Romans 13 Forbids Revolution, not Disobedience (and where Calvin erred)

On May 1, Samuel Waldron participated in a panel discussion titled “When to Disobey the Government.” He made one very important distinction between subjection and obedience. He argued that Romans 13 commands subjection, not necessarily obedience. He clarified that if Christians are commanded to sin, they must disobey, but in areas where they are not commanded to sin but a ruler exceeds their jurisdiction, Christians have the liberty to disobey. Watch this 2 minute excerpt:

Louis W. Hensler III, JD makes the same distinction (page 48) in his excellent essay “Flexible Interpretations of ‘The Powers that Be’ from Constantine to Mandela and Beyond.”

Paul begins the passage by declaring to his readers a broad obligation to submit: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers”; the Greek word translated in the King James Bible as “be subject unto” is hypotassomai, “a hierarchical term.”51 It is important to note that the word is not synonymous with “obey.” “The Greek language has good words to denote obedience, in the sense of completely bending one’s will and one’s actions to the desires of another. What Paul calls for, however, is subordination.”52 The word chosen by Paul generally does not mean “obedience”…

The conscientious objector who refuses to do what his government asks him to do, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, or the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him to death, is being subordinate even though he is not obeying.

This distinction helps untie the Gordian Knot of Romans 13:1-7. Most interpreters believe the passage forbids disobedience and revolution. However they disagree on the limits of that prohibition. One side (epitomized by Rutherford) argues that if a magistrate exceeds their jurisdiction, the prohibition no longer applies and Christians are free to disobey and revolt. The other side (epitomized by Calvin) argues that Christians must continue to obey tyrants (unless commanded to sin) and may never revolt. Waldron provides balance between the two.

Did Calvin Hold to the Distinction?

In the full video, Waldron suggests Calvin would have agreed with his distinction. However, I do not see that in Calvin. Rather, he uses the terms interchangeably. Furthermore, he is clear that the only time a Christian may disobey a ruler is when they are commanded to sin, even if the ruler is a tyrant who acts illegally.

[M]any cannot be persuaded to recognise such persons for princes, whose command, as far as lawful, they are bound to obey… But if we have respect to the word of God, it will lead us farther, and make us subject not only to the authority of those princes who honestly and faithfully perform their duty toward us, but all princes, by whatever means they have so become, although there is nothing they less perform than the duty of princes… in so far as public obedience is concerned, he is to be held in the same honour and reverence as the best of kings.

Institutes 4.20.24-25

(1 Sam 8:11-17) Certainly these things could not be done legally by kings, whom the law trained most admirably to all kinds of restraint; but it was called justice in regard to the people, because they were bound to obey, and could not lawfully resist: as if Samuel had said, To such a degree will kings indulge in tyranny, which it will not be for you to restrain. The only thing remaining for you will be to receive their commands, and be obedient to their words.


But rulers, you will say, owe mutual duties to those under them. This I have already confessed. But if from this you conclude that obedience is to be returned to none but just governors, you reason absurdly.


Finally, in paragraph 36 he seems to give the only indication of a limit to a ruler’s authority and thus our requirement to obey.

But in that obedience which we hold to be due to the commands of rulers, we must always make the exception, nay, must be particularly careful that it is not incompatible with obedience to Him to whose will the wishes of all kings should be subject, to whose decrees their commands must yield, to whose majesty their sceptres must bow… On this ground Daniel denies that he had sinned in any respect against the king when he refused to obey his impious decree (Dan. 6:22), because the king had exceeded his limits, and not only been injurious to men, but, by raising his horn against God, had virtually abrogated his own power.


Where Calvin Erred (The Two Wills of God)

The reason why subsequent generations of reformed theologians disagreed with Calvin is because his interpretation is inconsistent. He failed to adequately distinguish the two wills of God. He argued that we must obey rulers because they occupy a divine office possessed with divine authority. Rutherford agreed, but he and others (like Beza) recognized that any divinely delegated office is limited in scope and thus if an individual acts beyond the limits of that office, they act as a private individual and may be ignored. (This is the same for a pastor who steps beyond his authority and starts telling members of the church they may only marry who he says they may marry or may only take jobs he says they can take.)

