>A Pacifist Reading of Romans 13 – It’s Still All About Love

>Over the past few weeks I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on my attempt to remove the teachings of Jesus and the early church from any kind of political debate. Many of my readers have taken offense, or at least questioned my understanding of the role of the church in politics. They site passages such as Romans 13 that emphasis the centrality of God over all things, including government, and state that Christians must therefore become more involved in the political process in order to ensure that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Nice thought but that leads to a whole other debate over how well we understand what God’s will is in any given situation. Perhaps I’ll get into that one day but for now let’s stay focussed on one debate at a time, shall we?

I maintain that Jesus teaching on the centrality of brotherly love [Matthew 22:35-40] and enemy love [Matthew 5:43-47] transcend all politics and therefore must be held above any partisan debate over such trivial things as personal freedom, border security, economic policy and even the rule of law. They will know we are Christians by our love, not our political affiliation.

Indeed, even in the aforementioned Romans 13, Paul reiterates brotherly love as the central theme of Jesus teaching.

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. [Romans 13:8-10]

But I’m jumping ahead; my critics never get that far, they fixate on the first half of the chapter and miss the broader context. Romans 13 begins with this;

Let everyone be subject 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, whoever 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 for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents 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 as a matter of conscience. [Romans 13:1-5]

Interesting stuff no doubt but to fully understand what Paul is saying here we need to understand a bit of historical context. Read that passage again but this time, think about who were the “governing authorities” that Paul was referring to.

Paul is not talking about a democratically elected government. The “governing authorities” to which he is referring were agents of a Roman despot who held on to power through brutal oppression and coercion. It is impossible to read this passage and apply it to our western, democratic, capitalist values system that includes personal freedom and the rule of law, those things simply did not exist in Paul’s day.

No; this passage is a pragmatic call to pacifism in the face of brutal oppression and a reminder that no matter how evil and oppressive the governing authorities get, it is ultimately God who is in control. Paul reminds his readers to do what is right, not to rebel and God will take care of them. He goes on to remind them that there is no law against brotherly love, even going so far as to say that loving your fellow man is the fulfillment of all the laws [Romans 13:8-10].

But it’s also important to note what Paul does not say in this passage.

He does not say that Christians have a role to play in government. Yes the rulers are God’s servants but that does not mean that they need to be Christians too. Again, you have to remember the historical context. The Roman authorities that Paul is referring to were not Christians. They weren’t even Jews. The very notion that a breakaway Jewish sect would have a snowball’s chance in hell of significantly influencing the Roman government is simply ludicrous and the thought would never have crossed Paul’s mind. What Paul knew was that God could and often did use pagans to further his purpose here on earth, as He still does today.

This of course leads to another question, whether or not it’s possible for non-believers to be considered good. While I’m sure that would be a fun debate too, I’m not prepared to go down that road right now, as I said earlier, one thing at a time.

Finally Romans 13 ends with what is a familiar refrain in Paul’s teaching –

The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. [Romans 13:12-14]

When in doubt, act like Jesus.


  1. >Lauren, your post on Romans 13 is so obviously correct, as far as you go at least.Not that this will impress most people who want to believe otherwise. All scriptures are given in a unique situation, making them contextually specific. But moderns don't usually "get it." They generalize everything. Some become war mongers by generalizing, others, like you, become pacifists. But the truth is that there are both peaceful-pacific warrior-revolutionary passages throughout the entire bible.Until a person recognizes this, he or she can never understand the bible.

  2. >eltopiafrank…There is an obvious dichotomy between the Old and the New Testament in how war is treated and viewed and to be honest that still gives me pause when I consider pacifism as a way of life. I have a much easier time justifying my pacifist position when I look at the New Testament than I do when I look at the Old. So far the only thing I've found that can comfortably explain away some of the more violent history of the Old Testament is Hebrews 8:13 – "By calling this covenant "new", he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear." That's a really short answer to a much bigger question however, for more on my pacifist views go back to some of my posts from last spring starting around April 10 [Don't Be Surprised If I Offer You My Left Hand] and further explained and expanded upon for several weeks through until May 28 [My Last Word on Pacifism (for now)].

  3. >Thank you for the invitation. I look forward to some dialogue. In reading a few of your posts, it seems like we may share some common interests and concerns. I have not yet read what you said about pacifism, but I cannot go there with you. The Christian and libertarian interests, however, are areas of interests we might share. Of course, I invite you to become a "follower" as well of my pondering blog. You have shown me how to connect with others of shared interest, so I already thank you for that.

