the apostle Paul’s clear inerrant teaching on government and why we don’t need to follow it

Is the Bible without error in all that it affirms or teaches?

Many of us are no doubt familiar with this way of articulating inerrancy. Its advantage is that those things that are not affirmed or taught can be in “error,” at least error-like in that they don’t need to be obeyed–like the pessimistic theology of Qohelet, or Ps 137, where the psalmist is giddy with the thought of Babylonian babies’ heads smashed against rocks.

Portions of Scripture that do affirm/teach include the 10 Commandments, Jesus’s teachings on forgiveness, the Beatitudes, and many other things.

Of course, Christians don’t often agree on what exactly “affirm” or “teach” mean and which passages fit that description. That in a nutshell is the evangelical hermeneutical adventure, and let the games begin.

For example, does Genesis 1 not affirm/teach that the cosmos was formed in 6 days? Many will say yes, of course, while others will say no, since the author’s intention is not to affirm/teach something about the formation of the cosmos.

Personally, even though I don’t agree with them, I do think the former group is more consistent with the “affirm/teach” standard of inerrancy, and the latter are clearly influenced by extra-biblical factors such as science and the historical study of Scripture. And how do they know what the author’s intention is, anyway?

Further, even when people agree that the Bible is indeed affirming/teaching, there is no guarantee that behavior will match the creed (as in the case of Jesus’ teachings).

What’s got me thinking about this is Romans 13:1-7. There Paul famously wrote what can be nothing other than a number of quite clear and striking affirmations and teachings about God, the government, and what that means for the rest of us plebes.

If I may summarize Paul: The governing authorities have been instituted by God and to resist these authorities is to resist God. If you conduct yourself well, you have nothing to fear. If you do what is wrong, you will feel the brunt of their authority, since they do not bear the sword in vain, do they?  Of course not. The authorities are God’s servants.

It sounds to me like Paul is affirming and teaching something.

I also think there are major problems with taking Paul’s words as a binding affirmation/teaching.

I don’t need to draw you all a map. No one who is an American citizen thinks Paul’s words are binding, given how our country was founded in rebellion to the governing authorities.

“But some powers are corrupt,” some might say. Well, I don’t see Paul giving us that option in his affirmation/teaching. Governing authorities simply are instituted by God. Period. What he says is “clear,” and if we can’t trust what God is saying here so clearly, then we can’t trust him anywhere. Paul gives no expiration date or escape clause.

I know many Christians who are more than willing to take these words of Paul as a clear and binding “teaching”–that is, as long as their guy is in the White House.

Anyway, you get my point. Paul in Romans 13:1-7 certainly has his affirming and teaching hat one.

The truth is, I don’t know many Christians who take Paul at his word here. They may try to deftly extract themselves by saying that Paul is merely giving an ideal principle, or that only legitimate authorities are instituted by God.

But again, that’s just “adding” something to God’s word, which clearly makes a pretty cut and dried case for human governmental authorities as instituted by God.

But a proper understanding of these words of Paul’s, as with most other things in Scripture, requires some sensitivity to their historical/cultural or literary context (or both).

In his commentary Reading Romans, Luke Timothy Johnson lays out very clearly and quickly why Paul would make a claim like this. (See pages 197-203).

First, in the Greco-Roman world, the basic social order was a household, with the father as head. This social order was then applied to the empire, where the emperor was “head of the family” (paterfamilias).

That “order” was not remotely thought of as changeable as in the post-Enlightenment world, where governments rule by the consent of the people.

Paul’s claim about God and government, therefore, was completely unexceptional for his day–part of his cultural environment and utterly natural to him and his readers. To think of Paul’s words as a timeless blueprint, therefore, despite how clearly he is affirming/teaching, is a mistake.

Also remember that in Paul’s day, neither Judaism nor this new Jewish subgroup of Jesus followers were considered an immediate threat to Rome, and so they all more or less got along. At another time we should not presume Paul’s thinking would have remained the same–such as later in Paul’s life when Christian persecutions were underway, or perhaps when Romans were killing Jews and razing their temple in AD 70.

As Johnson concludes,

Paul cannot be held responsible for his practical advice later taken as divine revelation and as the basis for a Christian theology of state. That is too much weight for a few words of contingent remarks to bear…. Simply “reading it off the page” as a directive for life is to misread it and to distort it, for the world in which it made self-evident sense no longer exists and never can. (p. 201; my emphasis).

Translation: There’s more to reading the Bible faithfully than just doing what it says, no matter of clearly it seems to be telling us what to do.

Which leads me to my point: Clear affirmations/teachings, just like everything else in the Bible, need to be seen in context. And in doing so we may come to see that when the Bible is affirming/teaching something, that does not mean it is binding. It may mean that is not longer is.

And if anyone wishes, they can still call that “inerrant.”

What I am saying here about Romans 13:1-7 is not radical. I suspect many evangelicals would play the context card as Johnson does. And that is precisely part of the biblical literalist complaint: “You weak-in-the-knees quasi-evangelicals are always taking a clear affirmation/teaching of the Bible and relativizing it with your fancy-pants talk of context and the ancient world and what not.”

They have a point, actually. I can see tons of wiggle room in Genesis 1, Ecclesiastes, etc. in the affirm/teach definition of inerrancy. But not when a biblical author is using words that in any other place would be described as a list of imperatives–clear affirmations/teachings. I mean, if not in Romans 13:1-7, then where?

Anyway, that was just on my mind at the moment. And this is why I think inerrancy–however intended or defined–isn’t a very good descriptor of what the Bible does.

