Romans 13:1-7 – Paul and Occupy Wall Street (Part 1)

The transformed life ought to effect one’s relationship with government.  This is based on common idea in the Hebrew Bible that God ordains the rulers and the nations.  Since Paul is speaking about the Roman empire, it must mean that the Christian ought to obey even an evil government. Paul uses the same verb here in Romans 13 as he did in 8:7, with reference to submitting to the will of God.  Paul therefore means that the transformed believer must obey the government because it is God’s appointed authority.  Perhaps by extension, when you obey the government, you obey God.

But most people immediately ask: if that government abuses its power and rules unjustly, is it then appropriate for a Christian to rebel to change that government?  Usually Christians will say they will obey the government insofar as the government commands that are not contrary to God’s commands.  I can hear many former students asking about life under an oppressive government that does not allow personal freedom or abuses citizens.  What if the government restricts my personal freedom?  What if the government wants to take my guns away?  What if the government permits same-sex marriage, abortion, or the use of marijuana?  What if the government were to be controlled by Islam and Sharia law is imposed on us?  Should we rebel and against the government then?

I think it is critically important to realize that in the first century, no member of Paul’s congregation would have ever asked this question.  No one would have plotted the fall of the Roman empire, nor would a Roman Guy Fawkes attempt to blow up the Senate.  Rome really did bring peace to the world and Rome did really provide services which raised the social and economic fortunes of everyone.  No one would have considered joining the Occupy Wall Street movement to protest the outrageous economic practices of the Roman Empire, nor (in the interest of being fair and balanced), would anyone dream of complaining about their taxes and joined the Tea Party.  Those categories simply do not exist in the first century, and if they did, Rome would have silenced them with extreme prejudice!  The young lady with the sign in this picture needs to realize that protestors did not burn Rome, Nero did!

Consider what the Roman empire was like in the mid-first century.  They did oppress people, the enslaved millions, they promoted the worship of every god imaginable, and they imposed their religious laws on everyone.  Infanticide was practiced and homosexual relationships were permitted (although nothing like gay marriage really existed).  Paul does not add any sort of condition to the command to obey the established government, despite the fact that the Roman government was one of the most oppressive regimes in history!

I do not read anything in Romans 13 or in Paul’s relationship with Rome that sounds anything like a protest against the government.   Paul’s method for dealing with social ills was far more subtle than mass protests – and much more effective.  He told the church to fix the problems themselves by caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan.  There is nothing here in Romans 13 which would support the overthrow of Rome, either in the first century or the twenty-first.

25 thoughts on “Romans 13:1-7 – Paul and Occupy Wall Street (Part 1)

  1. Nice post. I just preached some similar stuff from 1 Peter 2. Where Peter calls us to be submissive so that the Gospel can abound!

  2. It is true that there is nothing in the NT that unambiguously calls for disobedience to the ruling authorities, but this argument from silence doesn’t work. It would have been too dangerous for the NT writers to include openly subversive material. Their readers would have allowed for this, and so should we. If Paul in a letter had recommended disobedience to Rome he would have been signing his own death warrant, which would have been pretty foolish, wouldn’t it?

    What is your take on the (covert) anti-imperialism of the book of Revelation and 1 Thess 5?

    If the early Christians believed in being obedient to authorities, why were so many of their leaders executed by those authorities?

    Don’t feel compelled to answer this question, but is the USA illegitimate because it came about by armed rebellion to the ruling authorities?

    • I think it is obvious that Paul would not have spoken directly in favor of bringing down the empire, but I guess my point here is that the American value of Freedom does not really apply to people living in first century Rome. One did not have freedom of speech or the right to possess weapons to challenge the government. Those categories of thought did not exist for the 99%, so to speak. The only ones to consider a change of emperor were the extreme-elite, and then only to replace a bad emperor.

      I think I said a bit about the subversive undertones in Thessalonians ( I think Paul’s preaching in Thessalonica was understood as potentially destabilizing and the local officials silenced hum, or at last tried to!

