Romans 13 and the identity of the "authorities"

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    I recently finished Dr. Casey’s fascinating lecture “Romans 13 et al.” As an evangelical libertarian I’ve often struggled with Romans 13, and in some ways to deal with it I’ve adopted political pessimism that in a later lecture I discovered had something in common with Augustine!

    Here though I’m wondering about the source of the interpretation of Romans 13 that Dr. Casey prefers, namely, that the so-called “governing authorities” actually refer to the spiritual superiors within the church, and that the “sword” refers not to a physical sword but to the word of God.

    Is this interpretation shared by any earlier thinkers? Perhaps Anabaptists? Dare I hope that a church father espoused it?


    It’s funny. I’m Eastern Orthodox, and I’m more curious if there are any modern respected NT scholars that take this view? I’m pretty sure no CF did. Other than Augustine, Cyprian seems to have a pretty libertarian understanding of the state. But I don’t think he took this view. The book Ceasar and the Lamb by George Kalantzis has a lot of interesting stuff on the pre-Constantinian view of the state.

    The most plausible view of Rom. 13 that I’ve heard is Pastor Larry Beane’s. Here’s his interview on the Tom Woods show.


    From what I can tell Beane’s approach to Romans 13 is interesting, but unfortunately he doesn’t spend much time on the subject in that show – it’d be nice to know how he deals with verses 2–6 as well. I haven’t been able to find much more on his blog either, sadly.


    Pastor Beane’s remarks on authority are (in my opinion) sensible but, in the context of Romans 13, are not strictly relevant to the way in which this passage has largely been interpreted in the Christian tradition. Verse 1 doesn’t enjoin subjection to authority but to authorities, ἐξουσίαις (see also Ephesians 3:10 and Titus 3:1 where ἐξουσίαις is linked with ἀρχαῖς, rulers).

    Since I recorded my lectures, I have revised the material on Christianity. (The expanded and revised material of my lectures on Political Thought will be published on 1st September as Freedom’s Progress?) Here are the concluding paragraphs from the Christianity Chapter. As Pastor Beane is a Lutheran, I also include some material from my book on Luther and his approach to the state. That chapter contains more than is here reproduced but I can’t disentangle it neatly from other material)

    [Excerpt from the chapter on Christianity]

    Are there other possible interpretations of Romans 13? Yes, of course. It may well be that the passage means more or less what it has appeared to many to mean but is limited in its application to Paul’s immediate circumstances, perhaps because Paul expected the imminent end of the world, a consummation compared to which little else mattered. [see Neufeld passim.] This is the position taken in the sixteenth century by the Franco-Scottish writer, George Buchanan, who insists that this passage in St Paul has no general application and is addressed to the specific time, place and circumstances of its making. The Church Paul addressed was an infant Church composed, as Buchanan remarks, ‘of a promiscuous crowd of plebeians’ for whom it would have been extremely foolish to attract the attention of those in government. What advice, he asks, should today be given to Christians living under Turkish rule?; what, indeed, except the advice Paul gives to the Romans ‘to omit nothing that could help us to conciliate the good will of all men by honest practices.’ [Buchanan 1579, 58] His conclusive argument that Paul’s advice was circumstantial and not general is that ‘though he [Paul] minutely explains the mutual duties of husbands to their wives, of wives to their husbands, of parents to their children, of children to their parents, of masters to their slaves, and of slaves to the masters, he does not, in describing the duty of a magistrate, address, as in the preceding parts, them expressly by name’ Why should he not have done this except that ‘there were neither kings nor other magistrates to whom he could write.’ If Paul were writing now, Buchanan says, and were there to be a prince ‘who thinks that not only human, but also divine laws ought to be subservient to his capricious lusts; who would have not only his decrees, but even his nods, held as laws,’ would not Paul ‘declare him unworthy of being reckoned a magistrate’ and ‘put all Christians under an interdict to abstain from all familiarity, all conversation, and all communion with him.’ [Buchanan 1579, 59]

    Even if we take it that the ‘Romans 13 means what just it says’ interpretation in either its limited or global form, it is still possible to ask what ‘to be subject’ means. To be subject isn’t necessarily to endorse or approve. Even if the higher powers are ordained by God, this does not mean that God approves of them any more than he approved of the Israelites’ request for a king. Here, then, apart from Buchanan’s circumstantial interpretation, are four possible interpretations of Romans 13 in order of increasing scope.

