Christianity and Politics VI: The Civil Magistrate
Power is dangerous. Seeing how often it is used for evil leads many Christians to recoil from the very idea. It is said that the Christian way is one of renouncing power. Many biblical texts are appealed to: “turn the other cheek” (Matt 5:39), “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27), “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). Did not our savior renounce power by giving himself up to die on the cross, when he could have summoned legions of angels to destroy his enemies and rescue himself (Matt 26:53)? It seems pretty simple. Forget about absolute power. Power itself corrupts absolutely.
But is this biblical? Must the Christian renounce power, especially of the political sort? Is power inherently corrupt?
To get anything done in the world requires some form of power, though it need not necessitate brute force. The rays of the sun imperceptibly cause plants to grow; hurricanes destroy entire cities. In the human realm, there are many ways in which power can be exercised, from the dropping of bombs to the slightest change on the face of someone in authority over us expressing approval or chagrin. If we were to define power as the action necessary to get things done, it is unlikely most people would recoil from it in horror. It is when we enter the realm of politics that this changes.
There is no doubt that political power can be, and often is, used to perpetrate great evil in the world. But that does not mean that power itself is the problem: abusus non tollit usum. What, then, does the Bible itself say about the use of power, specifically political power?
“Be subject to the governing authorities”
While there are many texts one could turn to to elucidate whether Christians should view political power positively or negatively, Rom 13:1–7 is probably the longest and most important, and will be the focus of this article.1
The text reads as follows:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
If Christians think much about this text it likely has more to do with the first sentence than anything else: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” This sentence has been used to justify everything from submitting without question to any and every Covid restriction a government could possibly conceive to insisting that it would be wrong to refuse to divulge to inquiring Nazis that you were hiding Jews in your house. For many, Paul’s words entail nearly absolute obedience to everything the state might mandate, short of explicit commands to do something sinful. Such an understanding, however, is incorrect and fails to grapple with the most important things taught in this passage regarding the authority of the civil magistrate, that is, about the use–even the goodness–of political power.
Instead of reading this passage as primarily, perhaps even exclusively, about why Christians should obey governing authorities (something it certainly addresses), we must look instead at what actually dominates this entire section, namely, the reasons God has instituted the state, as well as the roles and responsibilities of the magistrates who rule it.
“Vengeance is the Lord’s”
To do so, however, we must first turn back to Romans 12. The chapter divisions we use in English Bibles today were first added in the thirteenth century. Sometimes these chapter headings correctly capture the flow of thought in the Bible; sometimes they do not. The transition between Romans 12 and 13 is of the latter variety. There are no markers in the Greek text that set Rom 13:1–7 off as a new unit of thought. It is simply a continuation of the numerous moral exhortations begun in Rom 12:1, though it is longer than any other one in that chapter.
The connection between Rom 13:1–7 and Rom 12 is vital for understanding Paul’s teaching on the purpose and function of the civil magistrate. In Rom 12:14–21 Paul sets out Christians’ responsibility toward those who have personally wronged them. Christians are to bless those who persecute them (12:14), repay no one evil for evil (12:17), and never avenge themselves (12:19), among other things. Taken out of context this could almost read as if Christians not only cannot defend themselves from violent attacks, but that the very idea of evil being avenged or punished is in principle evil, and to be shunned. Certain forms of anabaptist thought have in fact used these texts to argue those very things: self-defense is ruled out, as is the concept of a just war (even one purely of defense). Some today would use such texts to argue that the justice system should not be punitive, but merely restorative.
The anabaptist impulse is simply false, as becomes clear as one progresses from Rom 12 to Rom 13. All of the commands in chapter 12 about not repaying evil for evil are about one thing: revenge. When people are mistreated (Christians included) their own sinful desires well up within them and they want to make the person who has wronged them pay. Paul is crystal clear that such acts of personal revenge are forbidden. This is what Jesus meant too when he said “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt 5:39).2
Revenge, then, is ruled out. It is ruled out because it is wrong, but it is ruled out for another reason as well. This is where the connection with Romans 13 comes in. Romans 12:19 says that Christians are not to avenge themselves when personally wronged, but are to leave vengeance in God’s hands.3 If Paul had stopped there it might indeed seem that the Christian response to evil cannot involve punishment in any form. But he doesn’t stop there. In Romans 13 he explains how we are to leave vengeance in God’s hands: the governing authority himself (13:1) is “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (13:4).4
“God’s servant for your good”
Paul by no means justifies passivity in the face of evil and injustice. Far from it. But it is essential that vengeance is properly carried out. The “governing authorities . . . have been instituted by God” (13:1) for this very purpose. The civil magistrate, then, by God’s appointment (13:2) is to be a “terror . . . to bad” conduct (13:3). The magistrate is to wield the “sword” (13:4, which is a symbol for the application of political and judicial power against lawbreakers) in order to create fear in those who would do evil (13:4). In short, the reason Christians are not to take revenge is because God himself will avenge. He will exercise his wrath against lawbreakers through the magistrate’s exercise of the power of the sword (13:5). This should be a powerful motivation for Christians when they are personally wronged and thus tempted to give it back in equal measure. Paul doesn’t say “Grin and bear it.” He doesn’t even say “Justice will prevail in the end.” He says: “God will take care of it and he will do so through the magistrate he has appointed.” Christians are wholly right to seek justice in this age, even though we are not guaranteed justice until the last day.
