September 25, 2023

In his book, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders, Gregg Frazer, a history professor at The Master’s University, writes:

Romans 13 has always served as the touchstone for obedience and submission to the government from Augustine to Luther to Calvin… The medieval church fathers as well as the reformers of the sixteenth century all invoked this doctrine in denouncing disobedience and resistance to civil authorities.

Frazer goes on to say that it was not until the Revolutionary War in the United States that this understanding of the passage began to change. As the colonists began to speak more and more of the need to rebel against England in the 1700’s, the pastors began to teach that Romans 13 only commands us to submit to the government if it serves as “a minister … for good” (verse 4). If it does not, then some said that we should rebel. Not only do we have the freedom to rebel but they believed that it is our God-given duty as a church to rebel.

In a sermon preached on December 31, 1750 in Boston, Massachusetts, the Reverend Jonathan Mayhew delivered a message to his congregation entitled “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the High Powers” on the text of Romans 13. In the message, he made the following points:

1). Paul was arguing for submission “only to those who actually perform the duty of rulers, by exercising a reasonable and just authority, for the good of human society.”

2). “If they do not do that… we are bound to throw off our allegiance to them, and to resist.”

3). As a result of these considerations, “those in authority may abuse their trust and power to such a degree… that they should be totally discarded.”

According to Mayhew’s interpretation of this chapter, Paul was not just making a case for submission to the political authorities but a case for rebellion as well. He was not telling us about the need to follow our leaders only but Paul was telling us about the need to resist them whenever they are sinful.

The problem with his argument is that human governments are always sinful. The world has never seen a perfect government that fully lives up to God’s standard. So was Mayhew implying that we should never submit to the governing authorities? Maybe not but it is hard to say. Furthermore, the command in Romans 13:1 is to “be in subjection.” The command is not to rebel. So, if that is what Paul was trying to tell us, would there not have been an easier way for him to communicate the idea? Did he have to say it like this?

The reason I bring this up is because Romans 13 has once again become a battleground for the church in recent years as some pastors have started using it justify their disobedience to the government again. They are making the same argument that Jonathan Mayhew did almost 300 years ago when they say that our leaders have lost the right to rule. They have abused their trust to such a degree that they should be discarded which raises the question: Is that what Romans 13 means? Was that the intention of the Apostle Paul when he gave this command to the church in Rome?

We want to answer those questions this Sunday morning at Grace Fellowship Church during the sermon hour because you cannot do a series on the topic of “Civil Disobedience” without spending a considerable amount of time on these verses. Since Romans 13:1-7 is the longest passage on the subject of government in the New Testament, we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we did not take the time to go back and look at it again.

It has been said that there is nothing new under the sun because history likes to repeat itself. This is a good example of that principle because the church has dealt with Romans 13 before. We are not the first ones to wrestle with it and please join us as we go back in time in order to find out what others have learned from it so we can apply it to our current situation.

The service will begin at 9:30 on Sunday at 46024 Riverside Drive in Chilliwack. The sermon will be recorded and placed on our You Tube Channel later for anyone who is not able to attend in person.

– Jeremy Cagle