Rightful Rule: Romans 13 For Today

“Read Romans 13!” wrote a Roman Catholic layman to a newspaper as he chided Jaime Cardinal Sin for being critical of the Marcos government.

“Read Romans 13!” wrote back a Baptist leader when asked to endorse “A Call to Repentance,” issued by Diliman Bible Church in September 1983, two weeks after Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino was assassinated at the Manila International Airport.

The “Call” included a litany of “Philippine realities”–widespread poverty, rampant graft and corruption in government, militarization, a suppressed press, unfair elections, uncertainty over succession, a subservient parliament, a Supreme Court losing its credibility, etc.

Both letters illustrate the pivotal importance that Romans 13 held in the attitude of Bible-oriented Filipinos–Catholic and Protestant–toward their government and the political situation. This was true all throughout the Martial Law years (1972-81), as well as during the more recent events that culminated in the February Revolution of 1986.

On the other hand, Oscar Cullmann, referring particularly to verse 2 of Romans 13, wrote some years ago: “Few sayings in the New Testament have suffered as much misuse as this one” (The State in the New Testament, pp.55ff.). He cited particularly its misuse in justifying uncritical submission to the dictates of totalitarian governments.

What does Romans 13 actually say? What did it mean for the saints in Rome (at the time of writing)? What does it mean for Filipino Christians today?

An Exposition Of Romans 13

Here is the text of Romans 13: 1-7 in the New International Version:

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time in governing. Give everyone what you owe him; if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

This passage teaches four vital principles concerning the Christian and the State :

  1. Power and authority are not the same.
  2. We submit to authority because it is God-given.
  3. The authority of rulers is limited.
  4. Rulers are given authority for a purpose.

Power and Authority Are Not The Same

The Bible clearly distinguishes between power and authority. Power is dunamis, from which we have dynamite, while authority is exousia, from the verb exesti, meaning it is lawful. Power is might, the force of an army or the strength of an Arnold Schwarzenegger. Authority is power rightfully held and lawfully exercised, as that of a parent over his child, or a just

judge over a criminal. Power is simply might, while authority is might that is right (see “Authority,” New Bible Dictionary, pp. 111-113).

Paul is dealing with authority in Romans 13, or rightful rule.

We Submit To Authority

The reason we submit to our rulers is our recognition that their authority comes from God Himself. We submit to Him by submitting to them. We cannot rebel against them for that is to rebel against Him. To rebel here is literally to be anti-what-God-has-established.

A subtle distinction can be made between submission and simple obedience. To obey is to do what one is told while to be submissive is literally to rank oneself under another. Perhaps the reason Paul uses submission is to show that our obedience is not blind but is qualified by God’s law. He may also be stressing the needed attitude: we are to willingly submit to our rulers in recognition of their God-given authority over us. It is for the Lord’s sake that we submit (cf. 1 Peter 2:13).

The Authority of Rulers is Limited

Our rulers do not have absolute authority. When Jesus was asked the tricky question about paying taxes to the imperialistic Roman government, His reply was: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). Some have seen here a reference to the tithe (which belongs to God), but if this is so, then some governments which get more than ten per cent in taxes are getting more than God! What Jesus meant rather is that Caesar is entitled to be supported with taxes, but only God deserves absolute loyalty! When Caesar claims allegiance that belongs only to God, the Christian has no choice but to say no.

When rulers give orders which are contrary to God’s law for example, by ordering infanticide (Exodus 1) or the worship of idols (Daniel 3), or by prohibiting evangelism (Acts 5), then Christians must say: We must obey God rather than men! (Acts 5:29).

Rulers Are Given Authority For A Purpose

Governing authorities exist in order to promote good and restrain evil. In fulfilling this divine design, rulers function as God’s servants(or ministers, literally as deacons in verse 4 and liturgists in verse 6).