At the end of the day, you simply can’t avoid genre and context when talking about how the Bible works. And when you do, definitions of inerrancy seem less and less convincing.

another article on inerrantist biblical scholars and "protective strategies"
does an inerrantist culture "do good or do harm"?
what would the apostle Paul think about evangelicals and the conflict in Palestine?
open letter to the apostle Paul from a concerned reader
  • OddintheTruth

    I agree that Johnson’s take, as quoted, is less than satisfying.

    I think I remember a few articles some years ago, perhaps one by Piper, that sought to rethink the Revolutionary War in light of Romans 13. There was reflection on the Biblical warrant for it (or against it).

    Inerrancy, I don’t think, means that every text is clear. Peter said himself that Paul was hard to understand. I am OK with that. It does us all good to wrestle with the texts.

    I like how John Frame just put it in his recent JETS article. Inerrancy “provides us a place to stand” in our encounter with Scripture. It is much more than the affirmation of propositions.

  • Marg Mowczko

    Unfortunately many Christians don’t apply the same amount of wiggle in verses about wives submitting to husbands as they do in verses about citizens submitting to governing authorities, even though similar principles may be behind these verses.

    • peteenns

      A very valid and important point. *

  • Eric Kunkel
  • Dan

    The thing is – I am an American evangelical who *does* take Paul consistently here. Which means no hand over my heart at baseball games, and no pledge of allegiance. It is very possible to do this and I don’t understand the claim that nobody does.

    • Klasie Kraalogies

      Do you acknowledge Elizabeth II as your queen?

    • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist

      Why are you disobeying Paul? The US of A is your governing authority.

  • Hopaulius

    It’s difficult to see how any passage of scripture is inherently binding. Binding upon whom? Enforced by whom? Many church organizations have extra-biblical canons of law and regulation with enforcement provisions, such as the Presbyterian book of order and its analogues in other denominations. Those documents “evolve” according to the fashion of the day and the whims of human leadership. The same can be said of biblical interpretation. Some inerrantists might claim that this or that passage binds them personally, and that they ought to bind all Christians or even all people. But I’m not bound by that interpretation. I see the Bible as a collection of ancient literatures that, at its best, points toward a power and a goodness far beyond itself. At its worst, it puts the evil and pettiness of humanity into the mouth of God. But we would all likely have disagreements over which is which.

  • Pete M.

    In my experience, Pete, many evangelicals would be quite comfortable with your take on Rom 13. How would you, using the same method, approach more ethically geared texts like 1 Cor 6:9? Or Rom 1? Take human sexuality, for instance. Oft times you hear an argument that Paul’s view of sexuality reflects a different worldview, a world view radically different from ours and hence his ethical instruction is, this particular respect, not transferrable—at least not directly—to our modern time. It is this particular line of argument that many of us would be much less comfortable with. And yet, the question of method is not dissimilar from that you use in dealing with Rom 13.

  • WonkishGuy

    It is actually fascinating to see how the most ardent defenders of inerrancy constantly reinterpret passages.

    For instance, in the 1971 edition of Ethics, Norman Geisler argued that abortion was permissible a) to save the life of the mother b) to prevent the birth of severely deformed “subhuman” fetuses c) in case of incest or rape. Because a fetus is not fully human (Exodus 21:22) and is only a potential human being. We may even need to balance different factors (socioeconomic, psychological well-being) even when the life of the mother is not at stake.

    But, if you read the 1989 edition, the same passage is said to clearly say the opposite, that the unborn are of equal value to other human beings.Psalm 139 is likewise used to come to two completely different conclusions: now the only exception is when the life of the mother is at stake and it’s perfectly clear that a fetus is the same as a fully-formed human being.

    Of course, people change their minds. The problem is when such radical changes go unacknowledged and we silently substitute one strongly-confident pronouncement for another. Especially when it matches shifts in your audience (it is only after Roe v. Wade that being pro-life became a requirement in evangelical circles). And it shows that the charge that only inerrancy protects against being influenced by culture is misguided.

    • Kristen Rosser

      Yes, and it’s also very interesting to notice how the same verses on government (Romans 13 1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-15) which used to be used to support divine right and absolute rule, are now used by evangelicals to support libertarianism and the absolute limitation of governmental powers to only those things strictly mentioned in the passages. Convenient, isn’t it?

      But I don’t think either Paul or Peter intended to set forth a system of True Biblical Government (TM) at all. That’s simply not what they were writing about.

    • Andrew Dowling

      Inerrantists twist biblical passages to fit their own political ideology?? Say it ain’t so!!!

  • Rick

    This post seems to be more about interpretation/hermeneutics, rather than “inerrancy”.

    • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist

      To me it seems to be about the consistent application of inerrancy to hermeneutics.

      • Rick

        But those who hold to inerrancy can disagree on the application of this text. Those who do not think it applies to us today (at least in the USA), do not do so on the basis of whether it is in error or not, but rather looking at its context.

        • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist

          Not the application of the text, the application of inerrancy to the text.

          • Rick

            He seems to be asking more about why don’t they take it literally (a wooden literalism), rather than whether the text is in error or not.

          • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist

            Read the first two paragraphs again, and maybe try to rephrase your question. I don’t think I’m understanding your point.

  • Rob

    So what descriptor do you like if not inerrancy? And I ask very much sympathetic to what you are saying, yet also aware that many Evangelicals would suggest this is stepping onto a very slippery slope of you and I becoming the judge of Scripture and truth.

    • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist

      I can’t answer for Pete, but I would point out that inerrantists are already being the judge of Scripture and truth. That is sort of the basic definition of inerrancy.

    • Hopaulius

      You and I are the judges of Scripture and truth. It’s inescapable. We read a passage (or don’t) and decide what it means to us and in what sense it is (or isn’t) true. If we appeal to someone else to decide for us, then we are making them the judge of scripture and truth. It’s not a slippery slope, it’s just a fact.

  • mark

    As usual, this comes down to a theory of revelation:

    Translation: There’s more to reading the Bible faithfully than just doing what it says, no matter of clearly it seems to be telling us what to do.

    Which leads me to my point: Clear affirmations/teachings, just like everything else in the Bible, need to be seen in context. And in doing so we may come to see that when the Bible is affirming/teaching something, that does not mean it is binding. It may mean that is not longer is.

    The model or paradigm of revelation behind these two paragraphs, and much of the blog, is that “the Bible” is something like a handbook of Christian faith, a manual of both dogmatic and moral theology. And as Pete puts it, “it seems to be telling US” … things.

    But that’s not exactly what Luke Timothy Johnson has in mind. Johnson, I believe, is saying that this passage is a clear instance of Paul telling his actual readers “things.” He isn’t necessarily telling US things, in the sense that he would be laying down general principles of Christian belief valid for all believers for all time. His intent is more limited.

    That isn’t to say that Paul’s writings are totally time conditioned, that they don’t contain general principles of faith and morals. But we need to pay close and constant attention to his specific intent. Paul, after all, makes it pretty clear that his purpose is not to “run in vain” by teaching a gospel that is not approved by those considered “pillars” of the Church. As far as matters of belief are concerned, Paul’s expressed intent is to hand down, to pass on, those beliefs that are the common teaching of the Church–along with a lot of practical advice for the struggling young communities of Christians to whom he writes, and which may depend on circumstances. Paul makes it quite clear that he is able to distinguish the two at various times, and we need to distinguish the two as well.

    If you can get over the idea that Christian faith is belief in things that are found in a big book or, really, a somewhat disparate collection of books–a “Bible believing” faith–rather than belief in Jesus and, therefore, his teaching as handed on by his Church, a lot of these difficulties melt away. As they clearly do for Johnson.

  • Brandon

    Dr. Enns,

    What do you make of the fact that 1 Peter 2 seems to affirm/teach very similar things about government as in Romans 13, and it is set clearly in a context of persecution and suffering, and even rebuke of political authorities (1 Peter refers to Rome as “Babylon”).

    Also from a hermeneutical standpoint, I agree that social and historical context must be consulted. But it seems fair to me to assume that Paul wasn’t a naive simpleton in writing Romans 13. He qualifies his remarks over and over in Romans again lest he be misunderstood (Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Chpt6, Has the promise failed? chpt9, etc etc). My point is, he seems to understand, at least in Romans, that what he is writing about are not simple, obvious sound byte-like discussion topics.

    So for me anyway: if my choices are Paul wrote what he did in Rom 13 because he had no concept of tyrants being overthrown (but didn’t he have the Exodus in his bible?) and he had no notion of the possibility better forms of gov (but didn’t he have the prophetic promises of new heaven and new earth, swords into plowshares, lion with the lamb and all that?) OR that he wrote what he did for some other reason, I personally would take the second option, even if I wasn’t sure what that reason was.

    • mark

      Brandon, I think you’re making a basic, but important and too often neglected, point. Paul’s worldview was complex and nuanced. More specifically, he was anything but an uncritical, simplistic fanboy of Caesar and Caesar’s empire–as an acquaintance with his letters makes abundantly clear. NTWright offers a convenient and readable take on Paul’s critique of both Roman and Jewish political thought, contrasting both with Paul’s faith in the Resurrected Jesus: Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire. I don’t endorse all of Wright’s views, by any means, but this article gives a flavor for the depth of Paul’s thought.

      Your point that Paul should never be assumed to be a “naive simpleton” offering “simple, obvious sound byte-like discussion topics” is one that serious people should remind themselves of on a regular basis.

      • Brandon

        Mark, Thanks for the link. I enjoy reading Wright and I’m certain I’ll enjoy this, too.

    • peteenns

      Brandon, see my other comments. I am not concerned here about Paul’s view of the government but about inerrantist rhetoric.

      • Brandon

        Dr. Enns,

        Thank you for taking the time to respond. I’ll have to think about this some more.

  • Kristen Rosser

    FWIW, here’s my take on Romans 13:1-4 from my blog:

    “Romans 13:1 says, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God.” This chapter continues on from Romans 12, in which Paul gives practical advice for Christian living. “Higher powers” refers specifically to earthly governing authorities. The word “ordained” is the Greek word “tasso,” which refers to placing in order or assigning a place to something. It does not mean that earthly authority figures are granted “divine right” to rule or that we must slavishly obey earthly powers, right or wrong (see Acts 3:19). Paul was repeating the Old Testament idea that God was the ultimate Source of all authority—but being a scholar of the Old Testament, he probably also kept in mind Hosea 8:4, where God denounces those who “have set up kings, but not by Me; they have made princes, and I knew it not.” Paul is not saying that God has exercised His sovereignty so controllingly that every earthly ruler, good or evil, is there by God’s divine plan. Paul is saying that God has assigned places to earthly authorities for the benefit of all: “for he is the minister of God to thee for good” (Rom. 13:4).”