    First, it requires obedience only to church authorities; second, it requires obedience to any authority to which we have given our consent—but only upon conditions and only for so long as our consent endures; third, it requires unconditional obedience to any ruler, however he may have come to power, but only so long as what he commands is in conformity with his obligation to promote justice or that provide for the regulation of matters that are indifferent but which must be organised in some particular way for the good of the community, or fourth, it requires unconditional obedience to any ruler, however he may have come to power or however he exercises it. The fourth interpretation has been held by some Church leaders from Augustine in the fifth century through to the Reformers in the fifteenth, although, as we shall see, there has been a tendency to move, under pressure, from the fourth interpretation to the third. Neither of these interpretations is acceptable to a libertarian although the third interpretation is clearly less unpalatable than the fourth. The first and perhaps the second interpretations would be acceptable to libertarians generally and even to anarchists, except those who would reject all forms of authority, even authority freely chosen.

    As I have already mentioned, there are some other New Testament passages besides Romans 13 that are relevant to our topic. Perhaps the most important of these subsidiary passages is that in the First Letter of Peter. The passage reads: ‘Be ye subject therefore to every human creature for God’s sake: whether it be to the king as excelling; or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of the good: For so is the will of God, that by doing well you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not as making liberty a cloak for malice, but as the servants of God. Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.’ [1 Peter 2: 13-17] This, again, has acquired an interpretation as counselling obedience or subjection to the secular authorities. But it should be noted that Peter himself did not practise what he preached, if indeed that is what he preached. He defied the Jewish authorities by preaching about Jesus when they commanded him not to and justified his actions by saying that we ought to obey God rather than men. [Acts 5: 29] In any event, Peter counsels subjection to all human creatures, not just kings and governors, and the point of this subjection is that it will silence foolish people; there’s nothing particularly special in subjecting ourselves to kings and governors. Putting it all together, this amounts to saying that we ought to obey all human ordinances except those that conflict with our God-given liberty and the summary commandment of Jesus to do unto others as we would have them do unto us—which is as much as to require us to obey those ordinances that are required by the golden rule and no others! Once again, what appears to be substantive is in fact politically vacuous. In the end, however, it can’t be denied that the fourth, most extensive, interpretation of Romans 13, which takes it as requiring unconditional obedience to any ruler however he may have come to power or however he might exercise it, dominated Christian political thinking for sixteen hundred years and that even today that interpretation hasn’t yet lost its appeal for many Christians.

    [Excerpt from the chapter on the Reformation]

    Without the invention of printing, it is difficult to see how the Protestant Reformation could ever have taken place. ‘The advent of printing was an important precondition for the Protestant Reformation taken as a whole,’ writes Elizabeth Eisenstein, ‘for without it one could not implement a “priesthood of all believers.”’ [Eisenstein, 171] Seldom has a single technological invention had such a major cultural impact, enabling ‘an obscure theologian in Wittenberg’ to ‘shake Saint Peter’s throne’ and turning what would otherwise have been a storm in a teacup into the precipitating event in an international revolt that was to shatter Christendom. ‘Sixteenth-century heresy and schism shattered Christendom so completely that even after religious warfare had ended, ecumenical movements led by men of good will could not put all the pieces together again.’ [Eisenstein, 171, 172]

    The core of Luther’s theological revolution was the doctrine of salvation by faith alone—sola fide. The theological implications of this doctrine aren’t the concern of a history of political thought but its social and political implications are. Of these, the religiously grounded obligation of subjects to obey their secular authorities could hardly have been more emphatic. It hardly needs to be said that Luther takes as the ultimate scriptural justification of this doctrine, the opening verses of chapter 13 of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. As we have seen already, in this notorious passage, Paul appears to require Christians to give their allegiance to the de facto secular authorities and Augustine, at a later date, would go on to use this passage to justify requiring the submission by Christians even to pagan rulers. Luther places himself firmly in the Pauline and Augustinian traditions. If one wanted to find a central example of a resolute and robust defender of the religious obligation to obey secular authority one would have to go very far before one would find someone to trump Luther. As Ellen Meiksins Wood puts it, ‘there hardly exists in the Western canon a more uncompromising case for strict obedience to secular authority; and this…belongs to the essence of Lutheran doctrine.’ [Wood 2012, 59]