Caesar may not be aware that this is what he is doing, but this is biblical teaching that goes back to the Old Testament (e.g. Isaiah 10: 5-11 concerning Assyria, and Isaiah 45: 1 regarding Cyrus).

It is extremely important to understand the divine design. God delegates His authority to human rulers (verses 1 and 2) and the purpose is for them to promote good and restrain evil (verses 3 and 4). These two parts of the one paragraph must not be separated from each other. We must not understand the delegation of divine authority apart from the divine purpose for which it is given. This is basic hermeneutics.

Reflections On Romans 13

Do rulers lose their right to rule? Do rulers ever lose their right to rule?

Certainly. When they reverse the divine design by promoting evil and restraining good, rulers frustrate God’s purpose for human government and lose their right to rule.

This is a difficult judgment to make, and some Christians simply refuse to make it. They argue that whatever government there is is God’s provision–a de facto government is the de jure government as a matter of course.

They admit that government exists to promote both order and justice(equivalent to restraining evil and promoting good) but order is more important than justice. Order is a prerequisite and therefore prior to justice. Anarchy is the great evil so that unjust government is better than no government. The Christian is in fact the exact opposite of the anarchist who says that all governments are bad and some are worse than others. In contrast, the Christian says that government is God’s provision for social good (order and justice), and even bad government is to be preferred to no government. Anarchy cannot be God’s will for human society(cf. Judges 21:25).

There is merit in the argument against anarchy. However, to conclude that whatever government there is is God’s provision is to interpret verses 1 and 2 of Romans 13 without the context of verses 3 and 4. It is to overlook or ignore the purpose for which God delegates His authority to human rulers: to promote good and restrain evil. To simply accept a ruler who oppresses us, or steals us blind, or deceives us constantly–because he is God’s provision–is illogical. The most we can say is that God tolerates such a ruler, not that God has installed him to do us evil! That is to make God a partner in wickedness! What a ridiculous conclusion. If God delegates His authority to rulers so that they may promote good and restrain evil, how can we say that He also installs certain rulers who do exactly the opposite of what He wants?

Six Grades of Government

When we reflect on historical experience and the contemporary scene, we discover that most governments are a mixed blessing. Some are quite good, others do some good, and there are regimes that are particularly evil. None is perfect. We may range them thus:

  1. Perfect government will come only when Jesus the King returns to establish His kingdom in all its fullness.
  2. Just government is possible where full participatory democracy is in bloom so that the people elect good leaders, and replace them as necessary.
  3. Mediocre government takes place if less than the best people are chosen to rule.
  4. Ineffective government happens in places where rulers are changed too frequently or the people are ungovernable for some reason.
  5. Corrupt government develops when rulers assume public office mainly for private gain.
  6. Wicked government ensues when those in authority are particularly wicked, unjust and oppressive.

Christians as well as other people have made the judgment on Hitler as a wicked ruler. Many have made similar judgments on Idi Amin of Uganda and “Baby Doc” Duvalier of Haiti in more recent times. And Pol Pot of Kampuchea.

Filipino Christians have been more hesitant to come to the same conclusion regarding Ferdinand Marcos. Hitler has been easier to judge because historical hindsight gives us 20/20 vision. We cannot now plead myopia when what we are viewing is up close! Uganda and Haiti are not only far away; often the only news we get is bad news.

Marcos was a clever propagandist who knew how to use the media. During the early years of Martial Rule, he cleaned up the streets of garbage and loose firearms. He was friendly to evangelical Christians and imposed no restrictions on purely evangelistic activities. He rolled out the red carpet for Billy Graham when Graham came in 1977. He received Jerry Falwell as a V.I.P. in 1985.

The Christians who finally decided to class Marcos with Hitler and Amin and Duvalier came to their conclusion slowly and only in the light of mounting evidence.

What About Roman Rule?

What about Roman rule? Some Christians assert that Nero’s reign was wicked too but Paul did not tell the Roman Christians to reject it! We can respond to this assertion in one of three ways.

