Political Revolution in the Reformed Tradition, Two: Romans 13:1-7, 14:1-12

Last time, we analyzed Dr. Sam Waldron’s book, Political Revolution in the Reformed Tradition. I chose to analyze this book because it provides crucial perspectives for both the Church and the individual Christian as they navigate through the perplexing ethical and societal questions that have recently emerged. What are these perplexing ethical and societal questions? How is the Christian called to think and act biblically while simultaneously residing in the midst of two kingdoms: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world? How does the Christian faithfully serve God when he or she lives under a civil authority that either denies God’s existence or treats God as a subordinate? How do Christians respond to civil authorities that exalt themselves above the Lord and try to usurp authority in the Church or the home? In the prior episode, I used Political Revolution as a theological guide to answer five specific questions:

Those questions were:

  • Where does the government come from?
  • What is a civil authority called to do?
  • Does the Bible support or prohibit political revolution?
  • What is the relationship between subordination to civil magistrates and obedience to the same authorities?
  • Does Romans 13 call us to obey the government blindly in all situations?

To summarize the main answers from last time, I will paraphrase the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith:

God alone is sovereign, and He has ordained civil magistrates (the State) to be under Him and over the people for His own glory and the public good. Thus, He armed the State with the power of the sword for defense, encouragement of those who do good, and punishment of evil-doers. Because God has ordained civil magistrates, Christians ought to yield to them in the Lord in all lawful things commanded by them, not only for wrath but also for the sake of conscience. However, when the civil magistrate commands an unlawful thing, we are obligated to obey God and disobey authorities.

All that remains is to apply the previously discussed principles to specific situations in everyday life. Today I will answer five additional questions:

  • What is the specific sphere of the State’s authority?
  • How does the Christian respond when the State exceeds its lawful jurisdiction?
  • How should the Christian view the State: positively, negatively, or neutrally?
  • How should the Church engage with the State?
  • In the United States, does Romans 13 guide us in voting?

Let’s now move to the first question:

(1) What is the specific sphere of the State’s authority?

Last time, we defined what the State is, what it is called to do in a limited sphere of authority, and how we are called to respond to it. The question now becomes: If the State’s authority is limited, what are the limitations of its jurisdiction? Romans 13:1-4 tells us that the State is responsible for maintaining law and order, and it may use the power of the sword to do so. The Christian understands that the task of government is not only divinely ordained but also requires financial support. The Christian is therefore obligated to pay taxes with a distinctive motive and understanding: that their financial contributions are an element of obedience and devotion to God. Hence, Romans 13:5-7 says:

Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Pay to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; respect to whom respect; honor to whom honor.

So, if we consider Romans 13:1-7 as a whole, what is made explicit is that the State’s sphere of authority certainly includes law and order, such as armies, police, judicial systems, etc. Its sphere also includes taxation to finance its maintenance of law and order. We get into gray areas when the State acts outside the domain of law and order.

On the one hand, just because the Bible is silent on whether it’s the State’s business to be involved in (for example) health, education, or social welfare programs, this does not necessarily imply that the State is overreaching if it does operate in these areas, so long as it remains aware that its primary function is maintaining law and order. The State fails to adhere to its biblical calling when it puts primary emphasis on peripheral matters at the expense of law and order. Thus, the State fails to fulfill its responsibilities when it, for example, enforces social policies that promote lawlessness and chaos.

On the other hand, nothing is “sphereless” or outside the four domains of human authority: the Church, the family, the State, and the individual. Hence, if any entity steps outside its sphere, it necessarily intrudes on the domain of another sphere, which nudges an investigation into that authority’s validity. So, for those who are bound by the sharp borders of Romans 13, the sphere of the State’s authority is limited to law and order.

(2) How does the Christian respond when the State exceeds its lawful jurisdiction and invades the jurisdiction of another divinely appointed human authority, like the jurisdiction of the Church or the family?

