Romans 13, verses 1-7, is particularly vexing for a believer who values liberty. On its face, it tells the Christian to submit to governing authorities. Fair enough; in a free nation this is both logical and right.
What about under a tyrant, or, in worst cases, evil tyrannies such as the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany? Were these authorities “instituted by God?” Is it right to obey them, even though much of what is commanded flies in the face of Jesus’ great commandment to love others as oneself?
Until the Reformation, the only accepted answer by churchmen had been along the lines, “Yep. God grants His power to all rulers. So just line up, obey, and shut yer traps.”
The Reformation toppled that to the ground. In simplest terms, our ruling authorities are to be obeyed only insofar as they do not violate our covenant with God. The test? Does the government require of us that which is forbidden by Scripture? Does obedience to authority violate our religious liberty?
Romans 13:7 has the answer within it:
Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Is honor ever owed to rulers who are tyrants? Is respect ever owed to those who violate our God-given rights of Christian liberty?
No. And Paul’s letter to the Romans and its go-along-to-get-along “Christians” notwithstanding, a Christian owes nothing to an unrighteous ruler.
John Calvin wrote on this (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Wm. B.Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1989, Book IV, Chapter XX:32):
But in that obedience which we hold to be due to the commands of rulers, we must always make the exception, nay, must be particularly careful that it is not incompatible with obedience to Him to whose will the wishes of all kings should be subject, to whose decrees their commands must yield, to whose majesty their sceptres must bow. And, indeed, how preposterous were it, in pleasing men, to incur the offense of Him for whose sake you obey men!
The Lord, therefore, is King of kings. When He opens His sacred mouth, He alone is to be heard, instead of all and above all. We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against Him let us not pay the least regard to it, nor be moved by all the dignity which they possess as magistrates– a dignity to which no injury is done when it is subordinated to the special and truly supreme power of God.
Was Romans 13 added, or edited, to smooth the way for Christians under persecution by the Roman authorities? Possibly. But, up until the Reformation, the Roman Church stood in for most authorities. With decidedly mixed results.
It took the Reformation to set those who value Christian liberty free from its conventional reading of blind obedience to government or church authorities. And, not to put too fine a point to it, without this interpretation of Romans 13, that is, without the Reformation and its attendant Christian liberty, we likely would never have had our Revolution against George III.