Was Jeff Sessions Right? Evangelicals, The State and the Law: The Use and Misuse of Romans 13

On Thursday 14th June 2018 the US Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the Trump administration’s policy of allowing migrant children to be removed from their parents at the Mexican border by quoting Romans 13 on Christian obedience to the State. He was later supported in his analysis by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Since both Sessions and Huckabee Sanders are identified with Evangelicalism, it seemed timely to republish here the following paper, which originally appeared as ‘Church, Society and State: Romans 13 in Evangelical Practice’ in my edited volume of essays, Movement for Change: Evangelicals and Social Transformation (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2004). I have not attempted to update the paper specifically to consider Sessions’ comments and the Mexican border issue, but I trust that readers will draw their own inferences from it as they contemplate the significance of his and Huckabee Sanders’ theological rationale for Trump’s approach. 


1. Evangelicals and the Debate about the State

Sooner or later, Christians who are serious about social transformation must work out their relationship to the State. They had to do so in the early Church, as they lived, preached and worshipped under a pagan Roman Empire. Momentously, they had to do so again in the fourth century, as that Empire turned from antagonist to sponsor under the patronage of Constantine. Arguments about this Constantinian model abound in current theological discourse. Not only is there disagreement about the degree to which British civic society in particular can still be described as a ‘Christian’; there is considerable dispute about whether such institutionalization of the gospel was ever a good thing in the first place. Developing a critique opened up in the early 1960s by D.L. Munby’s radical attack on T.S. Eliot’s conservative treatise The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), robust disavowal of the Constantinian paradigm has latterly flowed from the pens of, among others, Alistair Kee, Nigel Wright and Stuart Murray (Eliot 1939; Munby 1962; Kee 1982; Wright 1996:103-119, 2001.) On the other side, while hardly oblivious to the problems inherent in the Constantinian tradition, Lesslie Newbigin, Paul Avis and Wesley Kerr have sought to offer a more constructive account of the ‘Christian State’, and of its persistence in the civic institutions of the United Kingdom (Newbigin 1989; Avis 2001; Kerr 2002).

In what follows, however, I want to suggest that merely ‘taking sides’ on Constantine and his legacy will only get us so far. Whatever traces of Constantinianism persist in Western culture, the rise and dominance of modern secular democracy, with its de facto distinctions between Church and State power and its pluralist attitude to religion and religious freedom, has forced most Western Christians to adopt a somewhat different approach. While they might no longer be able to rely on the State actively to promote and still less fund their mission, the relatively benign political circumstances in which most Western Christians now operate have encouraged them to work for what Newbigin termed a more ‘gospel friendly’ society by gradualist means – through the proliferation of essentially localised mission projects and consciously non-partisan charitable initiatives. Moreover, as John Wolffe has demonstrated, this gradualist approach has especially characterised the social mission of British Evangelicals since the mid-Nineteenth century – often with impressive results (Wolffe 1995).

Yet this accommodation to an increasingly secular State has also had its drawbacks. As Kathleen Heasman notes in her study of their widespread social work during the Victorian era, Evangelicals have often justly been accused of failing to follow up their distinctive grass roots activism with grander, more definite social visions and programmes (Heasman 1962: 293). Or as John Wolffe puts it, Evangelical engagement with the world since that time has most typically been ‘pervasive’ but ‘unfocused’ (Wolffe 1995:7). The same, though, could not quite be said of the United States. There, the picture is more complex. America was settled by devout Puritans whose successors developed the magisterial Christian social doctrine of their nation’s ‘Manifest Destiny’ – a doctrine whose tenets have resurfaced more recently in the worldview of the Moral Majority, and in the theology known as Reconstructionism (Gushee 2000). Even so, the US Constitution’s explicit, ideological, root-and-branch commitment to the separation of Church and State has usually meant that in practice, such institutionalization of the Gospel as has occurred has still, at bottom, tended to take place through what James Davison Hunter calls ‘voluntarism’ (Davison Hunter 1923: 25, cf. Wacker 1995).

For Evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic, such gradualist and voluntarist approaches have reflected a typically conservative theology of the State – a theology which has been framed in response to what might be termed the ‘benevolent neutrality’ of modern Western governments towards the Church. It would be mistaken, however, to view this relationship complacently. Indeed, such complacency would be particularly misplaced in the United Kingdom. In his analysis of the decline of Christian allegiance and public influence the UK, Callum Brown concludes that ‘the culture of Christianity has gone in the Britain of the new millennium’ and adds that ‘Britain is showing the world how religion as we have known it can die’ (Brown 2001). While the finer points of Brown’s empirical interpretations are open to debate, there can be little doubt that the privileged position enjoyed by the Church in British life is being progressively diminished. Granted, what is being put in its place in the present political situation is hardly an atheistic or apostate political tyranny; it is not even particularly secularist in its ideology. Rather, as Prince Charles has noticed, it tends towards a pluralisation of faith rather than systematic exclusion of ‘the Faith’ – a willingness to endorse ‘faith-based initiatives’ rather than ‘churches’ per se; a diversification of ‘faith schools’ rather than an outright, French-style ban on public religious education.

Now on one level this pluralisation can be seen as an extension of those basic religious liberties which, until at least the late Nineteenth Century, were denied to many Evangelicals in this country – and specifically to those from Nonconformist traditions. Yet as Christians come to terms with this pluralising climate and prepare to take their place on an ever-expanding ‘guest list’ of interest groups and ‘community organisations’, it will do us no harm to contemplate what might happen should such relatively benign pluralism transmute into a more malignant form of marginalisation, and even ostracisation, from public life and civic discourse. To extend the dinner party metaphor: in a postmodern context, the more the State-as-Host deems moral absolutes, exclusive claims to salvation, proselytization, street evangelism, broadcast sermons and theologically specific employment policies to be ‘intolerant’, ‘discriminatory’ and even ‘illegal’, the more we are likely to offend that Host, and the less likely we are to be invited to the table.

When faced with such scenarios, Evangelicals can, of course, draw on an honourable heritage of civil critique, and indeed, of civil disobedience. Article 16 of the Augsburg Confession (1530) might have enshrined Martin Luther’s doctrine of the State as a ‘Second Kingdom’ ordained by God ‘for the sake of good order’ and might thereby have insisted that the State is not to be ‘overthrown’; but even this most magisterial of Reformation texts still admits an exception for cases in which the civil authority actively coerces Christians to sin. In such cases, says the Article, we must do as Peter and the apostles did in Acts 5:29: ‘we must’, as the text quotes it, ‘obey God rather than man’.

Like Luther, Zwingli and Calvin both insist that the State is a positive divine ‘ordinance’ (Calvin Institutes 4.20.4; Zwingli, Von göttlicher und menslicher Gerechtigkeit, pp.74ff). Calvin, in fact, stresses that it is God’s ‘minister’ (Institutes 4.20.4). As Eberhard Busch has noted, however, these two foundational Reformed theologians adopted a more radical stance than Luther on the accountability of the State to Christian standards and values. In the simplest terms, ‘Luther tended toward the idea that the government is God’s servant because and insofar as it is the government. Zwingli and Calvin, on the other hand, tended toward the idea that the government is the government when and insofar as it is [or functions as] God’s servant.’ So, for example, Calvin expressly refused to identify the State directly and automatically with God’s will, ‘as if God had made over his right to mortal men, giving them rule over mankind! Or as if earthly power were diminished when it is subjected to its Author!’ (Ezechiel und Daniel, p.385).

While these divergent Lutheran and Reformed emphases are detectable in various modern evangelical concepts of Church-State relations – with Luther’s influence most obvious in Anglican evangelical defences of Establishment and Calvin and Zwingli fuelling the public theologies of Newbigin and a Dutch Reformed school shaped by the thought of Abraham Kuyper – it is probably fair to say that among Western Evangelicals today another, more radical paradigm is gaining most ground. This has its roots not in the magisterial Reformers, but in the Anabaptists, and is closely related to that disavowal of the Constantine which I mentioned earlier.

Anabaptist theology and ethics find seminal expression in the Schleitheim Confession of 1527. Here, the general problem of Church-State relations is crystallised in the specific question of whether it is right for a Christian to serve as a magistrate. To this question, for the reasons I have cited, Luther, Calvin and Zwingli would have replied Yes. Schleitheim’s clear response, however, is No. The reasons given are as follows

…it is not appropriate to serve as a magistrate because of these points: The government magistracy is according to the flesh, but the Christians’ is according to the Spirit; their houses and dwelling remain in this world, but the Christians’ are in heaven; the weapons of their conflict and war are carnal and against the flesh only, but the Christians’ weapons are spiritual, against the fortification of the devil. (cit. Villa-Vicencio, 1986:75)

While to many 21st century Evangelicals steeped in the theology of social involvement this must seem wildly dualistic, Anabaptism cannot fairly be accused of ‘otherworldliness’, if by that is meant a deliberate withdrawal from society and community. Rather, its project was to constitute the Church as an alternative society, a distinctive community which through separation from the State and its power-structures would free itself to bear witness to that State and, where necessary, to oppose it on Christian grounds.

