You might think by the title of this post that I would be asking the question in terms of voting or counting the votes. I’m not. When we think of the legitimacy of the governing authorities something much more important is at play. I realized this as I was meditating over the below portion of my daily scripture reading.
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. Romans 13:1–7
This portion of scripture deals with the Christians relationship to the governing authorities. The Apostle Paul is not specific on which governing authority he is alluding to. Christianity has traditionally proposed that there are four main realms of government. These are:
- Self Government
- Family Government
- Church Government
- Civil Government
Paul is probably emphasizing civil government here because of his later mentioning of paying taxes. The paying of taxes doesn’t usually apply to the self, family, or church.
Therefore, throughout church history, most biblical scholars, expositors, and pastors have used this passage to describe the Christian’s relationship to the civil governing authorities.
The Pastoral Theme Of Romans 13
The pastoral theme of Romans 13 usually concerns the nature of the Christian’s subjection or submission to the governing authorities.
However, there’s always been tension among pastors and church leaders as to what this actually means.
For example, which civil governing authorities is the apostle alluding to? At the time of the writing of the epistle in Rome, Caesar was the governing authority. However, in ancient Israel there were temple authorities, state authorities, and Roman authorities.
Here in the U.S. we have state, local, and federal authorities.
Several other serious questions about the meaning of the passage abound. What if the ruler is evil? Are they to be obeyed? If they are evil, are they a legitimate ruler? Does an evil ruler at some point stop becoming God’s servant. Who decides that?
Here in the U.S. we have a decentralized government where there are lesser magistrates that hold governing authority. Can the lesser magistrates depose a greater magistrate if that magistrate has acted with evil intent? For more on that question, check out these resources.
Policraticus, John of Salisbury,
The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate, Matthew Trewhella
The Magdeburg Confession
Calvin’s Institutes (Idea of the lesser magistrate)
There are even more questions that could be asked. What is the jurisdiction of the magistrate? Can one national magistrate dictate to another what they can and can’t do?
These are all serious questions that demand serious debate. They were debated in the past but serious debate within the church seems to have fallen out of favor with church leaders.
The Key To Magistrate Legitimacy
However, something jumped out at me today that I don’t think is really up for debate. I believe answering this question answers a lot of the above questions.
Here is the section I think controls the idea of submitting to the governing authorities.
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. Romans 13:3-4
When I was learning how to interpret scripture, one of the key rules was to look for repeated words! When the authors of scripture repeated words, they wanted you to get the main idea.
So in the above scripture there’s a repeated word. Do you see it?
That’s it! The word good is used three times in two consecutive verses.
This means that the word good is important for understanding the overall context of the passage. If we can define what good means, then we’ll know if the magistrate is doing his job.
Notice what the scripture says about the magistrate,
He is God’s servant for your good.
If the magistrate is not acting for your good, then he’s not a magistrate from God. He is not God’s servant and he is not operating with God’s authority. That seems pretty straightforward to me.
But here is the key. What do we mean by good?
What Do We Mean By Good?
So, how do we know what’s good? We know only God alone is good. But how do we know if the civil magistrate is being good?
Is goodness some arbitrary concept that varies from person to person or culture to culture?
Think about it.
There are vandals who do millions of dollars of damage and get community service while others who do little damage get prison time.
Some individuals who defraud people out of millions of dollars get little jail time while someone who robs a bank of $1000 gets 20 years of hard time.
Someone who pollutes oceans gets a slap on the wrist while someone who endangers some exotic animal species on their land has that land virtually confiscated.
A rapist does a few years in jail while someone exposing the misdeeds of a government gets life in prison.
You see where I’m going with this. How do we define if the civil magistrate is acting in a good or righteous manner? After all, God expects them to do good.
It’s interesting that Paul doesn’t culturalize the passage. This goodness holds for all magistrates, at all times, everywhere in the world.
So How Do We Know If The Magistrate Is Exercising Goodness?
Are we left to allow the magistrate to rule by any arbitrary standard he chooses? Does the magistrate get to make up the rules as he goes along?
One of the answers church leaders have given is that the civil authorities can basically do whatever they want as long as they don’t force a Christian to sin. Something like forcing a Christian to worship an idol or get an abortion or something like that would be an offense that would justify resistance to the magistrate.
Okay, fine, I agree with that. But what about my questions above on judicial equity. What if someone thinks that forcing them to pay an income tax and then using that money to fund abortion is not good? Does that law now make the magistrate not good and thus not a ruler from God?
How do we decide the issue?
Paul actually gives us the answer in another section of scripture.
Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine. 1 Timothy 1:8–10
Remember, there was no New Testament when this was written. This law Paul speaks about is from the Old Testament.
The only way we can make moral or judicial pronouncements is based on the laws found in the Old Testament. Moral laws in the NT cannot differ from OT laws. This would make God morally arbitrary.
If it’s bad in the OT, it’s bad in the NT.
Now, it may take some work to understand the full meaning of some of the OT moral laws and their application, but that does not mean they don’t exist or they can’t be known.
If the law says a thief who steals one ox must pay back four, well, that’s that then.
But someone says, we don’t use oxen today. Well, if a thief steals a tractor, then he must return four tractors. Why four? Because God said so.
But think about it. If a farmer suffers the loss of his tractor, that means loss of income. So returning more than one tractor reimbursed him for lost income. But what if the thief can’t pay? Well, he works it off then. There are no jails mandated in the Bible.
So what sentence does the thief get today? Two years, four years, ten years. Is the sentence related to how much he stole or does it rely on the whims of the judge?
How does the farmer who has his tractor stolen benefit from someone going to jail? Is it good that he should suffer more financial loss by being taxed to house and feed the thief who stole his tractor?
It seems to me in order to tell if a magistrate is indeed from God, he must be evaluated according to the law of God found in the OT.
It’s the only way to tell if he is legitimate or not. It’s the only way to tell if he’s God’s authority and ruling with God’s authority.
What if the governing authorities are not legitimate? Do Christians still have to submit to them in on all occasions. Of course not. I’ve answered that already.
But we should know this. There are civil authorities that are not from God. They are usurpers and at times become tyrants. Identifying them as such is key.
How to deal with them is another question for another time.