In years past, Christians were an ascendant force in culture. More recently, they have become a forgotten relic. Whether cultural force or relic, governing authorities rarely had cause to make Christians uncomfortable. But the coronavirus pandemic led to regional lockdowns for businesses, churches, and public events. In light of this unique governmental pressure, Christians have had to revaluate their relationship with the government.
Responses fall along a spectrum but can be imperfectly organized around these four types of views. Some believe government leaders to be incompetent and occasionally nefarious. Others accuse the magistrate of defying divine law. Still others see the church and the magistrate as (uncomfortable and strained) associates. Lastly, some have supported government injunctions without objection. In this article, I do not intend to parse out our current political moment or these responses. Others have done and will continue to do so.
Here, I want to address one broader and more generalized question: is the government an ally or an antagonist to Christians — or something in between? Finding a fitting answer to this question will pay dividends later. Christians in North America will increasingly find themselves in disagreements with the status quo and the will of the magistrate.
Starting with Romans 13
Paul’s instructions in Romans 13 have the capacity to make us feel uneasy. Origen of Alexandria (c. 184–c. 253 AD) once wrote, “I am disturbed by Paul’s saying that the authority of this age and the judgment of the world are the ministers of God. He says it, moreover, not once but a second and even a third time.” Despite that, Paul wrote these words to Roman believers under Emperor Nero who ruled an empire that not only used violence to gain its territory but also had one of its magistrates (Pilate) send Christ to his death. In these ways (but not in every way), Paul wrote about an unjust government. One commentator explains “that the Romans were among the ‘rulers of this age’ who ‘crucified the Lord of glory’ (1 Cor 2:8), who imprisoned believers (Rom 16:7; 2 Cor 11:23), and who exiled some of their number from Rome (Acts 18:2).”
Even so, Paul writes:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Rom 13:1–2).
God ordains authority; all authority has been instituted by God. Therefore, since “there is no authority except from God,” then “whoever resists authorities resist what God has appointed.” The Roman Empire (and any government) is made up sinful and unjust people. That should disturb us given what Paul says here.
More than that, Paul tells Christians to pay taxes to Rome who used that tax money to fund not only their public works but their wars (Rom 13:7). Michael Bird adds, “Nero’s taxation policies were highly unpopular, and Paul is saying that Christians should not get embroiled in the backlash against them.” Despite such implications, Paul says that the Ruler is “God’s servant for your good” and “the servant of God” (Rom 13:4). Later, Paul will call authorities “ministers of God” (Rom 13:6), a word that signifies service on behalf of God. Christians should submit, Paul avers, not just to avoid God’s wrath but “for the sake of conscience” (Rom 13:5).
How can the unjust, Roman authorities truly be described this way? And how can we say that a ruler is “God’s servant for your good?” An answer lies between the tension of God appointing all authorities and rulers misusing that authority for woe.
Authorities and Rulers
John Chrysostom (d. 407) distinguishes the authority God gives and the rulers that wield it in Romans 13. The reformer Peter Vermigli (1499–1562) follows Chrysostom by distinguishing the office and the person in the office (Rom 13:1–2 with v. 3). Authority is always granted to a ruler, whether the ruler is prudent or not. We owe taxes, revenue, respect, and honor to authorities — without exception (Rom 13:6–7). We owe it to the authorities because God ordained them.
The rulers who wield that authority are entitled to what their authority gives them. Chrysostom explains, “we are not doing rulers a favor by our obedience: we owe them that obedience.” Every general rule, however, seems to have an exception. And in the context of Romans 13, we can discern some hints of what that might be. That exception involves broader scriptural patterns as well as the use of the plural noun “authorities” (e.g., Rom 13:1).
We respect all governing authorities: whether mayor, premier, or prime minister. The point, however, is that we can work with each power. The Emperor had governments and various magistrates. Paul appeals to Caesar (Acts 25:11) after appealing to lesser authorities in Acts. For similar reasons, Vermigli will conclude that “it is permitted to have recourse from the inferior magistrate to the protection and mercy of the superior by way of an appeal.”
When an authority does wrong, it seems reasonable to allow for another valid ruler with authority to administer justice: “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:4). One authority (say a judge) has the power and duty to try a case against an unjust city counsellor.
Christians can become magistrates to make this change and/or can appeal to local leaders or even greater leaders to effect a change. The balance of powers here, which the text allows for through the plural use of authorities, provides a way to think about how God can institute authorities which are good, which bad rulers can then abuse.
God did not make the Romans make war with their neighbors or make Nero blame the Christians for the burning of Rome. He gave them temporal authority to do good — they are here “for our good.” They misused that authority. As God’s servants, their master will hold them accountable. And other servants of God bear the sword of justice against temporal sin. That is God’s administration of justice and judgment. As dual citizens of heaven and earth, we can participate in such resistance — something discussed below.