It is Waldron’s view that when the State exceeds its lawful jurisdiction, the Christian may disobey the government. I agree with this conclusion because it does not establish a black-and-white rule that all must follow uniformly in all situations. After all, reality can sometimes be fuzzy and complicated. Thus, individual Christians are free to exercise their Christian liberty in matters where they are not compelled to sin against God by the State (for if they are compelled, they must disobey). The principle that guides the Christian in such matters is the principle of conscience. It’s no surprise that after Paul gives us principles for living in subjection to authorities in Romans 13, he anticipates divergent responses. Thus, in the next chapter, the apostle gives us principles of conscience. Romans 14:1-3, 10-12 says:

Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not to have quarrels over opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but the one who is weak eats only vegetables. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him […] But as for you, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or you as well, why do you regard your brother or sister with contempt? For we will all appear before the judgment seat of God. For it is written: “As I live, says the Lord, to Me every knee will bow, and every tongue will give praise to God.”

So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.

So what is conscience, defined biblically? Conscience is an innate sense of God’s moral law that is installed in all human beings. God alone is the Lord of the conscience since He is the One who implanted it in each individual. Accordingly, when we talk about the State’s lawful jurisdiction, there will be gray areas in matters that are morally neutral. As a result, different Christians will be led in different directions based on conscience—and that’s okay—as long as we all realize that all true Christians are children of God. That is a crucial point not to miss. Divergent decisions on peripheral matters will not bear weight in eternity. In the end, as children of God, we are members of the same spiritual family and are obligated to love one another, regardless of where conscience leads on neutral matters. Before you evaluate your brother’s behavior, consider yours first because you will give an account of yourself to the Lord, not an account of another.

Hence, what we ought never to do is impose our will on our neighbor or allow our conscience to crush someone else’s Christian liberty. What we ought never to do is say, “Because I have a preference for one thing in a neutral matter, then you must also do as I do.” When engaging with members of the Church, we ought not to let decisions about the State divide us, because when the State is long gone, we shall remain in Christ’s eternal Church.

Furthermore, developing a proper biblical response to the State’s overreach is critical because, historically speaking, the great error Christians have tended to make is to uncritically yield to the State. This historical insight must be taken seriously because the State becomes a demonic State precisely when it pushes beyond its assigned sphere and seeks to control all aspects of life: think of Hitler’s Third Reich and Stalin’s Russia. In both historical regimes, civil magistrates wanted to control what you thought, what you did, what you said, and how you worshipped. This is clearly against biblical teaching. However, history teaches us that in the face of State-sanctioned evil, the Christian is more likely to be passive than active in resisting it. Exaltation is human nature, and when armed with the power of the sword, individuals in the State will invariably seek to gain more power and control. This is the great temptation of secular power. Therefore, every Christian must draw clear lines indicating where they will refuse to allow the State to intrude and do so with a clear conscience. It is crucial that every Christian has a biblical framework to think about their response to the State’s overreach.

This call to action is timely because, at the peak of the COVID-19 hysteria, we witnessed States acting “for good” under the guise of a public health emergency when, in reality, that “good” was veiled evil and forced many toward sin; for example, shutting churches down or compelling individuals to act against their conscience for a medical procedure. I don’t think I need to rehash the past, but it is crucial that all Christians understand that, biblically speaking, the family, Church, and individual each have their own inviolate spheres of authority. The family is the core social unit of civilization and preceded the State. Marriage and family existed before the Fall; the State was ordained to curb evil after the Fall. The bond between a man and a woman is meant to represent  Christ and the Church. Parents naturally give life to a child, which is why they are their ultimate earthly authority. The Church is essential; the Church must gather regularly and corporately; and the Church is duty-bound to obey Christ even when doing so violates governmental regulations and restrictions. Each individual is unique and is an image-bearer of God. God has granted each person a degree of freedom of thought, speech, and action, and God, the Lord of conscience, has given only individuals the gift of moral conscience, which they are free to exercise based on divine truth. Personal moral conscience is a divine gift that God has granted to individuals living under a State that acts without morals.

(3) How should the Christian view the State? Positively, negatively, or neutrally?

The Christian view of government is that it is something ordained by God for our good. And God would not have ordained something if He expected us to disregard it. Practically speaking, this means Christians can neither live in a bubble without thinking of civil authority nor despise it. After all, if we totally ignored all matters of secular authority and kept our heads in the figurative sand, we are tacitly saying that we are comfortable leaving matters of the State in the hands of the godless. We ought not to keep our light under a blanket or our salt in the spice cabinet. Where neither light nor salt exists, they are the most valuable.

