In my last post I made a case for a Christians commitment to a nonviolent ethic when threatened with violence. The idea of abstaining from violence when personal freedoms are under imminent attack is completely subversive to American values in general, especially for American Christians in particular. The overwhelming consensus among the American evangelicals I am in close relationship with is that violence is a necessary reality if their family is under attack. The defense for this position is the desire to defend the ones we love at all costs. Period. How Jesus and the Bible may or may not factor into the consequences and results of a violent protest is of minimal importance at that moment.
As a husband and father of two young kids a huge part of me can sympathize with this response. In a world of absolute unpredictability I worry about their safety on an hourly basis when I am not with them. Yet, what I often notice when conversations come up about keeping our families safe and whether or not violence should be employed, the first response is almost always emotional and never explored through the lens of Jesus first.
This is of the highest importance, and really the focal point of this post. When we call ourselves “followers of Jesus” this implies that what the Bible says about the character and ethics of Jesus matters without exception. While the biblical authors may have different angles, or different visions by how they communicate to their specific audience they were writing to, they most certainly crafted these ideas with the humble, self-sacrificing, all-loving, counter-cultural character of Jesus in mind.
If we call ourselves followers of Jesus, but refuse to let the Scriptures shape how Jesus requires us to follow him, we may be in danger of creating and following a Jesus in our own image. So while this post is concerned with living out a nonviolent ethic, the vehicle driving these thoughts is a Jesus-saturated worldview that holds him as the highest standard of faith and practice.
So then, if we begin with the Bible, where would we start? There is no shortage of passages to begin with. Personally, I think the Gospels are always a great place to begin the discussion. But the biggest push back I hear from those who believe national violence (specifically American war efforts) is absolutely important often cite Romans 13:1-5,
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 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 you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”
As the argument goes, believers need to be completely obedient to the national government because God has placed each ruler in power to carry out his will, this naturally would include war, which is devastating and violent.
But it does not take long to see how the general framing of this argument from this text is extremely subjective, and utter nonsense historically. Let me just list a few leaders from the twentieth century alone to demonstrate that a flat reading of “the authorities that exist have been established by God” (v. 1), or “for the one in authority is God’s servant for your good…” (v. 4) may be problematic.
Hitler. Stalin. Zedong. Pol Pot. Hussein.
Just these five men alone are responsible for the billions of deaths of their own citizens. Would the citizens who suffered abuse under these regimes have read Romans 13:1-5 through the same lens that American Christians often suggest we should read it? It is safe to say absolutely not!
Thus to naively suggest that all authorities need unwavering loyalty would be a bit demented. Yet interestingly enough, American evangelicals who typically rally around war efforts and raise the flag of American nationalism know that there are certain boundaries that Christians should not cross. The largest example concerns the issue of abortion. Most conservative evangelicals have no problem defying the government when it comes to defending the unborn. As somebody who is thoroughly pro-life, I applaud some (not all) of their efforts.
So where is the line drawn? Obviously, this will be fleshed out among different countries and cultures living under the rule of different governing authorities. But as it pertains to the issue of a sword-wielding government that demands unwavering loyalty, there is a better way to understand how to approach Romans 13.
The first thing we notice in this text is that nowhere does Paul mention anything related to war or deliberate violence. Paul’s central point to be “subject to the governing authorities” in v. 1 is pointing us to v. 6, “this is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.” In other words, Paul is telling us to show our loyalty to the state in paying taxes, since the government can be a great advocate for those who have been wronged by others.
Secondly, the use of the word “subject” in v. 1a is important in grasping Paul’s meaning. Paul tells the Romans to “be subject” not “obey.” Naturally, obedience is a huge ingredient in submission, but Paul wants the Romans to look at their governing authorities as an institution of hierarchy and that in the rhythms of daily living, the government has ultimate authority over the people. Whether a government is good or evil, and whether we like it or not, this rule is generally true.
But that is only the first part of v.1!
The second part provides deep encouragement to those facing persecution from the government, or any other oppressor for that matter. Paul states, “The authorities that exist have been established by God” (v. 1b). This means those who exercise authority over any group of people also have a sovereign God who is exercising authority over them. The governing authorities are not sovereign and are never off the hook.
