Recently in the Theonomy Q&A group (a terrific resource!) we received a question that touches on an issue that comes up quite a bit. It relates to the oft repeated and oft mistaken notion that Romans 13 was written during the Neronic persecution. The idea is that since Paul told the early Christians to obey their civil government, and Nero was allegedly persecuting them at the time, therefore everyone at all times needs to obey their civil rulers, even if they are engaging in tyranny. I think the answer given in the group, and expanded on here bears repeating as I’ve seen this mistake being made routinely.
“What would you tell an individual who references Roman’s 13 being written during the reign of Nero and therefore believing that Paul was suggesting we obey even a pagan government when it’s in control (so long as it doesn’t force you to do specifically anti Christian things)”
We are obligated to obey governments to the extent the laws they administer are just and to the extent the commands are within the proper jurisdiction of the governing civil authority. Nero wasn’t persecuting Christians at the time Paul wrote Romans.
Romans 13:3-5 makes this obvious.
“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
How in the world would Nero be mass murdering Christians and burning them alive if Nero was known to punish evil and reward good? Was he administering God’s wrath by murdering Christians? Beyond that, sources put the beginning of Neronic persecution of Christians after the fires in Rome in AD 64 and the book of Romans was written in AD 56/57.
Additionally, notice that this passage in Romans doesn’t even give an exception to disobey the civil magistrate if the magistrate commands you to sin. This exception needs to be implied through necessary consequence and a broader biblical understanding of what delegated human authority is and how we are to interact with human authorities in light of God’s commands. It is not there immediately in the text.
Authority & Jurisdiction
Now, most (if not all) Christians will allow for this exception, but these same Christians then turn around and claim that since there is no jurisdictional limits explicitly stated in the passage, that therefore no jurisdictional limits to civil authority exists. This is inconsistent.
We must recognize that there are many cases in scripture where certain people or groups of people are told to submit to various authorities with differing jurisdictions. Parents, employers, wives and husbands, elders and civil rulers. Often in scripture, at first glance these commands to submit first appear to be unqualified commands. Meaning, if you wanted to pull out one of these verses by itself and extricate it from the context of the rest of scripture, you could mistakenly conclude that these entities have unlimited authority and jurisdiction.
For example, in Titus 2:9-10, bondservants are even commanded to be submissive to their masters in “everything”. There is no “unless commanded to sin” exception nor any “unless exceeding jurisdictional limits” exception.
“Bondservants are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.”
Does that mean that the master gets to override the commands of civil magistrates, elders and spouse? It’s says “in everything” right? We must ask the question, what does “everything” relate to”? Everything in the universe? Or in everything according to proper authority and jurisdiction of the servant / master relationship? There are competing authorities in play at all times with differing jurisdictions. It’s not only that the master doesn’t have authority to command the bondservant to sin, there are entire areas where the master has no jurisdiction to make any binding authoritative command whatsoever.
Again, both the “unless commanded to sin” and “unless exceeding jurisdictional limits” are implied and not explicitly stated in the passage itself.
From a broader reading of scriptures, we know that the only one who has unlimited authority and jurisdiction is God. Limited authority is then delegated to various forms of government among men, according to their specific jurisdiction: Self government, family government, church government and civil government.
The civil government should not magically be treated as less susceptible to jurisdictional limits than other human authorities. To understand where these jurisdictions are limited and where they intersect, we must look to the whole of scripture, not just cherry pick a passage from Romans 13 which we treat differently than other authority structures.
A great place to start is to look at the role of the civil magistrate in the life of the people under Moses with the attending civil case law infrastructure. When the ceremonial elements are stripped away, what we are left with is a civil authority which has a jurisdiction limited mainly to punishing murder and theft. There are disagreements about further transcendent responsibilities of the civil magistrate related to expressions of false religion and sexual sin, but that’s for another article. You can also look at what a departure from that structure looks like in 1st Samuel 8 (A great book on this here) where due to idolatry, the people demand a greatly inflated jurisdictional role for the civil government and the destruction that ensues.
Under the biblical model of civil governance, the civil magistrate may not punish all kinds of sins. What sins were not punishable by civil sanctions were left to the family and the church to adjudicate. There was no carte blanche jurisdictional authority for civil government then and no such jurisdictional understanding should be inserted into the responsibility of civil government to punish evil in Romans 13. The civil government was not given authority to act as a source of welfare through confiscatory taxation, again this was not its proper jurisdiction but was left to the family and to the church. Old Testament Israel was given all kinds of positive commands for which the civil government was not entrusted to enforce with sanctions.
Romans 13 talks about the continuing role of proper civil government echoing Genesis 9:6 and the sword of government to punish the shedding of innocent blood, but it should not be understood to be granting unlimited power unto it. An interpretation along these lines is neither demanded by consistent interpretation nor is it in alignment with a comprehensive understanding of civil government taking into account the whole of scripture.