It is always good that authorities exist. Rulers can use that authority for good or evil. The authority is from God; their sin is from themselves.
Allies or Antagonists?
Even in the Roman world, God reigns through his authorities. No Christian can then be an anti-government as a rule. It’s a contradiction in terms because “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed” (Rom 13:2). A Christian may be against a political party or political decision. A Christian can be against one leader and cast their vote to show it. They cannot be against governing authorities as such.
As Bird rightly notes, “Government is a form of common grace instituted by God where God uses human rulers to provide justice, order, and civility for the peoples governed.” Douglas Moo also affirms government as a form of common grace: As a manifestation of his common grace, God has established in this world certain institutions, such as marriage and government, that have a positive role to play even after the inauguration of the new age.” Because God does it, human authority, government, constitutes good and gracious provision for all people, including Christians.
Christians and governments are (ideally) co-workers since the government aims to effect justice “for your good” (Rom 13:4). In a very real sense, a good government uses God-given authority to provide the material conditions for the mission of the church to flourish: stability, peace, and order. Anarchy and constant murder and robbery would make regular worship nearly impossible. God could make it possible, of course. But that’s the point. He has done so by instituting human governments. That is the primary way he has created the material conditions for worship. Governments, whether they know it or not, serve the common good in ways that benefit the church, even if their missions are distinct.
They are then natural allies in this limited sense. They should also be held in honour and seen as intended to be a good that works in harmony with the church of Christ. John Calvin speaks of civil government as having more honour than “bread, water, sun, and air.” Further, civil government, he writes, “provides that a public manifestation of religion may exist among Christians, and that humanity be maintained among men” (Inst. 4.20.3). Such views also existed among other contemporary reformers such as Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and many more besides.
It is worth pausing for a moment to understand how reformed thinkers after early reformers developed a reformed political theology. One place to look is the Leiden Synopsis. After the Synod of Dordt (1618–1619), the Netherlands instituted a reform and reaffirmation of reformed orthodoxy. As part of this process, professors from the University of Leiden spent years disputing reformed orthodoxy to create a synopsis that defined a norm for reformed orthodoxy. It was published in 1625.
And in the disputation on civil authority, Johannes Polyander (1568–1646) distinguishes the (then) common reformed view with two others: Anabaptists and Socinians. In particular, Polyander objects to their position that Christians cannot serve in government. Polyander probably has in mind the teachings of Menno Simons (1496–1561) and Brotherly Union (1527).
Polyander also rejects the Roman Church position, as expressed in the Council of Trent and elsewhere, that “clerics are entirely and unconditionally exempt from the yoke of the political magistrate” (§50.21). In its 25th session, the Council of Trent maintained “the immunity of the church and of ecclesiastical persons has been established by the authority of God and the ordinances of the canons” (25.20).
Yet Polyander will deny such a claim because even clerics fall under Romans 13:1. There is no absolute distinction between the two but rather a harmony:
The greatest possible harmony should be fostered between the two administrations, i.e., the political and the ecclesiastical one, so that each may be supported by the assistance of the other, and so that the foundations tou hosiou, or of the sacred religion, and of the divine law in the church may be supported no less by the authority of the magistrate than in civil society the principles tou dikaiou, or of justice, and of common right may be supported by the ministry of the elders of the church (§50.49).
In other words, there is an intended harmony within God’s two administrations of his one rule of the created order. Experience teaches that this harmony often becomes discordant. Polyander represents a reformed consensus that affirmed God’s single rule through two administrations (civil magistrates and churches). God reigns. Christ is on the throne.
Christians are intended to live in harmony with civil authorities. That does not always happen. Sometimes Providence is bitter. But it also brings the blessed fruit of holiness for the children of God.
Use and Misuse
Leaders often misuse their authority by doing evil and by persecuting just people. They destroy the material conditions for the common good and so Christian worship, which is the purpose of their use of that authority. Every earthly ruler does this, since all earthly governments are made up of sinners.
In many cases then, governors become our antagonists.
The resolution to this dilemma is both eschatological and natural. Ultimately, God will hold the Emperor to account —we can proclaim his coming judgement as Justin Martyr did in the second-century. We can also appeal to other magistrates — others who have God-given authority to wield for the common good.
Sometimes Christians live under consistently unjust rule. In such cases, Christians cannot compromise their conscience by denying Christ or performing an unholy act. “But,” Polyander explains “if those things concern only matters of the bodily sort, or things beneficial for this life and to the outward state and good order of the republic and human society, then in those things we should obey him for the sake of keeping the peace and calm among the citizens” (§50.28).
