarifies that we ultimately answer to God for our submission or lack of it. And verses 6-7 make clear that our support of the government should be both pecuniary and postural, paying taxes and honor.
These verses teach in principle that the sphere of civil authority is God-given, and so to be seen by us as good and supported by us for our own good. In principle we learn that civil authorities are God’s servants, and so our default position should be that of submission. God has given us rulers and rules and we’re to be submissive and tax-paying citizens.
And all God’s people said, “But what about…?” Or, all God’s people said, “You and what army?” I am going to attempt to answer, in principle, some of our responsibilities when the governors are *not* fulfilling their delegated responsibilities. This question has been asked before, not just by Junius Brutus, but by the sweet psalmist of Israel (as David is called in 2 Samuel 23:1):
> “if the foundations are destroyed,
> what can the righteous do?”
> (Psalm 11:3 ESV)
Seven considerations/consolations to cheer our souls when the cares of our hearts, especially regarding wicked rulers, are many (see Psalm 94:19-10).
# There Is a Higher Throne (1)
We do not care about governors governing for state/society’s good more, or more carefully, than God Himself. The LORD is God, God is the ultimate authority. He is the only Sovereign who determines the allotted periods and boundaries of every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth (Acts 17:26).
After asking what the righteous can do (Psalm 11:3), the faithful are encouraged that:
> “The LORD is in His holy temple;
> the LORD’s throne is in heaven;
> His eyes see, His eyelids test the children of man.
> The LORD tests the righteous,
> but His soul hates the wicked and the one
> who loves violence.
> (Psalm 11:4-5)
Not only do we not care about earthly authorities as much as God, but not one of us comes close to the LORD’s delight in His Anointed, in His Son, to whom all authority in heaven and on earth has been given (Matthew 28:18). Jesus Christ will be recognized as King of kings and Lord of lords on earth at His second coming (1 Timothy 6:14-15, Revelation 17:14, 19:16). We must learn to laugh along with the Father who holds the rebellious rulers in derision (Psalm 2, see especially verses 4 and 7-8 and 12). “Blessed are all who take refuge in Him,” and this is necessarily true for *all* nations, not just Israel.
This means that as Christians we must care about what God cares about, we must honor His highest throne, and we must “fret not…because of evildoers” who “will soon fade like the grass” (Psalm 37:1). This is not a political punt on difficult questions, but it is the necessary perspective of faith. This is a reminder that “our citizenship…in heaven” (Philippians 3:20) colors all our submission on earth.
# De Facto or De Jure or De Bate (2)
First of all, I was helped to see that I was saying the second option wrong, it should be *day JOOR-ay*. We might not be able to fix the President’s dementia, but I can at least fix my pronunciation.
De facto means “of fact” or in fact, whether by right or not. De jure means “of law” or according to rightful entitlement or claim. (De bate is just my playful addition about the debate.)
When it comes to the governing authorities in Romans 13, is Paul talking about *rightful* rulers or about *whatever* rulers? Think of an example close to home: if an elected official stole the election, must we submit to that cheater?
The text itself answers: “the powers that be” (KJV), “those that exist” (ESV). In Latin law terms, Paul is talking about whatever governing authorities are in place, the de facto ones.
But that only helps us so much. Our responsibility is higher than this.
It doesn’t matter if the authority got his power through all the right channels if he legislates the doing of evil. We cannot do evil “for sake of conscience” (Romans 13:5). And if the authority got his power illegitimately, we still must do good and not evil, whether or not he inconsistently promotes good law later. That said, doing good might include challenging the de facto’s fraud.
Perhaps more difficult is when others *act* as if they are an authority; ruling in rhetoric instead of ruling in reality. Brother doesn’t submit to brother, just because he’s older or bigger does not make him the boss. If you got a bill from the Canadian Prime Minister for using maple syrup, you don’t have to pay it. The Colonists had an agreement with the King George III, not with Parliament, so by *law* Parliament wasn’t their authority. That said, we know that they eventually went to war to be free from the overreach. But on the basic point, the colonists were submitting to what was lawful.
Scripture is full of examples of God’s appointment of wicked rulers as a scourge to wicked people. That said, Scripture also provides us with laments over it not silent, “sit there and take it” acquiescence. We pray for judgment on those rulers, and prophets call rulers and the people to repent and fear the Lord. Whether de facto or de jure doesn’t change our responsibility to do good, even if it takes wisdom to know what is the best good to do.
# Paper or Persons (3)
I’ve mentioned previously the observation that Paul doesn’t use the word “law” even once in this paragraph. He consistently talks about the servant-rulers not about their standard for rules. The Romans were known for establishing a legal system, with a decent set of agreeable, knowable, consistent laws, but whatever might have been on paper had to be enforced by persons.
For us, as citizens of the United States, all our laws are on paper…somewhere, probably, if you can find it, or understand it. For us to apply/obey Romans 13:1, we expect the president to fulfill his oath:
> "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." (From the [Inauguration oath of office](https://www.usa.gov/inauguration#:~:text=the%20U.S.%20Constitution%3A-,%22I%20do%20solemnly%20swear%20(or%20affirm)%20that%20I%20will,Constitution%20of%20the%20United%20States.%22))
We say “no one is above the law” in reference to presidents, governors, legislators, judges, and law enforcement persons. We have a national Constitution with Amendments, we have a WA State Constitution, we have RCWs (Revised Code of Washington), along with County and City laws.
Who, or what document, do we have to listen to? It’s been said, when everyone is special, then no one is special. Well, when everyone is a lawyer, we all hate one another. Due to the corruption in our day, laws have about the same use as a batting average, interesting to argue about but no guarantee you ever get another hit.
