Have we misunderstood Romans 13 -do we really have to obey the authorities?

I saw this article the other day. I suspect many of us will be a little surprised at its claim because surely Romans 13 is exactly about whether or not we should obey the authorities isn’t it?  So how can the author claim that it isn’t when Paul says:

“ 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”

Romans 13:1-2

Well, when you read the article, the reason is that the author is arguing that there is a distinction between obeying and submitting.  He argues that Paul -and also Peter in 1 Peter 2 have chosen to use the word “submit” instead of “obey.” He goes on to say that

“And so here’s the most important thing to remember – in the New Testament Greek, to submit does not always mean to obey! They are two separate actions or postures.”

I’m not sure his argument is that convincing.  Submitting yourself to someone does involve doing what they ask or say.  The question of distinction between the two words also comes up in Ephesians 5-6 where Paul asks slaves and children to obey but wives to submit.  When I looked at this in Marriage at work, I argued that the change of language in close context did invite us to look again at the different scenarios and observe a difference between wives v women and slaves. However, I also observed that whilst there is a difference in the semantic range of the words so that “submit” has a wider definition, we can overplay the differences. “Submit” may be broader than “obey” but it includes the idea of obedience within it.[1]

In the context of Romans 13, Paul illustrates the requirement to submit with two points. First of all, he argues that the authorities are given the power to punish wrongdoing. The implication there is that the Government will introduce good laws/commands and we are expected to obey them. It is for disobeying its own laws that the Government will punish you. Further, whilst it is true that a Christian may be punished when they have done nothing wrong, Paul doesn’t appear to have such a scenario in mind here. Peter of course does identify that it is possible to suffer whilst doing good but that’s not Paul’s point. 

“if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain”

Romans 13:4

Now whilst the author references examples of totalitarian regimes such as Putin’s Russia, the current focus of the debate has been around COVID rules and that’s why it is relevant to us today.  Some have been arguing that there is no compulsion to comply with COVID laws because there is no compulsion on believers to obey the civil authorities.  Notice then that the issue in those cases is not about resisting a totalitarian regime but choosing to ignore the decrees of democratically elected governments.

However, the argument seems to miss three points. First of all, Paul and Peter were writing at a time when submitting to authorities involved submitting to regimes at least as bad as Putin’s. Secondly, when the author uses the example of Paul escaping Damascus in a basket, it is worth looking at what the text actually says:

23 When many days had passed, the Jews[a] plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall,[b] lowering him in a basket.

Acts 9:23-24.

Paul is not seeking to escape a strongman governor enforcing the law but a group of murderers conspiring to kill him. Incidentally, if it had been about Paul evading the consequences of the Law, that would rather spectacularly undermine Greenfield’s argument that we should disobey the Law and then bear the consequences.

Greenfield then observes the example of James and Peter earlier in Acts. Again, oddly, he chooses to mention God breaking Peter out of jail which again is an example of a Christian not having to bear the  consequences of their actions by facing the civil authorities’ judgement.  Yet Greenfield skirts over a closely related example in Acts 5:29 when having been arrested on a previous occasion and then set free by God’s miraculous hand Peter is confronted and urged to stop preaching. His response is that we should obey God rather than man.

Indeed in Acts it doesn’t seem that we are dealing with law breaking at all, rather it is about those in authority using their personal power to try and silence the gospel and unjustly persecute the church.  In other examples such as when the Israelite midwives refuse to comply with Pharoah then it is clear that they are resisting a command which would have put them in direct conflict with God’s law.

And that’s the point. If we want to know how to respond to those in power, we don’t need word games. Scripture is clear that we should submit to the authorities. However there are restrictions put on that obedience. It isn’t absolute. We have a higher authority to obey, a higher throne to submit to. We should not comply with orders/instructions/laws that bring us into conflict with what God commands.

[1] See David J Williams, Marriage at work, 34-36.  Available at Marriage at Work (wordpress.com)

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