      Revelation is clearly anti-imperial (“your empire-goddess is a drunken whore” strikes me as rather anti-imperial!) But I am not at all sure that there is a call to overthrow Babylon in Revelation, chapters 17-18 seem to argue for recognizing Rome for what she is, and to “come out of Babylon.” Another factor is the late date of Revelation (in the 90’s, IMHO), so forty years have passed, Gentiles are the majority of the church now, Jerusalem is destroyed, Nero and Domitian have persecuted Christians as Christians, separating them at least legally from the Jews. People are under threat of life to participate in pro-Empire religious exercises. That was simply not the case in A.D. 55 when Paul was writing.

      I will go ahead and answer the radical question there at the end….I am not that paranoid. If I were alive in 1776, I am not sure which side I would have taken, but the issues are quite complicated because the ruler was more or less a divine-right monarch, which I am not sure is exactly scriptural either. What happened more than 200 years ago is done, I would not judge a government by origins that old!

      To be honest, I am suspicious of any rebel movement or government which uses the Bible as the basis of its power.

  3. “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.
    Romans 13 1-2

    Lets look at this verse and think of Hitler. By this verse’s account, Hitler existed as a leader because God established him as a leader. So was Hitler doing God’s work when he led Nazi Germany along to commit the atrocities of the Holocaust? Were the Nazi Soldiers arresting and killing Jews committing acts of God? And were the non-Jewish citizens who hid fugitive Jews resisting the authority of God? Will God condemn them for this? What about those who fought against the Nazis? Will they be condemned?

    What of the Christians who helped to protect other Christians from being killed in ancient Rome? Christian men protecting their women and children? Did these people go against the will of God? Will they be condemned?

    I don’t think this is the context in which we are to take this passage. I believe we are to understand that God has a plan, and that those appointed to be leaders and the governments behind them are part of that plan. I also believe that we are to follow the laws of our government… as long as those laws do not conflict with the moral code of God.

    We cannot look at this passage and simply say, “Oh so I am never to go against the authorities God has put into place here on earth.” What If you are drafted into an army, in which you are told to go and fight against another country? No matter what your decision you are going to be fighting in opposition to some government and it’s leader(s). What if your Government has a law established that says that you must deny Christ as your savior? I’m pretty sure God doesn’t stand behind this law…but no denying Christ is being in opposition to this government. What if your government has a law that if you know of any Christians, then you are to personally go to them, and kill them? A little extreme of an example, I know, but I think it makes my point.

    I really think that the point of this passage is more than simply always follow the Government. Paul is arguing against violent rebellion against the government. Christians shouldn’t be loading their muskets, or drawing their swords to defy a government because their taxes are too high. We are to be peacemakers, not warmongers. Christ did not come to overthrow the government of Rome, or to lead the Jews off to battle with the Gentiles. He can as a sacrifice for the whole world, to the Jew, and then also to the Gentile. As Christians we are to live at peace with each other, and to follow the rule of our governments. That is not to say that when we belong to a democracy that allows us the right to stand up for our beliefs that we shouldn’t stand against things like abortion and capital punishment.

  4. ‘The transformed life ought to effect one’s relationship with government.’ -Phil
    -Respect always, but obedience not necessarily, these are two different things. Christians should always respect the government they are under, but they do not have to obey those commands given them that counter the Word of God. In such cases respect can still be shown by submitting to the punishment the government brings upon those who refuse to obey it’s laws.

    ‘No member of Paul’s congregation would have ever asked this question’ -Phil
    -I just liked hearing that so much I copied it and posted it again.

    ‘Is the USA illegitimate because it came about by armed rebellion?’ -Richard
    -This question is full of prepositional problems, but I’m glad it was asked. The main problem is the connection between the USA and the Church that is supposed in the asking. The conversation is about Paul and what he taught Christians to do, not Paul and what he taught a rebellious bunch of yanks to do. It fails to distinguish members of the Body of Christ (members of God’s Kingdom) and everyone else.

