I want to really get to know Romans 13. When I was a rebellious teen, my dad actually punished me one time by having me write the first seven verses over and over, so this passage is always on my mind, and I have reflected on it a lot. In my last post, I lamented how many evangelical Christians support the use of torture, so long as its committed by America upon terrorism suspects. What really makes me angry, though (in case it wasn’t obvious last time), is “teachers” who use their national podium to poison the minds of the evangelicals listening to them with notions like America’s use of torture being condoned and even mandated by Romans 13. I’m sure (at least, I’m hopeful) that they aren’t intentionally misleading their listeners, but rather have also been misled themselves by so many years of pro-government propaganda and indoctrination that they are unable to break out of their narrow paradigm and simply don’t know the truth anymore, at least where this subject is concerned. However, as teachers in whom their listeners have placed their unquestioning trust, they really do need to be more careful about throwing snippets of scripture around in support of their agenda, instead of tailoring their agenda to match the whole of scripture. [And should Janet and Craig Parshall ever read this, I would like to encourage them to go back and seriously study their political positions from a Biblical worldview — and to be careful not to study the Bible from their political worldview. This is something which I also must strive to do, and even more as my political views are radically different from those of the vast majority of other Christians and people in general (which I’ll admit makes me nervous at times); I do, however, feel it worth mentioning that my political views have changed to what they are now from views similar to those of the Parshalls because I started trying to look at what the Bible says with an unbiased eye.]
Let’s look at what Romans 13 actually says, and more importantly, what it doesn’t say. Verse 13:1a in the NKJV that I quoted last time says, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.” NASB translates it “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities”, NIV translates it “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities”, and ESV translates it “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities”, but for some reason the original English translation, the KJV, translated it “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers” (emphasis added). Why didn’t the KJV also use the idea of “government” in translating this passage? Is it simply that the KJV was translated hundreds of years ago by people who didn’t know what they were doing? Should we just go with what the majority of translations say? But if “government” is what was actually meant, why didn’t King James, who is one of the prime originators of the “divine right of kings” theory, make sure that this passage was translated clearly into English?
Well, it is interesting to note that the Greek word ἐξουσίᾳ, which is translated “governing authorities” or “higher powers”, simply means “power” or “authority”, particularly in a moral sense — that is, it more usually refers to the authority of a priest or pastor than that of a king or a congress or a central intelligence agency. Yes, it is used in a governmental sense elsewhere in the New Testament, as in the case of the centurion under authority or in the case where Satan tempted Jesus with power over all the kingdoms of the earth, but more often it refers to the authority of Jesus to teach moral truths or to the authority of Him and His disciples to cast out unclean spirits. This is not to say necessarily that Romans 13 isn’t speaking of government at all, but rather to say that by so casually inserting the word “governing” where that word never existed in what Paul originally wrote, we have lost a substantial part of the meaning of the text (and possibly encouraged some serious misunderstanding). If Paul had actually meant only “Let everyone be subject to governments”, he could have used the more apt word ἄρχων, which means “ruler” or “prince” or “governor” or “leader”.
Using the words that Paul actually wrote, we see that this passage has wider applications than simply to governments — every soul should be subject to any authority under which they find themselves, whether that be the government, church leaders, employers, parents, schoolteachers, committee chairpersons, private arbiters, etc. This does not imply, however, that one must always find oneself under any one or more kinds of authority. If you are employed or in school, you must submit to your boss or teacher, and if you have parents, you must submit to them, but if you are a retiree, with parents long deceased, you have no need to submit to them or to any CEOs or Algebra teachers, because your circumstances are such that you are not under their authority. By extension, if you should for some strange reason find yourself in a situation where there is no government (say, stranded on a deserted tropical island), you are under no obligation to submit to the government, because you are not under the authority of any government — one hasn’t been ordained for your time and place — neither are you obligated by this verse to form a government, as this passage only obligates you to submit to those authorities which already exist.
The rest of the verse says, “For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God,” and this portion has no disagreement among the above translations. But notice carefully what it does not say — if the authorities that exist were appointed by God, what of those that do not exist? They are excluded — even in the case of governments, we are under no obligation to establish one where none exists. If God wants a government or other such authority, He is perfectly able to establish one himself, possibly by using those who mistakenly believe that all humans are obligated to serve one government or another, but it does not necessarily follow from this text that God has ordained a human government for every time and place in all of creation and that we are obligated to form that government for Him when we encounter a time and place that doesn’t yet have one.