Rob Buckingham's Blog

Are all Governments Established by God? (Romans 13)

A few weeks ago, I taught a vital message at Bayside Church titled, “Is the Bible really true?”  I encourage you to listen to the podcast. [1] In this message, I teach that the Bible contains many different kinds of truth ~ truth as fact, truth as meaning and truth as life.  In other words, there are some things in the Bible that, while not factually accurate, are full of meaning. Jesus’ parables are a good example of this.

I believe Paul’s statements in Romans 13:1-7 fall into the category of “Truth as meaning” rather than “Truth as fact.”  If “there is no authority except that which God has established,” we seem to be in deep trouble.  Consider Hitler’s government for example.  Adolf Hitler was Chancellor (and then Fuhrer) of Germany from 1933 to 1945 during which time his reign of terror included the well-known Holocaust of six million Jews.  In addition, Hitler was directly responsible for the murder of “more than five million non-Jews including Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, blacks, the physically and mentally disabled, political opponents of the Nazis, dissenting clergy, resistance fighters, prisoners of war, Slavic peoples, and many individuals from the artistic communities whose opinions and works Hitler condemned.” [2] Notice the reference to dissenting clergy.  This infers that there were some clergy, and Christians, who did not dissent and were thus complicit in the slaughter of millions. But did the dissenters disobey God and His Word so clearly spelled out in Romans 13?

In the 1930s Germany was a Christian nation. Two-thirds were protestant and one-third Catholic.  Jews accounted for less than 1% of the population.  And yet the Christian community was by and large complicit with Hitler, being persuaded by the Nazi Party’s statement on “positive Christianity” which read: “We demand the freedom of all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not jeopardize the state’s existence or conflict with the manners and moral sentiments of the Germanic race.”  [3]

In July 1933, Hitler’s first year in power, a German pastor, Joachim Hossenfelder, preached a sermon in Berlin’s most important church – the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. His text was Romans 13:1-7 and he reminded the congregation of the importance of obedience to those in authority because “The authorities that exist have been established by God.”  This appeal to the Bible as “Truth as fact” led much of the Christian church to either support Hitler or not to resist him.  This same appeal to Romans 13 was used to back the slave trade and apartheid.  It is still used in support of capital punishment, and was recently quoted by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions to justify the Trump Administration’s immigration policy of separating children from their families.

A few verses later in Romans chapter 13 Paul wrote, “The commandments…are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.” [4] Love does not condone torture and murder, it doesn’t imprison and starve, and it doesn’t separate children from their parents. True Christian love does no harm to anyone.  So, let me say this loud and clear…

Any time the Bible is used to justify the mistreatment of people in any shape or form, the interpretation of the Scripture is wrong!

So, what is Romans 13 all about?  When we interpret it as “Truth as meaning” rather than “Truth as fact” all becomes clear. The apostle was speaking directly into the political climate of his day.  Emperor Claudius, who was in office from A.D. 41 to 54, ordered all Jews to leave Rome around A.D. 51.  According to the Roman historian Suetonius, Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome because they were rioting on account of someone named Chrestus (Christ) – apparently referring to disputes between Christian and non-Christian Jews.  Luke mentions this historical fact in Acts 18:2, “Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome.”  Claudius allowed the Jews to return around January A.D. 53, and four years later (A.D. 57) Paul wrote his letter to the Roman church while he was spending three months in Corinth.

It’s with this historical backdrop that we can understand what Paul meant by what he wrote in Romans 13.  Nero was now in power, and Paul encouraged the church not to unnerve the political authorities with any more disputes with non-Christian Jews in case they were all ejected once more from Rome.  If this happened, it would have an adverse outcome for the church and the Gospel in the City of Rome, and so Paul encouraged the Roman Christians to do the right thing and not to rebel.  He also taught them to pay their taxes and live lives of respect and honour.

Whilst this encouragement generally holds true today, Romans 13 is not to be used as a justification to mistreat people or to say and do nothing in the case of government injustice.  Christian people are to obey the laws of the land unless they contradict God’s laws.  We are to pray for our government leaders, and respectfully challenge them when they act in a way that brings harm to others.  As Charles Colson wrote many years ago, “If truth retreats, tyranny advances.”





[3] The Nazi Party’s statement on “positive Christianity” Article 24 of the 1920 Nazi Party Platform: “We demand the freedom of all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not jeopardize the state’s existence or conflict with the manners and moral sentiments of the Germanic race. The Party as such upholds the point of view of a positive Christianity without tying itself confessionally to any one confession. It combats the Jewish-materialistic spirit at home and abroad and is convinced that a permanent recovery of our people can only be achieved from within on the basis of the common good before individual good.”

[4] Romans 13:9-10


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