    A way to ask this question would look like this: Is it illegitimate for Christians to take part of armed rebellion against the British?

    Aside from that, all earthly nations are founded from men killing each other. If war Illegitimatizes one nation then it Illegitimatizes them all, and that’s just ridiculous.

  5. Christians should never take up arms against their governments. If Christians desire to disobey government it should be done respectfully and appropriately. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the pinnacle example in our American context.

  6. I’m glad that we’re talking about this topic on here. I get so frustrated in seeing fellow Christians using the scripture and their relationship with Christ as fuel for promoting political uprisings and for being politically aggressive. I realize that Christ flipped over tables in the temple, and God unleashes righteous judgment, but are we allowed this same behavior and response toward govenrments that we disagree with? I’m not going to go as far as saying that joining the army or protecting your own country is sinful, but I’m just not sure if we’re given the same responsibility or Godly “jurisdiction” to respond in these ways toward governments or leaders. I like what Ben brought up about responding in the same way as Martin Luther King Jr. Peaceful protests that offer solutions, don’t make attacks against those in power, and are focused on building up the body/glorifying God seem to be the best option. In the Biblical mandates to take care of orphans, widows and the poor does this go as far as seeking social and political change in addition to taking care of the physical and spiritual necessities of those in need? I would say yes to this. The most important thing that we should be focusing on, in my mind though, is to be meeting the needs of the people and in sharing the Gospel. I understand the passion and desire to fight for political change, but I don’t see the scriptures commanding us to fight for political change. Instead I see us being commanded to spread the Gospel, and to take care of those in need.

    • I agree with everything David is saying here. I do not agree with making Scriptures say whatever we want them to say in order to justify our actions. But rather, I believe that our lives should reflect the narrative of the Bible. I do not read the Bible and interpret that God desires us to make a ruckus about our government and it’s leaders but rather I interpret that God wants us to pray for those who are above us and submit to their authority. “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good and pleases God our Savior.” (1 Timothy 2:1-3)

  7. Romans 13:2 says that those who rebel against authority are in essence rebelling against God because God has instituted that authority. The very next verse says this: “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you.” The first line in that verse is interesting. If rulers hold not terror for those who do right, then why is there a problem with people not submitting to the governing authorities? Maybe Paul was referring to a certain event that happened in Rome (Polhill 298). I am guessing that this statement might have been hard for the Romans to swallow when they got the letter.
    Nevertheless, Paul tells them to submit to the governing authority. “There is nothing here in Romans 13 which would support the overthrow of Rome, either in the first century or the twenty-first” (P. Long). Romans 13:1-7 never says that we are allowed to revolt once the governing authority steps over the fine line. Obviously we know that we should not obey an authority when they ask us to do something contradictory to what God commands us to do. But this does not mean we have to lead an armed rebellion against the government, this is a different thing entirely. I think it is hard to relate what Paul said during that time to the 21st century because of the type of government we have in the U.S.A. We have a government where we vote who represents us and that makes us more responsible in shaping our government. That is perhaps why there are more revolts like the OWS.

  8. I think that even if the people occupying Wall Street got their way and those in power created ways for the poor in our country to get more money, the problem would still exist. Social reform is difficult to take place when the ones implementing the reform are not personally helping individuals and base the reform on simply giving money to those who need it. The government programs that are set up now to help the poor are easy to manipulate and take advantage of. Paul continues in Romans 13 to talk about loving your neighbor as yourself. If each family in the Church decided to find another family in their community that was in need to help provide for their needs not only financially but also spiritually and mentally as well, many social problems would cease to exist. People are more willing to respect and listen to those that take time out of their day to help, than a group of people that sends them a check in the mail. This reminds me of 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12. Lead a quiet life full of hard work in order to gain respect and not have to depend on others.

