I should first be open and honest so y’all know where I’m coming from. The first seven verses of Romans 13 are some of my least favorite in the Bible. It reads as follows:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Romans 13:1-7 NRSV)
As someone who stands for non-violence and has a bent towards liberation theology — the idea that the message of the Kingdom of God and salvation of Jesus calls us to fight for justice on behalf of the oppressed and marginalized — words like “the authority does not bear the sword in vain” and “servant of God to execute wrath” rub me the wrong way. But of course, that’s just my emotional reaction to the language used by Paul.
This passage never bothered me when I was growing up. But now that I’m more engaged with the state of the church and social issues, I see Romans 13 used by Christians time and time again to justify violence and suppress the work of liberation.
There are a couple of possible ways we could interpret this passage. The first option is the one standardly used in evangelical circles today: God sovereignly appoints the government with certain inalienable rights that exceed those given to individuals. It’s kind of like Hobbes’ idea of a commonwealth to which individuals must subordinate so they don’t all eat each other — except the commonwealth is chosen by God (despite the illusion of a democratically elected representative… I think… I never quite figured that part out). The other interpretive option is to understand the term “instituted” in verse 1 to mean something like ‘organizing.’ Imagine how a librarian sorts books. Each book ought to go into a certain section in order to assure the maximum operational capacity of the library. When a book is given to the librarian, she ‘institutes’ or ‘appoints’ it to the section where it belongs in order to keep the library running according to plan. This does not mean the librarian thinks the information in the book should be accepted without question and in all circumstances.
I personally ascribe to the second interpretation. God — in his wisdom — organizes the governments of the world to create balance and in order to curb as much evil as possible in a world full of violent creatures using their free-will to create often corrupt institutions. However, many today are quite determined to ascribe to the first interpretive option.
The first interpretation can be quite useful if you wish to justify the worldview of the Radical Religious Right (also called “dominionists”). Want to justify the death penalty? Romans 13. Want to justify the war in Iraq? Romans 13. Want to justify drone-striking Pakistan? Romans 13 — surely those innocent children did something to deserve God’s wrath, right? (sarcasm).
But then we turn around praise people who do the exact opposite of that interpretation. Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer — along with the rest of the Confessing Church — were definitely following the Holy Spirit when they worked against and condemned the actions of Nazi German. Hitler’s invasion of Poland was not viewed as one of God’s servants justly using the sword to ensure His people are protected from external threats. We pick and choose when we want to use Romans 13 to justify our violence.
I’m not calling for a complete ban on ever studying or reading Romans 13. But we have to quite using the Bible as some type of magical enchiridion for how to deal with every circumstance in the 21st century. Surely, the Bible is an icon and vessel through which God reveals Himself and gives examples and teaching for how to live in the Kingdom of God and worship Him. In that sense, the Bible is for us like it is for all people. But the Bible is not written to us. We must remember that when Paul wrote his letters, he was not thinking of a representational, democratic polyarchy or the American Constitution. He was thinking about the first century church 2,000 years ago that had no political power and would be slaughtered if they acted too much against the Roman law.
So if you are working for justice and peace and someone tries to shut you down by using Romans 13, they are probably misguided.