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Stop Misusing Romans 13: Paul and the Importance of Civil Disobedience

The Gospel is inherently political.

The early Christians made a subversive political claim – Jesus is Lord. That may not seem very political to those of us living in the 21st century. But in the first century Roman Empire, people had to claim that the Roman Emperor was Lord.

To claim that Jesus was Lord was an act of political subversion and treason.

“BUT WAIT!” someone will argue. “ROMANS 13!”

Here is the passage in question:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment…if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain!”

Seems pretty obvious, right? There are some Christians who currently use this passage against anyone who protests abusive policies employed by the US government.

This is a misuse of Romans 13 on multiple levels. First, to have a consistent reading of Romans 13, they would have to argue that the American Revolution was sinful and that no one should have resisted Hitler because he was ordained by God. Granted, there are a few Christians who make this grotesque interpretive move, but for the most part, no one takes Romans 13 as an absolute command.

Second, and possibly the biggest problem for those who misuse Romans 13 as an absolute command to submit to every law of any government, is the author of that passage himself, a man named Paul.

Paul wrote in the first century Roman Empire. The Roman authorities wrote a law making it illegal to convert Roman citizens to Christianity. Cicero wrote a book titled “On the Laws” in which described laws pertaining to religion. One of those laws was, “No person shall have any separate gods, or new ones; nor shall he privately worship any strange gods, unless they be publicly allowed.”

New Testament scholar Christopher Mathews puts it like this, “It was not lawful for Jews [or Christians] to make converts of Romans.”

This Roman Law had direct implications for the early Christian religion. The Romans thought Christians worshiped a separate and new God. This God was privately worshipped and was not publicly allowed.

In other words, Paul explicitly broke the law when he publicly proclaimed Jesus as Lord and invited people to convert to this new religion. In fact, Paul’s whole mission to convert the Gentiles in the Roman Empire went against Roman law.

In Acts 16:16-34 we find that Paul was accused of “advocating customs that are unlawful for…Romans to adopt or observe.”  The accusation was true! By preaching the Gospel, Paul advocated for customs that were unlawful for Romans to observe.

Paul was jailed and ultimately killed because of his acts of civil disobedience. Paul wrote in Romans 13 that governmental “authority does not bear the sword in vain.” Paul was right! He killed because he disobeyed governmental authority, an authority that killed him with the sword.

But what about Romans 13?

This passage must be interpreted in light of the entire letter of Romans and in light of Paul’s life.

Romans 12 advocates nonviolence. Paul himself resisted Roman laws, but he did so using nonviolent civil disobedience. Paul suffered the consequences of his nonviolent disobedience toward the Roman Empire, as he spent years in prison and was even beheaded by the Empire. But Paul did not return violence for violence. He remained nonviolent and showed compassion for those who imprisoned him. Acts 16 says that he even saved their lives.

Taken in its literary and historical context, Romans 13 does not advocate total submission to governing authorities. In fact, taken in context, Romans 13 calls us to nonviolent civil disobedience in the face of unjust laws.

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