Because it is ordained by God, the Christian is called to have a positive view of secular authority in general. This, of course, does not mean we approve of specific evil manifestations of said authority. In fact, as I said last time, when governments degenerate and godless immorality flourishes, the hearts of the godly are deeply troubled. Still, God cares for His creatures and has regard for them. Therefore, one of the ways through which He providentially directs history and takes care of human affairs is through secular authority. When contemplating the evil of civil authority, let us always be mindful that God is not negligent but rather provident. In fact, believing in a negligent God is worse than believing in no God. The denial of God’s providence provides only the security to prostitute one’s conscience and encourage sin.

For many, corporate, State-sanctioned evil troubles the heart to a greater degree than individual evil, as the former involves both more active, coordinated collaboration in service to malice (for the few) and more sloth in the face of immorality (for the many). Yet the very presence of rising evil in the world should give the Christian a renewed faith in God’s purposes. What do I mean by that? Well, in Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, Jesus tells a parable of the wheat and the weeds to explain what the kingdom of God is like. In the said parable, the field is the world. Christ is the sower who sows good seed in the ground. Such seeds are sons and daughters of the kingdom and will grow up to be wheat. At the end of the age, the good seeds will endure to the next age and shine like the sun in God’s kingdom. The devil, however, is the one who sows bad seeds, and those are the sons and daughters of the evil one. The bad seeds grow up to be weeds. At the end of the age, the reaping angels will throw the weeds into the lake of fire. In the parable, the field workers recognize that the enemy has tried to sabotage their work when they observe many grown weeds adjacent to grain-bearing wheat. The workers then ask the landowner, “Should we gather up the weeds?” However, Jesus explains that the landowner gives a very interesting answer in Matthew 13:29-30:

[The landowner said], ‘No; while you are gathering up the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and at the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather up the weeds and bind them in bundles to burn them; but gather the wheat into my barn.”’ (italics mine)

According to divine design, this verse tells us that wheat and weeds are permitted to grow side-by-side. What does it mean? When we look out into the world—and witness the wanton evil of weeds—we can have hope, knowing that such weeds only grow where there is adjacent grain-yielding wheat. That is, where the sons of the devil are growing, so are the sons of God. And, right now, God is only working to preserve and protect His children, for the weeds will not deter the growth of the wheat. This is our hope for the present. Additionally, while weeds may appear to be successful in the kingdom of the world, their end is doom. In other words, they are guaranteed to fail. Yet the wheat are cared for by God Himself. That is, they are guaranteed to endure. Christ’s words thus give us great hope for now and for eternity, even in the midst of evil secular authority, knowing that under the direction of a provident God, nothing escapes His gaze. While evil grows, He is growing His kingdom.

This hope sheds insight into the warnings and encouragements given by Christ to His people in the Book of Revelation, where Christ repeatedly says, “To the one who overcomes” (cf. Revelation 2:9, 17, 26), He will reward in the end. This message is fitting for the American Christian who, for so long, has gotten comfortable with secular authority that overall has been friendly to Christianity. However, get used to being made uncomfortable. Consider how, in the Book of Revelation, accepting the consequences of disobedience is validated in that we are called to endure unjust imprisonment and die for faith:

‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the slander by those who say they are Jews, and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. The one who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.’ (Revelation 2:9-11)

When the Christian thinks about the State, although that perception is a positive one in general, it is also clear that the State certainly is not God and therefore is not sovereign. The point is that the Christian is not called to think about the government in such a positive light that it is regarded as messianic. Secular authority has never been, is not, and will never be a means of salvation. It has no positive ability to develop morality among its people, but the government can express a certain morality. Whenever we think about the State, the single most important thing Christians can do is to think about their individual pursuit of holiness and become aware of how they can be more Christ-like; that is, repent, pray, seek the face of the Lord, and turn from your individual wicked ways (II Chronicles 7:14). History shows that God gives people the leaders they deserve. Just ask the ancient Israelites who, despite God’s warning that the king would oppress them, begged for a king (Saul), who ended up oppressing them. Thus, when talking about societal change, what is evident is that when God begins to work in individuals, a moral climate is created, and then things begin to change. Consequently, what will change things is not electing a new politician or voting for a person who is born again. Politics is unable to affect the change you want unless God has awakened the people’s hearts. Additionally, the person who is awake to God’s truth is quick to remind civil authorities that they are also accountable to the Lord.