The reason for the difference is that Beza, Rutherford, et al recognize that divine offices are established mediately. Beza said

[T]he authority of all magistrates, however supreme and powerful they are, is dependent upon the public authority of those who have raised them to this degree of dignity, and not contrariwise.

Rutherford said

I conceive it to be evident that royal dignity is not immediately, and without the intervention of the people’s consent, given by God to any one person, and that conquest and violence is no just title to a crown… Politicians agree to this as an undeniable truth, that as domestic society is natural, being grounded upon nature’s instinct, so politic society is voluntary, being grounded on the consent of men.

Calvin disagreed. He believed that conquest and violence were legitimate titles to a crown because the office is given immediately to individual rulers by God’s providence.

It is thereby intimated that they have a commission from God, that they are invested with divine authority, and, in fact, represent the person of God, as whose substitutes they in a manner act… it is not owing to human perverseness that supreme power on earth is lodged in kings and other governors, but by Divine Providence, and the holy decree of Him to whom it has seemed good so to govern the affairs of men, since he is present, and also presides in enacting laws and exercising judicial equity… (Rom 13:1,3)


[I]f it has pleased him to appoint kings over kingdoms, and senates or burgomasters over free states, whatever be the form which he has appointed in the places in which we live, our duty is to obey and submit.


Those, indeed, who rule for the public good, are true examples and specimens of his beneficence, while those who domineer unjustly and tyrannically are raised up by him to punish the people for their iniquity. Still all alike possess that sacred majesty with which he has invested lawful power.


And, first, I would have the reader carefully to attend to that Divine Providence which, not without cause, is so often set before us in Scripture, and that special act of distributing kingdoms, and setting up as kings whomsoever he pleases. In Daniel it is said, “He changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up kings” (Dan. 2:21, 37). Again, “That the living may know that the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will” (Dan. 4:17, 25). Similar sentiments occur throughout Scripture, but they abound particularly in the prophetical books. What kind of king Nebuchadnezzar, he who stormed Jerusalem, was, is well known. He was an active invader and devastator of other countries. Yet the Lord declares in Ezekiel that he had given him the land of Egypt as his hire for the devastation which he had committed. Daniel also said to him, “Thou, O king, art a king of kings: for the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory. And wheresoever the children of men dwell, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the heaven hath he given into thine hand, and hath made thee ruler over them all” (Dan. 2:37, 38). Again, he says to his son Belshazzar, “The most high God gave Nebuchadnezzar thy father a kingdom, and majesty, and glory, and honour: and for the majesty that he gave him, all people, nations, and languages, trembled and feared before him” (Dan. 5:18, 19). When we hear that the king was appointed by God, let us, at the same time, call to mind those heavenly edicts as to honouring and fearing the king, and we shall have no doubt that we are to view the most iniquitous tyrant as occupying the place with which the Lord has honoured him.


If we constantly keep before our eyes and minds the fact, that even the most iniquitous kings are appointed by the same decree which establishes all regal authority, we will never entertain the seditious thought, that a king is to be treated according to his deserts, and that we are not bound to act the part of good subjects to him who does not in his turn act the part of a king to us.


[T]he Apostle intended by this word [“higher powers”] to take away the frivolous curiosity of men, who are wont often to inquire by what right they who rule have obtained their authority; but it ought to be enough for us, that they do rule; for they have not ascended by their own power into this high station, but have been placed there by the Lord’s hand.

Commentary Romans 13:1

Calvin correctly understood the Old Testament example of Nebuchadnezzar as an example of God providentially empowering an individual to conquer and rule. But Rutherford was also correct that any conqueror who acts like Nebuchadnezzar has exceeded the office of magistrate. Rutherford correctly notes “I grant, often God’s decree revealed by the event, that a conqueror be on the throne, but this will is not our rule, and the people are to swear no oath of allegiance contrary to God’s Voluntas signi, which is his revealed will in his word regulating us.”