Represented most influentially in modern times by the Americans John Howard Yoder, Ron Sider, Walter Wink, Stanley Hauerwas and Jim Wallis, and in the UK by Nigel Wright, the influence of this ‘anabaptist’ paradigm is shown in the fact that by no means all who propound it are themselves members of historic Anabaptist communities. As articulated in Yoder’s classic treatise The Politics of Jesus, this model self-consciously rejects what it sees as the overly compliant orientation of the Church towards the State in classical Protestantism (pp.193-4). Instead, it advocates renunciation of what Yoder calls the ‘interplay of egoisms’ so often represented by the State, and most distinctively demonstrates its critical distance from government in its fundamental commitment to pacifism. While Yoder himself has been significantly discredited since his death by revelations of sexual impropriety, his writing has had a key influence on much evangelical thinking in this area, and still warrants quoting as such:

The place of government in the providential designs of God are not such that our duty would be simply to do whatever it says … The claims of Caesar are to be measured by whether what he claims is due to him is part of the obligation to love. Love in turn is…defined by the fact that it does no harm. In this context, it therefore becomes impossible to maintain that [our relationship to the State] can include a moral obligation under certain circumstances to do harm to others at the behest of government. (p.208)

It is telling that Yoder’s words here form part of a lengthy discussion of a specific biblical text which, more than any other, has exercised theologians, across the spectrum of Evangelicalism and beyond, on the vital question of when and how it might be acceptable for a Christian to oppose, criticise, protest against and, in the final analysis, disobey the State.

The text in question is Romans 13:1-7, and no consideration of Church-State relations, or parachurch-State relations, or Christian agency-State relations, can get very far without addressing it. Luther, Calvin and Zwingli’s discussions of the State have it prominently in view, as do all the historic and modern sources I have cited. It is particularly pertinent for Evangelicals here and now, as we contemplate what it might mean to live with Christian integrity in a State whose attitudes, actions and laws might conceivably run counter to our most basic convictions.

With these considerations in mind, the rest of this paper will examine how Christians on the ground in three such hostile contexts have interpreted Paul’s words to the Romans. I do not pretend that these three situations are exactly comparable to what British Evangelicals might face in the coming years. Indeed, the situations in question are surely more grave than any we might dare envisage for Britain in the foreseeable future. Yet I would suggest that they can still function as paradigm-cases for this whole subject – templates from which we can draw certain core principles, even if the precise tactics deployed in each instance may not be so obviously transferable.

The examples I shall examine are: Germany under Nazism, Eastern Europe under Communism, and South Africa under Apartheid. As I consider these examples, it will be salutary to bear in mind that Hitler rose to power in a highly pluralised, democratic political climate, having exploited the proliferation of parties, and the consequent dissipation of authority, which pertained in the Germany of the 1930s. It will be salutary, too, to bear in mind that Communism was founded on a mass ‘democratic’ ideal. Then again, it will also be worth remembering that Apartheid arose out of a devoutly, biblically literate, but woefully misguided ideal of Christian governance and the godly State.


2. Romans 13 in Cultural and Canonical Context

In seeking a biblical understanding of Church-State relations, we do not come to Scripture in a vacuum. Whether consciously or not, we approach this subject against a tradition of political-philosophical thinking which stretches from Plato through Thomas More, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, to modern scholars such as Kenneth Dyson and Robert Nozick. For our purposes here, however, Peter Goodrich’s definition provides a useful signpost. The State, writes Goodrich, may be described as ‘The political organization of a body of people for the maintenance of order within its territory by coercion, or, more loosely, the body of people so organized or its territory.’ The organisational principle which lies at the heart of this definition goes hand in hand with what we have come to call ‘government’, while the territorial principle relates closely to the concept ‘nationhood’.