    I’m not an inerrantist but I do believe Paul was an educated man who had wisdom and knew what he meant to say. I don’t believe he intended to give a blanket endorsement for every earthly ruler who should rise up. We’re talking about a Hebrew scholar with a deep familiarity with all the coups and king-slayings of the books of Kings and Chronicles. He was giving general, practical advice, not law. And he was talking about God including earthly authority in general as part of a system of order, not stating that the Emperor was God’s chosen one.

    I think there’s a middle ground between “Paul was supporting rule by divine right of whatever king is in power” and “Paul was just parroting tropes of his day and didn’t understand his own implications, so we can just disregard it.”

    • David Sulcer

      This is very good analysis and exegesis.

      • Kristen Rosser

        Why, thank you!

    • peteenns

      I think you’re missing a couple of important factors, Kristen. First, it is a problem to jump too quickly to an alleged OT background for what Paul says. That may be the case, but that is not explicit here–in a book where Paul is forever citing and alluding to the OT. And when he does draw upon the OT, it is in a striking midrashic manner.

      But more importantly, it is problematic to read these comments by Paul apart from the rhetoric of Hellenistic moral discourse, a point Johnson spends some time explaining and that really cannot be set aside.

      And I think even more important is the dominant topic of Romans as a whole, which is a sustained argument for how Gentile inclusion into Israel’s story is a demonstration of God’s righteousness, i.e., placing Jews and Gentiles in equal footing before God and with equal access to him (by virtue of Christ’s faithfulness and their faith–”through faith for faith” as Paul puts it in 1:17). Chapters 12-15 are the climactic chapters that drive that point home, and 13:1-7 is part of that concluding argument. In that respect, the strong (I would say hyperbolic) admonition to be subject to ruling authorities is, to use our word today, “missional” in a period of time when Rome was not hostile to Judaism or the Jesus movement (which may not have even been distinguishable).

      • Kristen Rosser

        It would hardly be surprising if I missed important factors, Dr. Enns, as I’m neither a theologian nor a scholar, and have not read Johnson’s commentary. But it looks to me like what you’re saying is that Paul’s words were specifically tailored for a specific group of people in a specific time and place, and I in no way want to overlook his intentions in that regard or what the original audience might have understood him to be saying.

        Still, I think it likely that Paul knew that what he was writing was going to be circulated among many churches and even retained for the future. How do you think that might apply to the way he phrased his words on governing authorities? It seems to me that he stopped short of endorsing some form of divine right, even though it was later construed that way by rulers who wanted to see it there.

  • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist

    Inerrancy is not a description based on what the Bible is or how God’s people have historically used it. Inerrancy is a prescriptive rule (the more cynical might say shibboleth) based on how some Christians believe we should think about the Bible. In the end, though, I have never met any Christian whose faith and practice was 100% compatible with inerrancy (as defined in CSBI).

  • Luke Breuer

    I’ve been reading Peter Berger’s Facing Up to Modernity, and he talks about the tension between sociology pushing us toward revolution (e.g. socialist/communist revolution), and maintaining order (conservatism). It strikes me that Paul’s main message was to avoid rebellion through major bloodshed. Jesus said both “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”, as well as “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” It seems like the standard of social change set by Jesus is one that is primarily nonviolent—or at least, it makes use of spiritual weapons (including ideas), not physical weapons. Paul seems to agree:

    For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. (2 Cor 10:3-6)

    So the underpinning idea behind Rom 13:1-7, which I would argue is still applicable today, is an extreme reticence to engage in physical violence. Does this make sense?

  • David

    From Matthew Poole’s commentary:

    “[Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.] Be subject: he doth not say, be obedient, but be subject; which is a general word, (as some have noted), comprehending all other duties and services. This subjection must be limited only to lawful things; otherwise, we must answer as they did, Act_4:19: or as Polycarpus did; when he was required to blaspheme Christ, and swear by the fortune of Caesar, he peremptorily refused, and said: We are taught to give honour to princes and potentates, but such honour as is not contrary to true religion.”

    • Andrew Dowling

      Pretzel-twisting of the text to the nth degree.

      • Seraphim

        That’s ridiculous. It’s not pretzel-twisting the text to read it in light of other texts, especially texts from the same author. What do we do with Philippians 3, for example, when Paul relativizes both Jewish identity and Roman citizenship in light of what God has done in the crucified and risen royal Messiah? We are the circumcision. Our citizenship is in Heaven. Or in 1 Thessalonians 5, when Paul takes a bit of Roman propaganda (peace and security) and says that destruction from God will fall upon him who takes refuge in such nonsense. Paul was a sophisticated thinker. His thought was many-faceted and complex. It can’t be reduced to one or two simple slogans, and we shouldn’t think of it in dichotomous terms. It’s not “Paul supports rebelling against Caesar” or “Paul is fine with Caesar.”

  • Seraphim

    Paul’s teaching on government comes from more than Romans 13, as scholarship over the past twenty years has recognized. The letter opens with a reference to Jesus, the king, descended from the true royal family, constituted as reigning Son of God by his resurrection, and it ends with a reference to the root of Jesse rising to rule the nations. In the midst of this, St. Paul has to insist that this does not mean starting a rebellion. By contrast, our faithfulness to the king means that we should live in subjection to the governing authorities. Ultimately, though, I agree that reading the BIble is complex. This is why Sola Scriptura eventually is doomed. Once one realizes, as you have, that the Bible is more complex than has been presented to us, where do we end up? That’s why theological liberalism was born out of Protestantism and imported to Catholicism and Orthodoxy, rather than the other way around.