The final two points I will make on this question relate to war and rebellion. Generally speaking, there is nothing inherently wrong with either. War is justified if it follows what the Bible calls the State to do: restrain evil. With proper evidence, wars of defense are always justified. In contrast, wars of aggression are seldom justifiable. Regarding rebellion, it can be justifiable so long as the rebellion is not a violent political revolution initiated by those who are not civil magistrates. In the end, every man must be firmly determined in his own conscience after a thorough examination of the causes.

(4) How should the Church engage with the State?

The Church’s role will be different from that of the individual. How? By its prophetic criticism. The Church is not responsible for law and order, but it can provide the State with biblical principles upon which it can base its laws. After all, the only valid basis for the law is morality and, above that, a divinely given morality. The only right and legal basis for the law is divine morality; otherwise, the law is not based on the truth. So, if the law does not produce morality, then the government must find that morality from another source. What source? God Himself. He is the only legitimate source of transcendent, universal morality, and He gives expression to that moral code through His Word to His people. So, if morality comes from God, the only people who can give expression to it are the people of God. The reality is that those in positions of authority are likely not searching the Scriptures for guidance, so the Church will communicate truth to them for the benefit of society overall. This, of course, does not mean the Church will seek to “make Christian” all of society. It merely proclaims principles. Similarly, while the Church will not try to force society into being pro-God, the State is not called to force society into being anti-God.

When the Church offers prophetic criticism, it does so based on the moral law contained in the Bible. Basically, the moral law is summarized in the Ten Commandments. The purpose of the moral law is to promote the welfare of those who obey. It also includes penalties for disobedience. Because God’s moral law is a reflection of His character, we, as humans created in His image, are to live according to that. You see, the God who designed and is sovereign over all of reality is a moral God, and the moral arc of the universe bends toward righteousness. If a person does what is right, they will prosper. If they do what is wrong, they will fail. Even more, the moral law encompasses regulations on justice, respect, and property rights, so common sense tells us how it would benefit society overall. Truly, the moral law does not point people to Christ; rather, it merely illuminates the fallen state of all mankind.

The one distinction to be made here is that the Church ought not to endorse laws that use coercion to create obedience in relation to the “First Table” of the Law: those principles that speak to violations of the Spirit (for example, “Don’t commit idolatry” in Exodus 20:4). Justification and sanctification—which are both God-initiated, non-coercive processes—are the business of the Church. After all, practically speaking, how would the State enforce violations of the Spirit (e.g., worship, idolatry, etc.)? That would open the door to theocratic totalitarianism. The State governs over both the regenerate and the unregenerate, so it is not responsible for enforcing the First Table of the Law on non-Christians. God will be the final judge of those who violate the First Table. The State is best suited to enforce violations of the Second Table where concrete, tangible harm is done to another.

(5) In the United States, does Romans 13 guide us in voting?

Yes, Romans 13 does help us think and act biblically when, in the United States, we have the privilege to vote in an election. Let us be thankful for this wonderful privilege, cognizant that in many other nations in the world, citizens cannot vote. Let us also be thankful for this wonderful privilege, cognizant that in many other nations in the world, “voting” is regarded as an exercise in futility.

The first issue to consider is whether you should vote at all. Well, there is no biblical command to vote, and no federal, state, or local laws demand it. However, if we, as Christians, are to serve as “watchmen” (Ezekiel 33:1-12) and examples to those around us, it is prudent if we do vote. If we don’t, we leave the whole matter up to the world.

