Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed (Rom 13:1–7).
It is a fact that, in Romans 13 Paul calls the magistrate a “minister of God” (θεοῦ γὰρ διάκονός ἐστιν), and that he says nothing about the magistrate acknowledging the lordship of Christ. What we must do next is determine the significance of that fact. When on social media, in the context of the debate over so-called Christian Nationalism, I have pointed out this fact, respondents have objected: 1) This is a “red letter” argument. This seems to be a suggestion that to note the absence of certain language in Paul is a form of theological liberalism; 2) This is not the way Reformed Christians read the Bible; and 3) It is an argument from silence.
Let us consider this question. By observing what Paul did and did not say in Romans 13, I intend to point out that Paul did not make Caesar’s legitimacy contingent upon his acknowledgment of, as the Covenanters say, “the crown rights of King Jesus,” (i.e., his Mediatorial reign over the state) nor did he make a theocratic argument, therefore he did not ask or expect the civil magistrate to enforce Christian orthodoxy.1
The Apostle Paul was a neither a Covenanter nor a theocrat. He understood the progress of revelation and the history of redemption differently than theocrats and Covenanters. He saw the Mosaic (and hence the theocratic) epoch of redemptive history, the “old covenant” (2 Cor 3:14) as a “ministry. . . of the letter” (2 Cor 3:6–7). It was an epoch whose glory was “fading” (2 Cor 3:7). It was a “ministry of condemnation” (2 Cor 3:9) and an epoch that is “passing away” (v. 13). Hebrews described the old covenant as “becoming old” and as “nigh unto vanishing away” (Heb 8: 13; ASV). Moses, he argued, was a “servant” in God’s house but Christ is the Son, and therefore the heir and owner of God’s house (Heb 3:5–6). Indeed, the whole old covenant, the entire Mosaic epoch pivoted on the Levitical priesthood (Heb 7:11–14). When the priesthood changed—and it has!—”there is necessarily a change in the law as well” (Heb 7:12).
The Westminster Divines understood this movement of redemptive history and revelation. This is precisely why they confessed in chapter 19:
3. Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament.
4. To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.
The various strands of the TheoRecon traditions never quite accepted that the Mosaic theocracy has expired. To be sure, even those who did accept it formally were regularly inconsistent with that principle. Virtually all of the orthodox Reformed writers of the classical period assumed a theocratic (not theonomic) principle and thus, though they recognized the movement of redemptive history and the expiration of the national people, they saw no contradiction to their theology by re-asserting that there is a national people (e.g., Scotland) and that the magistrate indeed ought to enforce religious orthodoxy.
Let us address serially the three objections to my argument from silence:
1) It is not theologically liberal to seek to follow God’s inspired, inerrant, and infallible, Word where it speaks and does not speak. This objection is a non-starter. Not every anti-theocrat is a theological liberal and further, theological liberals have been theocrats and so-called Christian Nationalists.
2) It is difficult to understand the objection that “this is not the way Reformed people read the Bible” because it is untrue. I am seeking to do what we have always done since the Reformation: interpret God’s Word as intended by the divine and human authors by accounting for the original context (the Roman Empire), the original human author (the Apostle Paul), and the original recipients, the congregation of Rome.
This is exactly how Calvin approached the book of Romans. I have reached some different conclusions than he did, e.g., on the continuing legitimacy of theocracy, but it is entirely possible to use the same hermeneutic and the same exegetical methods and reach different conclusions. Anyone who has read widely in the Reformed commentaries on Romans can see that.2
Paul wrote Romans just after Nero’s accession to the throne. As of the writing of Romans it was not clear how depraved and murderous Nero would become but Paul was not naïve about the nature of the Empire or about the nature of those who occupied its throne. He wrote to an ethnically mixed congregation evidently struggling with a variety of issues. Since the congregation was situated in the capitol of the Empire it was entirely appropriate for him to speak to the nature of our relationship with the magistrate. Some in the congregation had direct connections to those in civil authority. Paul’s teaching was a timely blessing since not many years after Paul wrote Romans, the congregation would face a severe test: the murder and martyrdom of several of their members in a horrific manner. They would be covered in pitch and set on fire ostensibly as punishment for their alleged role in starting a fire in the city. In fact, it was not the Christians who set the first. It is much more likely that Nero was responsible for the fire.
When we consider the context into which and in which Paul was writing, the absence of any qualification in Paul’s characterization of the magistrate (including Nero) as a “minister of God” is startling. It was intended to be startling. The way some speak we might think that there is some explicit declaration in the New Testament that Nero is a new King David and every state is a new national Israel. Not only do we not find such teaching in the New Testament, but we also do not find any expectation in the Old Testament itself that there will be another Israel or that other nations have the same standing before God as did Israel and her king. The idea that other nations may be in covenant with God or that other magistrates occupy the special place that the Davidic kings once occupied is and always has been a theory in search of a biblical justification.
Indeed, the New Testament generally says relatively little about the civil magistrate so when it does speak to the magistrate it seems as though we ought to pay attention and yet there is a persistent tendency among some practically to excise Romans 13 or to pretend that it does not exist. I have long noticed this among advocates of theonomy and it seems as if our modern theocrats have adopted a similar stance to this portion of God’s Word. Even if Romans 13 were actually absent, the other places in the New Testament that speak to the Christian’s attitude and posture, the teaching is clear enough.