Although the biblical narrative does not present anything quite as compressed or refined as this definition, there are a number of biblical texts which could be construed as pointing to the role of the State in the providence God (e.g. Judges 9; 1 Sam 7:7-12; 1 Kings 12; 21; Luke 4:6-7; Mark 1:13ff; Titus 3:1; 1 Tim 2:1-2). While it is far from easy to construct a definitive political theology from such references, it does appear that once Israel is constituted as a nation, some fairly consistent principles for government emerge. These may be identified under the general heading of ‘public stewardship’. Furthermore, it is crucial for us to note from the outset that where such principles are flouted, they are seen warrant legitimate prophetic dissent. Such principles include:

The just re-distribution of wealth. E.g. Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22; 25:1ff; Deut. 24:19-22; Prov. 31:8-9; cf. Amos 5:11ff.; Isa 58: 6-14)

The restraint and fair punishment of violent crime. Ex. 21:12-36; Nu 35:16-34; Dt 19:1-13; Jos 20:1-9; cf. Ezk 18:10ff.

The protection of aliens and strangers. Exod 12:48-9, 22:21, 23:9; Lev. 19:33-4; Deut 1:16; 24:14, 17; cf Ezk 22:29, 47:22-3; Mal 3:5.

Written against the backdrop of a hostile Roman empire, the New Testament more consistently addresses the dilemmas faced by believers whose whole value-system may diverge radically from that of their political rulers. Jesus’ stark contrast between prevailing imperial government and the government of God’s kingdom (Matt 20:20-5), coupled with his bare-minimum regard for Caesar (Mark 12:13ff) and his obstreperous response to Pontius Pilate (John 18:33-7), suggest at best a cautious and critical stance towards the State.

Given the dominant ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ at work in the prophetic and Christological texts just cited, it must be acknowledged that Paul appears strikingly conservative by comparison (cf. Titus 3:1). He might have suffered under Rome (2 Cor. 11:23), but he also took pride in his Roman citizenship, and was not averse to using it as a badge of respectability (Acts 16:35-40; 22:22-9). Nowhere, however, is this apparent conservatism more apparent, nor more thoroughly expounded, than in Romans 13:1-7.


3. Romans 13:1-7: Exegetical Issues

Paul’s advice on submission to government in Romans 13 has aroused deep passions among biblical critics. J.C. O’Neill wrote in 1975 that ‘These seven verses have caused more unhappiness and misery in the Christian East and West than any other seven verses in the New Testament’. Indeed, he refused to believe that they could be Pauline, or even Christian, and attributed them instead to a Stoic source (Morris 1988:457n1). James Kallas was less dismissive, but still regarded them as an interpolation (1964-5:365-374). On the other hand, after careful consideration, Ernst Käsemann concluded that there was ‘no reason to dispute the authenticity of the text’ (1980:351). Käsemann’s grounds for this judgment resemble those given by the majority of other commentators who reckon that Paul’s words can be fitted logically into the context of the letter.

Firstly, there is the obvious point that Rome was the capital city of the empire, and that Paul would probably have felt a special obligation to comment on the Church-State dynamic when addressing the Christians there (Käsemann 1980:350; Cranfield 1985:322; Morris 1988:457-8).

Secondly, although the ‘interpolation’ theory is rendered plausible by a tonal link between 12:21 and 13:8, it is just as likely that Paul discusses civil government here precisely to qualify the prohibition on private vengeance expressed in the preceding verses (12:17-21). This is to say, while individuals should not ‘repay evil for evil’, Paul is nonetheless keen to underline the responsibility of government for the trial and punishment of crime (especially in vv. 3-4) (Morris 1988:457).

Thirdly, Marcus Borg, Everett Harrison and Leon Morris all seriously entertain the idea that Paul is here trying to restrain the radical theocratic tendencies of certain Jews within the Roman congregation. One strand of Israelite tradition had undoubtedly refused to acknowledge any pagan ruler (Deut 17:15). Jewish Christians in Rome might have cited recent oppression by the emperor Claudius as reason enough to adopt such a stance (cf. Acts 18:2). It might even be that a militant group has adopted a strategy similar to that of the Palestinian Zealots, and that Paul is seeking to dissuade them from outright revolutionary action against the authorities (Borg 1972-3:205-18; Harrison 1976: 136; Morris 1988:458). It would seem that he does this mainly from a conviction that such action would detract from the Church’s evangelistic imperative (11:14ff; cf. 1 Tim 2:1ff.).

Fourthly, given Paul’s earlier attack on antinomianism (7:7-25 cf. 14:13), and his commitment to structure and stability in the Church (1 Cor 11:3ff), it is not entirely surprising that he might want to extend his defence of ‘good order’ into the more general realm of state authority (Käsemann 1980:357).