The second issue to consider is that Romans 13 (in the context of the whole canon of Scripture) persuades us to see that we never vote for a candidate; rather, we vote for principles that most closely align with God’s truth. That is, the text tells us what the State is called to do and how we should respond to it. The text does not specify the desired character traits of the leaders themselves. Instead, the apostle Paul emphasizes the principles by which civil authority—as a corporate body—is supposed to operate. Notice the distinction between the qualifications for secular leadership and those for church leadership, where the man’s character is of prime importance (see 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9).

The idea of voting for principles finds support when the Bible talks about the responsibilities of a king. Yes, the age of the ancient Israelite theocracy is over, but God’s principles are timeless. In Deuteronomy 17:14-20, what we learn is that the king’s primary responsibility was the administration of justice; in other words, the process of using laws to fairly judge and punish crimes and criminals. This correlates with the primary responsibility of the modern State in the administration of law and order. In Deuteronomy 17:14-17, God explains that the king ought not to enrich himself with horses, women, and gold because that would lead his heart astray. Then, in verses 18-20, He explains what a king should do:

Now it shall come about, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this Law on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, so that he will learn to fear the Lord his God, by carefully following all the words of this Law and these statutes, so that his heart will not be haughty toward his countrymen, and that he will not turn away from the commandment to the right or the left, so that he and his sons may live long in his kingdom in the midst of Israel.

In other words, what the king should do is be well-versed in God’s universal, transcendent moral law so that he may be an effective administrator of justice. Therefore, we are persuaded to vote for a candidate that abides by this principle.

As mentioned last time, we also have to wrestle with the fact that in Romans 13, Paul was writing to the Church in Imperial Rome, the same regime that crucified Christ. The same regime had men of a character comparable to that of Pilate, who sacrificed the truth and permitted the greatest injustice in the history of all time, the Crucifixion.

All of this, of course, does not suggest that the moral character of a candidate is of no consideration; it simply means that their moral character is not of primary consideration. Consider this: If we, as Christians, go to the ballot box and vote for candidates, we are essentially choosing between sinners. And in the case of American politics, you are likely voting for one unregenerate sinner over another. Is either character choice pro-God? In the case of history, the Bible teaches us an unfortunate lesson: People are biased toward “voting” for self-destructive leaders and have an inexplicable appetite for bad leadership (cf. Judges 9, I Samuel 8).

When voting for principles, you are, in essence, asking whose worldview—based on words and actions—most closely aligns with God’s truth. Granted, you may have two candidates whose worldviews are both light years away, but one may be closer than the other. Indeed, choosing is not always black and white, but there are some issues on which I think most biblical Christians can agree that establish clear lines of demarcation: abortion, freedom of speech, and the sphere of State. Thus, to simplify matters, when considering a candidate, ask if they believe that it is right to murder children. If they believe it to be right, then their entire moral compass is likely corrupt. Do they believe in free speech? If they do, they will defend the proclamation of the gospel. If they don’t, they threaten to prevent what God has commanded. What is their view of the State? A State which operates in a limited sphere is a biblical State. A State that tries to usurp authority in all spheres of life is a demonic State. What I must emphasize is that, based on the Scriptures, a candidate who favors the murder of children will invariably be a bad leader. What I also must make clear is that just because a candidate may be pro-life, pro-free speech and pro-limited government does not necessarily make them a good leader. Ultimately, God is the One who casts the deciding ballot, regardless of how you or I vote.

In American politics, I think it is readily obvious that those on the left have a worldview that is Satanic. It not only hates God but also attempts to reverse His design, as evidenced by its support for abortion, the re-definition of biblical marriage, the revolt against divine design (transgenderism), and the overreach of the State into the spheres of the Church, family, and individual. This recognition does not imply that those on the right are any better. That is, while the left’s worldview is clearly aligned with the will of Satan, in many instances, the political right’s worldview is clearly aligned with the will of man. This manifests in many instances as the championing of individual autonomy over that of God at all costs. You see, the universe has three great wills: God, man, and Satan. If you choose to do either man’s or Satan’s will, you are essentially making the same choice because you are choosing to be anti-God. As Christians, we are called to be discerning and to weigh everything carefully. We never vote against anything but are always “voting” for God’s principles. This is another great tension of living in the midst of the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God.

Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal

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