Let me begin with a clarification: I am not a “MacArthur disciple.” I am a disciple of Jesus Christ who is a congregant of MacArthur’s church. I disagree with MacArthur’s position on several significant issues. I agree with him concerning Romans 13 because I believe his position to be correct – not because it is his position.
My position regarding Romans 13 is described in the post as “strict literalist.” I am quite comfortable with the “literalist” label – I’m not sure what “strict” adds to it. I would submit that if you do not read a passage literally that clearly, in context, is meant to be read literally, then you’re not reading the passage. Romans 13:1-2 leaves no wiggle room for variant interpretation. It is very straightforward and universal in its language. THERE ARE PLENTY OF DIFFICULT, AMBIGUOUS PASSAGES of Scripture which admit varying interpretations, but ROMANS 13 IS NOT ONE OF THEM. There are passages meant to be read metaphorically or allegorically or mystically or as poetry, etc. – but Romans 13 is not one of them.
In the overall context, Paul spent 11 chapters establishing the Christian’s theological position – the meaning and substance of salvation. Then, in chapter 12, he began to address what that means on a daily, practical basis. He says that Christians must “be transformed by the renewing of [their] mind” – that they must think differently than non-Christians (Rom. 12:2). This begins five chapters explaining how Christians ought to live in light of their salvation – of which chapter 13 details the political implications. So, if Romans 13 doesn’t make intuitive sense to those whose minds have not been transformed and renewed, no one should be surprised. It also would not make much sense unless the reader understands God’s very strong commands concerning, and emphasis upon, authority of all kinds (in politics, in the church, in the workplace, in the home) throughout Scripture.
If one does not hold to the “strict literalist” interpretation of Romans 13, one is not interpreting Romans 13, but substituting one’s own version based on one’s own preferences. One is adding words to the text, bringing in outside material and arguments which are not present in the text.
“Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities”: this is a universal, all-inclusive statement. Who is not included in “every person?” Where’s the wiggle room?
“For there is no authority except from God”: this is a universal, all-inclusive statement. To which authority does it not apply? Where is the wiggle room?
“and those which exist are established by God”: this is a universal, all-inclusive statement. The only authorities to which it does not apply are those which do not exist. Where is the wiggle room?
“Therefore, he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God”: how could it possibly be more clear? AND THIS WAS WRITTEN TO THOSE LIVING UNDER NERO!! If it does not apply to those living under a tyrant, then the entire passage is nonsensical and would have meant nothing to the people to whom it was written!
Those who (creatively) construct alternate “interpretations” of Romans 13 insert qualifiers where none exist and produce a different passage altogether. Theirs is not an interpretation, but a replacement. They should not refer to Romans 13 at all.
The church understood the implications and instruction of this passage for 15 centuries – and so did Luther and Calvin. It is ludicrous and even libelous to refer to any support for rebellion as “Calvinist.” Here’s what Calvin had to say about rebellion in Book IV of his Institutes, chapter 20 (paragraph numbers included):
23. "And make no mistake: it is impossible to resist the magistrate without also resisting God."
25. "But reflection on the Word of God will carry us beyond. For we are to be subject not only to the authority of those princes who do their duty towards us as they should, and uprightly, but to all of them, however they came by their office, even if the very last thing they do is to act like true princes."
"Those who govern for the public good are true examples and signs of his goodness; those who govern unjustly and intemperately have been raised up by him to punish the iniquity of the people. Both are equally furnished with that sacred majesty, with which he has endowed legitimate authority."
26. "... we must honor the worst tyrant in the office in which the Lord has seen fit to set him."
27. "If we keep firmly in mind that even the very worst kings are appointed by this same decree which establishes the authority of kings, then we will never permit ourselves the seditious idea that a king is to be treated according to his deserts, or that we need not obey a king who does not conduct himself towards us like a king."
29. "But if you go on to infer that only just governments are to be repaid by obedience, your reasoning is stupid."
31. "And even if the punishment of unbridled tyranny is the Lord=s vengeance, we are not to imagine that it is we ourselves who have been called upon to inflict it. All that has been assigned to us is to obey and suffer."
There have been those who called themselves Calvinists who devised support for rebellion – but it was not Calvin’s position at all. This is why the patriotic preachers argued in terms of “Mr. Locke’s doctrine” rather than Calvin’s.
As for the “interposition” argument, I presume that it refers to the so-called “lower magistrate loophole” – i.e. the idea that lower magistrates can lead the people in rebellion/revolution. Calvin said nothing of the kind, however. Calvin explained that if, within the system of government, there were “magistrates established to defend the people” and “to restrain the licentiousness of kings,” then they should act “in accordance with their duty” to restrain “the licentiousness and frenzy of kings.” So that he would not be misinterpreted, Calvin gave historical examples of officials who were part of their respective governmental systems (ephors in Sparta; tribunes in Rome; demarchs in Athens) and were expressly given the authority to restrain rulers within the system. He never used any form of the word “rebel” or “revolt” – their actions were legal and a recognized part of the system of government – akin to the power of Congress to impeach and remove the American president.
This interposition notion is a clever, but very recent, invention. To my knowledge, no one in the American Founding era mentioned such an idea or made a case for the American Revolution based upon it. [if anyone did, I’d be very interested in the info] Jonathan Mayhew and Samuel West created their own replacement for Romans 13, but they did not bother with the lower magistrate idea. They simply declared that the people themselves can rebel and that it is a good thing.
While many in the revolutionary period were fond of making comparisons between the American Revolution and the exodus of Israel, it is important to note that the Israelites did not rebel against Pharaoh and throw off his rule. Rather, they took no action (God brought the plagues) and then they simply obeyed Pharaoh’s command to leave Egypt (Exodus 12:31).
In the post, there was also a mention of concern for political liberty in the Bible. Since the passages generally used speak only of spiritual liberty (freedom from the bonds of sin), I would be curious to hear what the author of the post had in mind. One of the most prominent loyalist preachers, Jonathan Boucher, made the observation that there is not a single passage in the Bible in support of political liberty.
The Bible mentions some form of the words “rebel” or “revolt” more than 100 times – and all in the negative. In most cases, the condemnation could hardly be stronger (e.g. I Samuel 15:23).
Finally, to say that no governing authority may be resisted (rebelled against) is not to say that no governing authority may be disobeyed under one certain circumstance. Scripture is clear (Acts 4:19-20 & 5:29) that individual commands which require disobedience to God must be disobeyed – but we must still remain in subjection (that is, we still recognize the government’s authority), which usually means taking the punishment (as per the examples of Daniel, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego, and the apostles themselves). Resistance denies and strikes at the principle of authority; disobedience in pursuit of obedience to God is directed at a specific command/law and does not challenge the legitimacy of the authority behind it. The earthly authority’s command is “trumped” by a higher authority’s command – but the earthly authority does not forfeit its legitimacy. [just as a state law cannot violate a national law, but a state government does not lose its legitimacy and authority by passing such a law]
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Frazer, Babka & Romans 13
Gregg Frazer has emailed me the following response to Jim Babka's remarks on Romans 13.