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I can't make any coherent sense of the submission to government passages in the Bible like Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17, and Titus 3:1. I understand that there is a practical element to these passages so that unbelievers won't slander Christians for being troublemakers (which seems to have been a problem with the conflict between Paul and the Jews causing riots) and thereby reject Christ (which is more apparent in 1 Peter 2:13-17, 1 Thessalonians 4:10-12, 1 Timothy 2:1-3, Romans 12:18, and Hebrews 12:14), but that does not explain why Peter—and especially Paul—seem to think that government, and human ruling authorities in general, are there for good according to traditional interpretations. Since this is clearly historically false (does anyone dispute this so that I need to provide examples?) and Biblically false with several passages indicating that governments act horrifically (1 Samuel 8, Babylon, Egypt, Israel, Rome, the several passages in John's writings about Satan controlling the world, etc.), it seems the only course of action is to take a non-traditional interpretation of these texts.

Two options I'm looking at are T.L. Carter's Ironic Reading of Romans and applying the Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic to the "submit to authorities" passages similar to how they're used on the "slaves, submit to your master" passages. Of course, what actions are permissible even after using a non-traditional interpretation is still up for question. Are these hermeneutical approaches reasonable? If not, are there any other reasonable non-traditional interpretations worth considering or ways to reconcile this apparent inconsistency?

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    Welcome to the group... Sorry to see some downvotes of your question. Do take a look at the Tour and the Faq to help avoid this in the future. Personally I think the question has serious potential but needs work. So I upvoted it. I wish downvoters would explain their objections to help new users understand what the problem is. Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 15:44
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    "Are there any reasonable non-traditional interpretations of Romans 13" is difficult to answer. 1. "Reasonable" to whom and by what criteria? 2. The question interprets the passage as indicating that all authorities "are there for good" - this is not what the passage says. 3. "non-traditional" - the question limits answers to non-traditional interpretations, there is no list of traditional vs non-traditional interpretations from which to select answers. The limitation negates explaining the validity of "traditional" answers such that they are "reasonable". BTW, I upvoted the question.
    – David D
    Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 16:57
  • @DavidD Thanks for the helpful comment. I want to make my question the best it can be so that I can get the best answers. I'm currently editing my question to improve it, but I'm stuck on how I can make my question more objective by using wording that is less opinion-based. Do you have any ideas on how I can formulate my question differently to achieve this? Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 7:19

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I don't know what "traditional" interpretations are meant, but I have an element to point out that may help in looking a "non-traditional" ones. It has to do with a key Greek word and its meaning: that word is Παντοκράτωρ (pan-toh-KRA-tore), which most commonly gets translated as "omnipotent" since that's how it was put into Latin. But in accord with the old "it loses something in translation" adage, it can be noted that here it gains a bunch in translation, and what it gains is not helpful! Generally the word "omnipotent" is considered to mean having the power to do anything, but that's not the sense of the Greek Παντοκράτωρ. Rather, the Greek word boils down to the assertion that whatever power there is is God's; there is no power apart from His. This fits with what Jesus told Pilate:

You would have no power over Me at all, if it had not been given to you from above

Plainly Pilate had power, but Jesus bluntly tells him that the power he has is just sort of "on loan" "from above", that is from heaven, from God. So any non-traditional interpretation is going to have to take that into account.

A second critical aspect comes from the Old Testament; it's common enough references shouldn't be needed: God holds rulers and nations to account for what they do with the power He loans them -- they are to do good with that power. This tells us that whatever Paul means here it is not a blanket assertion that rulers are going to do good, but it is an assertion that doing good is what the power God has loaned them is for.

To end, I'll give an example that was quite important to people living under the Nazis during World War II:

At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands.

Acts 9 records this as well and tells us this was done at night. What's the significance? It starts with Damascus being a Roman walled city and regulations governing those, specifically about entering and exiting a city. The pertinent rules were that after the city gates were closed for the night, no one was to leave the city, and that entry and exit of the city was to be through the city gates. So in leaving the city at night by being lowered down over a wall, Paul was breaking the rules. Additionally, fleeing a city when the governor and king are looking for a person was regarded pretty much the same as it is today; so Paul was a criminal three different ways due to how he got out of Damascus.

If the traditional interpretation is that "human ruling authorities in general, are there for good according to traditional interpretations", then here is a non-traditional one: rulers have power on loan from God; He expects them to use it for good; Christians are in general expected to obey the government; but when laws get in the way of spreading the Gospel (or other important exercise of the faith) then they can be -- and arguably should be -- ignored. One way of expressing this is that if the government/rulers are not using their power for good, then Christians are to do good anyway even if it means breaking laws.

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New Testament admonitions to obey authorities have to be understood in the context rather than as absolute teachings applicable in all times and places. In the case of 1 Peter 2: the command to obey is explained in the context of the immediate eschaton, "so they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge" - not because their authority is godly. The statement in Romans 13, taken by itself, seems more absolute (see below). But in fact sometimes the Bible teaches obedience to authorities, and sometimes it urges resistance. For example:

  • In the Book of Esther, the heroine obediently participates in a national beauty contest to determine who will become the new wife of the pagan king, a seemingly forbidden act according to the Torah, which God uses for the greater good.

  • Moses led a mass exodus of slaves from their bondage under the pharaoh of Egypt after deceiving him as to their purpose (Exodus 5:3), a clear act of rebellion against authority.