  • David Sulcer

    Perhaps where this article strays from its starting premise is in not taking the phrase in its entirety. The premise “in all that it affirms or teaches” to me does not mean taking one passage and making a case for a particular “theology of state” as Dr. Johnson so clearly states. The world “all” is all inclusive, is it not? Perhaps taking the statements intent in hand would allow for the Scripture, in its entirety, especially the preeminence of the New Testament as its definition? And if that is so the premise takes on a different shade of meaning and interpretive value. Then one can marshal the whole of the text of Scripture, with its principles of proper dissent, as found in Acts, and its principles of honor found in Peter and Paul, and its principles from Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of God together so as to form a more Biblical basis for a better ideal for a theology of state or government.

    Do you not think that your entire argument is based on one passage, when the consideration of the whole of the New Testament would allow for a better understanding of the text you address? Should not the “practical advice” that Dr. Johnson mentioned be aligned with the powerful wisdom found in the whole of the New Testament? Perhaps then one cannot expose supposed flaws in the text as to see the text as a series of interlocking pieces, as the phrase “the Bible is without error in all that it affirms or teaches”

    • Gary in FL

      Interesting point, David. I’ve abandoned the inerrantist point of view, but I appreciate your approach to the questions raised by this topic. I’d like, however, to make two observations:

      You are interpreting the phrase “in all that is affirms or teaches” in a helpful way, but not how I think most Evangelical preachers and writers do. Your point about “all” being inclusive allows for the entirety of Scripture to guide _our_ interpretation of a passage, even when such guidance leads away from the author’s original meaning/intent/presuppositions. Contrast this with taking “in ALL that it affirms or teaches” to mean the same as “in EVERY INSTANCE where a passage affirms or teaches something.” I think the latter is the more common interpretation among Evangelicals. That’s what gives them the so-called “clobber texts.”

      My second observation is briefer. Your understanding of inerrancy and hermeneutics seemingly opens a door for progressive revelation. For me, that’s a good thing, but how many Evangelicals act like they’re having heart failure at any mention of progressive revelation?

  • peteenns

    It seems some here are quite missing the point of my post. There is nothing wrong with Paul’s view of the “state” in Romans 13:1-7, provided we understand Paul’s words in the context of his argument in Romans and in terms of the general political climate of his day. This was my point in citing Johnson.

    Paul is not “in error.” I am simply pointing out the problems inherent in the “scripture is inerrant in what it affirms/teaches” idea espoused by some inerrantists. Paul is absolutely affirming/teaching something in Romans 13:1-7–and elsewhere where Paul uses similar declarative language, few inerrantists doubt that Paul’s teachings are binding (e.g., pretty much everywhere else in Romans).

    But here because of the problematic nature of these passages as a binding teaching, inerrantists need to call an audible: Paul’s teaching needs to be “balanced” (by an appeal to other passages) in order to maintain inerrantist convictions about passages that affirm/teach. But Paul’s words in Romans 13:1-7 are wise and valid in that context and should not be relativized by appealing to other passages to “balance” Paul here. Paul in Romans needs no such balancing.

    The fact that something is clearly affirmed/taught in Scripture is not in and of itself an indication of its abiding theological application for all times and places.

    • Rick

      “I am simply pointing out the problems inherent in the “scripture is inerrant in what it affirms/teaches” idea espoused by some inerrantists…few inerrantists doubt that Paul’s teachings are binding…But here because of the problematic nature of these passages as a binding teaching, inerrantists need to call an audible”
      It seems like you are talking to wooden literalists, more than inerrantists.

      • David Sulcer

        Dr. Enns I realize this may seem to you that we went a different route than you intended but it seems to a few of us that we are hitting the original premise on the head. Do you not think that you used this passage to rebuke “literalism” or the over-reach of “inerrentist” but find yourself somehow doing such a thing by even marshaling your arguments to prove your point?

    • Kristen Rosser

      Ok, but I recently finished reading the book Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy to which you contributed, and I’d have to say that none of the inerrantists who contributed to that book (not even Al Mohler) would advocate simply lifting the verse out of its literary context and reading it without a view to the rest of the letter, the rest of Paul’s writings, what the words Paul used in the original Greek may have meant, etc. In short, I have to agree with Rick below that what you’re talking about is more a wooden literalism. (Not that some inerrantists don’t still use wooden literalism when it suits them, as Marg pointed out below with regards to the “woman submit” passages.)

      • David Sulcer


      • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist

        I’m not sure you understood Enns’ opening. The main point here is that “all it affirms and teaches” is open to interpretation. It ends up becoming a truism instead of a guide.

        • Kristen Rosser

          Why do you think I didn’t understand Enns’ opening? “In all that it affirms and teaches” was part of the definition used by most contributors to the book.

    • peteenns

      I think I need to disagree with both of you, Kristen and Rick. I don’t see this as a matter of literalism but of an implication of inerrancy–and we can point to various seasons in church history to bear this out. The reason why inerrantists (at least some) would appeal to literary context etc. here would be because the passage is too problematic otherwise. If Paul had said something about the role of government, using the same uncompromising rhetoric but with less problematic content, we would hear something like the following: “Paul is clearly teaching us about the role of government and to act otherwise is disobedient to God.” In other cases in the Bible, where a clear affirmation or teaching is given by an author, if an interpreter appeals to things like literary context, cultural context, genre and purpose of a text, to get the meaning of the text which leads to an interpretation that in some way contravenes the clear teaching, that is dismissed as opposing the clear teaching of scripture. Take issues like Adam, Mosaic/Isaiainic/Danielic authorship, various and sundry historical issues. The list is long.