  9. I had never read this passage with the forethought that Paul was in the Roman empire which “was one of the most oppressive regimes in history” (PLong)! That really does make the whole thing make more sense. Instead of complaining and rebelling against a government which does not directly oppress Christians, we should do as Paul said and “do what is right” (Rom. 13:3). This really goes along with my other post (on “Living Sacrifice”); instead of complaining about our lives, we should trust God and live out everything He has told us through His Word. There are many verses in Paul’s writings that tell us we should do good to others: Phil. 2:4, 2 Cor. 9:12, and Gal. 6:2 and 9 are all good examples of this.
    Some complain that here at GBC we have a required ministry every semester, but we should be thankful because that is helping us live out our calling as Christians.

  10. So for everyone who has posted thus far, you would agree that it is wrong for Christians to try to reform a country through governmental process.

    AKA- American Christians should not vote against abortion, homosexuality and drug use/abuse… etc… etc… because that does solve anything but it is the sharing of the Gospel and loving people where they’re at that will eventually solve those aforementioned current issues?

    That is the logical result of what P. Long wrote in the above blog and in the following blog on this same passage.

    • I think it is important to separate my civic rights as a citizen of a country from my Christian responsibilities. It may not be a spiritual responsibility to vote in a secular election, but it is a duty of being a citizen which does not violate my faith. I do not have to vote, I *get* to vote.

      I really do not want to make voting a “God-given right”, since that is only true in the most general sense. I would also point out that there are a few people who are ignorant enough to make me hope they “forget” on election day to keep them from making ill-informed votes.

      • ‘You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society.’ -C.S. Lewis

        ‘Everything is spiritual’ -Rob Bell

        ‘It is important to separate my civic rights… from my Christian responsibilities’ -Phil (above)

        Civic duties must be based in our sense of Christian responsibilities. Otherwise they are useless to Christ. Since the driving force for Christian civic duty is ‘love others as yourself’ and sharing the Gospel, then these two things will determine what Christian politics are going to look like.

        To base civic duty in ‘natural law’ would be ridiculous for the Christian, although it could be the pinnacle of wisdom for anyone else.

  11. I think that when the connection is made between Paul and the Occupy Wall Street I get upset. David hit it all right on the nose when it makes the connection between Christians and using scripture to go against government. I think that it is wrong, yes I might not agree with everything going on within the government or with the officials around me that make the rules, but because of the freedom I have right now to worship God, and my freedom to do it in public, I will respect my authorities. Josh Befus mentions Romans 13 where I would exactly.
    Ben, I was slightly confused as to what you were trying to say in your last post… but I think I understand and get the gist of it, and I believe that is how I stand. I am not sure if you are writing in favor of Christians standing up for abortion (etc) or against it, but I know that I do not agree with abortion, and if the government votes to make it legal I will be upset, and I will do what I can to make sure my side and my view is known, but I will not completely defy those who are put in authority over my simply because of one issue. Does that make sense?

    • I believe, and would encourage my fellow believers to as well, that abortion (etc. etc. mentioned above) are un-biblical and wrong.

      Saying that one is ‘standing against abortion (etc)’ means one of two things That they wouldn’t commit that sin or/and that they would stop others from committing that sin.

      When Christians try to use government to create a more biblically moral society they are using force of law to stop all the members of that nation from sinning. How legalistic is that? Oober legalistic is the answer, and it’s wrong-mind of Christians to try and effect the world in such a manner.

      That’s what I was trying to get at.

  12. i think Paul’s general attitude toward government was not that we obey the evil dids it requires of us (if it came to that), but that we should do nothing to make matters worse. Protesting is wasteful of our time if we are not ourselves seeking to fix the problems locally. We need to be people of caring, not people of destruction. I think Paul just wants us to do what ever we can to live in peace with our governments. But, this doesn’t deal with sin if our governmnets force us to sin. Then we must way the options. Christians in India often have to pretend to be Hindu so they can get jobs and buy stuff at markets. This is an example of the government and society forcing Christians to either be “decietful” or starve. I do not count this as sin against my India brothers. They are not liars. They simply do what they can to worship Christ without having to “sin” against the government by rebelling against it. They could protest. They could fight. But, those Christians are WAY to busy feeding thier families and the needy, and serving other Christians.