    Given that he began his religious life as an Augustinian, it is hardly surprising that Luther takes what is effectively the Augustinian position that the power of the sword is given to secular authorities to control and limit evil. ‘If all the world were true Christians, that is, if everyone truly believed, there would be neither need nor use for princes, kings, lords, the Sword or law.’ Alas, the world isn’t made up of true Christians so that if there were no law and government ‘people would devour each other and no one would be able to support his wife and children, feed himself and serve God. The world would become a desert.’ We shall see that a similar bleak view of the consequences of an unrestrained human nature will emerge a century later in the writings of Thomas Hobbes. So then, Luther, as everyone else in the Christian world, takes the words of St Paul in Romans 13 to mandate Christians to be obedient to their secular rulers. This may be relatively unproblematic where what one’s rulers are obliging one to do is in conformity with one’s conscience; where it is not, however, there are going to be problems. The Reformers dealt with these problems in different and distinctive ways. Luther’s tract, On Secular Authority, was an early attempt by him to specify the rights and duties of secular rulers. It doesn’t represent his last word on the subject for his beliefs in this area were to shift as the political and religious consequences of the Reformation became more apparent. Nevertheless, at this early stage, his judgement on the merits of secular rulers is often very negative, indeed sometimes surprisingly hostile. ‘God Almighty,’ he says, ‘has driven our princes mad: they really think they can command their subjects whatever they like and do with them as they please. And their subjects are just as deluded, and believe (wrongly) that they must obey them in all things.’ According to Luther in this document, all that the secular rulers of the present do is to ‘poll and fleece, heap one tax on another, let loose a bear here, a wolf there. There is no good faith or honesty to be found amongst them; thieves and villains behave better than they do…’ This isn’t an isolated or rash judgement. A little later in the same work, he comments, ‘As a rule, princes are the greatest fools or the worst criminals on earth, and the worst is always to be expected, and little good hoped for, from them, especially in what regards God and the salvation of souls.’ Thus, the opinion of the early Luther. Later, as we shall see, his evaluation of secular rulers would become considerably more positive.
    For Luther, human beings are irreducibly sinful yet, while still sinful, they can be justified by divine grace. In respect of their ultimate destiny, all men stand on the same horizontal footing but, in a neo-Augustinian moment, Luther argues that the sinfulness of man demands the vertical relationship of ruler and ruled, the existence and operation of secular authorities to whom, as instituted by God, all Christians owe obedience and respect. At the same time as he gives his support to the right of secular governments to demand and receive obedience from the people, Luther attacks the Church’s right to exercise any jurisdiction in the external forum—for example, to punish sins or to excommunicate. For him, the Church has no legitimate temporal jurisdiction. Luther’s view of the Church in On Secular Authority is that it is a free and voluntary association of believers. Such a view of the Church isn’t without its political consequences, not least of which is that it is inconsistent with the idea that the membership of the Church is necessarily co-extensive with any given polity.

    There are, then, for Luther, two governments in the world: one, spiritual, which addresses itself to the constitution of true and faithful Christians and another, secular, ‘which holds the unchristian and wicked in check and forces them to keep the peace outwardly and be still, like it or not.’ Would it not suffice to preach the Gospel to such wicked and evil men and by such means bring them to order? Well, yes, but in the meantime, he notes that there are ‘always many more of the wicked than there are of the just. And so to try to rule a whole country or the world by means of the Gospel is like herding together wolves, lions, eagles and sheep in the same pen, letting them mix freely, and saying to them: feed, and be just and peaceable; the stable isn’t locked, there’s plenty of pasture, and you have no dogs or cudgels to be afraid of.’
    But if one’s rulers are Christian, as they should be, how can they be justified in using coercive power over other Christians, seeing that Christ has told us to turn the other cheek? The distinction Luther draws to solve this problem is between what one does for oneself and what one does for others. ‘As far as you and your possessions are concerned,’ he writes, ‘you keep to the Gospel and act according to Christ’s word,’ but the coercive actions of secular authority are for the good of others and are, Luther thinks, positively enjoined by Romans 13. You are, it would seem, obliged to turn your own cheek but not, if you are a magistrate, your neighbour’s.

    Luther has already hinted that rulers cannot command us in everything and in certain matters we are not bound to obey them. How are the parameters of obedience to be determined? Rulers who act ultra vires are, in that respect at least, no longer rulers and need not be obeyed: Romans 13 applies only to rulers and if they act ultra vires and are as a result not rulers, it doesn’t apply to them. As already mentioned, for Luther, belief cannot be and ought not to be commanded and so if any ruler were to exert his power in this respect, he would have exceeded his authority and become a tyrant. Not only is it the case that obedience in such matters isn’t required, Luther thinks that failure to resist would be tantamount to a denial of God! What is the position of a Christian who is instructed to obey an order that, in his judgement, is in conflict with the requirements of Scripture? According to Luther, he may disobey the order but then he has to be prepared to accept the consequences of such disobedience. Even more to the point, the issuance of such orders does not constitute any grounds for resistance or rebellion. Doesn’t this contradict what Luther had previously stated in his tract? Not quite. The illegitimacy of resistance applies only to the individual Christian acting in a private capacity. Subsidiary rulers may be justified in resisting the commands of their superiors so that princes might not only have a right but even a duty to resist the emperor or, more generally, inferior magistrates, their superiors.