Romans 13: Which Will?

In his commentary on Romans 13, where Calvin must deal with Paul’s logic, he trips. On Romans 13:1 (“the powers that be are ordained of God.”) Calvin says

The reason why we ought to be subject to magistrates is, because they are constituted by God’s ordination… [T]yrannies and unjust exercise of power, as they are full of disorder, (ἀταξίας) are not an ordained government.

That is what Rutherford said (see Rutherford on Romans 13 and the Logic of Resistance). We must obey the ordinance of God. Tyranny and injustice is not the ordinance of God. “When the magistrate doth anything by violence, and without law, in so far doing against his office, he is not a magistrate. Then, say I, that power by which he doth, is not of God.”

On 13:3 (“For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.”) Calvin says

He now commends to us obedience to princes on the ground of utility… that the Lord has designed in this way to provide for the tranquillity of the good, and to restrain the waywardness of the wicked… But he speaks here of the true, and, as it were, of the native duty of the magistrate, from which however they who hold power often degenerate;

How then are we to respond to false magistrates? “…[F]rom which however they who hold power often degenerate; yet the obedience due to princes ought to be rendered to them.”

Why? Calvin offers three reasons we must still obey false magistrates.

First, he says if a ruler becomes a tyrant, it’s only because the people deserve it as chastening from God, so they must submit to it. Please note very well: Paul never offers that as a reason. Calvin has to stray from the text and invent a reason for Paul’s command, a reason that Paul himself never gave.

Second, he claims that no matter how bad tyrants become, they always “retain in their tyranny some kind of just government.” Not only is this not necessarily true, it does not explain why a tyrant must be obeyed in their tyranny.

Third, commenting on 13:2 (“Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God”) Calvin says “As no one can resist God but to his own ruin, he threatens, that they shall not be unpunished who in this respect oppose the providence of God.” But notice what he has just done. He has equivocated on the word “ordinance.” In 13:1 Calvin says “ordinance” means just government, not tyranny. But in 13:2 he says “ordinance” means “providence,” including tyranny. This is the heart of Calvin’s error. He simply jumps between God’s two wills as it suits him. Regretfully, Waldron follows him in this error.

Romans 13: Providential Empowerment

So we must remain consistent throughout verses 1-7. “Ordinance” must refer to either God’s providence, or to a divine institution/office. It cannot mean both. Calvin’s interpretation is not an option. Consistently reading the passage as referring to the office (not any particular person in that office), though more logical, in my opinion winds up saying precisely the opposite of Paul: that Christians may join in tax revolt against Rome.

The remaining possibility is that the passage refers not to an office, but to God’s providential empowering of men to rule over others. This does not necessarily have any regard to an office or an institution. It refers to power, not authority. This fits much better with the background of Nebuchadnezzar. Paul commanded Christians to remain subject to Rome’s injustices, to not revolt against Rome, but instead to wait patiently upon the Lord who will avenge every wrong. I believe that God does not want us to be distracted from the kingdom of heaven by the injustice of the kingdoms of men.

Here is a paraphrase of the passage as I understand it:

Let every soul be subject to the powers over them. For there is no power but from God and the powers that exist have been providentially placed there by God. Therefore whoever rebels against those powers is rebelling against what God has appointed, and those who rebel will bring judgment on themselves. (For rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you want to be free from fear of the one who has power? Then don’t resist him and you will receive his approval. For a powerful ruler is God’s instrument for your good (Rom 8:28). But if you disobey God and rebel, be afraid, for God has not empowered him with the strength of the sword in vain. He is God’s instrument to administer retribution on those who disobey (such as Jerusalem). Therefore you must not rebel, not only because of the wrath of the powers but also because of your conscience (because you know that God has providentially given them power for your good). For this reason you should also pay taxes, for they are God’s servants attending continually upon this very thing. Pay everyone what is due: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

Finally, here is a chart showing the different views (PDF):

Further reading:

3 thoughts on “Romans 13 Forbids Revolution, not Disobedience (and where Calvin erred)

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