Romans 13:1–7 and the problem of bad governments

One question continually recurs when we read Romans 13:1–7: Paul says that “the ruler is God’s servant for your good”; but what about when he is not? What about bad governments? How does this passage apply to Hitler or Mugabe?

The issue is not just about whether resistance is legitimate. Perhaps we could cope with the idea that Paul was saying, “even when a government is bad, don’t resist it”. This would raise plenty of political questions and people would get stuck into Christianity for being quietistic and so on; but we’d cope.

The problem is that Paul seems to be saying that all governments are divinely appointed and that they are just: “rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong”. But they do! (At least some of them do.)

We need to distinguish two aspects of Paul’s argument. To take the second part first, I don’t think Paul believed, or indeed was teaching here, that all governments are in fact good. Although the passage can sound like this, I think this is a mistaken interpretation. Paul himself had been frequently arrested by political authorities; he had himself stood up to them; and he knew Jesus had been killed by them. Yet I also suspect Paul viewed these moments as failures on the part of government. He could also entrust himself to rulers with the firm expectation that he would be vindicated (e.g. Acts 25:10–12). I therefore think we’re much better to read this as a statement of what government ought to be, of the role given to political authority in the present age. This is Paul’s take on what government looks like when it is functioning normally.

This brings us to the other point: Paul’s insistence that government is divinely “established”. Well actually, what Paul says is that authority is established by God, not governments. Is this significant? I think it might be. Because it is possible for a government to lose authority. Authority is a tricky thing, you see; it is not identical with force—that’s just coercion. Political authority has, and needs, force (see verse 4); but political authority is not merely the power of force. Authority is something more than that. Authority is itself a reason to act in a certain way. Political authority is a rulers right to rule, to command and expect obedience; it is a relationship between government and governed.

Oliver O’Donovan argues that this right, this relationship, rests on a combination of three factors: the possession of force, the embodiment of a community’s identity, and the act of judgment. What does this mean? It means that political authority depends on the capacity to effectively enact right in the name of a community. Governments can lose authority when they forfeit this capacity, when either they no longer have a monopoly on force (such as when, as recently in Egypt, the military refuse to implement their rulings), or when they no longer represent the community (as when, for example, someone usurps rule but no one recognises his government), or, crucially, when they fail completely to enact right, i.e. to do what Paul talks about here as “punishing wrong and praising right” (verses 3–4).

Does this mean, then, that we don’t have to obey a government that does the wrong thing, or that makes bad laws? No; because such a government might still possess authority (although perhaps not in relation to this or that particular law). And if there is authority, it is from God. But it does mean that we don’t have to submit to a government that has, in fact, lost its authority.

Three more things to say about this. First, whether or not a government has authority is not something you need to decide very often; and its not normally something you decide on your own. There is no basis here, I don’t think, for Christians deciding, on their own judgment, that a government no longer constitutes an authority.

Second, that said, I think there is the basis here for active Christian resistance to governments that have gone profoundly wrong. When a government has so abandoned its task of enacting right that it can no longer be seen to be an “authority”, then there is, I suggest, room for resistance to be the right action. However, I say this very cautiously, because the far more obvious approach to this kind of situation in the Bible is to suffer. The Christian martyrs in Revelation suffer under unjust rulers; they don’t try to blow them up. Nevertheless, I think there is more to be said than this. O’Donovan reminds us that John of Salisbury, in the twelfth century, spoke of the duty of tyrannicide! This, I tentatively suggest, is how we might understand Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the attempted assassination of Hitler.

Third, we need to remember that what we’re talking about is what happens when things go wrong. And things will always be messy when they go wrong. It’s instructive to read this passage from another direction, from the perspective of what guidance it can give to governments. This passage tells a ruler both that he has been given his authority by God (and so is under God’s authority), and that he has the task of doing his subjects good by enacting right. This, I think, is a profoundly helpful thing to say, and in the history of Christian thought made an enormous impact on what good government was thought to involve, and also on how government ought to be constituted. (In Desire of the Nations, O’Donovan argues that the idea of responsible, constitutional government is in fact the legacy of Christendom.)

5 thoughts on “Romans 13:1–7 and the problem of bad governments

  1. I agree about the call to suffer. Since you invoke Bonhoeffer, I discern a shift in Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the personal implications of a Christ-like suffering, other-centered love.

    The earlier depiction is the more idealised (romantic?) notion of suffering found in Nachfolge: 81 ‘der tod an Jesus Christus, das Absterben unseres alten Menschen an dem Rufe Jesu’ (usually translated something like “when Christ calls, he bids him come and die”)

    The latter exhibits the worldly realism which later emerged in Ethik: 405 ‘Jesus Christus, der gekreuzigte Versöhner, – das bedeutet zunächst, daß die ganze Welt durch ihre Verwerfung Jesus Christi gottlos geworden ist und daß keine eigene Anstrengung diesen Fluch von ihr nimmt … Das kreuz der Versöhnung ist die Befreiung zum Leben vor Gott mitten in der Gott-losen Welt’ (that last sentence = something like “the cross of reconciliation is the liberation/release/freedom to life before God in middle/centre of the godless world”).

    This shift is also observed by biographer Metaxas, 374 quoting Bonheoffer in a letter to Erwin Schütz where he anticipates that ‘we will have to move through a very deep valley, I believe much deeper than we can now sense, before we will be able to ascend the other side again’

    Confirming your analysis here, there is no thought of ‘cheap resistance’ in Bonhoeffer’s life or thought but I’d love to delve more deeply into what “life before God in the middle of a godless world” and what this looks like in terms of Romans 13?

  2. hi andrew,
    btw. i think ‘das Absterben unseres alten Menschen an dem Rufe Jesu’ is probably more active in the sense of: ‘the mortification of our old man at the call of Jesus.’

    having become an o’donovanophile over the last year or two i’ve really come to appreciate his syntheses. i have to say though, that he describes just representative judgment well and leaves one wondering about what constitutes just judgment in the absolute. a lot of wiggle room is left between the two on account of what he describes as ‘tradition’. tradition will give you a just representative judgment, but in my thinking on immigration i couldn’t help thinking that quite a bit more needs to be said about the locus of authority. a just representative judgment bears authority as the judgment of a people’s government yet how does one account for the authority in judgments that are representative yet demonstrably unjust in an absolute sense? i guess one might say that the government is legitimate yet does not manifest the justice of the transcendent seat of justice very well. this is where even his rather effective term ‘imperfectable’ is itself a bit imperfectable.


  3. Hey Andrew, if you haven’t already found it, I think you would find my friend Brad’s blog very interesting (he’s another O’D PhD student). He has been doing a lot of work on Rom 13.1-7 (or rather, 12-13, since he sees the context of 13.1-7 as being crucial) and has recently posted this, though there are many other posts that are also relevant.

  4. The Christian’s purpose for being in this world should provide clues to the issue of resistance to oppressive government. Peter was preaching Jesus when he was arrested in the temple. It would seem that most of the confusion results from looking at the issue from a worldly perspective. We do not wrestle with flesh and blood. There would be few occasions when a choice would be made to obey God rather than man. When that occasion might arise there is the promise that the Spirit will provide the reply necessary at the time. The rest might well be the result of rationalized justification for disobedience to the will of God. He commands to submit to the authority over us.

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