      • Kristen Rosser

        Yes, that certainly seems to be the way it works in practice. In theory, though, I definitely read them as saying something different in the book Five Views.

        The ironic thing is that these are the very ones accusing those who don’t agree with them of “picking and choosing” which Bible verses to believe and obey. They do it themselves all the time.

      • Rick

        “The reason why inerrantists (at least some) would appeal to literary context etc. here would be because the passage is too problematic otherwise…if an interpreter appeals to things like literary context, cultural context, genre and purpose of a text, to get the meaning of the text which leads to an interpretation that in some way contravenes the clear teaching, that is dismissed as opposing the clear teaching of scripture.”
        But those still are mainly interpretation issues (out of convenience, wooden literalism, etc….) rather than an “error” issue for this passage.

        • peteenns

          Do see that we agree on this? Paul isn’t “wrong.”

          • Rick


      • Tim

        Absolutely; Both Jesus and Paul did the exact thing you’re talking about (but perhaps in a different way) with the Old Testament scriptures, turning the “clear teaching” on its head.

  • Frank


    • Tim

      This is the second time you’ve posted this as a response to a blog post. That would lead me to believe that you are trolling.

      • Frank

        No just speaking the truth. One word sometimes is all that is necessary.

        • Tim

          Only in your mind, apparently.

  • T’sinadree

    I apologize for deviating somewhat from this post, but I noticed a newly released book that takes genre and context quite seriously when talking about the Bible that might be of interest here. It’s called Misunderstood Stories: Theological Commentary on Genesis 1-11 and is written by Robert Gnuse. Is anyone here familiar with Gnuse’s work?

  • toddh

    On a kind of related note, I can’t find any warrant whatsoever in scripture for violent revolution by God’s people. Not the exodus story, not against any of the corrupt governments in the OT or NT, nothin’. Despite all the theological diversity, I think scripture paints a pretty consistent picture of how we are to respond to government.

  • Ed Lauber

    Absurd. Paul never pretended that he was writing all that could be written about government. This passage obviously deals with plain criminality and that interpretation fits the context whereas political rebellion does not.

    • Justin L. Conder

      It may be the absurd implication of an inerrantist, universally applied, and context-free reading. The exact sort of ham-fisted approach to biblical interpretation which is being argued against in this blog. Christians under the New Covenant can find no place in the New Testament that I am aware of which gives authorization for rebellion against unjust government. If you think there is a time and place in history for Christians to become involved in armed rebellion, then you are using extra-biblical criteria. Romans 13:2 says “whoever *rebels* against the authority” and that covers more than mere criminality. I don’t think it’s clear at all that Paul would make some loophole or exception for political rebellion, even if he was given the opportunity to expound on it. That was not his focus and he would not have wanted it to be the focus of early followers of Jesus.

      • Ed Lauber

        Well, if you artificially limit the scope to the New Covenant, then you might have a point. But I do not subscribe to a dispensational theology that lets me do that. So the OT is just a viable as the New in this issue, and there is lots there on political rebellion. On another front, many people who use the “ham-fisted approach to biblical interpretation” you decry have used the Bible to promote political change. That include Black Americans and many of those who left the UK for the Americas. In fact, one of the earliest English translations, The Geneva Bible, was full of anti-monachist notes and the people who did that translation believed in a literal interpretation of Scripture. You argue a point in principle without dealing with the historic fact that the “ham-fisted approach” does not, in fact, give the results you claim is necessarily must.

        • Justin L. Conder

          I’ve found that Christians with a literal approach to Scripture are often inconsistent and let the times they live in overly influence their understanding while overlooking the writers’ original intentions. Today most evangelicals would happily agree that sometimes politically rebellion is a necessity. Many of them don’t even know about Romans 13, or ignore it. But let’s not take such straw men as the best examples. Let’s take as an example someone who did know exactly what these verses said and took them seriously, yet still managed to find a systematic way to support not only revolution but regicide: John Milton. Let’s take the best arguments we can. During the upheaval against King Charles I during the 17th Century, Charles’ supporters pointed out that this Romans verse and other biblical texts give clear indication that rulers are appointed by God and should be obeyed.

          Milton, a strong Christian supporting the Puritan/Parliamentarian cause, wasn’t about to blatantly disobey the Bible. What he did instead was shift the focus. In The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, he argued in support of his own (non-biblical) concept of a tyrant who attempts to overthrow God’s higher order by being unaccountable to the people. . . and can and should be toppled by the people. That idea makes sense to us moderns. But he did not derive it from the Bible. Milton got alot of supporting philosophical material from the Greeks and Romans. The influences of his position were obviously not “sola scriptura.” He wouldn’t have come to that conclusion if he didn’t have good extra-biblical reasons to argue for it – or if he was strictly interested in following what the text said, as most modern inerrantists do with regard to easier-to-follow commands. Milton argues that resisting a tyrant is to put right the divine order of creation – it all fits together rather well. . . but again, the Bible is not his friend here. Milton’s position, while politically brilliant, did not address that bare fact that Charles I was right, from a strictly Biblical standpoint. None of Milton’s well constructed arguments changes the fact that the Parliamentarians were working against the unmitigated New Testament stance against politically rebellion. And the wars and upheavals of the Old Testament cannot be *artificially* pressed into the service of overriding Romans 13 – as it applies to Christians.

