We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
You can hear the roots of this document in the way it argues. The impulse is not Romans 13. It is the man-centered Deism of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Romans 13 says that governments derive their just powers from God. It is probably true that democracy is the best kind of government to protect us from the tyrannical opposition to God that rules in every human heart apart from Christ. But the way to get there is not by denying the deity of Christ, putting God at a deistic distance and elevating man. However you understand the Declaration of Independence, one thing is clear: America’s very existence hinged on the way Romans 13 was or was not understood and obeyed.
The issue of submitting to the governing authorities and the meaning of Romans 13 are important matters. Of the three questions I said need to be answered—(1) What is the evidence from the Bible that God sometimes approves of his people not submitting to the very authority he had put in place? (2) When is such civil disobedience right, and what should it look like? (3) How does such civil disobedience fit with Romans 13:1-7, and why are the statements about the goodness of government stated here with such unqualified absoluteness?—I want to end today by dealing with the last one, then deal with the other two next time.
If the Bible allows for civil disobedience sometimes (as in Acts 5:28-29, where the Jewish officials said, “‘We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’”) then why does Paul speak the way he does in Romans 13? Why is there such a seemingly unqualified of the rights of civil authority?
I have three answers to suggest. I offer them for your consideration, not as something I am completely sure of. Paul doesn’t say why he speaks this way.
1) Paul is probably writing to be read by government officials as well as by the church in Rome. In other words, he knows that this letter will find its way into Caesar’s household and into the hands of the civil authorities. He wants them to understand two truths. One is that Christians are not out to overthrow the empire politically by claiming Jesus, and not Caesar, is Lord. Christians submit to laws and pay taxes and show respect and do good in the community. Leave us alone. We are not revolutionaries against your throne. We are harmless lovers of lost and hurting people and will do much good in your empire.
2) The other truth he wants the civil authorities to see (and this is the second reason Paul writes the way he does) is that their authority is based on God’s sovereignty and God’s moral law. Verse 1: “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Listen to that the way Caesar would, not just the way Christians would. It is a powerful statement that Caesar is not God. He is not absolute. He is secondary not primary. He is not in control, God is in control. So the absoluteness of the statement may be designed to leave Caesar no wiggle room. God is absolutely above Caesar (no wiggle room), but that means for Christians: Yes, God has put governments in place and submission should be our first impulse, but no, they are not absolute.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org