Fifthly, it is conceivable that Paul is providing an extended commentary on the saying of Jesus which would become Mark 12:17: ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s’. Indeed, the common background of debt and tax (vv. 6-7) would support this inference (Käsemann 1980: 352; Cranfield 1976:324)

These may be sound reasons to take Paul’s words seriously within their immediate context, but we still need to consider more specifically how those words might have been intended by Paul, and how they might have been understood by those to whom he was writing. For our purposes, it will suffice to highlight a few core terms – terms which illustrate the main issues arising from the text as a whole.

3.1 Core Terms

Everyone (v.1). There is considerable disagreement among commentators as to how widely the apostle’s teaching is meant to be applied. Some see pasa psyche here denoting ‘all people everywhere’ – a reading inferred from the fact that Paul goes on in a universalising vein to insist that ‘there is no authority except that which God has established’ (e.g. Morris 1988:460). Others confine the meaning of this phrase to ‘every believer’, given that the principles of submission Paul proceeds to espouse would only have made sense to those who had themselves submitted to Christ, and to one another, as Christians (Harrison 1976: 36). Others confine the meaning of the text simply to ‘every Christian in Rome’ on the grounds that Paul is addressing the very specific and very volatile situation in that city following Claudius’ persecution (Cranfield 1976:320; Käsemann 1980:355).

Submit (v.1). This is probably the most crucial term in the whole passage. Does submission mean acceptance of every state policy, or is there room for dissent? If dissent is possible, when exactly does it become legitimate?

Between all but the most conservative scholars there is at least agreement that submission must mean more than mere uncritical ‘subjection’ or ‘obedience’. Wilckens and others have pointed out that a form of hypotassesthe is used in 1 Corinthians 16:16 and Ephesians 5:21, which denotes the reciprocal obligation of believers in a Christian fellowship. Obedience, by contrast, cannot be reciprocal! Cranfield broadly represents the mainstream when he states that ‘Paul is enjoining…no uncritical obedience to whatever command the civil authority may decide to give, but the recognition that one has been placed below the authority of God’. Cranfield goes on to stress that ‘the Christian’s ‘subjection’ to the authorities is limited to respecting them, obeying them insofar as such obedience does not conflict with God’s laws, and seriously and responsibly disobeying them when it does’ (1976:321). This is, of course, extrapolating somewhat from the text itself. Still, most serious critics cite the obvious Acts 5:29 as supporting evidence for such a view: ‘”We must obey God rather than persons!”’ (e.g. Harrison 1976:136; Morris 1988:462). Quite when or how a civil authority might be deemed to forfeited God’s mandate remains, however, a moot point.

Servant (v.4). The key issue here is whether the interpretative emphasis is placed: a) on the fact that servants are authoritatively appointed and empowered for certain tasks, or b) whether they are accountable and subject as servants to the one who engaged them. In either case, Morris is right to infer from Paul that civil authority is delegated by, and secondary to, divine authority. Even so, the distinction remains vital when Christians seek to decide exactly how much the State in any context should be allowed to ‘get away with’. If they lean towards interpretation a), they may be more inclined to give the State the benefit of the doubt; if b), they may be inclined to adopt a more consistently critical or ‘prophetic’ line. Sure enough, Acts 5:29, together with Acts 4:19-20 and (maybe) 1 Peter 2:17b would suggest that the State-as-servant should be challenged when it suppresses the public proclamation of the gospel. But are there not also less blatant reasons for Christians to rebel? Käsemann is right to point out that not even the proclamation issue was an immediate worry for the Romans: Claudius might have left things rather tense, but he had gone, and Nero had not yet come. This may be why Paul so glaringly fails to address ‘the exception that the community must not let itself be forced to offend against…its own Christianity’ (Käsemann 1980: 357). And this in turn is probably the main reason why Romans 13 has caused so much anxiety and disagreement in the Church down to our own day…


4. From Exegesis to Application

4.1 The German Church Under Hitler

The resistance of the Confessing Church to Hitler’s regime, and to the so-called ‘German Christians’ who had colluded with that regime in such vast numbers, is summed up theologically in the famous Barmen Declaration of 1934. By his own admission, the Barmen text was largely the work of Karl Barth (Busch 1976:245). The Declaration itself does not explicitly refer to Romans 13, but interpretation of Paul’s teaching, and critique of its abuse by the German Christians, are implicit throughout. Barth, however, would later publish an extensive reflection on Barmen under the title ‘The Christian Community and the Civil Community’ (1954), and here he does deal with Romans 13 in some depth.

Echoing the exegetical debate about ‘obedience’ that I mentioned earlier, the Barmen Declaration makes it clear from the outset that ‘Jesus Christ is the one Word of God whom we have to…trust and obey in life and in death’. It then rejects as a ‘false doctrine’ the teaching that ‘the church could and should recognize as a source of its proclamation, beyond and besides this one Word of God, yet other events, powers, historic figures and truths, as God’s revelation’. This, in effect, is a highlighting of Paul’s implication in Romans 13:1 that civil authority is derived from, and so subject to, divine authority. Barth’s text then cites Matthew 20:25-6 in condemning the planned appointment by the German Christians of ‘Reich Bishops’ as politico-religious leaders over a new German State Church. It goes on to quote 1 Peter 2:17 when declaring as heresy the view that ‘beyond its special commission, the church should and could take on the nature, tasks and dignity which belong to the state and thus become itself an organ of the state’.

In his later reflection, Barth sets the radical cadences of Barmen in a fuller context – a context which takes at face value Paul’s proposition that the State is established by God to fulfil his purposes. Hence with reference to Romans 13:1b, Barth can insist that ‘however much human error and human tyranny may be involved in it, the state is not a product of sin but one of the constants of the divine Providence and government of the world in its action against sin’ (1954:271). The same concept of a godly institution which may fall into sin without becoming intrinsically sinful, also informs Barth’s exposition of the ‘servant’ motif in Romans 13:4, 6:

The activity of the state is, as the apostle stated, a form of divine service. As such it can be perverted just as the divine service of the church itself is not exempt from the possibility of perversion. The state can assume the face and character of Pilate. Even then, however, it still acts in the power which God has given it (“Thou couldst have no power at all against me, if it were not given to you from above” John 19:11) (1954:271)

Barth goes on to argue that the ‘rebellion’ against government which Paul attacks in Rom 13:3 must be understood to have a corollary in the ‘equivalent’ sin of Christian ‘indifference’ towards the state (1954:272). Very often, he implies, it is just such indifference which masquerades as the ‘subjection’ of Rom 13:1. Where such misplaced piety occurs, it ought to be exposed – even when it appears in the work of a great Reformer:

Luther’s translation speaks of ‘being subject’, which is something dangerously different from what is meant here. The last thing this instruction implies is that the Christian community and the Christian should offer the blindest possible obedience to the civil community and its officials. What is meant (Rom 13:6f) is that Christians should carry out what is required of them for the establishment, preservation and maintenance of the civil community and for the execution of its task…’Sub-ordination’ means the carrying out of this co-responsibility in which Christians apply themselves to this task with non-Christians and submit themselves to the same rule (1954:273)

In specific terms, Barth links this ‘sub-ordinating’ co-responsibility to the faculty of ‘conscience’ invoked by Paul in Romans 13:5. Responsibly submitting one’s conscience to the state can include ‘reminding people of God’s Kingdom’, and this in turn can entail a humble but dynamic critique of civil authorities:

The Christian community ‘sub-ordinates’ itself to the civil community by making its knowledge of the Lord who is Lord of all its criterion, and distinguishing between the just and the unjust state…between government and tyranny; between freedom and anarchy…between the state as described in Rom 13 and the state as described in Rev 13 (1954:276)

In this analysis, Barmen is cast as a faithful outworking of Romans 13, rather than a challenge to its ethos. Barth certainly bears out his Reformation heritage by ‘interpreting Scripture with Scripture’ in ways similar to those used by the expositors referred to above: his case is robustly established with reference to Matthew 22:21, John 18:36 and 19:11, 1 Timothy 2:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:14. More contentiously, however, it must be questioned whether his glossing of ‘submission’ to the state as first ‘sub-ordination’, then ‘co-responsibility’, then ‘reminding’, and finally ‘judging’, does not read too much systematic theologizing back into the original text. At the very least, Barth’s hermeneutic might be described as more ‘canonical’ than strictly exegetical. Still, there is a sense in which Romans 13 had to work for a movement committed to the principle of sola scriptura, and the fact that Barth made it work so powerfully says much for his resistance to totalitarianism, and for that of his colleagues in the Confessing Church.


4.2 The Russian Baptist Churches Under Communism

In 1960-1 a severe rift surfaced in the Russian Baptist community. Although some division had already occurred over the issue of Soviet Communist state registration, this had not hitherto affected the common view that Baptist children should be raised and educated within the Baptist fold. However, when the official leadership of the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians and Baptists (AUCECB) succumbed to new government restrictions on private education, the majority of unregistered churches broke away in protest to establish a Council of Reform Baptists. As Michael Bordeuax has observed, ‘the AUCECB appeared to have become an instrument of state policies’ (1990:110). With Perestroika, the two communions came closer together, but through the 1960s and ‘70s their enmity was very bitter indeed.