  4. >Pacifism vs the way things are in this worldand New Testament vs Old Keep in mind that the Old Testament is a very historically rooted account that spans a few thousand years whereas the New Testament message is primarily based on a philosophy and a way of life that is depicted in the life of Jesus and a band of early followers, which covers a span of less than a hundred years. Though war and defense of one's freedoms is not at the forefront of the New Testament, the imagery can often be found in the encouragement of living a Christian life. But Revelations brings us the vision of the war unlike any that we have seen–war is part of God's final plan.I don't think we are ever intended to just lay down before an enemy and give up because we love peace. If any foreign power representing an ideology and will to triumph over mine and trample that which I cherish into the mud, I hope I have an army to protect me, my loved ones and my nation. And if I have to take up arms then that is the right thing to do. I certainly prefer peace, but sometimes war is the necessary option. We need to choose our battles wisely, though, so that we fight on the right side.LeeTossing It Out

  5. >arlee…The book of Revelation is a dream, bound up in imagery that cannot be taken as a literal prediction of anything. We must be very careful how we interpret dreams, when was that last time any of your dreams made literal sense in the light of day?The way I see it the war "unlike any that we have seen" described in Revelation is a spiritual war between God and Satan and armies of angels and this going on right now, all around us without any help from humans. You do not need an army to protect you from any foreign power or ideology that would "trample what that which you cherish into the mud" if you truly understand what Christ-following is all about. Christ-following is about death to self, your desires and your ideologies. If you release all of your earthly desires for the cause of Christ, that which you cherish is already worthless by comparison. The question you have to ask yourself is; is your ideology really an idol that is creating a barrier between you and God? Truly content people are people who stop striving for things they know that can't hold on to. As one fellow Christ-follower put it "it's about letting go of a life that was never meant to be yours in the first place." and that includes your ideologies. [Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23, Colossians 3:1-3]Maybe that in and of itself is and ideology but it's still one that needs no protection other than that which I derive from God Himself.

  6. >Lauren,Thank you for the invite to follow and discuss, I am honored. You bring up an interesting thought on being a Christian may require being a pacifist. Very interesting as I am former military. This will be an enlightening discussion. Thank you again and I trust the Music Week went well.C'ya

  7. >Eagle Driver…I wouldn't necessarily go so far as to say the Christianity requires you to be a pacifist but it is certainly recommended. What is required is slightly different – He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. [Micah 6:8]

  8. >Agreed on what is required – well done. I am on a trip and will get back to you on pacifism. I do not think I can argue against being a pacifist however being a Christian and a warrior are not mutually exclusive. Off the top of my head I think of Luke 7:1-17 and Jesus' lack of condemnation of the Centurion. Like I said I'll get back to you as I am on a trip.Good blog, will enjoy the discussions.C'ya

  9. >Eagle Driver…It's pretty easy to build a theology around things that aren't said in scripture. The question of the Centurion's job never comes up in that story. That is a story about Jesus respect for the Centurion's faith we don't know what Jesus opinion of his job is becuase He is never asked and He never addresses the Centurion directly, the healing is done from a distance while speaking with the Centurion's servants. The story speaks more to Jesus respect for the individual than anything else, similar to the way He interacts with sinners throughout the Gospels.

  10. >Lauren,You made a good point by stating that the important thing is to love everyone as Christ loved everyone. Loving of our enemies is particularly hard, yet it is possible by the grace of God.George Farahat

  11. >I am not sure that I can agree that being Christian means being a pacifist. Though I will agree that we should keep our anger in check we have biblical examples of Christ himself taking violent action against those who trampled on his beliefs. Take for example the passage from Mark chapter 11:The next day, when they had come out from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came to see if perhaps he might find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. Jesus told it, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again!" and his disciples heard it. They came to Jerusalem, and Jesus entered into the temple, and began to throw out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of those who sold the doves. He would not allow anyone to carry a container through the temple. He taught, saying to them, "Isn't it written, 'My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations?' But you have made it a den of robbers!" The chief priests and the scribes heard it, and sought how they might destroy him. For they feared him, because all the multitude was astonished at his teaching"Jesus had his beliefs and though they were taught in a peaceful manner, there were still things which provoked him to anger. Where do you draw the line? In my own walk I have determined that you are entitled to your beliefs. I am entitled to my beliefs. There will inevitably come a point where these beliefs will clash. I will make every effort to continue with my beliefs in spite of and without offending yours. This is why in most of the business world it is considered taboo to talk about religion because that is not the stage for those discussions and conflict will normally arise. I dont want to ramble on too much in someone else's blog but I do look forward to being a part of these discussions, and thank you for the invite.

