From 1980, when I first came into contact with Reformed theology, I also came into contact with theonomists. As a naïve evangelical I took Romans 13 to God’s Word and as part of the New Testament authoritative for believers in a way that the Mosaic ceremonial and civil laws were no longer. The theonomists with whom I talked, however, regularly dismissed Romans 13 almost as if it was not to be regarded as canonical. They did so because it was almost impossible to reconcile it with their view of the civil magistrate and the theory of the abiding validity of the Mosaic civil laws in exhaustive detail. Some of those theonomists were also Libertarians—it was from the theonomists that I first learned about Ron Paul. On the latter’s connections to the Christian Reconstruction movement see Michael J. McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
More recently, overt resistance to Romans 13 seems to be coming from what has come to be called the “social justice movement” among left-leaning evangelicals one of whom recently declared on social media, “abolish the police.” Such sentiment is flatly contrary to the Word of God and certainly as contrary to the Reformed confession of the Scriptures. That such rhetoric is being mooted by ostensibly Reformed folk reveals how profoundly some have become alienated from even the most rudimentary knowledge of Scripture.
Romans 13 says:
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, “you shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Rom 13:1–9; NASB95).
1 Peter 2:13–20 also says:
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king. Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God” (NASB95) .
These are just two of the places to which one might appeal to establish what the New Testament says about how Christians are to regard the civil magistrate but they are more than sufficient for any reasonable person. Let us begin at the beginning.
Paul says literally, “Every soul (ψυχὴ) be in submission (ὑποτασσέσθω) to the authorities (ἐξουσίαις).” The form of the verb is imperative. It is not even a hortatory subjunctive, i.e., “ideally, every soul ought to be…”. No, the imperative means this is a direct command. Paul goes on to say that there are no authorities in the world which are not ordained by God. As he wrote Romans 13, young Nero was on the throne. He was an ugly little reprobate who disgusted even his fellow pagans. At this stage he was not quite as revolting as he would come to be but neither did Paul revise his instruction. It is not as if Paul thought, “Well, we should submit to Nero since he seems reasonable but if he begins to put on women’s clothing and to engage in gross sexual immorality with other men, all bets are off.” Paul had contact with the Roman authorities for years until a Roman sword had contact with the back of his neck as he knelt on the Appian Way, outside of Rome. He did not revise his teaching in Romans 13 because he was no Pope making up doctrine as he went along. He was an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the Spirit was inspiring God’s holy, inerrant Word.
Paul literally (and I mean this literally, not figuratively) taught that every civil authority was put into place by God. That is what he taught in v. 1 of Romans 13. For Paul, anyone who resists civil authority is resisting the institution of God. Americans will struggle with this of course but Paul did not want the Christians to be revolutionaries. He wanted them to live in peace with the pagans, to obey the civil law, and to pay their taxes. There are exceptions of course. The Apostles were prepared to submit to the pagan and Jewish civil authorities but they drew the line at being asked to disobey God. They said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). In such a case, the Christians were prepared to suffer the consequence of their peaceful civil disobedience whether it be prison (as happened) or martyrdom. One certainly did not find the Christians plotting the violent overthrow of the Romans as one found the non-Christian Jews at various times in 1st and 2nd centuries. One certainly did not find them marching in the streets shouting, “No justice, no peace” nor did one find them marching and shouting, “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon.” Such conduct is gross sin and should be subject to church discipline in hopes of bringing about repentance.
According to Paul, those who disobey civil authorities ungodly will receive condemnation (v. 2). We are, he implies, in a sort of covenant of works with the civil authorities. If we obey the civil laws we have nothing to fear since the very function of the civil magistrate is to punish those who break the civil laws. If Christians are not breaking the laws, if they are submitting to the authorities, they have no reason to fear the authorities. He even calls the civil authority God’s minister or servant (διάκονός) for our good. We know that he is referring to the civil authorities (and not to ecclesiastical) because he bears the sword (μάχαιραν). This was a figure of speech grounded in a reality.
Nero did not himself “bear the sword” any more than Gov. Brown or President Trump execute the punishments stipulated by law but Nero, Brown, and Trump each have officers sworn to uphold the constitution and the civil laws of the US and the State of California etc. There were soldiers charged with carrying a literal sword and of using that literal sword to enforce peace and to punish law breakers. They policed public order and enforced peace. To say “abolish the police” is to contradict the explicit teaching of the Apostle Paul.
We can see from vv. 8–9 that the law they are actually enforcing is what we call the second table of the decalogue (the ten commandments). Contra the theonomists and theocrats, we have not a shred of evidence that, after the expiration of the civil state of the Jews (See WCF 19.4) the civil magistrate is authorized to enforce only the second table. Thus, he quotes the 5th, 6th 8th, and 10th commandments. No, Paul was not abrogating the 1st table nor was he eliminating the 7th and 9th commandments but he was giving representative examples from the second table.
He knew full well that Rome had a pagan religious orthodoxy and that Christians would suffer under it, as he did and has other believers would. They would suffer and be martyred for failing to denounce Christ and for failing to say “Caesar is Lord” (in place of “Jesus is Lord”). He knew that they would be unjust arrested, tortured, and, in some cases crucified (as Peter was) and burned to death as were Christians in the mid-60s AD in Rome. Nero is still God’s minister ordained to enforce the 2nd table of the moral or natural law. Above all others, Christians ought to recognize God’s authority in Caesar as God’s minister.
It was with this clear teaching in mind that the Apostle Peter could positively chastise the believers in Asia Minor for even considering violating the civil laws and thus bringing the churches and the Christian faith into disrepute. He knew that the Christian slaves suffered abuse at the hands of their pagan masters. He knew that the civil authorities could be arbitrary and unjust but he commanded them to obey the civil authorities and not to bring shame upon the church and the faith by violating the second table. Peter is relatively merciless to those who do stupid things like stealing or murdering or resisting arrest. He distinguished clearly between Christians who violated civil law and received due punishment (e.g., jail and a beating) and those who were persecuted for righteousness.
In fact, the early Christians were known for their submission to civil authorities and for their civil righteousness. The only “crime” of which the Christians were guilty in Asia Minor c. 114 during that persecution under Trajan was that they admitted to being Christians, that they would not denounce Jesus, and that they would not say, “Caesar is Lord” in place of Jesus. For that they were put to death. A few decades later the Christian philosopher-theologian and apologist, Justin Martyr would say to the civil authorities, “Come and investigate us. You will find that our law is higher than your law and we obey both.”
One cannot read either Romans 13 or 1 Peter 2 and think that it is just or proper for a Christian to say “abolish the police” or any other such sentiment. As I acknowledged above, this is difficult for Americans, who have a long history of rebellion against civil authorities. The American Revolution was a violent rebellion against arguably unjust civil authorities. The best defense of which is probably Calvin’s “lesser magistrates” theory (Institutes 4.20). Under this theory, the people themselves may not revolt but “lesser magistrates,” who have authority from God under Romans 13 (and natural law) have a duty to resist tyrants. Arguably, the delegated assembly in the Continental Congress had authority to resist Great Britain but however one comes out on that difficult question, the clear teaching of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 remain and “abolish the police” is entirely inconsistent with it.