  13. Lets take a look for a second at what characteristics made up the government. Phil Long does a great job here at depicting what they were all about. The Roman empire was evil. “They did oppress people, they enslaved millions, they prompted the worship of every god imaginable, and they imposed their religious laws on everyone. Infanticide was practiced and homosexual relationships were permitted” (Phil Long). No one dared to speak out against them because they were afraid of imminent death. Look at the reason that Jesus was sentenced to death, they claimed He was rebelling against Rome…
    Now lets take a look at our government today. We vote our rulers in, we have freedom of speech, and no one forces us to worship specific gods. Our government does not kill people because they feel like it and they put up with the butt-load of crap that we all give them…I say we have it good. Romans 13:1-2 says, “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities for there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore, he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.” If Paul can speak such a bold statement, even when he lived in the evil Roman empire, then how much more seriously should we take that today. We should accept those in office. We do not have to love them or even like what they do, but we must respect them.
    Even Jesus spoke of such respect to the government. Luke 20:20-26 speaks of our submission to authority. The pharisee’s, trying to trick Him into heresy, asked Him, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Luke 20:22) Jesus’ response was to give to Caesar what belonged to him and to give to God what belonged to God. Paul and Jesus’ responses to government were one in the same. They both submitted to those in charge and commanded us to do the same.

  14. What I take from Paul is that we ought to live peacefully with those around us, even governing authorities with their rules, in order to represent Christ well in the world, because God has ordained these authorities (Rom 13:1). It’s almost the same thought as 1 Corinthians 10:23 and 31-33 where Paul is saying essentially, “Even though we have freedom in Christ, if using that freedom would cause others to think less of Christ, we ought not to use that freedom.” It’s all about giving Jesus a good reputation. If defying the government will make Christians – and therefore Christ – look bad, then we shouldn’t defy the government. Rather, God has called us to peace (Colossians 3:15). It is through our good witness that others will come to see who Christ is and that life is found in Him.

  15. This point is consistent with so many other passages, fix your own problem first before you try t fix anyone elses. The government is set there by God. If you look at th OT God deffinatly set the governments there. Not only the Good but also the bad. When the Israelites were listning to God they were under pleasnat rule. When they rebeled they had evil rulers and theeir lives were miserable. God does nt change. Even when Danial went against the orders of King Nebakenezer, it was in obediance to God but he did ot resist going into the lions den. No matter who God puts as ruler, there is a reason behind it and we are called to trust God and obey our leaders,

  16. Joe talks about being in prayer for our leaders. Whether we agree with them on issues or tactics of running a government we need to be in prayer for our government, as far as this obey the government concept my grandmother follows this very well. She will not go over the speed limit on the freeway because the government has it posted 70 for a reason she will drive at 69 miles per hour for this exact reason.

    I think there is truth behind this as well and P Long I do agree with your last statement that there is no indication that there should be an antigovernment let’s get ride of the Roman power mentality. Even so, I still struggle with what we as Christians are to do if the government does something that is not morally or biblically right. I have always had the feeling that we are to not do it, but then there is a verse like this. Maybe you can shed a little more light on this. Because you said that there wouldn’t have been any questions asked about this as Rome generally brought much peace. But what about the 21st century today. What if our government isn’t?

  17. Hello. Just a little correction about the picture.

    the sign actually is a metaphor. Nero burned Rome, so Wall Street is the Nero of America. Wall street set America on fire and it’s slowly burning…. =)

  18. Thanks Leah, I get it. I took the metaphor in an way not intended by the author of the sign.

    I would prefer the “America = Babylon” metaphor, but that is mostly because I read Rev 17. Maybe Bob Marley is a factor.

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