  12. >lordkabul..Anger and violence are two very different things. I personally get frustrated and sometimes even angry with people who use violence to further their ends, but that's not the point with this story. The point here is three fold. 1) Jesus never KILLED anyone. 2) His anger was directed at religious hypocrites who missed the point of the sacrificial system.3) When Jesus was confronted with his own death he did no resist, in fact he told Peter to put away his sword and then turned and healed a soldier who had been injured.We are definitely entitled to our opinions. So much so that I would sooner die for my belief than kill for it. Which is a more Christ-like statement of faith? To kill, or to be willingly to die?

  13. >Lauren –1. Pacifism is defined as opposed to conflict. I will 100% agree that Christ never killed anyone. But he was not opposed to conflict. His purpose on earth spurred conflict at almost every turn. I do not believe that he TRIED to instill conflict in most situations but he was definitely not opposed to a debate or verbal clash of ideals when even at age 12 he was in the synogogue discussing with the learned men his faith.2. His anger was directed at hypocrites? I believe that can be used as the motivation for most of the conflict in the middle east. I understand it was a righteous anger but it was anger nonetheless. For more on this I really enjoyed reading this article: http://bible.org/seriespage/righteous-anger-ephesians-426-273. Jesus did choose death when confronted with it at his crucifixion, however, we must also remember that Jesus' entire life was to serve a purpose and in that purpose his death was predetermined as the sacrificial lamb for humanity. I would like to think I would have the strength to lie down and die for a cause, and i do believe in some cases I actually would but this was more than a cause to Jesus — this was his destiny.

  14. >lordkabul…Not split hairs here or get into a big debate over the definition of words because that is just going to lead us down a long and fruitless path but the root word of pacifism is not passive it's pacific which is defined as "tending to make or preserve peace; conciliatory, not warlike; peacable; mild; calm or tranquil." Blessed are the Peacemakers could just as easily have been translated, blessed are the pacifists. For more on this check out my post from May 7, 2010 "Pacifist Not Passive-ist."I don't think you are using the correct definition of hypcocracy either. A hypocrite is one who says one thing and does another or one who puts on a show for others that they don't truly believe themselves. The conflict in the middle east is not over hypocracy it is over differing opinions of heresy. Destiny and predestination are terms I never use because I don't believe in either. As an Anabaptist I follow arminian theology and lean toward open theism, not calvinist predestination. I believe predsitination sets limits on both God and humanity. Jesus taught his followers to pray for "God's will to be done on earth" becuase it isn't and his prayer the night we was betrayed that his "path be altered" does not point to a man who is comfortable with his "destiny". This is now starting us down an age old path of Calvinism vs Arminianism which has been going on for centuries and will likely never be resolved. For more of my thoughts on both check out my post from Nov 5 and Nov 11, 2010 "Today is Not Judgement Day" and "Get up and Go.."

  15. >Lauren,I don't have too much I would disagree with this post. I like it but I might draw your attention to the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who we might call a "pacifist" but under the extenuating circumstances surrounding the Nazi takeover of his beloved country made the difficult decision to "involve" himself in an assassination attempt on Hitler. We had a great class on Bonhoeffer at my church from a prominent seminary professor. I personally agree and applaud Bonhoeffer for his position though not everyone does. If you define yourself as one who works for peace, I think that is our responsibility as Christians. "Make every effort, as much as it is in your ability, to live in peace with all men." But this also presupposes that not everyone will be peaceful. But as Christians we are not the instigator; we are the ones who seek peaceful resolution to end conflict.-Joep.s: It is not necessary for me to comment on your distinction between Calvinism and Arminianism (or destiny and predestination as you choose want to group together for some reason). I will resist the urge to refute you for the sake of wanting to be a pacifist here! 🙂

  16. >Thanks JoeI am familiar with Bonhoeffer – his "Cost of Discipleship" is a great book. Although I do feel his position on the assassination of Hitler was a mistake, we all get one right?. If the so called Christians in Germany had recognized Hitler for what he was in the 1930s, WWII never would have happened. Hindsight is 20/20 though and everyone knows you can't look at history that way. Let's agree not to get too heavy into a debate on Calvinism vs Arminianism. The purpose of this blog is to edify Christ not debate petty differences in between dead theologians. I'm sure at another time and place you and I could have a fantastic discussion on these points and maybe even learn from one another but I'm afraid that to do so in a public forum such as this would only serve to lead those on the outside looking in astray. Let's stick to the points we do agree on.

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