In 1965 the AUCECB attempted to mend relations with a letter. In this letter, the AUCECB addressed the Organising Committee of the Reform Baptist Council thus: ‘We desire to meet with you and talk about the question of reconciliation and the future relations between us’ (cit. Bourdeaux 1968:98). The response of the Reform Baptists to this approach was uncompromising. They refused categorically to meet with the AUCECB, making clear their conviction that it had ‘rejected…the basic principles of Evangelical Christian and Baptist teaching’. As these principles are defined in the Reform Baptists’ reply, Romans 13 looms large in their argument.

The Reform Baptists begin by asserting that ‘the Teaching of Evangelical Christians and Baptists demands complete separation of the church from the state’. As one might imagine, they quote in defence of this position both John 18:36 and Matthew 22:21. Next, however, they tackle Romans 13 head on, adding to it the same kind of caveat articulated by Barth in relation to Barmen:

We believe that the powers that be are ordained of God (Rom 13:1-2), and that he gives them authority to protect the good and punish the evildoer (Rom 13:3-4). We therefore consider that we must needs be unconditionally subject to their laws (Rom 13:5-7; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13,14,17) on condition that these do not restrict our free observance of the duties incumbent upon us as Christians (Matt 22:21; Acts 4:19-20; 5:29-42). (My emphasis) (Bordeaux 1968:100).

The reply continues by refuting the AUCECB’s use of John 19:11 to defend accommodation with the atheist Soviet State. It deems Christ’s declaration that Pilate’s power is ‘given from above’ to be ‘irrelevant to this case’. Furthermore, ‘Pilate had the power to crucify Christ, but no-one has ever doubted, nor ever will, that Christ was subject to his Heavenly Father alone and did not carry out any orders opposed to his will’ (Bordeaux 1968:100). There then follows a scathing attack on the registered Church’s exegesis:

Unlike Christ who never flinched before Herod and Pilate, you are crudely distorting the meaning of Christ’s words in order to justify the way in which you have destroyed the principle of the church’s independence. (Bordeaux 1968:100)

The ‘appeal to Christ’ tactic is thus turned back on the AUCECB. Far from properly submitting to the State, the registered Baptists are cast as having ‘rebelled against obedience to Christ’; far from ‘sub-ordinating’ themselves to civil authorities in the positive Barthian sense, they have ‘made a close and unlawful alliance’ with demonic authorities – that is, with ‘the powers of this world’ (John 18:36; Acts 4:19; 5:29; James 4:4)’ (Bordeaux 1968:101).

Once having invoked the spectre of spiritual warfare, the Reform Baptists move on formally to excommunicate the AUCECB, declaring that ‘as a religious organization, it can no longer be renovated nor reformed’ (Matt. 7:15-19)’. Insofar as pastoral concern is maintained, it comes only as a stark warning that nothing less than the eternal destiny of registered Baptists is at stake:

We sincerely want you to be saved, and we wish to cry out to you: Yakov Ivanovich, Alexander Vasilievich and all who are with you! Run to save your souls!…Run with repentance to Christ and find a refuge in the shrine of Christ’s Church for: ‘the great day of the Lord is near, it is near and hasteth greatly…the mighty man shall cry there bitterly! (Bourdeaux 1968:103).

The understandable passion of these words springs from the Reform Baptists’ conviction that the Bible speaks unequivocally into the Russian situation, and that they have discerned it aright. It would be hard to doubt their basic convictions, but it cannot be ignored that in the specific case of Romans 13, they had to qualify what Paul specifically told the Romans with a retrospective doctrinal composite of less ambivalent texts. Still, the Russian Baptists offer a fascinating, if tragic, illustration of the wider hermeneutical issues we have been exploring.


3. Evangelicals Under Apartheid

In 1986, 132 ‘concerned evangelicals’ signed a Declaration entitled ‘Evangelical Witness in South Africa’ (Concerned Evangelicals 1986). Recognising that evangelical South African Christians had been hampered by innate conservatism and an unhelpful ‘theology of the status quo’, they denounced Apartheid as heretical, sinful and hypocritical, and called upon their fellow evangelicals to ‘come out boldly and be witnesses of the gospel of salvation, justice and peace in this country without fear’. They went on, ‘You have not received the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear (Rom. 8:15) as many have done. We have to take a stand now even if it may mean persecution by earthly systems’ (1986:37).