In a land where the happiness of the people is promoted, the laws are easy to find, easy to understand, and expected to be upheld. We are not in a happy place, whether men “frame injustice by statute” to “build disorder” (Psalm 94:20), or to provide cover under confusion, or enough people with enough power ignore the laws to make it miserable for everyone. Words have to matter, with definitions for terms that don’t change, even when the words are on paper.
Most of the chastisement, though, comes from pietistic, milk-of-the-Word drinkers, who read that submission is right, and are looking for the simplest understanding of that. The aftermath of so many court cases post 2020 has shown that churches that disobeyed the governors/persons were not the ones disobeying the law/papers, and so have won their cases. It’s not surprising when criticisms come from the wanna-be tyrants, that’s to be expected. But a lot of “friendly fire”/accusations were thrown by the stay-at-home Christians at the assembling-for-church Christians who were, turns out, the ones submitting to the law.
In all this, Christians need to keep their discernment powers sharpened through mutual discernment, in good working condition.
# Many Magistrates (4)
What about conflicting (legitimate) authorities, in the same sphere, in layers of authority, let alone conflicting with authorities in other legitimate spheres? This has some similarity to the Paper vs. Persons, Constitution vs. President discussion, but carries over to authorities that are near and far.
I’ve learned more about the “doctrine of the lesser magistrates” the last few years. Magistrate is another name for an authority, coming from *magister* in Latin meaning “master.” This “doctrine” is a political expression that recognizes that local authorities—so authorities over smaller areas and numbers of people—have responsibility to resist the higher authorities when the King, the governor, the higher-up has made an unlawful rule. For example, a week ago or so, the Governor of New Mexico banned the right to carry firearms in some public areas for at least 30 days (under a her emergency powers in the aftermath of a shooting), and a County Sheriff said he would not enforce that ban; a federal judge has also now blocked that ban. Good on them.
While I appreciate the lesser magistrate piece, what if the lesser magistrate is the problem? What if the Mayor is a mini-despot and the Governor is a freedom-lover? It could look like we’re just picking and choosing according to whatever we like, and, of course, people do that. But if we Christians are constantly distinguishing good from evil, then we would be constantly excited about whatever authority at whatever level is doing the same.
The moral responsibility is the same, before God to do good. The strategic opportunity changes, to celebrate or to criticize different levels as necessary. This is not every man doing what is right in his own eyes, this is finding any man that will do what is right in God's eyes.
Likewise, the church and the household have their own spheres of authority. A president does not have the authority to tell a pastor how to celebrate communion, and so a pastor *must* resist in that scenario. Pastors must also function as protection to their flocks from overreach.
# Restrictions on Rulers (5)
Submitting to authorities in the civil sphere does not equal the civil sphere being the “boss” sphere. The State, Church, and Household spheres are a divinely established checks-and-balances on each other.
Are there limits on what the civil authority can legislate? How far does his jurisdiction extend? The men at the Kuyperian Camaraderie have been talking about this, and Grant and Philip have written up some of the options. If (righteous) civil life was a fenced in field, can the state roam anywhere he wants inside the fence, or is he on a leash, having access only to a smaller circumference? This is a good discussion, and you can read some of those posts here.
Grant has written some about the issue here: https://cgweinberg.com/a-christians-responsibility-to-submit-to-authority/ and here: https://cgweinberg.com/why-christians-have-a-duty-to-defy-defend-some-governing-authorities/ And Philip wrote about it here: https://inmirkwood.com/garlic-lemon-butter-trout-is-served-best-in-blue-houses/
Our national governing documents limit federal government, not just with checks and balances, but specifically Amendment IX and especially Amendment X were meant to clarify that, at least on the national level, if it’s not in the Constitution or Bill of Rights, the power belongs to the State or remains with the people themselves. Again, it’s good and sharpening to discuss these things, for sake of doing good for our neighbors.
# Cross-Country Consequences (6)
God is not mocked (Galatians 6:7). As US citizens we are connected to all the US citizens. And considered as a country, we are guilty of rebellion against and unbelief toward God.
We are part of the same body-politic, and it hurts to get out of bed every morning. Most men don't want to be bothered, and it shows. There is some merit in the let your neighbor be, but not when we don’t bother to pray, to pursue office, or to teach their kids lines of authority. Why should the devil have all the good politicians?
The bandits and the stupid have a lot of energy, and we’re getting what we deserve as a whole.
That said, as Christians, we are also corporately guilty of tolerating junk in the church, among pastors, let alone in ourselves. We see the stream of stupidity in the State, and want it fixed, and fine. It’s not an either/or effort. But the lack of faithfulness among Christians is the first and foremost pain, the mess we have most immediately responsibility for.
# No Wasted Disobediences (7)
The authorities murdered Jesus due to what they perceived as rival political claims (Luke 23). He was persecuted to death for “disobeying” the rulers. So consistently be on the lookout for the good to do, even when others call that good “disobedience”; your genuine good deeds will not be wasted, or overlooked (Hebrews 6:10).
“Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?” (1 Peter 3:13 ESV) Be *zealous*, don’t hold back.
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28 ESV)
*Jesus is Lord*. We should act like it. Pray like it. Vote like it. Work like it. Be zealous for good like it. We should not be craven, milquetoast, or jello-spined. Do not give way before the wicked.
> Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain
> is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked.
> (Proverbs 25:26 ESV)
We also must not qualify ourselves into anarchy; authority is good from God in principle. As we see so much of the foundations destroyed, we should seek a multitude of counselors in order to be as submissive as possible citizens for sake of conscience, with thanksgiving praying for and supplicating for and interceding for those in high positions (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
When we look around, it appears that we live in days of groaning and burden; it’s *bleak*. We are tempted to say “behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” But it is possible to be “always of good courage,” as long as “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:6-7). Beloved, walking and working by faith is never vanity, it is victory.
> But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
> Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:57–58, ESV)