First, we can say that Paul knew that Roman rule was wicked but he still told the Roman Christians that it existed to promote good and restrain evil.

Paul was either a liar or an ostrich!

Second, we can say that Paul’s experience with Roman justice was actually good and he could testify that Roman rule existed to promote good and restrain evil.

He was certainly proud of his Roman citizenship and made use of it (Acts 16:37, 22:25ff). His appeal to the Roman emperor for his trial (Acts 25:11) was implicit confidence that he would be tried more justly in Rome than in Palestine. Furthermore, when he wrote the letter to the Romans–many scholars say in AD 57–Nero had been emperor for only three years. The Neronian persecution was to come later.

The third possibility is that Paul was not making any judgment on the quality of Roman rule at all. He was only explaining God’s design for human government in general.

Option two is attractive but option three cannot be ruled out.

Replacing Wicked Rulers

Suppose our rulers are wicked, how are they replaced? May Christians oppose such a ruler? May they join others in a “just revolution”?

Romans 13 does not actually deal with these questions. The biblical perspective as a whole however is clear: believers are to entrust themselves to God. It is His business to enthrone kings and depose them! (Daniel 2:21 for example; also Jeremiah 27:1ff). Even wicked peoples and rulers are under His sovereign rule and may be used by Him in judgment of others (Isaiah 10 and 45).

Jesus certainly rejected the zealot option of revolutionary violence (e.g. John 18:36, Matthew 26:52ff), even if it can be shown on other grounds that a nationalist attitude to imperialist Roman rule was just.

Reformed doctrine has upheld this view. Passive disobedience to unjust law is one thing; it is even mandatory when the ruler’s command is contrary to God’s law (Exodus 1, etc.). Armed resistance–even to an unjust ruler–is something else. Calvin could write: “Better that all the children of God in France should perish than that the Gospel be dishonored by the bloodshed of resistance…” (quoted in Vernon Grounds, Revolution and the Christian Faith, p.136). Luther, on the other hand, is described as one who “always sided with those who condemn rebellion against those who cause it” (Paul Ramsey, War and the Christian Conscience, pp. 119,120).

The Barricade Question

To join or not to join, that was the question of the barricades.

On February 22, 1986, Saturday evening, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Deputy Armed Forces Chief Lieut. General Fidel Ramos announced over the radio that they were quitting the Marcos government, saying that Marcos did not win the February 7 election. They holed up in Camp Aguinaldo (later transferring to Camp Crame across the road), with only a few hundred soldiers to defend them. Over the Roman Catholic Radio Veritas the call was issued for a large number of civilians to surround the military camps to serve as a buffer between the rebels and the Marcos forces that were sure to come.

Many evangelicals were in a quandary. Can they respond to a call from a Roman Catholic radio station? Would not participation in the barricades be equivalent to armed rebellion against the Marcos government? Is it not better to simply pray in our homes and in our churches? As it turned out, for many evangelicals, prayer was the main or only response.

There were evangelicals who did not hesitate to join the barricades (see Christianity Today, April 18, 1986). They had no intention of toppling the Marcos government by force of arms. Their reason for joining the barricades was simple and straight-forward: by providing a civilian buffer between the Enrile/Ramos forces and the Marcos soldiers, a shooting war would be prevented from breaking out and a peaceful resolution of the conflict could hopefully be worked out. The barricaders knew of course that their lives were in danger should the Marcos forces decide to attack.

Many of them came to grips with this fact but were ready to lay down their lives. They knew that there would be safety in numbers, but their faith was in God. They were clearly unarmed.

As it turned out, the civilian barricade was so large (perhaps a million people surrounded the military camps by Sunday afternoon, February 23) that Marcos finally had to flee for his life, as defection after defection characterized his armed forces. A non-violent “revolution” finally toppled his 20-year regime!

The Evangelical Barricaders

Who were the evangelicals who joined the barricades?