    Luther’s character drew him towards freedom. Coercive force is to be applied, if at all, only to bringing about outward conformity to right action but what a person believes ‘is a matter for each individual’s conscience.’ Coercion must not be used in matters of belief because ‘Faith is free, and no one can be compelled to believe…no one can or ought to be forced to believe anything against his will.’ But Luther couldn’t shake off the age-old conviction that heresy must be suppressed, a task which, if not done or not capable of being done by the Church, must be undertaken by the civil power. [see Plamenatz, 54] In undertaking such suppression, kings were ‘bishops by necessity’. The upshot of all this, of course, was that secular governments became agents of reform and eventually the arbiters of what reform would take place. As John Plamenatz remarks, ‘To us it seems odd that Luther should not have seen that whoever appoints to the ministry and provides for it will in fact decide what it shall teach. How can the Church depend on the secular power in matters of discipline and organization, and yet retain its spiritual independence?’ [Plamenatz, 55] This reliance on secular authorities led to the emergence of national churches, something that no one had foreseen and that was hardly immediately comprehensible to anyone on either side of the theological and political disputes, all of whom clung to the core belief that there could only be one true Church until eventually reduced to a position of hostile mutual toleration by war, destruction and death. Whatever Luther’s intentions may have been, the result of his efforts and that of the other reformers was the emergence of national churches dominated by their secular rulers.

    The Church thus fragmented could offer little or no resistance to the emerging sovereignty of the secular princes. This was true as much in Catholic countries as in Protestant. ‘The disruption of the universal church, the suppression of its monastic institutions and ecclesiastical corporations, and the abrogation of the Canon law,’ writes George Sabine, ‘removed the strong check upon secular power that had existed in the Middle Ages.’ [Sabine, 362] Commenting upon this passage from Sabine, Frank Furedi remarks that ‘Arguably, the immediate impact of the Reformation was to strengthen absolutist forms of power’ and he goes on to note that P. W. Gray ‘blames the Reformation and Luther in particular for subordinating the Church to the state.’ [Furedi, 163]

    It is worth noting the prevalence of a popular but mistaken belief that the Protestant Reformers, in contrast to the repressive Catholic Church, were the apostles of liberty. Even Richard King, in his otherwise excellent On Offence writes, ‘The clamour for religious liberty that grew out of the Spanish Inquisition and the countless [sic!] horrors perpetrated in its name led eventually to the Protestant Reformation which, though it spawned its own atrocities, contained the seeds of a revolution “aiming for liberty in the kingdom of the mind”.’ [King, 33-34] The Reformation was many things but by no stretch of the imagination was it the result of a clamour for religious liberty or, indeed, for liberty more broadly construed. John Plamenatz remarks, ‘The Catholics, the Lutherans, the Anglicans, the Calvinists, all had this in common: they believed that there could be only one true Church….Luther and Calvin…did not believe that men could receive the Word and be saved outside the Church, or that there could be several Churches, each interpreting the word differently from the other, and yet all equally acceptable to God. Luther and Calvin, no less than the Catholics and Anglicans, believed in uniformity of faith and worship.’ [Plamenatz, 62] ‘The sixteenth century,’ writes Perez Zagorin, ‘which witnessed the Reformation and the beginning and spread of Protestantism, was probably the most intolerant period in Christian history….When Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other outstanding religious reformers undertook their successful revolt against the Catholic Church and established their own Protestant churches, the latter showed themselves to be no less intolerant of heretics and dissenting Christians than was the Catholic Church.’ [Zagorin, 2] And, in respect of the broader social and cultural issues, Hilary Gatti notes that, ‘Just as Protestant dogmatism and oppression were often in the period studied here as merciless and unrelenting as those of the post-Tridentine Catholic Church, so the rich texture of Catholic culture produced voices raised in the name of liberty as eloquent and forward-looking as those of Protestant derivation.’ [Gatti, 176]


    Thanks! I’ll look forward to reading your book, and I’ll keep looking for an earlier writer who adopts your view #1.


    If you come across any material that you think adds something to the discussion that I haven’t covered in my lecture (or the book chapter), do let me know. This is a topic on which people of good will and intelligence are quite likely to disagree.

    Gerard Casey

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