Romans 13 and Civil Disobedience
by Conor Culverhouse and Jake Worrad
Language has and always will be, an integral part of communication. However, language inevitably entails ambiguities and uncertainties which can lead to different interpretations of the same text. This is exacerbated when translating words from one language to another. In trying to discern what God is saying, the question for us as believers is, how do we interpret what is written in the Bible accurately? Of course, this question is of upmost importance if we believe that scripture is the infallible word of God, and that God has given us His word to use for teaching, reproof, correction and for training in righteousness so that we may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
So how do we go about answering this question in relation to Romans 13:1-7? Paul’s letter to the Romans was written in Greek and in order to properly interpret Romans 13:1-7, a most important term one needs to understand is the Greek word hypotassesthō. While in depth discussions pertaining to exegesis are beyond the scope of this article, some observations should be mentioned. Earlier in Romans, Paul used the same word (hypotassesthō) to discuss God’s righteousness (10:3), submission to God’s law (8:7) and creation (8:20). Hutchinson notes that hypotassesthō occurs 21 times in the LXX (Septuagint), and in only one passage is the idea of obedience clearly prominent. Further, the term occurs 30 times in the New Testament, but likewise the idea of obedience is not dominant there either. Take for example Ephesians 5:22, where hypotassesthō is used to describe wives submitting to their husbands. This command does not call for wives to simply obey their husbands, but rather denotes something else.
So, what “something else” does hypotassesthō represent? Literally translated, hypotassesthō means to arrange respectfully in an orderly manner underneath. Or more simply put, a recognition of respect for order. If Paul was insisting us to obey, conform to, or follow every command, he would have used another Greek word, hupakoé. Hupakoé was used 21 times in the New Testament and each reference demands obedience, often in a hierarchical context, such as between children and their parents or slaves and their masters. See Ephesians 6:1 and 6:5 for examples.
So, if Paul was not commanding us to simply obey our authorities in all circumstances, what was he saying? Paul was stressing an importance of Christians having the proper attitude towards their superiors. This is because, as Hutchinson notes, Romans 13:1-7 indicates “a recognition of the civil authority as part of God’s plan for the world.” While not a blind, uncritical compliance with our governing authorities every command, some important considerations must ensue for us as Christians in respecting our governing authorities and their commands.
So, with all that has already been said what does that mean for us as far as being in the world but not of the world? We think the first thing is to recognise that this is not simple. Since we live in a universe, created by a perfect God, the morals of the universe are therefore perfect; and are therefore objective. This objectivity of morals combined with us being created in God’s image gives us an inner sense of what is right and wrong. This current situation, combined with the above discussion of the meaning of being subject, is anything but objective. It is, in fact, hyper-subjective. Why is this the case? If we look at Romans 13:5 specifically we see that “…one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” Therefore, we see two explicit reasons why we should adhere to Romans 13:1,2. The first speaks for itself; we must be subject to the authorities to avoid God’s wrath. This is what His Word calls us to do and as professing Christians we must seek to always carry out the commands of His Word as evidence of our faith in Him. The second reason, and this will be discussed in more detail is “for the sake of the conscience”. This is where the subjective element comes in. Although we exist within an objectively moral universe we are, of course, fallen from that perfect state and so cannot constantly make objectively moral decisions. Therefore, we do not have definitive answers for topics that have grey areas and so subjectivity comes in to play. The current situation with lockdown and the law surrounding it would be one such area. Some may believe that the law must be followed to the letter while others may be more relaxed about it. We must let the Spirit drive us to make decisions that leave us with a clean conscience. One may feel guilty about going to a New Year’s gathering at a friend’s house whereas another may not. This is the difficulty here, neither person (heart posture depending) has failed to follow God’s Word in making their decision.
This brings us to an important, yet difficult piece of application. Different people are going to make different choices. We must follow the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 7:1-5. “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.” As people who are driven by objectivity in many aspects this can be a tough pill to swallow. We may resent or pass judgment on others who are allowing themselves to do more things or see more people during this time of lockdown due to our individual decisions to avoid these events. One of the many beauties about your relationship with Christ is that it is personal and does not hinge on the acts of the church as a whole. His Spirit will drive you to make decisions that are in line with your conscience and the same can be said for others that make different decisions. Be content in the decision He calls you to make.
But let us be crystal clear here. Do not read what is not being written. This subjectivity is not a green light to disagree with any law and therefore go against it. As with other areas of subjectivity in the Bible it is recommended that it is approached cautiously and prayerfully, with the acceptance that if one is punished by the civil authorities for it, the sanction is accepted hassle-free. This is not a call for us to begin to break laws we disagree with because it fits with our conscience and we should not be civilly disobedient just for the sake of it. Any disobedience must be done prayerfully, reasonably and conscionably with a ready acceptance to take on the consequences of our choices.
It has also been pointed out by a member of WLA that Romans 13 may in fact be a practical, yet contextually different, application of the fifth commandment: “honour your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12). It is a very similar type of relationship in that one is authoritative over you (albeit to different extents). We must respect the decisions of both parent and government alike and be wilfully subject to the punishment thereof if we fail to carry out their instructions. To further support this point we see that in Exodus 20:12 the fifth commandment shows that the result of honouring one’s parents is “that [their] days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you”. Clearly this is a good outcome. Romans 13:3 mirrors this, saying: “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.” The parallel is that by completing the commands in Exodus 20:12 and Romans 13:1,2 one is rewarded. This can be tied in neatly with the other areas of application. If we allow the Spirit to guide us in our decision making, we have assurance from God’s word of reward. As it relates to Romans 13 the reward seems somewhat straightforward, namely that one shall not get in trouble with the authorities.
It is an interesting time to be a follower of Jesus. It is difficult to find the balance between being quick to make accusations of persecution whilst also not being laissez-faire about what we as Christians are called to do. With that being said, being subject to civil authorities is different to being obedient thereto. We must seek to be in line with both civil authorities and Biblical authorities but where there is tension, we may be guided by the Spirit to make decisions that differ from those around us. John 7:17,18 says “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of Him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.” We must respect each other’s decisions and try not to begrudge those who may be seen to be doing more than us, as that is what they believe they are being called to do. Hopefully, sooner rather than later, it will not be illegal to see and embrace loved ones and to edify each other in person.
Hutchison, S. (1971).”The Political Implications of Romans 13:1-7”. Biblical Theology 21.