The bulk of them came from churches where the input from the Inter-Varsity student movement had been significant. Even through the Martial Law years, many of these Bible believers were not comfortable with the simplistic interpretation of Romans 13 that said that whatever government you have is God’s provision.

They did not join the chorus that gratefully greeted the declaration of Martial Law in September 1972. They were thankful for some of the reforms that characterized the early years of Martial Rule. Nevertheless, from their study groups, the conviction slowly grew that Marcos was a very clever lawyer who used the law mainly for his private gain and that of his family and close friends.

At a conference sponsored by the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture (ISACC) in June 1981, like-minded evangelicals took a hard look at “Philippine realities”–widespread poverty, corrupt government, etc., for the first time. It was inevitable that Diliman Bible Church–with many Inter-Varsity people in its leadership–would issue its “Call to Repentance” when Ninoy Aquino was killed, two years later.

Convinced that as Christian citizens they needed to be more involved in the political life of the nation, many of these Christians joined the National Citizens Movement for Free Elections or NAMFREL. It was their participation as NAMFREL volunteers or citizen watchdogs in the February 7 presidential election that finally convinced many of them of the wickedness of Marcos. As eyewitnesses to rampant cheating, vote-buying, intimidation and coercion, ballot box switching, etc., they could only conclude that Marcos had systematic well-laid plans to keep himself in power by any means.

They also came to the conclusion, like C.E.B. Cranfield (Commentary on Romans, Volume 2, p. 663) that their political duty as Christians in 1986 was more than simply to pray and to obey. They saw that Romans 13 needed not only to be interpreted faithfully in its original context (an epistle to Roman Christians in the First Century) but also needed to be translated into the situation of the present day (of Filipino Christians in the 20th Century).

Roman Christians and Filipino Believers

It was not right to think of ourselves as First Century Roman Christians who had no particular participation in the choice of our rulers. To do that was to turn back the clock, an impossible task!

The exegesis of Romans 13 has not changed. The four principles it teaches remain the same: power and authority are not the same, we submit to authority because it is God-given, the authority of rulers is not absolute, rulers are given authority for a purpose.

The new element in our time that distinguishes us from the Roman Christians is called participatory democracy. Democracy is a truism today. Even the East Germans call their state a “democratic republic,” in spite of the Berlin Wall. Lincoln’s dictum of a government by the people, of the people, and for the people is now everywhere embraced, in theory if not in practice.

Democracy is perfectly consistent with the biblical doctrine of man (see Chapter 11 in John Bennett, Christians and the State, pp. 146-162). If we are equal in dignity and worth before our maker, then no one has the right to enslave his brother or to impose his rule on another. Dictatorship, slavery, and apartheid are all wrong for essentially the same reason: they all trample upon a human being who is made in the image of God.

Participatory democracy is a historical development that should not be resisted and for which we should be thankful. To pretend that we are still in the first century may seem to make our political duty simpler, but it is a step backward. Today we can no longer say that the choice of rulers is entirely in God’s hands. In a democracy we have the awesome privilege of choosing those who rule over us. To opt out of this process on the ground that the Christians in Rome did not vote for the Emperor Nero is a cop-out.

It is to read Scripture simply as a book of precedents rather than as a book of principles. We might as well say that slavery should be restored, and the work of William Wilberforce and company was a mistake. It is to lend support to those in South Africa who defend apartheid and still call themselves Christians–as P.W. Botha does.

The modern declaration is to say that sovereignty resides in the people and authority comes from them. It is more biblical to say that authority comes from God, and he delegates some to rulers, who are chosen by the people.

Two Tests of Legitimacy

In other words, there are two tests of legitimacy. How do we judge rightful rule?

