Is Romans 13 a mandate for militarism?

Romans 13 often comes up in conversations about Christian pacifism. Wherever I question Christian militarism it’s not long before someone says, “Look at what Romans 13 says: Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities.” Now, I must admit, as verses go that seems pretty clear … except that it’s not.

You see, there’s a big difference between passive submission to a government and aggressive support of a government. Militarists suggest one implies the other. Pacifists beg to differ. What can settle the matter? Well, whenever difficulties come up in scripture it’s always good to check the context. What was the context of this verse? Life under an expansionist Pagan dictatorship. Think about it.

Given the context I find it hard to imagine Paul is saying join the army. I find it a lot more reasonable to interpret this as a caution against armed rebellion and tax avoidance. So, are there any hints that this may be the case? Well, why don’t we read the passage immediately prior to Romans 13, in fact, why not read the verse immediately prior to Romans 13? What does it say?

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good

Does that sound like a mandate for militarism to you?

11 thoughts on “Is Romans 13 a mandate for militarism?

  1. Jarred says:

    I’m not sure it applies in your part of the world (though I’d love to know), but one of the things I’ve always found interesting is how here in the United States, the degree to which “submission to government” is pushed by many Christians depends on how they feel about the current government. For example, you heard a lot about how government is appointed by God and how we should submit to it from conservative Christians during the Bush administration. But now that Obama is in charge, many of those same leaders aren’t so keen to bring up their “submit to government” verses and tend to be more likely to back-pedal and come up with reasons why Obama should not be supported — or worse, should be actively be prayed against to call for his complete failure. Which to my mind, just goes to show you that sometimes it’s not so much about what the Bible says but what people want the Bible to say in any given situation. Granted, that’s not just a conservative Christian flaw, either.
    Like I said, I’d be curious to hear whether you’ve seen the same sort of thing in your part of the world.
    And of course, it also raises the question of what to do about those cases in which our governments tend to sponsor, promote, or even institutionalize injustice. Should one try to change said government? If so, by what means? Should they try to find other, more “personal” means of dealing with injustice? Again, by what means?

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  2. Matt Stone says:

    Jarred, the political and religious climate is very different down here. We have less Christians, and those we have are far, far more moderate.
    By way of example, our last conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, who also happened to be a conservative Christian, introduced gun laws so progressive by American standards that I am sure they would freak out many of your Democrats even today. On issues like that, our right is to the left of your left. Though submission to government is taught (and hotly debated if you take a peek over at neobaptist) it would be considered bad taste at best, and idolatrous more likely than not, to back a party from the pulpit in most Christian circles over hear. As for my own opinion, I think its fine to challenge governments, provided its not violently.

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  3. Janet says:

    Gordon has closed the Neobaptist thread now (anticipating a further bun-fight) so I’d better respond to your response here now!
    If you (as a pacifist) accept that some force is a legitimate role of government (eg a police force and a judiciary to enforce laws… very occasionally employing lethal force (say to stop a sniper mid mass murder… try saying that 5 times quickly)… then maybe I’m a pacifist too. If you accept it’s a “necessary evil” to have a defence force (hopefully as a deterrent) rather than engaging in total unilateral disarmament… then maybe I’m a pacifist too. If you accept that in some violent and chaotic situations we are better off sending in peace-keeping (or peace-keeping) forces than watching passively (the massacre in Rwanda comes to mind) then maybe I’m a pacifist too.
    Are these the places you “draw your lines” too?

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  4. Janet says:

    That was supposed to be “peace keeping or peace making”. Must learn to read before I post… especially at 3.30 am (have been woken by hoons honking horns and yelling outside our house… doesn’t bring out my pacifist tendencies I can tell you!!!!)

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  5. Matt Stone says:

    Janet, I have written privately to Gordon and respect his decision to close the thread. I was half anticipating it anyway. Intense conversations like that can be hard to sit with. If anything I hope I have demonstrated that pacifists are not cowardly wimps who’ll run from a fight; that fear is not the foundation of authentic Christian pacifism. Hopefully I have also demonstrated graciousness to most of the opponents, though certainly I struggled with that at different times during it.
    Certainly nothing you said seemly hugely at variance with pacifism. Part of the frustration for me was that many of the participants seemed to be attacking me with prerehersed arguments that had very little resonance with my actual position. I do not deny Romans 13, I do not deny that God ordered wars in the Old Testament, thus I do not reject of all war throughout all history as unjust. Attempts to suggest otherwise were water off a duck’s back.
    Instead my commitment to pacifism is founded on this: the affirmation that, just as worship is reframed by the resurrection, so is war. So, just as we need to read Leviticus through Christocentric lenses, we also need to read Joshua through Christocentric lenses. The refusal of most participants to consider that as a possiblity, or to consider that Christocentric readings of Romans 13 and Joshua needed to be thoughfully refuted for me to be thoughfully refuted, led to an impass.
    Other misunderstandings seemed to arise from the fact that I emphasize the separation of church and state to a much higher degree than most in that conversation were obviously used to. I accept government as God ordained and their policing function as God ordained. But the government is not the church. It is Babylon. That is a crucial issue for me. The government is destined to pass away, it is of this age, so what duty does the Christian have towards propping it up? It is unquestionable that Romans 13 legitimizes government violence to some degree. But to what degree does Romans 13 legitimize Christian participation in that violence? That is a far more debatable question, particularly when the government in question, in Romans 13, worshipped Caesar, and its soldiers went worth in the name of that god. To dip into the Old Testament for a second, God used Pagan nations to discipline Israel many times, but that was never used by the prophets as an argument for propping up Pagan nations.
    This highlights another important point. In in many ways my understanding of Christian pacifism is deeply eschatological. It is not derived from timeless principles but from the trajectory of history revealed by Christ. It leads me to emphasize the distinctions between this age and the age to come, between the government under Caesar and the church under God. I would say it is possible to be “in the government but not of the government”, so police work is not ruled out per se, but the eschatological tensions become more and more acute the more violence is seen as a job government requirement. This tension becomes most acute in the military when two Christians are ordered by their respective governments to kill each other for national security objectives, particularly when the highest virtue is seen to be following the chain of command, not the command of Christ to love one another. Who should command our highest loyalty, Caesar or Christ? In the end it comes down to this: an eye for an eye is just, but it is not gracious, and we are called to be witnesses to the grace of God. What does war bear witness to?
    As for my own aims, there are more modest than they may appear at face value. I do not anticipate unilateral disarmerment till Christ comes. I lay down my sword, and call people to trust in the power of God who fights for us, but I do not expect universal conversion.
    But beyond war I would ask you to consider another problem. Just as just violence theology has been used to legitimize war, it has also been used to legitimize the inquisition. It’s an inconvenient truth.

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  6. alouw says:

    the way I see Romans 13 is as Paul’s showing the early Christians the difference between revolution and anarchy.
    Most early Christians saw the state as an enemy to be loved. The other stubborn interpretation that is used to justify war is Jesus’ clearing of the Temple because they assumed that Jesus having whip was to whip other people when it was probably cracked to get the animals (that are mentioned in one of the versions of this story) out not too mention the gentiles/proselytes that worshipped in the outer temple courts where the women also worshipped. So how much attention should we apply to interpretation especially considering that most secularists believe that it is the narratives/manifestos of most religions that lead most of their adherents to violence?

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  7. Matt Stone says:

    You know, when it comes to the Old Testament kings I think a story that IS relevant to the Romans 13 situation is the conflict between Saul and David. David refused to assassinate Saul even though he was unjustly persecuting him because God had placed Saul in authority. David concluded it wasn’t his place to depose Saul, it was God’s. But David did not see this submission as extending to propping up Saul’s regime, in fact David significantly distanced himself from it.
    Notice how Paul’s argument runs in Romans 12 and 13: love your enemies, leave room for God’s wrath, submit to Roman authority, even as you distance yourself from Roman debauchery. Key verses are Romans 12:12, 12:14, 12:17, 12:19, 13:1, 13:7. Then think back to the start of Paul’s letter to the Romans, his talk of their wickedness in 1:18-32.
    Where in the story of David’s submission to Saul is a command to prop up Saul’s regime? Where in Paul’s letter to the Romans is a command to prop up the regime of the Roman god-empiror by supplying soldiers fight under him?

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  8. Matt Stone says:

    Alouw, yes you are right to raise the whipping incident. I have heard that used sometimes. It is interesting to read the actual verse to see what it actually says: “So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” (John 2:15) Difficult to establish the “all” refers to anyone other than the sheep and cattle. But for the sake of argument, suppose it did. Still a non-leathal weapon. Still difficult to use it as a definitive argument for violent support of authority, given this was directed against the authorities, as a prophecy against them, and was one of the principle incidents that motivated the authorities to try and kill him. It seems to me the imperialist Christendom reading can only be achieved by ignoring the eschatological context, the political context and the textual context. Amazing what you can get the Bible to say with cherry picking, but take not of the context and the Christendom reading begins to unravel. You touch on a puzzle however, how do emergents who affirm Christian soldiering counter the Atheist accusation that religion leads to war? Do they have a counter argument?

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  9. Matt Stone says:

    Excellent article.
    “If we are in Christ we cannot be Christ-killers.”
    “It is the Gospels and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that is the ‘hermeneutical key’, the interpretative lens, that we need [to understand the Old Testament].”
    Absolutely

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