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Romans 13 and the Right of Revolution

Wallace Henley Portrait
Wallace Henley |

As the United States readies to celebrate its independence on July 4, a thorny question arises: Does the Bible really grant nations—especially those once labeled "Christian"—the right of revolution, or do the Scriptures forbid it?

Romans 13, now much in focus because of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' appeal to the passage (affirmed by White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders) to support current federal immigration policy and practice, would seem, according to some interpreters, to demand unquestioning submission to "authority."

As already noted in the Christian Post, this passage has been too often used as the proof-text for all kinds of tyrannies. Yet its true principles are essential to healthy governance and stable civilization.

The key to understanding what the Holy Spirit is saying through Paul in Romans 13 is in three Greek words that provide important distinctions not always expressed in English translations. All three terms appear in Ephesians 1:19-21.

Romans 13 is about the differences between true authority (Greek, exousia), mere power (dunamis) and raw might (kratos). There are important differences between those words, based on the original Greek of the New Testament.

  1. Authority is given from the higher to the lower, while mere power and raw might are seized by those with enough muscle. True authority recognizes God's transcendence, and those in governance understand they have been given a trust for which they are accountable. Romans 13:1 says "there is no authority except from God." Those who seize power through their own might may claim that because they have stolen their position they have God-sanctioned authority, but if God has not given it to them through the people, the people are not obligated to submit. Therefore...
  2. Authority is entrusted only to those under authority, while authoritarians relying on the power seized by their own might are subject only to hubris which they mistake for "transcendence." King Saul lost his kingdom because he came out from under the authority of Samuel. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11 that the husband is the authority in the household, but that the husband is qualified for that position only if he is submitted to Christ. When a godly husband is not in the home, the authority devolves to the godly wife or single mom, as described in 1 Corinthians 7. A wife is not bound to be subject to a husband not under true authority.
  3. True authority is sustained through servanthood, but mere power and raw might are upheld through mastery. Governments in the home, church, school, civil institutions, businesses and other corporate structures are given to establish order midst chaos. But that order biblically is based on love, not legalism—although law is necessary in the fallen world. Illegitimate tyrants will try to be masters of their people, but true authority holders recognize themselves as servants.
  4. Legitimate authority leads through character that inspires respect, but mere power and raw might control through manipulation, intimidation, condemnation, and domination.

Thus, Romans 13 shows the characteristics of true governance: its magistrates affirm and encourage good behavior, but discourage evil actions (Romans 13:3); true authority is a minister of God for good, and enforces justice (Romans 13:4); true authority protects the innocent and prosecutes the evil (Romans 13:4).

The people are to be subject to such legitimate government. However: Any governing system that comes out from under true authority is subject to legitimate resistance, revolution and replacement.

The American founders, somewhat biblically literate even if not all seriously committed Christians, placed this principle in the nation's founding documents.

Thomas Jefferson, in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, recognized God's transcendence (people "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights"). Governments are given authority to "secure these rights" of the people, not for the purpose of "securing" the interests of tyrants. Finally, "whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall most likely effect their safety and happiness."

The founders thus made provision in the Constitution for the orderly "revolution" of the ballot box, and for amending ("altering") the Constitution itself.

Politically, authoritarianism will gravitate between right and left. I grew up in the Deep South, ruled over by authoritarians on the right. Now, the primary threat of authoritarianism looms largely from the progressivist left.

The principles laid out in Romans 13 and other passages are crucial because the fundamental temptation is power. Lucifer's temptations to Adam and Eve in the Garden and Jesus in the wilderness came down to this: Seize the power for yourself and your own interests!

Therefore, there will always be a clustering of demons around power-holders and their centers of power.

"The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse," said Edmund Burke. Those who govern and the people they serve must be wary of the tyrant in us all. Romans 13 gives us the brilliant light that can save us from becoming authoritarians, and give legitimacy to those who seek to remove us from power when we do.

So let the people revolt when authorities become authoritarians, but let it be through peaceful, non-violent means, lest the revolutionaries themselves become demonized tyrants depending on mere power and raw might.

Wallace Henley is senior associate pastor at Houston's Second Baptist Church, and the architect of Belhaven University's Master of Ministry leadership degree. He is a former newspaper reporter and editor, White House and Congressional aide. He is co-author of God and Churchill, with Jonathan Sandys, Winston Churchill's great-grandson.

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