Romans 13:1-7—Nero and the issue of submission to evil rulers (part 2).
We are considering the question whether Paul intended for Christians to submit to evil rulers such as Nero during his reign of terror or to a ruler as wicked as Adolf Hitler. Does the historical background, presented in my previous message, offer any reason to refuse submission to bad rulers?
During the first five or so years of his rule, the young Nero followed the advice of Seneca and left the affairs of state in the hands of the able Burrus. With wise leadership, the Empire prospered in an extension of the Pax Romana that had begun under Caesar Augustus. It was during this period Paul wrote Romans (A.D. 57 or 58) and Peter wrote his first epistle (between 62 and early 64). Paul wrote his letter to Titus no later than 63 with this instruction: “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good” (3:1). Not until October 64, when Nero needed a scapegoat to avert criticism in the aftermath of the great fire, did his severe persecution of Christians take place.
Some Bible teachers seem unaware of these two sides of Nero’s rule. I found this, for example, on a Bible website: “In fact, when Paul wrote these words, Nero was on the throne. If Romans 13 applies to the cruel and capricious Nero, it applies to all kings.” According to this teacher, Paul laid down a broad principle that applies to everyone without exception, with the suggestion that Christians who participated in the American Revolution were in violation of Romans 13.
Was Paul being pragmatic?
Might Paul have chosen different words to describe the Christian’s submission to secular authorities had he written a few years later during Nero’s terror? He probably was, as Ben Witherington III points out, hopeful Nero would keep the peace and continue to govern wisely. To avoid Roman retribution against the church, Paul wanted Christians to pay their taxes and behave in an orderly and respectful manner, not joining rebellious Jews or other malcontents who were participating in a tax revolt. But these pragmatic concerns may not be the only reason Paul commanded submission.
Was Paul being idealistic?
Paul characterized government as an agent of good and a punisher of evil. One view is to say that if secular authorities carry out this ideal role, Christians should pay their taxes and quietly go about their civic duties. But if government becomes an agent of evil, might Christians have the freedom and indeed the responsibility to confront the state? Everett Harrison characterizes this view as follows: “At the very least, under circumstances involving a collapse of justice, the Christian community is obliged to voice its criticism of the state’s failure, pointing out the deviation from the divinely ordained pattern. Subjection to the state is not to be confused with unthinking, blind, docile conformity.”
One website teacher, aware that Romans was penned during Nero’s benign rule, states, “Paul is giving a general principle, not addressing all the confusing situations that sin creates. He does not say what we should do in a civil war, or when the rulers are so corrupt that they terrorize good people and support criminals.” This teacher says, “It is not wrong to resist specific injustices, but it is wrong to work against government itself.”
Colin Kruse references Stanley Porter, who sums up Paul’s argument with two points: “First, believers are to willingly submit to the authorities on the assumption that they are just. Second, if rulers’ authority derives from God, they must rule in a way that is consistent with God’s justice.” Unjust authorities need not be obeyed, says Porter, because Paul only demands obedience to what is right, never to what is wrong.
RC Sproul draws attention to the balance we must maintain between obeying civil magistrates and always obeying God. Paul’s instruction in Romans 13, he says, is about the believer’s fundamental responsibility to render civil obedience and it “is not a matter that can be dealt with simplistically.” Although the principles are not difficult to discern, “the application of those principles can be extremely difficult at times.”
I have presented a range of opinion on Christian submission to secular authority. With full awareness that an attitude of rebellion is at the heart of human sin, we must be ever careful to avoid rationalizing our way out of an attitude of submission. We must let the text of Romans 13:1-7 speak to us and not sweep away its teaching “in a flood of qualifications” (Douglas Moo’s phrase). Paul demands a proper reverent attitude toward governmental institutions and proper respect for secular rulers.
The challenge for Christians in the United States today is to hold that reverent attitude while dealing with the actions of a government whose laws increasingly conflict with biblical morality. As Marco Rubio recently said, “When those two come into conflict, God’s rules always win” and we must obey God rather than secular laws. Our submission to government is relative; our submission to God is absolute. Even when we disobey government, we must do so with an attitude of humility and respect.
We must also be prepared to suffer unjustly at the hands of an unjust government. In such case, our attitude must be that of Christ, who paid the ultimate price when nailed to the cross by Roman soldiers:
He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.
When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21-23)