(NOTE: For anyone concerned by the direction Western Civilization is headed, Romans 13 can seem like an impossible passage. How do we balance, for instance, the commandment to honor marriage in a society that seems to think it can redefine marriage? How do we protect human life inside the womb in a society that thinks in can redefine personhood? Indeed, Christians throughout millennia have wrestled with exactly how to balance obedience to Romans 13 with obedience to God’s commands. For example, if we take Romans 13 as literally as possible, then the priests who saluted Hitler were doing the right thing. Do we actually believe that?
As the moral fabric of our society continues to deteriorate, how are we to balance the tension between being subject to the governing authorities with honoring God with our lives? Josh and I have discussed this topic off and on for a few years now and I feel like he has articulated a very helpful understanding of what it actually means to steward our American citizenship. While our identity is in no way based upon where we live, we have been granted certain freedoms and their inherent responsibilities. We have a duty to use our freedoms to love our neighbor and honor our Maker (Gal. 5:1). On this 4th of July, I hope Josh’s perspective–with which I agree wholeheartedly–will challenge you to rethink what it means to be a Christian in America. Take some time to think consider it, wrestle with it, and let us know what you think! – daniel)
I’m an American. For years I’ve watched our country go in a direction contrary to wisdom, righteousness, and the standards I see in Scripture. With that in mind, I’ve struggled greatly with the lessons inherent in Romans 13, which teaches that we must subject ourselves to the governing authorities and leaves no room for rebellion. The chapter doesn’t give us leeway to “obey until this point” or “submit until X line is crossed.” So how does that work for me, as an American?
For the moment, I’m not concerned with what Romans 13 looks like for the rest of the world, or what it looked like for Americans as far back as the Revolutionary War (which, by nature, was a rebellion). I’m not even primarily concerned with what this looked like for the Romans to whom Paul was writing – although this has some bearing on the issue at hand, the first application of these principles (Romans under Nero) is less of a concern to me than the present application of these principles (Josh under the current American government). These are all valid concerns, discussions, and Bible studies; however, they’re beyond the scope of what I’m going to be discussing today.
First off, it’s essential to review the Scripture at hand:
“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. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. 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. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” – Romans 13:1-7
Application of this passage requires a basic understanding of the government system under which you live: if you live in an empire (as did the first readers of this passage), that would be defined as a “rule by an emperor” and he would be your ultimate earthly authority. If you lived under a monarchy, defined as “rule by a king,” then he would be your ultimate earthly authority. In the same way those under a democracy (rule by the people), an oligarchy (rule by a ruling class), or a theocracy (rule by God or a god) would have different authority figures. This is essential because you would be disobedient to Romans 13 if you tried to obey an emperor if you lived under a monarchy, or if you appealed to public opinion when you lived under a theocracy.
The government system in the United States is a constitutional republic, defined as a “rule by law.” Wait a second, that doesn’t make sense – don’t all nations have laws? Yes, all nations have “rule of law” but only a republic is “rule by law.” What’s the difference? In the same way that the definitions of the other types of governments identified the highest authority (e.g., emperor, king) a republic identifies the highest authority: in this case, the Constitution of the United States. How do we know this is true and it isn’t some ruling body or person? Check out the oaths of office below:
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely,without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.”
Each of these officials, representing the highest positions of the three branches of the federal government, pledge allegiance and subordination to the Constitution. The men and women who inhabit these offices are merely representatives for the Constitution; they bear no legitimate power or authority outside of those confines.
But what happens if Congress passes a law, or the President issues an executive order, or even if the Supreme Court makes a ruling contrary to what the Constitution says? By definition, that law, order, or ruling would be unconstitutional and unenforceable. But when would it be unenforceable? If Congress passes a law that you think is unconstitutional, are you required to obey it until it is struck down by the Supreme Court or rescinded by Congress? For guidance on this, let us turn to the Sixteenth American Jurisprudence, Second Edition, Section 177:
“The general misconception is that any statute passed by legislators bearing the appearance of law constitutes the law of the land. The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and any statue, to be valid, must be in agreement. It is impossible for both the Constitution and a law violating it to be valid; one must prevail. This is succinctly stated as follows: The general rule is that an unconstitutional statute, though having the form and name of law, is in reality no law, but is wholly void, and ineffective for any purpose; since unconstitutionality dates from the time of its enactment, and not merely from the date of the decision so branding it. An unconstitutional law, in legal contemplation, is as inoperative as if it had never been passed. Such a statute leaves the question that it purports to settle just as it would be had the statute not been enacted.”
“Since an unconstitutional law is void, the general principals follow that it imposes no duties, confers no rights, creates no office, bestows no power or authority on anyone, affords no protection, and justifies no acts performed under it…. A void act cannot be legally consistent with a valid one. An unconstitutional law cannot operate to supersede any existing valid law. Indeed, insofar as a statute runs counter to the fundamental law of the land, it is superseded thereby. No one is bound to obey an unconstitutional law and no courts are bound to enforce it.” (emphasis mine)
Per Romans 13, we are absolutely required to be faithful and obedient to the supreme earthly authority governing the land in which we live (as long as that doesn’t require us to compromise our faith). The supreme authority in the United States is the Constitution; all public officials are required to swear that they will uphold it. Per the summary above, no unconstitutional law is ever required to be obeyed, since it is unconstitutional and illegal (read: null and void) from the first moment it was passed and not when it was first declared unconstitutional by a court.
The question then becomes how we can accomplish this. The first step is education: we have to know what the Constitution says and how it is applied in our lives. If we are ignorant of the text of the Constitution and its application we are as unfaithful citizens as we would be unfaithful Christians if we ignored the text of the Bible and its application in our lives; since Romans 13 requires us to be good earthly citizens, being poor earthly citizens means we’re being poor Christians as well. The second step is inspection: we must constantly compare the laws imposed upon us with the ideals of the Constitution; if/when we find inconsistency we are then obligated to participate in the third step: disobedience to those laws which aren’t laws at all. This is, by far, the most difficult step for the average Christian to take. We want to believe that our government has our best interests in mind, that anything they do will be within the boundaries of the authority they are given. Sadly, such is often not the case.
Let us examine the difference between the right to command and the power to command. If a gang of thugs bursts into your home in the middle of the night and overpowers you, beats your children, and rapes your wife and daughters, there’s no doubt that, in that moment, they have power over you. They do not, however, have the right to command power over you. If you were to sit idly by and allow them to have their way with your family, such would be completely contrary to the spirit of Romans 13. You should actively resist them, to the death.
Per Ephesians 5:22-24, the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church; the wife is required to submit to the husband. That, however, doesn’t mean any wife is required to submit to any husband; just because I’m a husband doesn’t give me the right to go around and command wives who have husbands with less upper body strength than me (although I may have power over their husbands, I do not have the right to command that power).
Hopefully through these extreme examples the difference between someone who has power to command and someone who has the right to command is evident.
We must be educated. We must apply what we know. And when those who have physical power over us command us to do something contrary to the Constitution, per Romans 13 we have no choice but to disobey that illegal edict; per our allegiance to Christ we are required to resist anyone and any order that would attempt to usurp authority from that which we are required to obey – the Constitution.
Joshua S. Burnett
“Virescit Vulnere Virtus”