In Romans 13:1, the apostle Paul writes, “Everyone must submit to governing authorities.” Throughout the history of the church, this one verse (as well as similar verses in Titus 3:1 and 1 Peter 2:17–18) more than any other has guided Christians’ thinking about their relationship to governing authorities.
Many Christians have taken this verse to mean that, if their governing authority commands them to do or not to do a certain action, it is their Christian duty to obey.
If the government says to take up arms against a foreign foe, then it is your Christian duty to obey, no questions asked.
If the government says not to harbor an immigrant in your home or church, then it is your Christian duty to obey, no questions asked.
God is a God of law and order, this view holds, and God delegates the operations of that law and order through civil authorities.
But given the many atrocities committed on behalf of human governments throughout the centuries, this view suggests that God condones Christians participating in atrocities toward their neighbors, so long as they are commanded to do so by their government.
In one of his sermons, John Wesley states of another passage from Romans that “no scripture can mean that God is not love, or that [God’s] mercy is not over all [God’s] works.”
“Whatever that Scripture proves,” writes Wesley, “it never can prove this; whatever its true meaning be. This cannot be its true meaning.”
Some have understood Wesley to be using reason against Scripture—deciding in advance what reason allows and then using reason to stand in judgment over Scripture. But that’s not what Wesley’s doing at all. Rather, he’s using his moral reasoning that has itself been formed by Scripture to help him interpret the meaning of Scripture.
Since Scripture clearly and consistently teaches that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16), if there is a passage that seems to suggest that God is not love, then we can know from the outset that we must be misreading that passage. That “cannot be its true meaning,” as Wesley would say. This isn’t about judging Scripture, then, but is about judging our own interpretations—and misinterpretations—of it.
And so it is when we come to a passage about submitting to governing authorities. If it seems to imply that we have a duty to act in an unloving way toward our neighbor when commanded to do so by our government, then we can know from the outset that we must be misreading that passage.
How do we know this?
Because Jesus says that the first and greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and that the second and equally important commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. “The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments,” Jesus states (Matthew 22:40).
In short, Jesus is providing for us the key to interpreting all Scripture: If a Scripture passage seems to command us to act in a way that would be unloving toward God or neighbor, that cannot be its true meaning. We need to try again to understand it, even if its meaning isn’t entirely clear.
Indeed, Wesley goes so far as to say that, rather than interpreting a passage to imply that God is unloving, it would be better to admit that we simply don’t know what the passage means. “There are many scriptures the true sense whereof neither you nor I shall know till death is swallowed up in victory,” he states. “But this I know, better it were to say it had no sense, than to say it had such a sense as this.”
What would happen if we returned to this “submit to governing authorities” passage in Romans 13 in light of our knowledge that all Scripture hangs on two commands, loving God and loving neighbor? How might our knowledge of these greatest commands inform our reading of this submission passage?
Minimally, I think this knowledge would compel us to take a step back and read this instruction to submit in its larger context. What else is going on in Romans that can help us understand this verse?
As soon as we ask the question, we notice that there’s a lot going on.
Because this instruction comes in verse 1 of chapter 13, we tend to read it as though it is the start of a new section. But the chapter and verse numberings are not an original part of the Bible. Paul did not organize his letter to Rome this way; the numberings were added much later. In fact, Paul’s instructions here are a continuation of his teaching that stretches back at least to the beginning of the previous chapter, where Paul says not to conform to the behaviors and customs of the world but to let God transform your mind so that you can know God’s will—namely, all those things that are good and pleasing and perfect. (12:1–2)
Paul then goes on to describe what such a transformed life and mind looks like in action: being honest in your evaluation of yourself and others, using your spiritual gifts to serve others and build up the body of believers, showing genuine love to one another, holding tightly to what is good and hating what is wrong, serving the Lord enthusiastically, rejoicing in hope, being patient in trouble, praying continually, helping others in need, eagerly practicing hospitality, blessing those who persecute you, rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn, living in harmony with each other, enjoying the company of ordinary people, being humble, responding to evil with goodness, living honorably, and seeking to live at peace with everyone. (12:3–21)
It is only after this litany of ways to live a transformed Christian life that Paul includes submitting or being subject to governing authorities. So whatever Paul means by this instruction, it cannot cancel out all of his previous instructions. Which means it cannot possibly mean that Christians are to surrender their moral judgment to the will of the state. It cannot possibly mean that Christians are to act unlovingly toward their neighbor when the state instructs them to.
So what does it mean then?
I’m tempted, with Wesley, to answer that we just don’t know what Paul means, and that it’s better to accept that than to make it mean what many Christians think it means. But I think we can do better than that.
Notice that Paul here uses the word submit and not obey. (This pattern holds true for similar passages in Titus and 1 Peter.) In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. cites earlier Christian theologians Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas when he writes that “an unjust law is no law at all.” King reasons that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws” because they are “no law at all.” And, yet, King is writing his letter from a jail cell, which suggests that, even in disobeying an unjust law, he is submitting to authorities.
As King explains,
In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him [or her] is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
King points to the long line of civil disobedience in Scripture and church history to support his argument. He writes that “there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.”
And turning to more recent history, he writes, “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’ It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.”
With all of these examples, King is applying the interpretive principle we’ve been discussing: Because the commandments to love God and neighbor are the clearest and greatest commandments, according to Jesus, they provide the lens through which we understand all other commands in Scripture.
And so, returning to the passage in Romans 13, we can see that Paul nowhere instructs Christians to act in any way that would violate their Christian conscience. Indeed, when Paul fleshes out what such submission means in practice, the only concrete instruction he gives is to pay taxes and government fees(!), with the simple justification that government workers need to be paid. For Paul, paying one’s share to support the common maintenance and even flourishing of one’s society can be seen as a minimal expression of loving one’s neighbor.
Paul then returns directly to Jesus’s teaching about the greatest commandments to sum up his argument:
Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, “You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.” These—and other such commandments—are summed up in this one commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law. (Romans 13:8–10)
As we seek to be faithful citizens in our own time and place, we can give respect, honor, and even taxes to our governing authorities, but we must never surrender to them our moral conscience or allegiance. Instead, pledging allegiance to our messiah and Lord, Jesus, we test everything our governing authorities ask of us to discern whether it is, indeed, good, pleasing, and perfect.
And our main criterion for such testing of whether something is good, pleasing, and perfect, according to both Jesus and Paul, is whether it promotes love of neighbor. Or as King puts it, “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
King writes that Jesus was “an extremist for love.”
“So the question is not whether we will be extremists,” he reasons, “but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”
When the question is asked in those terms, the answer should be self-evident.