Indeed, however, Paul is clear that the main function of government is in bringing order to society. In v. 3 he states quite pointedly, “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong…” Then later in v. 4 he concludes, “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason.”
As soon as I read these two verses I am left pondering if Paul is really serious?
Governments have been terrorizing their own citizens as long as organized societies have existed. Again, I appeal to the list of dictators above as an example.
But this is a prime example of why understanding context is key. As we saw earlier, in vv. 1-2, Paul forms the argument that governments “have been established by God,” and “whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted…” Therefore, if God is the one who in his sovereignty controls the government, it would be in our best interest to respectfully obey the government as much as possible. The heart of the matter is civil obedience, not international conflict. This is what Paul is referencing when he assures the Romans that their governing authorities will “bear the sword.”
This is still a bit troubling since what a government deems necessary to “bear the sword” is subjective and determined by that particular governing body’s moral code. Thus, as Christians in the first century who were facing persecution for following Jesus and rejecting the imperial cult, their actions were probably deemed evil by the state and worthy of the sword. However, I agree with Douglas Moo when he states,
“For the purpose of his argument at this point, Paul is assuming that the laws of the state embody those general moral principles that are taught in the word of God. The ‘evil’ that the civil authorities punish, therefore, is evil in the absolute sense: those acts that God himself condemns as evil. Only if this is so can we explain how Paul can see the government’s use of the sword as a manifestation of its role as ‘God’s servant.’”
Paul is talking about civil obedience in a broader sense, determining that it's obedience to a truly sovereignty God, who truly governs all nations, which enables the follower of Jesus to accept the governance of political authorities (even the really bad ones). Furthermore submission to the sovereignty of God means we live quiet and submissive lives, even if this means abuse against us on their part.
Still, it is the passages which precede Romans 13:1-7 that make this humble, Jesus-centered lifestyle possible. In Romans 12:9-21, Paul echoes the words of Jesus from Matthew 5 when he states,
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.” (Romans 12:14-16)
All of the key verbs such as “bless,” “do not curse,” “rejoice,” and so forth are all imperatives. Paul is not simply suggesting we live with compassion toward our enemies, he is commanding it. But for Paul this makes sense since we are following a crucified king. Jesus simultaneously suffered torture and death at the hands of both his own people and their enemy Rome.
To live this sort of lifestyle is identified as a “cruciform lifestyle.” This means the follower of Jesus lives a life shaped by the cross (cf. Mark 8:34). Joseph Hellerman further clarifies,
“The cross of Christ is all about self-denial, sacrifice, living and dying in the service of others. The Christian life, at its essence, is a cruciform life. It is a life shaped like – and shaped by – the cross of Jesus Christ.”
These are the characteristics, which shape and define how one should respond to any form of conflict. Whether we are in an argument with a loved one, someone cuts us off on the freeway, or terror and nuclear war are glooming over the horizon, Jesus-followers mimic the lifestyle and character of Jesus. Always. As followers of Jesus we can actually take great comfort in this.
Because the sovereign Lord who holds the balance of all eternity in his grasp, has instructed his covenant people, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). Instead God offers to handle his divine judgment through those he has placed in positions of authority (Rom. 13:4). Our responsibility is faithfulness.
Paul defines faithfulness in Romans 12:20-12,
“'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’”
The answer to hate and violence is loving-kindness. This is certainly very difficult to do as our human nature rarely allows for us respond to injustice with kindness. As Americans we are born with the DNA that demands immediate retribution and maintaining a defensive posture. I understand it personally. I struggle with that on a daily basis.
But again, it is the character of Jesus that needs to form opinions and determine how one should respond to all of life’s complexities, especially the use of violence against my enemies.
So as we see, not only is Romans 13 not remotely interested in a Christian’s participation in global affairs that involve violence and war, but even if one were to use this passage to defend such a position they would not get very far. The central theme of Romans 12-13 is Jesus-centered, compassionate, enemy-embracing love that transcends any misguided view of violent retribution.
I prefer this way to live as a follower of Jesus instead of living a life saturated in fear and defense, ready to kill.
 Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 802.
 Joseph H. Hellerman, Embracing shared ministry: Power and status in the early church and why it matters today (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2013), 15.