The first test we have already seen as conformity to divine design. If rulers promote good and restrain evil we may say that they have God-given authority to rule. It is to them–rather than say, a rival claimant or a shadow government–that God has delegated His authority. Such rulers do not have to do their job perfectly in order to qualify. However, when a regime becomes so bad that it reverses the divine design, it loses all moral authority to rule.

The second test that a government has the right to rule is that it has been freely chosen by the people. The corollary is that the same rulers may be replaced peacefully when the people decide that they are incompetent or insincere in promoting the public welfare.

This is why the ballot is precious, why it is a sacred trust. For the same reason, elections must be free and fair. Those who subvert elections, frustrate them, and install themselves in power by force or fraud are usurpers and have no right to rule. We must be clear that we are deciding something very important when we vote: who we should honor as rulers, to whom we should submit, who gets our taxes, who has the right to wield the sword in punishment of evildoers, etc. We are deciding who our rightful rulers are.

To the question, Who has the right to rule?, the Roman Christians had at most only half an answer. We however have no excuse for saying we don’t know! We have two clear criteria to go by.

Using both criteria, many evangelicals who joined the barricades were already convinced that Marcos had no right to rule. He had cheated in the February 7 election. If there was some doubt in the canvassing of the ballots at the Batasang Pambansa which was followed by the hasty proclamation of Marcos as winner, the massive throngs at “the revolution on EDSA” settled the issue. Marcos lost the election and no longer had a mandate to remain as president. The people had spoken.

While Waiting For the King

The people power revolution at EDSA was like a cool breeze at the end of a long hot summer. It not only gave the Filipino people a sense of hope, it has also restored their pride. We recovered not only our freedom but also our dignity.

Nevertheless, we do not put all our hopes in human government. Several months after the wonderful experience at EDSA, the problems of the Filipino nation remain serious. This is the morning after, and the arduous task of nation-building has barely begun. Reversing twenty-years of misrule is no picnic.

The communist insurgency has shown few signs of abating. The economy is still in the doldrums (much aid has been promised but little has actually come). A new Constitution is being written and its approval is vital for the needed transition “from revolutionary to constitutional government.” The appointment of local officials has generated much controversy that may be resolved only by elections. The recovery of the Marcos billions is a slow process, though some progress has been made. Often there is wrangling in the Cory Aquino cabinet. The problems are serious indeed.

All this is no cause for despair. It is a call to prayer on behalf of the nation’s leaders–that they may fulfill their God-given task of promoting good and restraining evil. It is a call to greater participation in the life of the nation–Jesus says: Christians are preserving salt and guiding light (Matthew 5: 13, 14).

It is also a needed reminder that the perfect government will not come until the return of the Lord Jesus. It is upon the shoulders of the Baby of Bethlehem that the kingdom of peace, righteousness and justice will be placed (Isaiah 9:6). Then the kingdom of this world shall become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. And He shall reign forever and ever! (Revelation 11:15).

Meanwhile, as we wait for the coming of the King–and His kingdom in blazing splendour–we can still pray as He taught us to pray: Our Father…your will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).

We can be the sons of the kingdom who hunger and thirst after righteousness and who shall be filled (Matthew 5:6). We can be those who are zealous for justice to roll on like a river, and for righteousness to flow like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:24).

by Dr. Isabelo F. Magalit
Diliman Bible Church
Quezon City, PHILIPPINES
16 August 1986


Dr. Isabelo Magalit was in the staff of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship in the Philippines for almost 20 years and later served as the president of the Asian Theological Seminary

One Reply to “Rightful Rule: Romans 13 For Today”

  1. I heartily support Dr Isabelo’s exegesis of Romans 13 with his accredited textual support. The traditional interpretation which demands Christians to kowtow to unrighteous dictatorial and repressive government needs correction.It is long overdue. Dr Isabelo’s interpretation incorporating the Philippino Marcos’ debacle expresses a needed Asian voice to what should be a growing chorus for a correct Evangelical interpretation of passages such as Romans 13. What do our Malaysian seminarians and exegetes think?

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