When I was in seminary I recall a fellow-student with theonomic inclinations dismissing Romans 13 as if it were insignificant. It seems to me that if one finds Romans 13 insufficient or insignificant for one’s understanding of the Christian’s role in civil life then one is likely asking the wrong questions or beginning with the wrong assumptions. One should ask, “why do I find Romans 13 unsatisfactory?” Could it be that one is seeking outcomes or working with expectations that St Paul did not? Americans have invoked and abused Jesus’ teaching about a “city shining on a hill” (Matt 5:14). The American colonies were not that city. Jesus is the light of the world and his Christians are the “light of the world” (Matt 5:14) by virtue of their union with him. It’s important to note, however, how Paul called us to be light in the world principally by living a “peaceful and quiet life” (1 Tim 2:2). That American Christians bristle at God’s calling Romans 13, for submission to established authorities, says a great deal about the continuing influence of the revolutionary spirit. Paul clearly teaches that all authorities, even Nero, are instituted by God. This is why Calvin was so careful to stipulate that popular revolution is immoral, that it is the vocation of the “lesser magistrates” to hold civil rulers in check. Paul understood what he was saying. Christians suffered under Nero and they would suffer more grievously in centuries to come. I think the treatise Ad Diognetum (c. 155 AD possibly by Polycarp) is a most instructive application of Romans 13. His argument was that the Christians were falsely accused of being seditious. He responded (5:.1-11):
For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life…For while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. The live in their own countries but only as nonresidents, they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted.
Would that the same could be said of us today.
Ah, who cares about guessing. It’s R. Scott Clark in an interview with The Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology. Read the whole thing here.