          What verses specifically would give *Christians* license to rebel? I doubt anyone else could do as well as Milton. Now I hasten to add, I agree with Milton in the same way I agree with Paul here. Both of them were being presented with situations which, in their time and place, made perfect sense of their responses. I’m not arguing against the wisdom of either man. I’m arguing against modern day naive literalism/inerrancy coupled with inconsistency in application. And of course I agree with the rationale underlying many political revolutions from the English Civil War to the American Revolution. But I am not an inerrantist. And that’s the point – I don’t approach the biblical text that way. If you do, you have a problem. And this is only one of them.

          Either one a) admits that Romans 13 must be approached contextually in one form or another and thus treats the doctrine of “inerrancy” as a selective sham, b) distorts the definition of inerrancy as to make it unrecognizable in order to “save” it, or c) follows what Paul clearly says here and absolutely condemns the participation of any Christian in an act of political upheaval. I’ll let John MacArthur – an inerrantist who is consistent on this point – make one of my closing statements:

          “People have mistakenly linked democracy and political freedom to Christianity. That’s why many contemporary evangelicals believe the American Revolution was completely justified, both politically and scripturally. They follow the arguments of the Declaration of Independence, which declares that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are Divinely endowed rights. . . . But such a position is contrary to the clear teachings and commands of Romans 13:1-7. So the United States was actually born out of a violation of New Testament principles, and any blessings God has bestowed on America have come in spite of that disobedience by the Founding Fathers.”

          Now that’s a true, consistent inerrantist position. But of the two Johns, can anyone doubt which is wiser: John MacArthur or John Milton?

      • David

        I don’t know if Paul would have made an exception either. I also don’t think it matters because I don’t think every single thought that Paul had is infallible, rather, only the ones that God caused Paul to write in scripture.

        One could make a case for political rebellion from the Old Testament: Ehud immediately comes to mind. I don’t think that passage was intended to provide an ethical norm, but whether it allows for any such thing in the New Testament, I don’t know.

        I’m not certain whether or not political revolution is ever justified. Even if it isn’t, there are bigger problems with the traditional view of Romans 13 that do not fit with the rest of scripture. For instance, 1 Samuel 8 does NOT color statism and kings in a positive light. My solution would be that Paul is primarily talking about predestination. The government punishing a murderer is “good” in a temporal sense. A tax evader or draft dodger, not so much. But even then, God is using those evil authorities to accomplish his ULTIMATE good.

  • Peter Bylen

    To presume an authority beyond what the letter is – a letter written to believers in Rome in advance of his arrival – is the height presumption. First, Paul’s reference to Jesus as Lord at the beginning and throughout the letter addressed to the seat of the empire, is itself a seditious act. Second, the context of the passage in question more clearly suggests that the subordination Paul addresses,following his own example, is to submission to synagogue leaders.

  • Guest

    To presume an authority beyond what the letter is – a letter
    written to believers in Rome in advance of his arrival – is the height presumption.
    First, Paul’s reference to Jesus as Lord at the beginning and throughout the letter
    addressed to the seat of the empire, is itself a seditious act. Second, the context
    of the passage in question more clearly suggests that the subordination Paul addresses,
    following his own example, is to submission to synagogue leaders.

  • Brian s

    We can, and should, obey what Paul teaches here. He is teaching that we should obey the law. He is not saying that we need to obey it when we are forbidden to practice our religion or preach the gospel. He is also not saying that governments can never be overturned. Other scriptures teach that God raises up one and brings down another. Inerrancy does not mean that we foolishly apply a passage of scripture to every possible circumstance.
    Paul also tells us to obey our parents. If a parent tells a child to steal, should the child steal? No. There are other principles that also must be upheld. Your analysis is very poor..

  • AlanCK

    Not to totally blow this thing up, but are not Christological ethics always situational? That the only law we are given in the New Testament is Jesus Christ himself? Even the law that God gave to Israel is situated by this reality: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

    The underlying question that is implied by Dr. Enns’s questioning of inerrancy is “what, exactly, is the Bible?” To adequately get at this question, Karl Barth had to write a doctrine of the Word of God and a doctrine of the Trinity at the same time. It is a tightrope to walk, but to fail to do so by prioritizing the Bible over God or (vice versa) God over the Scripture is to fall off either side. To speak of principles and foundations is to suggest there is a power other than the Trinity at work and that the mediation of the love of God is in essence law instead of grace.

    Thanks Dr. Enns, for continuing to stir up the pot. We need it.

  • fredx2

    He was probably teaching in a context where a bunch of newly minted Christians were running around saying “Yeah! Jesus! I follow him, he is my lord, and that means I can have no other authorities over me, so i can now ignore them!” So he was just probably setting them straight, and trying to avoid Christianity becoming an anarchical movement.
    And of course it still holds. Just not always and in all situations. The bible does not rob you of your common sense.

    • David

      I’m a Biblical inerrantist who does not interpret Romans 13 the way most Christians do, but what exactly does “anarchy” mean to you. I mostly agreed with the rest of what you said (ie. that the passage was likely written in a context of people running around saying they didn’t have to obey any authorities at all, and is likely not a prescription for any and all governments) but I’d like to see you define that term. “Anarcho”-Capitalism, for instance, contains a government on the free market but no “State” in the traditional sense. This isn’t “anarchial” in a “we don’t have any authorities at all” type of way.

