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  1. Would Paul's comment include all tyrannical governments without the people rising up against them?

Rom 13:1 (BLB) Let every soul be subject to the authorities being above him. For there is no authority except by God; but those existing are having been instituted by God.

Rom 13:1 (KJV) Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

Rom 13:1 (ESV) 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.

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  • Only your headline question can be answered here.
    – Dottard
    Mar 28, 2023 at 21:28

2 Answers 2

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I suggest it is best if the statements in that passage are taken as generalisations rather than being read literally and legalistically as absolute statements.

For example, "Rulers are not a terror to good conduct but to bad" and "he executes the wrath of God on the wrongdoer" are generalisations. It is what governments are for, and it is roughly true most of the time. Even governments dominated by elites (Roman autocracy, mediaeval aristocracy, modern dictatorships), have been willing enough to punish ordinary crimes and settle disputes fairly if the interests of the elite are not affected.

So there is nothing wrong with the instruction "be subject to the governing authorities" if it is taken as a generalisation rather than a law (anyone looking for a law is in the wrong Testament). Don't be the one to rock the boat.Don't get involved in rebellion, except in very extreme circumstances. Without government there is chaos, which benefits only the strong and self-willed (in other words, there is no practical difference between anarchy and tyranny).

(On the American Revolution, the thought occurs to me that it left local authority in place, so the social effect would not have been quite as bad as a rebellion against authority as such. The same could be said of the "English Revolution" of 1688, which vexed some Anglican consciences.)

Obviously "being subject" has limitations, Biblically. Daniel (ch1, ch3, ch6) gives examples of situations where it was necessary to defy specific commands coming from authority, because they would force believers into idolatry. The same situation applies in the Roman persecution ("offer incense to the emperor") and in Revelation ch13. These exceptions are a warning against being too legalistic.

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  • +1. Very Good, balanced answer.
    – Dottard
    Mar 28, 2023 at 21:53
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It is hard to imagine that Paul himself referred to the American Revolution or any modern event. However modern readers may certainly interpret his writing as applicable, or even prophetic. On the other hand, this teaching needs to be understood in historical context and balanced against other Biblical instruction which supports following one's conscience rather than obeying the ruling power. Here is the relevant passage in the RSV:

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. 2 Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.

Here, Paul is writing to the Roman Church, probably just a few years before the Neroan persecution of Roman Christians. Indeed he mentions "persecution" and "tribulation" as two of his specific concerns. (8:34-36) Clearly he wants the church to give the authorities no pretext to use against it. He would also be aware of growing tensions between the Roman Empire and the Jews; and Christianity was still seen as merely a sect of Judaism at the time. Thus, he rightly counseled Christians not the rock the Roman boat, so to speak.

Looking at other biblical text we can find teachings that both support and disagree with Paul's attitude here, including from Paul himself:

  • The teaching to "render unto Caesar" (Matthew 22:21) is an example of agreement with Paul's policy: Jesus teaches Jews to pay both the Roman tax (with Roman denarii) and the Jewish temple tax (with Jewish shekels). The context is a situation in which Zealots and a certain faction of the Pharisees were counseling resistance to Roman authority.

  • Jesus' overturning the moneychangers' table is an example of his acting against Paul's later advice, because the moneychangers were an essential part of the Temple system approved by both Roman and Jewish ruling authorities.

  • When Peter and other apostles ran afoul of authorities in Jerusalem, the ruler said: "We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men." (Acts 5:28-29)

  • Paul himself "boasts" of being punished by both Jewish authorities (39 lashes on five occasions) and Roman magistrates (beaten with rods) during his travels. (2 Cor. 11:24-25; Acts 16:20)

There are many other examples that may be cited on both sides of the "conscience vs. obedience" ledger.

Regarding the Revolutionary War, recent research into 'The Bible and the American Revolution' shows that Roman 13 was often quoted in Anglican sermons prior to the Revolutionary War. Preachers who supported Independence tended to quote the Song of Deborah (which praises a revolt against Philistine rulers) or Exodus (Moses delivering the Israelites from bondage).

How Paul would have felt about the American Revolution is anyone's guess. Both England and its colonies were predominantly Christian, so he need not worry about the church's very existence, as he did in the case of the church at Rome. There, he urged the Roman Christians to avoid running afoul of authorities, but in other cities he was more than willing to speak truth power, and suffered the consequence proudly.

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