This post is the 3d in a series of three by Preston Sprinkle, whose information is at the bottom of this post.
In my last post, I showed that the Old Testament actually condemns militarism, even though it sanctions (on some occasions) warfare and violence. But most who defend militarism race past the Old Testament and camp out on Romans 13:1-7, a passage with a checkered, and quite frightful, interpretive history. Adolph Hitler, Robert Mugabe, and other recent “Christian” dictators have celebrated the passage as their divine ticket to execute justice on whomever they deemed to be enemies of the state. Not more than a generation ago, Romans 13 was hailed as the charter for apartheid in South Africa, and as did American Christian leaders during the years of slavery and, nearer at hand, the years of segregation. If the state mandates that blacks can’t drink from the same water fountain as whites, they very well have the divine right to say so.
Most now would see such a view of Romans 13 as going a bit too far. But only a bit. Wayne Grudem, for instance, says that the “sword in the hand of good government is God’s designate weapon to defeat evildoers” (Politics, 407), and goes on to apply this to America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (I don’t mean to keep singling out Grudem, but his views are recent and, from what I’ve found, representative of much of Evangelical thinking.) In fact, Romans 13, being ubiquitously cited throughout Grudem’s book, is given a near-John 3:16 status: the definitive lens through which Christians should think about war. The assumption, of course, is that America is the good nation and Iraq and Afghanistan are the bad nations. Maybe they are, but who gets to determine who is good and who is bad? Were it flipped around and Romans 13 was used to validated Pakistan’s or Iraq’s invasion of America as punishment for horrific drone strikes killing civilians and children, or wholesale slaughter of women and children in, for instance, southern Kandahar or Haditha, most would see this as a mis-reading of Romans 13.
However, although Romans 13 has been taken to celebrate violence, praise the government, or vindicate Just War Theory (or just warfare in general), the passage actually does none of these. Here’s why.
First, Romans 13 does not speak of Rome’s warfare policy against foreign nations, but of its police and judicial action toward its own citizens. Paul’s phrase “bear the sword” (13:4) refers to police action within a government’s jurisdiction, not warfare outside its territory. Using this text to support, for instance, America’s war in Iraq goes beyond what Paul is actually saying. Waging war against another nation—even in the name of preemptive strike—does not reflect Paul’s point in Romans 13.
Second, the passage does not tell the church to “obey” governing authorities, but “submit to” such authorities. Now, submission sometimes involves obedience, and obedience sometimes involves submission; there’s an overlap in meaning. But it’s important to note that Paul does not use one of the typical Greek words for “obey” here (peitharkein, peithesthai, and upakouein). The difference is that Christians “obey” the law of Christ, receiving their moral marching orders from their King. And in as much as the laws of the state don’t conflict with the law of Christ, they obey. But they do so out of allegiance to God, not out of an uncritical allegiance to the state. Don’t revolt against the government, in other words. Honor it, pray for it, work for its good and pay the taxes that it demands. But always remember you are aliens living in exile in Babylon, Rome—or America. Or in the words of famed NT scholar, C.E.B. Cranfield: Submission to the state means “respecting them, obeying them so far as such obedience does not conflict with God’s laws, and seriously and responsibly disobeying them when it does” (Cranfield, Romans, 662).
Third, Paul’s statement reflects a widespread truth in the Old Testament about God working through secular nations to carry out His will. For instance, the Old Testament calls many political figures “God’s servant,” such as Cyrus king of Persia (Isa 44-45), Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon (Jer 27:6; 43:10), and the ruthlessly wicked nation of Assyria (Isa. 10:5), which God calls the “club of my wrath” and the “rod of my anger.” The phrase “God’s servant” doesn’t refer to Rome’s happy service to Israel’s God, but to God’s ability to use Rome as an instrument in His hands. Just because God uses secular (and sometimes quite evil) institutions to carry out His will, does not mean that God approves of everything they do—whether it be Assyria’s sadistic practice of skinning civilians alive, or Rome’s crucifixion of thousands of innocent people in the first century. God can still channel such evil to carry out His will (Gen. 50:20; Judges 14:4). This doesn’t mean that He approves of the evil itself.
Fourth, the main activity God does through governments is to punish evil and reward good. But what does Paul mean here? Does every government always justly punish evil and reward good? Ya right. Rome was the same government that beheaded John the Baptist, clubbed Paul on several occasions, and crucified an innocent Jew named Jesus. In fact, just a few years after Paul penned Romans 13, Caesar Nero would dip Christians in tar, light them on fire, and set them up as human illumination for his garden. All in the name of keeping peace and executing justice. So Paul doesn’t write Rome a blank check to do whatever it wants to do. Paul’s statement that Rome is “God’s servant for your good” and “an avenger who carries out wrath on the wrongdoer” must mean that God can and does work justice through governments, but not everything governments do can be labeled justice, as a quick glance at the morning paper will verify. Romans 13 does not sanitized all governing activities and it should be read alongside Revelation 13 and 17-18 to get a more comprehensive NT view on government.
The final point is the most significant for the church. If you miss this point, then you won’t understand what Paul is saying to citizens of God’s kingdom in Romans 13. When Paul says that God executes vengeance through Rome, it was to further prohibit, not encourage, Christians from doing so. Compare these two statements, which are only a few verses apart:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Rom. 12:19)
For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out the wrath of God on the wrongdoer. (Rom. 13:4)
Paul makes the claim that God’s wrath and vengeance is carried out through Rome seconds after he commanded the church not to carry out wrath and vengeance. Vengeance is God’s business, not ours. We don’t need to avenge evil, because we believe that God will. And one way that God will avenge is through governing authorities. In terms of Paul’s actual argument, Romans 13 only confirms what he said in Romans 12: Bless those who persecute you, love your enemy, don’t avenge evil, and submit to your governing authorities. Far from encouraging Christians to kill in war, Romans 13 underscores the church’s peaceful posture in a violent world.
Romans 13 cannot be used to foster a militaristic spirit among citizens of God’s kingdom.
Dr. Preston Sprinkle is a best selling author and professor of Biblical Studies at Eternity Bible College in Simi Valley, CA. These posts stem from his work on warfare and violence in the Bible, which will be published as Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence, by David C. Cook in Aug. 2013. You can visit Preston’s website (prestonsprinkle.com) or follow him on Twitter@PrestonSprinkle