In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States central government issues guidelines for states to follow in an effort to avoid a surge in demand on healthcare in the country that would outstrip supply. Various states have taken those guidelines and turned them into strict laws that require everyone to “shelter-in-place” – that is, no one may leave their home (except to obtain food and other essentials – but not including work to pay for that food).
Responses to these laws have varied, with many questioning both their prudence and their constitutional authority. This post is not intended to comment upon either of those questions. It may or may not be prudent. Various states may or may not have authority according to their state constitutions to do so. And those constitutions themselves may or may not be legitimate sources of authority. I am not addressing any of that here.
I wish to address one specific response: Christians must comply with these new laws because Romans 13:1-7 says that we must obey whatever our rulers say. Many claim it would be sinful to leave your house for any “non-essential” reason. I believe this interpretation of the text is incorrect.
A common interpretation of the text is that Romans 13 commands us to obey every single law in every jurisdiction unless that law requires us to sin because civil government is placed by God and receives its authority from him.
Another common interpretation of the text (held by the majority of reformed theologians) is that Romans 13 commands us to obey every single law in every jurisdiction unless that law exceeds the contractual agreement (constitution) established between the ruler and the people.
I believe both of these interpretations are incorrect. The first conflates God’s two distinct wills (decretive and preceptive). The second misunderstands Romans 13 as a reference to God’s preceptive will.
An essential component of properly interpreting Romans 13 is determining which will of God is referred to. There is God’s sovereign, decretive will: providence. All things in history happen according to God’s will. God’s second “will” is his preceptive will: His commands to men. Note that these are two distinct things that cannot logically be conflated.
God’s Preceptive Will
Which will does Paul have in mind when he says “established” (NIV), “instituted” (ESV), “ordained” (KJV), “appointed” (YLT)? If he is referring to God’s preceptive will, then the meaning is that God has commanded the establishment of the institution of civil government. He is not referring to any specific ruler, but merely to the institution. This necessarily entails that civil government, like any authority (such as husband or elder), has a specific, limited scope to its authority and need only be obeyed within the confines of that scope. If a ruler steps beyond those limits, they no longer possess authority and may be disobeyed and removed. This also necessarily entails that the ruler must possess legitimate authority. It cannot be usurped power. It cannot be the power of a conquering king. Since all men are equally created in the image of God, no man by birth possesses kingly authority over another. Thus this authority may only be established through the consent of the people (as argued by Beza, Rutherford, and the majority of the reformed tradition). If these people withdraw their consent because of the ruler’s violation of the terms of agreement (i.e. he becomes a terror to good works, not evil), then they are at liberty to replace him. This interpretation drove the 16th century Scottish revolution, the 17th century English revolution, and the 18th century American revolution (which was known in England as “The Presbyterian Revolt”). The logic here is airtight.
But this specifically does not fit the context of Romans 13 wherein Paul was warning Christians not to join with the Jewish zealots who sought to overthrow Rome’s unjust (conquering) occupation of Jerusalem through tax revolt. If Paul was referring to God’s establishment of an institution, then Rome had clearly stepped beyond the limit of that authority by their occupation of Jerusalem and thus they were owed no subjection. Yet Paul commands subjection.
God’s Decretive Will
If, however, Paul has in mind God’s decretive will, then the meaning is that God has providentially ordained and appointed specific men to have power (not authority) over other men. This, not the other interpretation, fits the Old Covenant background of Nebuchadnezzar that Paul clearly had in mind. God did not grant Nebuchadnezzar authority over Jerusalem. He granted him power over Jerusalem. How do we know this? Because God specifically says that Nebuchadnezzar would be punished for his unjust invasion and enslavement of Jerusalem – the very thing he gave him power to do.
Israel’s history was a history of rebelling against and overthrowing foreign occupation by the power and blessing of God. Subjection to all higher powers is not a creation ordinance. But in this instance, because Nebuchadnezzar was a curse against Judah for their violation of Mosaic law, God commanded the Jews not to rebel but to submit to his yoke instead – not because Nebuchadnezzar possessed legitimate authority, but because God had providentially ordained that he have power to destroy Jerusalem and take a remnant who submitted to him captive, so that God could later restore them from exile.
This is parallel to Paul’s instruction in Romans 13. While we wait for the return of our king, Christians are to be subject to (not rebel – note that the Greek word is not “obey”) the mighty men (the “state”), because God has a purpose and is providentially ordering these things for our good. We are not to avenge ourselves against the state (as Gen 9:6 gives image bearers authority to do; Rom 12:19) but we are instead to follow the example of Christ and turn the other cheek, suffering injustice until he returns. I believe this is the most logically coherent interpretation of the text and does the best justice to the immediate and intra-canonical context.
A Conflation of God’s Two Wills
It is important to note that the vast majority of interpreters conflate these two distinct interpretations. The Scottish Presbyterians were consistent enough to recognize it must be one or the other. Most today, like Kuyper (following Calvin), argue that the passage refers both to God’s establishment of an institution AND to his ordination of specific persons to that institution. That’s not a logical possibility but most people are completely unaware that they slip between these two concepts when interpreting the passage. Pointing out this inconsistency goes a long ways towards its proper interpretation.
In an unpublished master’s thesis, Dr. Samuel Waldron notes
The word Paul uses (the Greek verb, hupotasso) is precisely the one we would expect if Paul is intent on inculcating the opposite of revolution and rebellion. Subordination (the translation I favor for bringing out the meaning of the verb, hupotasso) is the virtue which has for its contrasting vice, rebellion… Ordinarily, of course, subordination includes obedience. These two things, however, cannot be simply equated… Is the conscientious disobedience mandated by the Scriptures an exception to the requirement of subordination found in Rom. 13:1? To put the question more clearly, Is such conscientious disobedience insubordination, rebellion, or incipient revolution? The answer clearly must be negative! Conscientious disobedience to certain of the demands of ordained human authorities [powers] is clearly consistent with the strictest subordination to their general authority [power]. Lenski sees the matter very clearly when he asserts, “Refusal to obey was not in any way standing against the arrangement of God and the governmental authority [power] this high court possessed.”“Political Revolution in the Reformed Tradition: An Historical and Biblical Critique” unpublished
During these difficult times we must ask God for great wisdom. We must weigh the various risks and concerns and make prudent decisions. We must love our neighbors. But we should not fear that disobedience to the edicts of our governments on issues related to the pandemic is necessarily sinful. We must disobey if the government commands us to sin, but we may also disobey in other situations without incurring sin.
For a more detailed examination, see the following posts: