When a Christian offers up a criticism or judgment about a particular government leader in a Christian environment, it is not uncommon to be rebuffed with Romans 13:1-7 saying that ‘as Christians we must submit to government and authority’, and to ‘respect and not unduly criticize it’. Romans 13 effectively makes it forbidden to usurp or overthrow a government on a strict textual interpretation. The command to submit to authorities and government is restated in 1 Peter 2:13-17 and Titus 3:1-3. Similarly, Matthew 22:21 might be brought up in which Jesus said to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s”. The verse in Matthew is decidedly out of place in relation to the other verses insofar as this article is concerned and is not considered here. Officials in government may therefore be bad people, but strictly following these scriptures in isolation entails a response of “God put him there for a greater purpose, so do not question it too much, for to rebel against his appointed authorities is to rebel against God”.
These Christian responses can be admired for their willingness to endure longsuffering; Christians were never promised an easy life on earth (away with you American prosperity and health gospel heretics), and much of the early church suffered enormously under the boot and heel of Jewish and pagan authorities as they tried to stamp out the early Christian church. These responses however are ignorant of the modern world, and assume a false two-dimensional approach to the issue of honouring government and honouring God. The purpose of this article is to thus put aside what is submitted to be an error in this thinking. Namely, not actually knowing what government and authorities are and where they are derived from and how scripture can be read together with them.
The Bible says in Romans 13:1-7 to let every soul be subject to the governing authorities, stating there is no authority except from God. As stated above in the introductory paragraphs, many Christians do not seem to reconcile the 2000-year-old scripture with the present day. Instead they opt for a blanket application of ‘my (insert state official here) said to do XYZ, therefore we must because God said to respect earthly authority’ (much like European monarchs expected of their subjects). The only qualification being if such an instruction is manifestly and obviously contrary to God’s law or you are otherwise led by the Holy Spirit, then you may disregard or disobey. At this point a distinction can be made between a law to pay taxes and a law to kill Jews; the one is manifestly unlawful according to God’s law even if sanctioned by man (murder). The other is an agonizing part of existence (taxes).
This brings a question to the fore, namely who are the authorities appointed by God that we must submit to? With it come other questions; can we remove them? If we do is it with or without God’s blessing? If without His blessing, why is this command in Romans even relevant? The general theme of all these questions is one of where our rights come from, and how to exercise them if we are unhappy.
It is probably a good idea to start with the biblical position first. It is by far the most simple to analyse between going to the root words in the original texts, and just noting the composition and structure of governments and law of the time. Romans was written in 58 AD at a time the Romans ruled Judea and the early population territory of the Christian church. The Roman empire was ruled of course from Rome and the structure of its government was relatively elegant although bloody for its time. The gist of ancient government was generally as much blood as it was totalitarian. The Greeks are often credited with inventing democracy, but it would be a horrifying far cry from what we understand democracy as today, and even then, the Greek philosophical heydays were around 350 BC. At the time of the early Christian church, Rome controlled Greece, and removed it as a source of practical inspiration.
Governments and law relevant and of note to the early Christians of 58 AD accordingly can be limited to Rome and the various other pagan governments that existed before in the preceding centuries, namely the Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, and of course the ancient Jewish states of Judea and Samaria. With the exception of Rome, all turned on the whims of their monarchs who could largely do what they wanted and as they pleased. Roman citizens at least had rights and privileges in law before their own government.
Romans had fairly intricate and fine legal institutions for the time to regulate the private interactions between citizens. Originating in the Twelve Tables, these marked Rome’s own separation of church and state. No longer did priests have a monopoly on the laws of the universe. If anyone was in doubt they only need go and read the stone tablets with the twelve laws on them. The ancient Jewish state was a monarchy which operated on the assumption that the king would get wise and godly counsel from the prophets. This of course only occasionally happened, and the Romans put an end to it, demoting the Jewish king to a governor in exchange for letting the throne remain. As much as Jewish law remained, Roman citizens could nullify its application by laying claim to whichever law suited their interests best.
In this brief and admittedly rough description, a picture emerges of authorities that citizens could seldom do much about except revolt or comply, and revolts seldom ended successively for the instigators. If the authorities that existed at the time were going anywhere, it would take an act of God to make it happen. Subjective rights that did exist such as life and property were extremely subjective, and often only applied to citizens of your nation, not others unless they were present in your nation’s borders and your nation respected it. The hierarchy of power was generally quite limited to your immediate political authorities, then the absolute authority (king, emperor, etc.). All of whom had very wide and arbitrary powers much of the time depending on who the subject was. This concludes the brief overview of the ‘what’ and ‘how’ context of ancient authorities.
Moving to more recent times, the ancient can be contrasted with the modern liberal state whose origins lie in the Reformation. In this it became accepted that all humans are endowed with certain inalienable rights bestowed upon them by their Creator, most principally life, liberty, and property. These were subjective rights granted by a sovereign being through natural law and were seen as always present since the very beginning, even if not always respected. They are not rights granted by the state, but rights to be protected by the state. Van Staden writes in his book The Constitution and the Rule of Law (as he distinguished between civil-political and socio-economic rights) that the former have always existed even in absence of anything else, while the latter can only exist at someone else’s expense.
