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5 June 2023

In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul carefully instructs his readers on how Christians should regard the State when he writes: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1).

“Therefore,” the apostle adds, “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement” (Romans 13:2).

That this injunction is meant for every Christian is clear from the context. As the New Testament scholar C.E.B. Cranfield explains: “In its context ‘every person’ is ‘every Christian (in Rome)’. The phrase is emphatic. No Christian is to imagine himself exempt from the obligation indicated.” [1]

This passage is the locus classicus of the New Testament’s teaching on the nature of the secular governing authority, the basis for a Christian theology of the State.

According to Paul, the State was instituted by God to serve a specific function, which is to reward the good and to punish evildoers(Romans 13:3-4). This has led the Magisterial Reformers of the 16th century such as Martin Luther and John Calvin to develop their understanding of the State in light of the primordial fall of man.

The State, the Reformers argue, exists as a sign of the fact of Original Sin. Put differently, it is because human beings are sinners—fallen and sinful creatures—that society needs a State in this form to maintain some semblance of civility and order.

It is on the basis of this fundamental insight of the Reformers concerning the State that theologian Emil Brunner could write that:

… the Christian recognises the State, which exists whether he will or no, and whose peace and authority he “inherits” as a gift of God, as a divinely salutary means of discipline; to adjust oneself to the State and to accept it is both an act of discipline and an act of repentance. [2]

This, however, does not suggest that the State itself is somehow exempt from Original Sin or immune from its dire effects.

Theologian Helmut Thielicke clarifies that “the State, when it restrains evil, is not aiming at sin itself—in whose representation it has a share—but simply contesting the excesses of selfishness. It resists the selfishness which is inimical to order.” [3]

The State, like the rest of creation, is fallen.  That God has brought it into existence and given it a specific role does not imply that it possesses some intrinsic quality that allows it to surmount her fallen condition. Rather, it signals God’s unmerited grace.

The fact that the State is fallen, sinful and imperfect implies that Romans 13 can never be read as an injunction for Christians to submit themselves unquestioningly to it. For the just State of Romans 13 could become the demonic State of Revelation 13.

The State becomes demonic when it blasphemes God by demanding Caesar is to be worshipped, and when it makes war with the people of God. History has indeed produced many examples of such anti-God States that have abused the authority that God has given to them.

The submissive obedience of Christians to the State therefore can never be absolute—it must always be a conditional and qualified submission. This is clearly articulated in the Augsburg Confession:

Christians, therefore, must necessarily obey their magistrates and laws, save only when they command any sin; for then they must rather obey God than men (Acts 5:29) [Emphasis added]. [4]

Cranfield similarly notes that there must be exceptions to Paul’s injunction in Romans 13:1when he writes that “Paul is enjoining no uncritical obedience to whatever command the civil authority may decide to give…” Christians are required to obey civil authorities “so far as such obedience does not conflict with God’s laws…”[5]

Christians are to obey civil authority only insofar as it does not require them to disobey God. Thus, if the State commands what God forbids, or forbids what God commands, then Christians no longer have a duty to obey the State.

At the end of the famous story about paying taxes to Caesar (Mark 12:13-17), Jesus made this remarkable statement in reply to the Pharisees, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s”.

Jesus’ injunction clearly encourages Christians to be loyal to the State, but at the same time it sets limits to that loyalty. Simply put, while the Christian may give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, he must never give to Caesar what belongs to God!

This command therefore rejects any attempt to absolutise the State or any earthly power and authority. For to do so is to treat the State as divine—it is to allow it to usurp the place of God.

Put differently, to do so is to commit the treacherous sin of idolatry.

[1] C.E.B. Cranfield, Romans: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1985), 320.
[2] Emil Brunner, Divine Imperative: A Study in Christian Ethics (Louisville, KY: Westminster Press, 1947), 446.
[3] Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics. Volume II (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 252.
[4] Quoted in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1966), Vol III, 16, 17.
[5] Cranfield, Romans, 321.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.