In one sense, these concerned evangelicals were simply following the lead taken by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, whose 1982 ‘Resolution on Racism and South Africa’ had similarly denounced Apartheid as an unbiblical anathema (Sell 1991:233). But one of the points which distinguishes the evangelicals’ statement its explicit reflection on Romans 13, and the way in which it had been used to reinforce a passive ‘State Theology’:

Whenever victims of oppression raise their voices or resist the oppression Romans 13 is thrown in their faces by beneficiaries of these oppressive systems. Romans 13 is used therefore to maintain the status quo, and to make Christians feel guilty when challenging injustices in society. (1986:21).

The Declaration goes on to identify three faults in this approach to the text. First, it ignores ‘the context or background’ of Paul’s words. Second, ‘it is not read to the end to understand the whole message Paul was communicating’. And third, ‘no reference is made to other related texts in the Bible to help clarify this text’ (1986:21). In other words, the more conservative line criticised by the Concerned Evangelicals bypasses the main interpretative methods we have been examining in this paper. Restoring these methods to their rightful place, the same Concerned Evangelicals then offer a succinct application of Paul’s words to their contemporary culture:

Our understanding of Romans 13 is that although governments are ‘ordained’ by God what these governments do is not necessarily from God and at times can be completely opposed to God. And should this happen as it is with racist and apartheid South Africa, we are bound to say with Peter and John that we shall ‘obey God rather than man’ (Acts 5:29), because it is not right in the sight of God to listen to man rather than to God. ‘For we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard’ (Acts 4:19-20).

The whole Old Testament tradition contradicts blind obedience to oppressive and unjust systems. One could start from Pharaoh through the prophets to the times of Christ and then to the early churches…No. Romans 13 does not call for blind obedience to all evil systems. It is racist missionaries, colonialists and theologians of the West and their churches who have developed this tradition to maintain Western domination and imperialism. Romans 13 defines the nature of an ordained government that has to be obeyed. It says that governments are not a terror to the people but punish wrongdoers (Rom 13:3-4). The South African regime as we are experiencing it is just the opposite of what Paul said. (1986:21)

The Declaration proceeds to underline that strand of scholarly research which sees Paul addressing an incipient antinomianism among the Roman Christians; it then suggests that this more immediate context may not so applicable to South African Evangelicals, whose problem has, if anything, been the opposite one of excessive conformity and deference to those in authority. This insight underlines the importance of distinguishing that in the biblical text which is directly applicable to a contemporary circumstance, from that which is not. The Concerned Evangelicals then go on to derive a sharp cultural critique from their work on the passage:

It is still strange to us how evangelicals call for a blind obedience to all governments as a scriptural demand and in the same breath call for the subversion and condemnation of so-called ‘communist’ governments. If anyone has the right to raise a finger against ‘communist’ governments, then others must also have the same right of condemning and subverting the racist apartheid regime of South Africa (1986:22)

Finally, while they identify the right of gospel proclamation as a sine qua non of Christian allegiance to the State, the Concerned Evangelicals rightly point out the dangers of defining the gospel in question too narrowly:

Some enthusiastic missionary evangelists argue…that for the sake of the gospel…we must not interfere with those in power. This position usually means preaching the gospel at the expense of the gospel. It means leaving sin to prevail in a society to be able to preach against sin. What a contradiction! (1986:23)



As I have stressed, we must profoundly hope that Evangelical application of Romans 13 does not have to occur in anything like as fraught a political climate as pertained in the three cases I have analysed here. Even so, it is clear that the patterns of biblical dissent worked out by the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, the Reform Baptists in Communist Russia and the Concerned Evangelicals in Apartheid South Africa should act as a check on any instinct we might have to treat Paul’s injunction to be good ‘subjects’ as a prescription for unqualified acquiescence to the State and all its works. For all their significant differences of emphasis, each of the main strands of Evangelical thinking on this issue reject such acquiescence. However, the challenge for us as Evangelicals in 21st century Britain will be to discern precisely at which points government will have to be disobeyed, and how. Neither Romans 13 nor the examples I have cited in themselves provide us with so specific a set of tactics. But considered carefully together, they do indicate just how momentous and costly Christian ethical integrity can be in the face of a hostile and coercive State.

Revd Dr David Hilborn


Twitter: @david_hilborn



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