      I think Paul was mostly trying to get at these points:

      1. Paul talked about predestination earlier in Romans, he was clarifying that these doctrines apply even to the evil governments of the world. Consider that the one instance in Romans where Paul records God talkiing about “raising up” a leader he refers to the evil Pharaoh.

      2. Paul is reminding his readers that the government is “good” in the sense that God is using these evil men to accomplish his GOOD plan.

      3. Paul is saying that if we do what the government says is good,they will not punish us, but if we do not do what they say, they will punish us. This might seem obvious but I think the wording is deliberately vague so that the Roman pagan soldier will see Paul as loyal.

      Does this interpretation actually fit the text? Looking into the 1st century cultural context, yes. The same reason that “Christ died for all” or “Christ died for the whole world” or “God so loved the world” is/are actually talking about all nations rather than every single person ever. This fits the context in which the passages are written.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I feel like there hasn’t been much emphasis on Paul’s apocalyptic context. The Church historically has tried to ignore/avoid (to the point of pseudo-Pauline letters getting developed which served as a pushback to some degree) Paul’s apparent belief in a very imminent parousia (as in, literal return of Jesus) as demonstrated in his authentic letters.

    This doesn’t mean to throw the baby out with the bathwater; in fact some of the best Godly insight probably comes amidst moments of apocalyptic fervor. But it does mean this has to be understood when reading his epistles, especially his more intricate letters like Romans and Corinthians . .these were NOT meant as dictates for living centuries into the future. Doesn’t mean they don’t contain wisdom that can serve us now; doesn’t even mean Paul didn’t receive divine revelation (although it may force reconsideration about how that exactly works), but we have to stop reading Paul like he was writing a Christian Life handbook; by his most fervent belief the world as we know it was to be long over by now.

    Of course the more conservative crowd would have to concede not all of the Pauline letters come from Paul, and that Paul (who by many is seen as being essentially Jesus’s mouthpiece, and thus practically divine himself) could have been wrong about something as big as the timing of the end days. Those are two big sticklers.

    • John Marcott

      Agreed…and the same can be said for Jesus.

      • Andrew Dowling

        Yes and no; I’d argue that the level of apocalyptic thought in Jesus’s message is far more debatable than that of Paul.

  • Paul Frantizek


    “[In] the Greco-Roman world, the basic social order was a household,
    with the father as head. This social order was then applied to the
    empire, where the emperor was “head of the family” (paterfamilias).

    That “order” was not remotely thought of as changeable as in the
    post-Enlightenment world, where governments rule by the consent of the

    Isn’t necessarily true. Aquinas proposed the idea of consent of the governed during the 13th Century in his essay De Regno.

  • Jeff Y

    Very late in the game here but a couple of comments. Like others I still don’t see this as relating to inerrancy (even after the follow up comments) – regardless of one’s perspective on inerrancy. One can affirm that what Paul says in Rom. 13 is universally true yet ultimately subject to caveats and exceptions (just as Jesus saw exceptions of “mercy” trumping Sabbath rules – Mark 2, etc.). Certainly, cultural context comes into play in every interpretation of every text, but I also am not convinced by LTJ’s culturalization of Paul’s comments – I think it’s a bit too presumptive in trying to find a cultural context (Possible, but not a strong case that I see). Inerrancy does not come into play, it seems to me, in that way unless one attaches a meaning to the “truth it affirms” that, really, no one else does.

    Maybe I’m dense here but it’s just not at all serving as an illustration (there certainly are other illustrations – such as Gen. 1 – that undermine a strong inerrancy view).

    Two points about the meaning and intent from Paul:

    1) In context Paul is speaking to people about treating others with peace and leaving room “for the vengeance of God” (Rom. 12) and it is apparent Paul has in mind one of the avenues God would bring this about is through the governing authorities (“sword”).

    2) Submission to the powers – even in the midst of persecution and when the governing authority, ordained by God, rebelled against him (which Paul regularly and consistently did even in the midst of persecution – the point you are making about persecution just does not fit the historical context – persecution was already happening – including to Paul) – was a means of subversion of those powers. That has more to support the intent and meaning, and universal nature of such. This is right in line with Christ on the cross. As Timothy Gombis writes (Drama of Ephesians), reflecting on Paul’s imprisonment under these powers (and, in effect, continued submission to them): “Paul becomes a perfect model for how the victory of God in Christ will be performed in our lives … God’s power is seen when human agents are in positions of weakness … The more that Paul is in a situation of domination by the powers, the more clearly will God’s victory in Christ be seen as he carries out his ministry.”

    • Ed Lauber

      Right on

  • RightWingNut

    “No one who is an American citizen thinks Paul’s words are binding, given
    how our country was founded in rebellion to the governing authorities.”

    This is simply not true. There are American citizens who oppose how the United States was founded. Myself included. Even given that, there are complicating factors. For instance, most polities have multiple layers of governing authorities, and sometimes it is difficult to discern which is intended to be the supreme authority. If there is a civil war between such competing governing authorities, then choosing which to side with isn’t a simple appeal Romans 13. There is also the question of legitimacy. The de facto government of a country might not be the proper legal authorities. Paul doesn’t get into how to determine which is which. That doesn’t mean his teaching is not binding, or in any way in error.

    Edit: Have you ever considered that our cultural milieu suffers from the error on this point, not the Bible? It doesn’t seem like it. You just assume we are more advanced than they are. Either that, or your entire ethic is relativistic nonsense. Sorry, but I’m not going to be tempted by either line of reasoning.