We may not, however, fall into patterns of anarchy even when rulers are unjust. “Moreover,” writes Polyander, “they also err who thinks that God’s people should not tolerate an unbelieving and wicked magistrate” (§50.18). The reason why is that Christians can affirm that the magistrate has authority from God while having a “evil heart.” When this happens, believers should “take repose in the providence of God” and remember 1 Peter 2:13 and Romans 13:5.
Beyond that, Polyander notes, lesser magistrates may hold higher magistrates accountable and even rebel since they, too, have the power of authority vested in them (§50.19). In other words, a good prince should hold a bad prince accountable, a MPP should hold a Premier accountable, and so on. Rebellion or resistance to authority must occur within God’s good administration of the world. Hence, someone with valid authority (a lesser magistrate) may lead an uprising against a higher magistrate. Polyander, for example, could freely preach reformed thinking because the Dutch Republic had rebelled against their Spanish overlords.
In a North American setting, civil governments allow for many forms of resistance: protest, voting, lobbying representatives, law, and probably much more besides. We can resist lawfully through litigation, appealing to public health decision-makers, and even writing to our legislative representatives. This is what the doctrine of the lesser magistrate should teach us.
In the end, we live between the comings of Christ. Every government mixes justice with injustice. They are all unjust as the government in Paul’s day was. Pilate sent Jesus to the cross, after all. But common grace and civic virtue serve God’s providential aims of ruling through temporal powers for the sake of “your good.”
Generally speaking, we can all affirm even a bad government is better than anarchy. That does not mean we hope for a bad government, mind you. But it means we can see goodness even in the order provided by a relatively unjust government.
All of this explains why “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Rom 13:2). Such an anti-statist resistance, along the lines that I have discussed above, directly conflicts with God’s plan for the cosmos. We must not “reject authority” (Jude 8) or revile a ruler of the people (Acts 23:5). This includes even unjust authorities: “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust” (1 Per 2:18).
None of this implies being a doormat. We proclaim Christ and his judgment. The church declares with an eschatological authority the judgement coming to every ruler who does evil. We do all that is within us to work with the leaders to whom God has given authority in order to hold those who do injustice to account. Be vigilant and strong; be bold and do good everywhere you are.
But remember the key distinction: God ordains all authorities even if individual rulers misuse that authority. Do not revile that authority or you will revile what God has ordained. Instead, use what God has ordained to hold our leaders accountable. Most importantly, for Christians who are not magistrates, this means eschatological proclamation — the Gospel and the judgment of God. For Christians who are magistrates, this means eschatological proclamation as well as creational justice.
In sum, God institutes governments who act as limited allies to the church by creating the material conditions of peace and order that allow the Gospel to flourish. Individual rulers, however, misuse that authority and often enter into an antagonistic relationship with the church. Paul was not ignorant of such matters. Thomas Schreiner explains, “Paul was keenly aware that the ruling authorities had put Jesus to death, and as a student of the OT and Jewish tradition he was well schooled in the evil that governments had inflicted on the people of God.”
The fallen order of the world means that no government will be full of perfect men and women. Instead, it will be full of sinners. Common grace, civic virtue, or what John Calvin calls vestiges of virtue allow civil societies to function: roads are built, water is pumped, police protect, and so forth. Mistakes will be made. We will be frustrated. Even so, Doug Moo rightly points out that, “Submission to government is another aspect of that ‘good’ which the Christian, seeking to ‘approve’ the will of God, will exemplify (cf. 12:2).”
Finally, rulers have often treated Christians unfairly, even persecuted them. When this happens to us, we must commit ourselves to God’s providence, appeal to the lesser magistrate, and stand firm in the Gospel and its proclamation. These patterns of resistance will continue to be useful biblical and theological guides to how Christians should resist an increasingly antagonistic government.
Cited in Burns, J. Patout, Jr., Constantine Newman, and Robert Louis Wilken, eds. Romans: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators, trans. by J. Patout Burns Jr. and Constantine Newman. The Church’s Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 315. ↑
Michael F. Bird, Romans, ed. Scot McKnight. The Story of God Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 442. ↑
Romans: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators, 322. ↑
The Peter Martyr Reader, eds. John Patrick Donnelly, Frank A. James III, Joseph C. McLelland (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 1999), 226. ↑
Douglas Moo disagrees with Chrysostom. He thinks that Paul’s command to submit to authorities (Rom 13:1a) coupled with his reliance on Daniel 4:17 mean that authority is just a synonym for ruler in this context (Romans, 798 and n30). But the word “authority” often signifies a power, heavenly or not. And here it seems to easily follow this standard use. Paul assumes that rulers have authority and so he speaks about submitting to authorities in 13:1a. ↑
Romans: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators, 322. ↑