Alternatively, those who do good, who adhere to righteous and just laws, should receive the approval of the magistrate; they should be rewarded for the good they do. This could include the reward of safety (law and order), public recognition, special privileges, and more. It should always be the case that the righteous find that things go well for them in a nation and that the evil find things going very badly for them. The magistrate is responsible to make these things so. He is God’s servant for the good of those who do good. The word “servant” is the same word used for the office of deacon in 1 Tim 3:8–13, and this is an important linguistic connection: just as deacons in the church have been tasked by God with distributing the church’s abundance to those in its ranks in need, so has the civil magistrate been tasked with ensuring that just and law-abiding citizens prosper and thrive in a well-ordered state. The magistrate is also to attend to the economic well-being of those under his direction, in which capacity he is called “a minister of God” (Rom 13:6–7).
“Authority . . . instituted by God”
A just political order is God’s design for the world, even after the Fall. Reading Rom 13:1–7 as if it provides the state with a blank check to govern any way it chooses, perhaps even contrary to God’s moral law, is not Paul’s purpose at all. He is not describing for us what governments are always like; he is describing what they should be like. He is well aware that many actual rulers will fall short of what God requires of them. John Calvin puts this well in his comments on this text:
Magistrates may hence learn what their vocation is, for they are not to rule for their own interest, but for the public good; nor are they endued with unbridled power, but what is restricted to the wellbeing of their subjects; in short, they are responsible to God and to men in the exercise of their power.
This latter sentence is key: yes, Christians are to obey the lawful commands even of evil or non-Christian rulers (see Paul’s words in Acts 25:10), but the magistrate is not a law unto himself. He is accountable to God and must rule accordingly.
Ruling righteously as a servant of God for the “public good” is at the heart of good government, which is not too far removed from the words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Despite the misgivings of those still in thrall to the tenets of extreme libertarianism, and the claims of those who contend that the state merely exists to create a morally neutral public square, the magistrate–in Scripture, as well as America’s authoritative charter–exists to do good to those who are good, to further the public good, to promote the general welfare.5
How can such things be done? Only by a wise and judicious application of political power. “As Thomas Aquinas says, ‘to govern is to lead what is governed to its appropriate end.’”6 The appropriate end of government is the well-being of the people of one’s nation; leadership (power) is what is necessary to achieve that end. So, yes, political power is dangerous. But it is not as dangerous as lawless anarchy, and it is meant to be employed for the good of all. The fact that political power may be used for evil provides no valid reason for it to be rejected or ignored. Power must be used for good.
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- 2 Pet 2:13–17 is also important in this connection. It is, in fact, very similar to Rom 13:1–7. One key addition in 2 Pet 2 is the differentiation between higher (2:13: “the emperor”) and lower authorities (2:14: “governors as sent by him”). This distinction is central to the classic Protestant doctrine of the “lesser magistrate,” the idea, in short, that God-given authority does not reside in the highest levels of government alone, but also exists in lower-level authorities (lesser magistrates). The lesser magistrate is just as bound by God to rule justly as the higher magistrate, and may at times, therefore, be required to resist the higher magistrate when the higher magistrate ceases to rule justly. ↩
- For an excellent, brief treatment of such texts and how they do not negate the justness of self-defense, capital punishment, and just war see John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 174-80. ↩
- I wouldn’t normally get into Greek in an article like this, but the precise verbal connection is extremely important, and can be seen even by someone who doesn’t know Greek: ekdikeō (the verb “avenge”) and ekdikēsis (the noun “vengeance”). ↩
- “Avenger” is ekdikos in Greek. See the previous footnote for the connection with Romans 12:19. ↩
- Yoram Hazony makes a persuasive case that each phrase of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution has roots in the older, Christian political order of England. See Yoram Hazony, Conservatism: A Rediscovery (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 2022), 239-49. ↩
- Thomas Aquinas, On Princely Government, I, 13 and 14, cited by the seventeenth-century Protestant political theorist Johannes Althusius in his Politica, 1.13. ↩