Romans 13: Rulers Should Enforce Natural Law
One of the most abused and misunderstood texts in the entire Bible is a passage from Romans 13, written by Paul – formerly Saul of Tarsus.
Conservatives and tyrants alike have used this passage to rationalize obedience to tyranny likely for the last two thousand years. Conservatives see it as a blanket statement — that governments have the “authority” to punish sin just because it’s sin.
Tyrants see the text as a beautiful passage that essentially gives them the ability to trample sinners — and that pretty much means almost everyone and everything is regulated, including sex in the bedroom.
In the text of Romans 13, Paul explains the following:
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
Before we look at the other sections for additional context, let’s discuss exactly what these 7 verses mean in the context of who was writing them, and where he was located:
- Paul lived in the Roman empire — a tyranny.
- Higher powers don’t punish good actions.
- There is no authority but God’s.
Romans 13 is discussing higher powers — moral authority. It’s discussing government in its proper function, not in all of its functions. Nero was “established” by God only in terms of causualty — Nero was still an evil man doing evil things, and God does not ordain what is evil. This is why in Hosea, God says:
“They have set up kings, but not by me: they have made princes, and I knew it not.”
This is not a contradiction at all. This is simply an explanation that not all princes are the higher powers. Some men are kings in name only. It was CS Lewis who said:
“The king is under the law for it is the law that makes him king.”
This is why “evil government” is not what Romans 13 is discussing — not at all. That’s one of many reasons our founding fathers fought the king of England — they knew he had no special “higher power” over them as subjects, because they understood natural law, at least on a basic level.
But what does this mean? What’s the meaning of Romans 13 if it doesn’t mean that we are to obey evil governments? On a basic level, Romans 13 is not about all politicians, all governments, or all laws. It’s a broad generalization. It was not necessarily written for those establishing governments — it was written for those who are subjects to governments. Because of that, the reference to government was put in simple and general terms for the sake of communicating the real idea: the idea of non-rebellion, of being peaceful, of not randomly starting trouble.
But what is useful about the passage? What can we gain if we are trying to establish a government? The answer is simple. We keep reading. This is the part of Romans 13 that conservatives and tyrants alike forget to read when talking with those who understand liberty:
“Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.
For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
How do you fulfill God’s law in relation to the “higher powers” established on earth? Simple. Worketh no ill to your neighbor. What should you do because of government? Simple. Don’t commit adultery, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie in court, don’t covet (the root of almost all social crimes and conflict) — in a sentence, love your neighbor as yourself.
To put this in a phrase that we’re used to hearing, do not encroach on other person’s or their property.
This doesn’t mean that “God’s law” says it’s alright to smoke pot, necessarily. It doesn’t mean that it’s moral to do whatever doesn’t hurt other people. That’s a question of another aspect of God’s law — loving God and following His commandments — only that’s not at all what the “law” is discussing above, because it’s specifically talking about the “higher powers” established here on earth among men.
Note that Paul is writing specifically and exclusively writing about our relationship with others. The higher powers exist in a social context, not a private one — they exist to regulate social behavior, not private behavior. They exist to outlaw adultery (contract violation — though the consequences are different in the New Testament than the Old Testament). They exist to outlaw murder. They exist to outlaw fraud. They exist to fight covetousness – in the context of almost every crime that exists.
A Response to Conservatives
Many conservatives will likely find fault in what I’m saying here. Their argument could be summarized as “governments must ban ‘action’ sin so long as there’s not an exception found in the Bible.” This completely misses the point — that the “wrongdoing” mentioned above is in the context of between people — hence, love your “neighbor”. It’s about rules for how we interact in relation to killing, stealing, and contracts. It’s about natural law.
When I say “natural law”, I mean those social obligations related to coercion that we can deduce through nature, reason, and conscience, as Paul discusses. There’s much more to this, of course, and not all things that are “unnatural” violate natural “law”.
This reference to natural law isn’t just something I’m making up, of course. Paul refers to it several times throughout Romans — the book where Romans 13 is located. Here’s what he said in Romans 1:19-20:
“Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.”
Here’s what Paul then said in Romans 2:15:
“Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.”
So yes, the ruling powers — the governing authorities — have the right to use the sword against those who do wrongdoing to their neighbor. But nothing else. This means if someone is growing pot on their farm, no one has the authority to unleash deadly violence on them. If anything, that would be incredibly evil itself — a direct violation of Romans 13 of not stealing.
Selling pot to a college kid is no more immoral than selling brownies to a fat kid, and if anything, we should be more worried about the good health of the fat kid, because in America fudge and sugary foods kill far more than pot ever could. Conservatives who believe they are following through with Romans 13 to punish all sin are simply wrong. The Bible doesn’t encourage or condone violence against all sinners. Jesus literally said the opposite.
Don’t laugh at my fat kid comment — just watch the news. Many people are taking the principle of “ban all bad things” to heart, and yes, it leads to tyranny. What a shame.
The motivation for violence isn’t just that it’s “sin” — it’s that it’s wrongdoing to others. In other words, it’s a violation of the rights of others. If you believe the bible, you should believe in life, liberty, and property. God’s law is perfect, and this is just one more example of how perfect and interconnected it all really is.