From just these two examples, we can see that different situations call for different attitudes about obedience to rulers. Many more may be cited. In one case - that of Jeremiah - the prophet called for Judeans to obey the Babylonian king and thereby disobeyed the anointed king of Judah, who resisted the Babylonian conquest. From this we can see that the line of true authority cannot always be clearly drawn. In the New Testament Paul counsels "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities... those authorities that exist have been instituted by God." (Rom. 13:1) yet he also boasts that he was often imprisoned and flogged (2 Corinthians 11), implying that he routinely disobeyed existing authorities. Countless Christians followed Jesus' example by going to their deaths under Roman authority rather than denying their commitment to God.

Summary: biblical teachings about authority need to be understood and applied in context. Strictly speaking, it is not true, as a literal reading implies, that absolutely "all authority comes from God." However, all true authority does.

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  • You say, "..it is not true,...that absolutely "all authority comes from God". If God had never created anything there would be only His authority [I think], Rom 11:36 "From Him all things..". Ultimate responsibility is with Him, I think, who knew the future and still decided to go ahead with creating. Instumental responsibility is given to the instrument by Him who has all authority as in Matt 28:18. A bread knife spreads by the hand holding it but even the hand has its being derived.
    – C. Stroud
    Commented Dec 31, 2023 at 16:23
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Submission to social norms is a reflection of submission to the covenant with God. If someone prioritizes their own rights over the social norm, it is likely that they will do the same against God and break the covenant.

Paul and Peter did not assert the goodness of authority. Peter explained his argument clearly in 1 Peter 2:18, where he said, "Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh". Peter's explanation is that submission to authority is a way of submitting to God, and that even if the authority is harsh, it is still important to submit to it out of respect for God. Jesus had been the example for his believers to follow.

1 Peter 2:19-21 NIV

19 For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

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but that does not explain why Peter—and especially Paul—seem to think that government, and human ruling authorities in general, are there for good according to traditional interpretations. Since this is clearly historically false ... and Biblically false ... it seems the only course of action is to take a non-traditional interpretation of these texts.

You're implying that because some governments are evil that God's intent for those governments are evil too. No! All governments are there to do good. That they frequently don't do good is not in question, but their failure to meet God's expectations doesn't mean that their purpose isn't meant to be for good. As it doesn't appear that you've actually understood the 'traditional' interpretation, I'll try to set it out here.

In these passages Paul and Peter are setting forward the Christian understanding of human government: our governments are appointed by God to govern over us for good, and receive their authority from God, in order to punish evil and encourage good. There is no space in Biblical Christianity for either anarchism or the extremes of all-taxation-is-theft libertarianism. ("Small government" libertarianism is another matter, which I don't want to get into.)

The kind of governments that Paul and his readers would have in mind must surely include the history of Israel's kings, as well as the Roman Empire, which were frequently evil and would be regarded as despots today. When Paul wrote "For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad" (Romans 13:3) he was including the rulers of the Roman Empire who would frequently have been cruel, corrupt, and unjust. He's saying submit to leaders like Herod and Pilate, and pay taxes to corrupt tax collectors like Zacchaeus (before his repentance).

When Paul writes "Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval," I'd suggest that Paul is stating a generality, and telling Christians to stay quietly law-abiding as they do good. Yes, these bad leaders will occasionally attack law-abiding citizens for no reason at all, but in general even these leaders will normally direct their attention to those who are partakers in crime.

So is there no place for civil disobedience in Biblical Christianity? Well when a government directly prohibits Christian ministry, Peter is clear that we obey God, not men (Acts 4:18-20). And the midwives of Exodus 1 show that protecting life warrants disobeying the authorities with creative excuses. But our general approach should be peaceful, accepting harm rather than fighting back (Matthew 5:38-42.)

What about when rulers aren't just cruel and corrupt, but truly evil? Well sometimes there are relatively peaceful ways to resist. When Egypt tried to commit genocide against Israel the midwives found a way. This should give us great caution against immediately jumping to an aggressive or armed response.

But there are also Biblical examples showing that the God-given authority of kings, or their 'mandate', can be rescinded. Saul is the classic example (1 Samuel 15:26). (I'm sure there are more examples from the prophets which I will try to find and edit into this answer.) If a ruler was considered to have lost their authority for the evils of genocide etc, then Paul and Peter's instructions to submit would not apply. But remember that this would be such an extreme situation that not even the Roman emperors of Paul's era would count.

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  • I appreciate the reply, but you didn't answer my question about the validity of non-trad interpretations. I wasn't saying that God's intent was for evil, only that if the traditional interpretation is correct, then we'd expect governments to generally act good, but the preponderance of Biblical and historical evidence shows the exact opposite. It seems like you're saying God put governments here for good despite knowing they'd create far more evil instead (seems you changed your mind later in your answer to say they generally do good) I don't see how you can maintain such a tension. Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 8:07
  • Basically, if you're acknowledging that governments trend far more towards evil, then I don't see how you can maintain that tension between Paul's general statement of governments being for good and the historical/Biblical facts. Otherwise, I think we'd just disagree about how good or bad governments have acted. Nonetheless, I'd like to hear your thoughts on the RMH or T.L. Carter's approach! :) hope adding 2 comments isn't against the rules, but I ran out of room a long time ago. Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 8:10
  • "only that if the traditional interpretation is correct, then we'd expect governments to generally act good" This isn't true. Paul/Peter don't say that governments generally act good, at least not in those passages. (I don't remember them saying it elsewhere, but there could be something that comes closer to saying they generally act good.) "if you're acknowledging that governments trend far more towards evil" I didn't say that. The Bible definitely acknowledges that almost all governments are a thorough mix of good and bad. But that isn't their purpose, nor does it negate their authority.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 8:30

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