Paul teaches us to pay our taxes and to submit to the magistrate generally. Our Lord himself taught the same thing:
Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away (Matthew 22:17–22).
Implied in this teaching is the reality that we live in a twofold kingdom. We render to God what is God’s (our heart, soul, mind, and strength). We have God’s picture on us, as it were, i.e., we are image bearers and therefore we render ourselves to God. The equally clear implication in this text is that the coin is Caesar’s (it has his image on it) and therefore, when he demands, we give it to him.
Peter taught the same principle as our Lord and as Paul does in Romans 13:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor (1 Peter 2:13–17).
This is the very same teaching, in substance, as Romans 13. We are in a covenant of works with the civil magistrate. If we obey the civil laws, instituted by pagans, as far as Peter knows, we have nothing to fear. If the emperor acts unjustly, he will give an account to God for his transgressions. When we live as Peter instructs, we give a good witness and we demonstrate by our lives that the lies told about us by others (e.g., that we are social revolutionaries) are untrue.
In contrast to the situation to which Paul wrote Romans, by the time Peter wrote 1 and 2 Peter the martyrdom of the Christians in Rome is close or, in the case of 2 Peter, recent history. Still, we have nary a word from Peter or Jesus about the legitimacy of the magistrate being contingent upon his submission to the mediatorial Kingship of Christ nor have we even a hint that the magistrate ought to institute Christianity as the state religion or enforce religious orthodoxy.
Outside of Romans 13 Paul teaches just what we have seen so far:
. . . I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way (1 Tim 2:1–2).
We are to pray for rulers, even brutally unjust rulers such as Nero. Paul’s goal for us was never the transformation of society but only that we may “lead a peaceful and quiet life. . . .” Some would condemn this as “quietism,” “Pietism,” “escapism,” and even as “Anabaptist” as if any non-theocrat is a quietist, Pietist, escapist, or Anabaptist.
3) The most serious objection to my argument is that it is an argument from silence. It is true that arguments from silence are frequently problematic but they are not necessarily or always so. Already we have seen that there is a discernible pattern in the way our Lord and his disciples spoke about the Christian’s relations to the magistrate. Were in the case there were some evidence in the New Testament in favor of theonomy, theocracy, or the mediatorial kingship of Christ, then perhaps the critic would have a case but when there is a consistent pattern of silence about theocracy, theonomy, and the mediatorial kingship of Christ, then the burden of proof seems to lie with those who would have us believe that the New Testament or the Old Testament interpreted the way the New Testament does, would have Christians to be theocrats, theonomists, or covenanters.
So, what about Paul’s silence in Romans 13 in particular? It would seem as though if there were any place in Paul’s writings where he might have been expected to articulate one of the three TheoRecon views, it would be there—but it simply is not there. Well, Paul is not shy about teaching us what he thinks is important. Let us ask and answer some diagnostic questions:
- Do we know Paul’s theology? Yes.
- Do we know his view of Scripture, hermeneutics, the history of redemption, God, man, Christ, salvation, church, sacraments, and the last things? Yes.
He does speak to Christ and culture and, in Romans 13, he does speak about the magistrate and our responsibilities to him so, he is not silent about the issue. In other words, when Paul thinks something is significant, he writes about it. Therefore Paul’s silence about Caesar’s role in establishing the church and enforcing Christian orthodoxy is significant. We are not abusing Romans 13 (or 1 Tim 2 or 1 Pet 2) by observing what they do and do not say.
One final note. Some of my American readers may worry that I am calling into question the legitimacy of the American Revolution. I am not. The basis of the American Revolution lies, in part, in Calvin understanding and application of the fifth commandment. He articulated a doctrine of the lesser magistrate (Institutes 4.20). The Continental Congress was a lesser magistrate. The American Revolution was not the French Revolution. It was not a radical, populist, egalitarian, institution-destroying revolution. The American Revolution intended to recover and preserve liberties and divinely established social institutions. Natural law, which most theonomists reject, and some theocrats and Covenanters seem to overlook as a category, also provides part of the justification for the formation of the American Republic.
In short, there is a place for resisting tyrants, but we have to deal squarely with Romans 13 and other passages by observing what they do and do not say, and certainly they give no encouragement to the theocrats, theonomists, Covenanters, and Christian Nationalists.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
1. Covenanter is a historical designation of a movement that began in Scotland. It has roots in the Scottish Reformation in the sixteenth century but it is typically used to describe those who opposed the attempt by James I/VI and Charles I to impose episcopacy, the Book of Common Prayer, and the English crown as the head of the Scottish Kirk upon the Church (the Kirk) of Scotland. In response, the Covenanters drafted and published the Solemn League and Covenant (the National Covenant) which declared that no magistrate, who refuses to acknowledge the crown rights of King Jesus, is legitimate. The National Covenant was signed by thousands of Scots and contributed to the Bishops Wars (c. 1640) and to the convocation of the Westminster Assembly of Divines in London during the English Civil War. The Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America is a representative denomination with roots in this tradition. The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church also has roots in this tradition.
2. For more on Romans see the resource page including the current Heidelcast series on Romans.
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