These rights have in many ways been watered down over the years, but they nonetheless exist long after the concept of natural law has excited from legal jurisprudence. Other rights have been added such as the right to vote, and the right to a fair trial in which you are innocent until the moment the judge or jury says you are not. Natural law has gradually faded away as a concept, and subjective rights seem to merely exist because this is what humanity has decided. They just do. Regardless of how watered down these early rights are, it is only a minority of countries that do not acknowledge these rights; China and North Korea come to mind very quickly. These fundamental rights are what we today know as human rights, and lie at the heart of global institutions such as the UN in an effort to do away with the unaccountable ‘old ways’.
The Rule of Law doctrine is similarly a foundational principle of many states, the general principle being that state power must be exercised reasonably and non-arbitrarily. AV Dicey described the Rule of Law as ‘that what is not forbidden is allowed”. Together with human rights, it is recognised at a global level as an ideal way to regulate society and government. International courts and office bearers exist to interpret and apply these laws and principles. This is however merely the global attitude of where ultimate authority lies: the concept of human rights.
The global society is made up of various legal persons. Traditionally this was only states, but has since come include global institutional bodies, and even large corporations may be included in the future. The state however remains the most important. In the case of countries such as the United States, India, and South Africa, there is a constitution as a founding document for the country in which the borders are listed, the flag prescribed, and the composition of government set out. A bill of rights may exist as well, and may be the most difficult to amend after the founding provisions. Traditionally the civil and political rights in a bill of rights are considered to have always existed and are not conferred by the state, but merely acknowledged. This means that even if the constitution is amended, the rights do not somehow disappear.
The constitution in the case of South Africa (as our own constitution) is written as ‘Constitution’ and personifies it through the upper-case ‘C’. It indicates the importance of this document. Further it is declared in the founding provisions at section 2 that “This Constitution is the supreme law of the Republic; law or conduct inconsistent with it is invalid, and the obligations imposed by it must be fulfilled.”. Section 1(c) declares the Republic founded upon the Constitution and the Rule of Law (they are thus complementary and regulate each other as Van Staden writes). These provisions elevate it above any other earthly authority (at least within South Africa) and effectively puts it only second to God’s law. That said, the traditional conceptualisation of rights is not anyhow diminished.
Having laid out the brief composition of the modern liberal and constitutional state, as well as some aspects of global organisation, would it be biblically lawful for South Africans (or any people in the world) to rise up against their government in revolt or uprising? The answer to this is possibly tempered by the legal doctrine of subsidiarity, which requires exhausting lesser alternatives to bring about the change or relief you want before going more extreme (and does not even refer to violence in this regard). If you wish to vindicate a right in the Bill of Rights for example, you must first apply common law or legislation giving effect to that right and cannot directly rely on the Constitution. You would only rely directly on the Constitution if the legislation is unable to vindicate your right or if the legislation itself is unconstitutional. The courts will then decide on a verdict.
But what if the courts do not come to your rescue? There remain elections and exerting public pressure through lobbying. Elections however take a long time to happen (five years in SA, four years in the US, and six years in the Russian Federation). Early elections are possible, but what if the urgency of the situation demands there is no time to wait, or if there are even any solutions to vote for? Revolution may become necessary to vindicate your rights and protect your future, and your solution might even lie in international law rather than domestically.
This brings us back to the theological question posed in the beginning of this article: what would justify a revolution if we are ordered to submit to the governing authorities? One must realise throughout all that has been explained thus far, ‘authorities’ is definitionally the same in modern English as the ancient Greek it was originally written in (for the purposes of Romans in the Bible: ‘the power or right to give orders’). An authority for the purpose of Romans 13 therefore need not only refer to a person since people do not have the right to actually give orders per say, but rather any such right or power to be able to give instructions is delegated to them by things such as constitutions and democratic processes. It would not be unusual for governments to hide unconstitutional acts of power behind ‘democratic processes’; just because the government was voted for does not rubber stamp all their conduct as acceptable. Therefore, it may be biblically lawful to disobey government officials because there is always a higher authority than them that they are disregarding. Just because they will not abide by these higher powers does not mean that is the end of the road in vindicating your rights. The legitimacy of laws is another caveat in that if a law has no legitimacy, it will either not be respected, or not be obeyed, hence the importance of not drafting laws arbitrarily (hello lockdown levels 1-5).
But what if the government tears up the Constitution? This does not negate the fact that these rights are merely embodied in the Constitution, and that getting rid of the Constitution (even democratically) does not make the rights also disappear. These rights are immortal and recognised beyond the insignificant borders of individual states. What if the leader of a government is not decidedly a bad person, but their government is? I would argue that leader has made themselves complicit if they fail to do their duty, and thus open to criticism and even ridicule depending on the extent of their failure. This criticism would be the embodiment of the standards they have failed to adhere to and uphold, as determined by the authorities they are subject to. Strict adherence to scripture would say to merely pray for them. This may have been suitable at a time largely devoid of authorities beyond God and king; the Americans used guns for example because clearly prayer was not suitable.
God either gave us these rights or allowed us to decide they exist. Either way, these rights are the basis of the modern liberal state and universally accepted as existing for every human on planet earth. Even if some dissent in this regard, there is nothing the government can do to take them away. The authorities of the modern world operate on a hierarchy, with state officials at the bottom. It is therefore disingenuous to read certain scriptures in complete isolation from the contemporary world. As long as we do not disobey the highest authorities, there is no contravention of Romans 13 and its accompanying scriptures.