In his letter to the Christians in Rome, the apostle Paul makes the following statements.
For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:14 NRSV)
But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit. (Romans 7:6 NRSV)
For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4 NRSV)
What might a Roman official think of such statements? Hopefully, the Christians reading Paul’s letter will understand that Paul is speaking of God’s Torah as he, a former Pharisee, understands it. He writes repeatedly in this letter that the law of God itself is good but he himself is not good and so cannot keep the law. Instead, for all his efforts to keep the commandments, he stands condemned under the law.
Paul’s arguments require understanding of his struggle to please God and his persistent failure (see Romans chapter 7). But, again I ask, what might a Roman official make of the declarations, “. . . since you are not under the law . . . ,” “But now we are discharged from the law . . . .” and, most dangerous of all, “Christ is the end of the law . . . .”? Do those statements apply to Roman law? Are these Christians, then, scofflaws, rebels, outlaws? After all, their leader, their avowed Lord and Savior, was executed by Rome as a supposed rebel against the empire.
There is danger in Paul’s distinction between law and grace, two-fold danger. Yes, Roman officials might grow suspicious of this new religious movement, but some Christians themselves might misunderstand Paul as declaring them free of obligation to Roman civil laws.
So, Paul writes the now infamously abused paragraph we find in Romans 13:1-7. The very first sentence declares the apostle’s message to believers and government officials alike:
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. (Romans 13:1 NRSV)
There it is, the Bible quote people pull out when they want to support a particular “ruler” and raise that individual above criticism. Here we are, back to the notion of “king by the grace of God” (see my earlier post on that subject here). In the misuse of Romans 13:1-7, we find false biblical support for the latest “anointed one” of some political movement tending toward totalitarianism. Here is the attempted elevation of a Henry VIII above all other authority. Here is fraudulent support for the deified or nearly deified dictator, from “Hail Caesar!” to “Heil Hitler!” Supposedly to question the dictator is to question God, to oppose the dictator is to rebel against God, and to reject the dictator is to reject God and God’s will for the nation.
In both the Old Testament and New Testament, there is much that contradicts such an interpretation or Romans 13:1-7. Leaders that fail to make justice happen for the poor and vulnerable are condemned and rejected. Particularly in the book of Revelation, the Roman emperors themselves are declared evil servants, not of God, but of Satan. Paul’s hopeful statement, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” in verse 3 proves at many points in history to be mere wishful thinking, although it truly is more because its declaration of what authorities should do turns into judgment upon those authorities who do not measure up.
Paul is not freeing Christians from civil authority and secular law, but he does set a standard for that authority and its laws. Authority’s charge from God, whether the officials know it or not, is to uphold and shelter what is good and to oppose and punish what is bad. But what happens when the authority itself does what is evil? When good behavior is punished and bad rewarded? Does God support corruption, brutality against the vulnerable, and lawlessness on the part of the authorities themselves? The Bible as a whole overwhelmingly declares, “No!”
Now, let’s take a step back and survey our own situation in the United States of America. To form this nation, our ancestors rebelled against a “king by the grace of God” they came to regard as a tyrant. Since then, authority for this nation is lodged, not in any person or small group, but in us, the American people. “We the people” are together the authority Paul declares has been appointed by God to keep order and to reward what is good and to prevent or punish what is bad. No president has that authority in, by, and for himself. No president can rightly claim or have claimed for him such authorization from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. We the people through our elected representatives are responsible for the maintenance of justice. It is our duty to keep power out of the hands of swindlers and liars. We together stand accountable to God, whether we acknowledge God or not, for cruelties inflicted by our elected officials and their appointees. We are answerable for institutionalized bigotry, persecution, and self-serving greed.
The misuse of Romans 13:1-7 in support of evil, of the tyranny and lawlessness of a president, and of the abuse of power for self-enrichment, is a terrible corruption of scripture. Such an abuse of the Bible opposes God and brings shame and infamy upon the name of Jesus Christ.